Interview with the journal Antenna
- Mikhail Borisovich, your office is amazing - its size, the books stacked high on chairs, the documents on your desk! But this is an office, after all. A dynastic "legacy." How do you feel about sitting in the office of your father, Boris Borisovich?
- I am just continuing what my father did, although personally I never planned on working in the Hermitage. In those days it was considered improper, and generally was not possible. There is a completely mystical sensation: I am always aware that he is somewhere nearby, here, and that I do everything with a glance in his direction, thinking how he would have acted. When the film director Sokurov, with some trepidation, suggested that I act out a meeting with my father in the film Russian Ark, I did not hesitate for long, because for me such a moment of contact with my father was always natural.
- How did you choose your profession? Did you consciously follow in your father's footsteps?
- I grew up among archeological digs which my parents took me to, and I very much wanted to become an historian. But at the same time I wanted to be involved with something that my father did not know and could not do in order to be worthy of him. (Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky was an archeologist and Director of the State Hermitage from 1964 to 1990 - editorial note, Antenna) Amongst orientalists, there was always especial respect for those who knew Arabic. There were very few such people. And I decided to become an Arabist. Then it turned out that the Arab countries meant the very same Egypt where my father was working, so it all came down to the same common denominator.
- Did you influence in some way the career decisions of your son and daughter? Did you want to extend the dynasty?
- I only exerted an indirect influence. The children were given an opportunity to look around and choose. Masha and Boris were more influenced by their mother, who is both an orientalist and an economist. Our daughter has made a career for herself as a banker and works in Moscow for Dresdner Bank, while our son graduated from the Finance and Economics Institute. At the same time, Boris has been involved with the Hermitage since early childhood. He worked in our computer lab and was busy with the creation of the Hermitage website. It is very important that the Hermitage is part of his CV and not just in his blood. Children of Hermitage staff are always present in the museum. They are brought here from an early age so as to feel part of this life and many of them inherit the traditions and follow in the footsteps of their parents.
- Is your home like a museum?
- I don't think so. It looks like this office. There are piles of books everywhere and photos or drawings slip out between them.
- The Director of the Hermitage has an agenda that is full a month in advance. Do you manage to get at least one free day at home when you can rest up? What do you do?
- It happens rarely, but there are Sundays when I can stay at home. I
sit down with my office papers.
- What about the beach? A trip to Rio-de-Janeiro or to the Caribbean islands?....
- That is not relaxation for me. You know, I spent my life traveling in many places. I traversed all of Central Asia, the Northern Caucasus, part of the Ukraine and Moldova, the North of Russia. I traveled as a hitchhiker, without any money. I worked for many years in expeditions in Yemen and the Arabian countries, and now once a week I fly somewhere on business. For this reason I don't have any special desire to get away to some beach! Relaxation in my view is switching off all the high level contacts and being able to share time just with the family.
- People say you like to be alone but then you have been living heart-to-heart for more than 25 years with your wife Irina. How did you get to know one another? Was it love at first sight?
- Yes, it was love at first sight. We met in an airplane when we were both flying to Baghdad, where we would be spending two months on an internship. Then we got married almost straightaway. It was very romantic. Ira lived in Moscow and even after the wedding we lived in different cities, waiting to see who would attract whom where. In the end I won, and you should bear in mind that back then I was not the director of the Hermitage, just a simple holder of a Ph.D. degree.
- I just cannot help asking this question: your image and personal style is associated with....
- Please don't ask about my scarf. That question has already become tiresome.
I wear it because I want to! It's like the old joke: "Where did you
find that? Where did you find that?" "I bought it.."
- Why does the director of such a museum, which is a sort of state within a state, need to be active on television as well?
- A museum as important as the Hermitage should always talk about itself. Here it is like in sports. You always have to show that you are the very best and to set new records. You cannot constantly show off old medals. This program has been going on for five years already and more than 100 episodes have been filmed. Of course, the name is somewhat pretentious: My Hermitage does not mean that the museum belongs to me; rather, "my" means the Hermitage as seen through my eyes, the eyes of a man who grew up in it and the eyes of a director who takes pleasure in it. It is pleasant to know that the audience of the Kultura channel is growing and often people, well educated ladies, recognize me as the presenter of the broadcast when they see me in a cloakroom or somewhere else. This is very nice. It shows that not everything is as bad in our society as it may seem.
- Notwithstanding its monumental nature, the Hermitage is always coming up with something new. Not long ago a new service appeared - you can download pictures of museum exhibits onto your mobile phone. How do you manage to combine conservatism and innovations?
- Yes, this was a sensation. Even the New York Times wrote about this know-how. No one before us thought it up. The service is still on offer. At first there was great interest and many orders came in. To be sure, at present interest has fallen off, but we will update it in time. It does not bring a lot of revenue, but some money flows in and that is good. I don't agree with those who oppose these innovations. Every fight for good taste means offering an alternative to bad taste. You have to tell and show what is good and normal, and what isn't. I think that it will be more aesthetically pleasing to see on a mobile phone paintings by Boucher rather than scenes from Home-2 or similar.
- What painting did you choose for your own mobile phone?
- I have two telephones. One is without any pictures. On the other one, there is a Gauguin.
- People say that you read the Koran every morning. Is that true?
- Sometimes I do read the Koran. But then I also have manuscripts with various prayers and a good 18th century Russian edition of the Thousand and One Nights. In the morning I begin with texts that I know by heart. They provide a feeling of peacefulness, conciliation: here is a well known text, here are well known things that speak to me more than to anyone else who comes into this office. Later on I can read anything: from material on Russia in global politics right up to office correspondence about burst pipes.
- Can you remember your favorite verse from the Koran straightaway?
- Short texts from the Koran are very charming. I very much like the
phrase which is translated as - "you have your faith and I have mine."
Unfortunately we usually interpret this incorrectly. It is taken from
a conversation between Mohammed and his fellow clansmen. The constructive
sense is that we are people of faiths and understanding that are different
in principle, but we can still live together. However, people have distorted
this sense and accuse Islam of being bloodthirsty, while Christianity
is no less bloodthirsty, as history shows. Every religion, unfortunately,
has a political thirst for blood.
- What are you reading now for your own ‘soul'?
- The Black Book by the remarkable Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Also the works of Trotsky, whom it is useful now to re-read after all these years. To be sure, I first read Trotsky in Arabic at a time when it was forbidden to publish him here and he was published by some Arabian leftists. A copy of their edition came my way.
- In which language was it more interesting?
- In general, you can't read him in Arabic, especially the early Trotsky, when he wrote like Lenin.
- Have you managed to see at least once the small plant "Piotrovsky" which was named in honor of you and your father?
- Unfortunately not. You can see it only with a powerful telescope and at limited times. I have never had a chance to travel especially for this purpose and look through the huge telescope in an observatory. It is true that I have seen pictures of it and it looks like a small dot, or a large flying rock. Essentially it is an asteroid...
- You have many awards. Which is personally dearest to you from among all of them?
- Please don't rebuke me for lack of patriotism, but my Russian awards are not of such high rank. Therefore, I consider my most valuable award to be the Order of the Legion of Honor. I have two degrees of this order and both were given to me from the personal reserve of President Chirac for my contribution to Franco-Russian relations. I received the first order when almost no one in Russia had one. The Order of the Royal House of Orange-Nassau (Netherlands) was in general my first foreign order. By the way, my wife and I were the only ones invited from Russia to the wedding of Prince Willem Alexander of Orange, the trustee of the Hermitage in Amsterdam.
- As an official duty, you are always meeting with the powerful people of this world. Has any of them left an especially bright impression on you or recollection?
- They all, of course, conduct themselves differently. President Chirac is an extremely well educated man and he produced a strong impression on me. Just imagine, he knows the distinctions of the school of Thai architecture - this is something very few people in the world know about in general. There was a time with Bill Clinton worth mentioning. I took him around the museum halls and we looked at Biblical subjects, in particular, at Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son. For some reason, the journalists asked what he thought about religious persecution in Russia. Clinton became interested and asked what these people with their barbed questions knew about the paintings. He then gave them a short lecture on this question. It is very pleasant to note that all the presidents, including our present one, necessarily prepare themselves before traveling somewhere. That was clear with respect to Bush and others. They all read something in order to understand what will be the subject of conversation.
- On September 11th, when the terrorist acts took place in New York, you were there and you saw close up the collapse of the towers. Can you describe your personal feelings? What were you thinking?
- My first sensation, of course, was horror. Everything that was happening made no sense. We all had been in those towers. Later I observed how ordinary Americans reacted to all this. They started saying that they understood Russia and its relations with Chechnya. When they were mobilized and understood they were participating in a war, then real patriotism arose. This was a very quick movement and is very instructive for historians.
- You are a person with an impeccable education. What can make you scream? Somehow it has leaked out that only the stupidity of bureaucrats does that to you. Is that the case?
- A lot of things can get me angry, but I certainly don't shout at bureaucrats. I only shout at my own people, at family members. Maybe once a year I will shout at a secretary, but then I will say: "I am just human. I have the right." I can restrain myself, but a person should be emotional. That is the sign of a member of the Russian intelligentsia. A Russian intelligent can use curse words, only he should know the right time and place for doing so, when it is needed, and not just let himself go.