Interview in the newspaper "Izvestia"
16 March 2004
-Mikhail Borisovich, we have already written about the project for
reconstruction of the East Wing of the General Staff building which now
belongs to the Hermitage. What is now happening?
- Active work is going on. We have restored the building’s exterior and
we have redone a number of rooms inside. Together with several sponsors
we have restored the Arch of the General Staff. As a result the wing is
already functioning. Our principle is to do everything bit by bit. We
have set up a permanent display of art in the Empire style. We also have
an exhibition devoted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There are rooms
where we show new art and we have rooms of a Museum of the Guards. If
I may say a word about the economic component, let me point out that after
the opening of these permanent exhibitions the number of our visitors
A preliminary project for the reconstruction has been approved. Our main
idea is to open a Museum of the 19th and 20th centuries in the restored
wing. Several groups are working on the reconstruction and the architectural
office of the Hermitage is overseeing this work. The main task belongs
to “Studio 44”. We have received interesting comments and suggestions
with respect to the project from architects around the world. Now the
work of planning overhead lighting is going on. In addition we are actively
discussing what goes where in the wing.
It has been decided that the first floor will accommodate stores while
on the second there will be applied art of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The third floor will have the basic exhibitions of art of the 19th century,
and the fourth floor will show the Impressionists. We can show 19th century
art from nearly all countries of the world. But the issue is not a simple
one: for whom will this be interesting? We are thinking it over. This
is very important for us, because this wing shows the direction we are
moving in. It is a matter of principle.
-Is this project financed by the World Bank?
- Yes, it is, within the framework of a loan agreement that should be
signed by the Russian Government. However, it is still not signed. This
is a large credit which provides money for restoration work in the city
center, for the Mariinsky Theater, for the Russian Museum, etc. For the
moment the question is unresolved. Consultants are working with us – the
studio of Rem Koolhaas and the Guggenheim Museum. They are considering
how this building can be used for a modern museum. There is the view that
in order to show modern art you need to build large hangars. This is one
approach. Another approach is put forward by Rem Koolhaas, who is a remarkable
European architect. He believes modern art can also be displayed in the
traditional room system. He is saying, to put it crudely, that you can
show 95 motorcycles in one large room or in 95 separate rooms. And either
way it will be no less interesting.
-But as far as I know, the Hermitage has great plans which take in
the entire Palace Square. Isn’t that so?
- Let’s go step by step. We have opened the main gates and the Hermitage
courtyard, and now the Hermitage embraces the square with one arm. The
whole flow of people goes through the square. And now even when you have
to wait in line it is significantly more pleasant. The Arch is also ours.
The whole structure of the Hermitage has changed. It is very important
to emphasize that we do not simply want to ‘grab’ something. Rather we
are acting in accordance with Š certain logic for developing the Palace
Square. This is the central square, the heart of the city, but it does
not presently live the way it should. We would like to create a kind of
rhythm to life whereby it will not be necessary each time to explain to
people that holding a Beer Festival here is just not possible, that holding
a rock concert is not possible. In the end we will no longer have to say:
“didn’t you get it? haven’t you understood?”
- And what about the concert of Paul McCartney? Is that also not allowed?
- This question has not been agreed with us, although that is always the
practice nowadays. The issue is not McCartney as such. Rather it is that
a crowd will be there, a crowd that is not very easy to control. And in
addition rock concerts are wildly noisy. Those decibels set off our alarm
systems everywhere and the military offices have sensitive equipment which
suffers. Then the crowd is often drunk. What we need here, of course,
is a different type of atmosphere. Let the style of life on the square
be dictated by its own spirit and not by some company which needs to do
something for itself and uses the Winter Palace just as a backdrop.
-Does this mean that the square will be closed-off?
- No, of course not. It should not be closed. Though I must say we are
always receiving commercial proposals to that effect: why not close it,
install entrance gates and charge for admittance. That will never happen.
The square should become an entrance zone to the Hermitage, absolutely
- The entire square will belong to the Hermitage?
- Yes, in the course of a certain period of time. We write letters, work
with the Government. Of course, all of this is no simple matter. Now we
are conducting negotiations over setting up a Museum of the Russian Guard
Regiments in the building of the former HQ of the Guards. We have prepared
four rooms and demonstrated that together with the Ministry of Defense
we are capable of creating an amazing museum and educating the younger
generation about Russia’s military history. We reached an agreement in
principle over this with the military authorities. And while today they
are not so willing to make the changes, we have a second logic in our
proposals. The time is over when we said that no war will ever come again.
If war does break out and American cruise missiles are sent flying towards
us (as always, not very close to target), then they may fall not on the
headquarters of the air force but on the Hermitage.
- Are there any other buildings that will come under your jurisdiction?
- The Navy Archives (building opposite the Atlantes) should move out.
There we would like to create a museum of the written word and an open
public library of art. We have a brilliant Hermitage library but nowadays
we cannot admit anyone there. We could also open our archives to the public.
In the more distant future we could occupy the former barracks building
of the Preobrazhensky Guards (a building alongside the Winter Palace ditch).
There we would like to make a museum of archeology. Now the soldiers in
these barracks huddle by their windows and aim at our windows with their
slingshots. They are poor, frustrated and bored; they are overcrowded
and there are only two courtyards at their disposal. But we understand
the situation, and we cannot make the changes we want at once. But in
10 years time, when the Hermitage reaches its 250th anniversary, I think
all this will change.
- Then someone finally will watch over the Alexander Column?
- Yes, we are also asking for it to be turned over to us. On that night
when someone sawed off fragments of the grating, our cameras were looking
the other way – in the direction of the Atlantes. We are the ones who
should stand guard over our property. Up to now the Column is not ours
and I cannot put a watchman there on duty; it would not be a justified
expense. However in the future we will be able both to protect the Column
and at the same time to organize together with the military authorities
a handsome ceremony of changing of the guard.
Our plan for the building housing the headquarters of the military district
is to turn it into a museum of state military glory. It is an historical
circumstance that Palace Square has the spirit of a museum and of military
And we have to think about one more thing. The square is choking on cars
and tourist buses. The buses have nowhere to go to since all around there
are parking areas only for cars. All of the passageways and surrounding
streets are jammed, and this creates a hazard for the museums. The cars
are dirty, belch fumes and spoil the facades. And besides that we remember
what happened in Florence when a car with a bomb was placed next to the
museum and several paintings were generally blown to bits.
- Mikhail Borisovich, presently many palaces in Petersburg are being
transferred to the Administration of Presidential Affairs. For example,
the buildings of the Senate and the Synod. Aren’t you afraid that Moscow’s
long arms will reach also to your buildings?
- The situation does inspire a certain disquiet. Of course several different
administrations can very quickly restore palaces, but this is done quickly
only from the outside, as we saw with the Konstantinovsky Palace. Meanwhile
everything inside now has to be redone and we are busy working on that.
We must throw out those trashy sculptures that were purchased so quickly
and put in their place good copies of real things, set up a new permanent
exhibition. The most important thing is to know precisely which institutions
will be the recipients of all this. Because there is always the threat
that today it is the courts; tomorrow, some hotels or other establishments.
There should be clearly defined conditions for the transfer of a building.
For example, the archives should receive a good, real building. But this
costs money. And it would be good to take our suggestions into account.
For example, the buildings of the Senate and Synod might be used for a
Pantheon of the House of Romanovs.
- The Administration of Presidential Affairs is hardly likely to take
our wishes into account...
- There is no reason to think that there is no such thing as justice.
Justice exists, but you have to defend yourself in an intelligent way.
“No, we won’t allow it” – you must not speak that way. Rather, you should
explain what we want to see in these buildings. Of course our status as
a capital is not the result of some administration or other moving here;
it comes as the result of our having a unique Museum of Horticulture,
the Main Archive of the Russian Empire, the Hermitage, etc. This is what
gives the city its status as a capital.