On the question of the existence of a cultural
and historical memory in contemporary Russia
The issue of historical memory and, in particular, cultural memory has always been a sensitive one for Russia. Firstly, because during moments of sudden change in various ages, on the one hand doubt is cast on the very necessity of an historical memory as such and on the other hand memory simultaneously becomes the object of speculation on the outcome of the crisis: the past is searched for fragments which are more ‘opportune’ in one or another social context. The striving to preserve and resurrect memory in Russia is also especially morbid because it is considered a panacea for social ills arising from the Communist regime and its consequences. A derivative of morbidity is the leaning to immanent falsification: to inventing ‘one’s own’ memory which is now fine. This leads to the characteristic sign of the existence of an historical and, perhaps, in the first place, a cultural memory in Russia: the creation of a mythology around it.
The need for a return to one’s roots through cognition is felt rather strongly, especially in crisis periods, at various levels of mass consciousness. (And here the subject of the discussion often becomes those roots themselves, or more correctly, notions of their ‘truthfulness’ or ‘falseness’.) However, due to objective and subjective reasons, an exclusively ‘sober’ - deeply historical – cognition can hardly be acceptable for bearers of the nation’s mentality. As an emotional category memory is the key to such cognition.
One characteristic example is Russophilism, which was summoned into existence during periods of political cataclysms. Thus we see the appearance of Russian ‘Empire’ during the War of 1812 when the Russian elite, which frequently had difficulty making itself understood in its native language, under the influence of what today would be called the significance of the moment, tried (with various degrees of success) to shift from French into Russian. Aside from purely historical sources this phenomenon has been described in classical literature, which is a bearer of the national memory. (It suffices to mention Tolstoy’s "War and Peace" – in Anna Pavlovna Sherer’s salon fines were imposed for using French words). A later allusion is the famous helmet shaped ‘Budennovka’ which entered history as a symbol of the Red Army and was initially, according to legend, the headgear used by soldiers of the tsarist army: during the First World War they had symbolized and given a physical form to the continuity between the defenders of the empire and the armies of the ancient Rus’. The Second World War, known in Russia as the Patriotic War, called into being an entire Russophile ‘vertical’ past, from the Orthodoxy that had been persecuted by the Soviet regime up to the new design of officers’ shoulder-straps that imitated the pre-revolutionary design.
In our age politicians and leaders in the cultural sphere have been feverishly searching for the ‘Russia which we lost’. This search now has become a commonplace, a form of modern cultural and historical discourse. Understandably this search proceeds along the most diverse and at times mutually exclusive paths: the bearers of different world views, lining up their own theories, bring into play various facts from the inexhaustible sources of the country’s history and culture. In this context cultural memory is understood as purely individual, not appropriate for objective generalization. In turn the national memory is composed of the memory of individuals that has been leveled out or, if appropriate, adapted for mass consciousness. By the way, Communist ideology and ethics were built on attempts to understand the nobleman’s ethic of selflessness and service to the country. A thoughtless, pseudo-historical attitude to the Soviet period of national history may be entirely explicable from an emotional point of view but it produces a ‘social boomerang’ – memory of sin is transformed into memory of slights or injuries. This is what happens in Germany, which is aware of the Nazi past at the level of national shame. The same is occurring in post-Soviet Russia, which has sensed an ideological vacuum.
Museums are curators of the memory existing in things, abiding consequently in a ‘unity and struggle of opposites’ over how to preserve material: conceptually conserving it or systematically interpreting it. Whatever can be brought back to life as a cultural and historical given demands special care both in the first and in the second of the directions named. It seems that a certain middle ground can be found precisely in a combination of these approaches. While remaining a phenomenon that is equal in its measure to one or another historical and cultural event, memory can be the opposite to it in sign. A museum as a socio-cultural institution is capable of regulating this relation without assuming the role of arbiter. Otherwise it will be either annoying to everyone in its political correctness or deliberately tendentious. The basic principle of a modern museum’s approach to preservation and the ‘pre-appearance’ of cultural and historical memory is dispassion and concreteness. Only things can be objective, for they are bearers of the spirit of an age. How should culture be studied? Do we look upon it from outside or do we immerse ourselves in it, get into the spirit of it? Here again placing our hopes on each of these approaches taken separately leads us into a scholarly cul-de-sac, the same as any striving for mechanical adaptation of someone else’s memory and traditions to our own history. The latter is one of the main problems of the existence of an historical memory in Russia. One further issue is the direct contradiction to the aforementioned adaptation: alienation from one’s own history as a whole or from certain parts of it that are not accepted by the bearer of memory. (The antithesis ‘this country is our country’ can serve as the socio-linguistic litmus test of such a phenomenon).
And so the existence of a cultural and historical memory in contemporary Russia is an issue with several major component parts including the following: a hypersensitive search for the path of return to our roots, an inner falsification of real events as a derivative of emotional acceptance of events and their opposite pole – an opportunistic mythologizing, an unfounded process of making generalizations from our own history or, the opposite, excessively immersing ourselves in it, and, finally, a mental split with the cultural and historical memory of the elite and bearers of mass consciousness.
Such are our basic points. Now I wish to give several concrete examples from the experience of the Hermitage. The Hermitage brings together an entire set of aspects of national memory which make it at any moment in its history not only a curator but a ‘motor’ of its maintenance, formation and use. This is so because the Hermitage preserves the memory of the great achievements of mankind’s culture without an understanding of which neither man nor nation as whole can exist and develop normally. The Hermitage preserves the memory of cultural policy in Russia and its most important traditions. As matter of principle, this is museum open to the world, an institution that is not merely a Russian national museum but the main museum of Russia ‘dedicated’ to all the world’s cultures. This openness goes back to Catherine who in this way introduced Europe into Russia and Russia into Europe. Fortunately, this openness was not interrupted even in the Soviet period, when people could fully relax only here, within the walls of the Hermitage, where they could freely enjoy contact with history and with other countries and civilizations.
However unexpected it may appear at first glance, the Hermitage is the embodiment of Dostoevsky’s views on the human soul. It is a monument to Russian imperial glory, to Russian statehood from Peter to Nicholas II. In this regard it is like the Kremlin, but the history of the Kremlin is precisely divided into a sacramental ‘before’ and ‘after’. In the Hermitage there are no such precise distinctions: there is a co-existence between the symbol and the curatorial repository. It was always important for the Hermitage’s self-awareness that there was a duality between the museum and the palace. It is a unique duality that was established at the very beginning: a museum as part of a palace. The main residence with the imperial standard, and next to it a museum which was created by the monarchs, which from a certain date became public yet preserved its function as venue for state ceremonies, receptions and balls. Later the palace itself became part of the museum with the conversion of living quarters into exhibition halls and with the ceremonial halls becoming showpieces on their own. This is how the history of the state was preserved.
In its everyday activities the Hermitage answers the question of how to conserve this history not in a passive way but by literally showing it off, using it, interpreting it. We can, for example, allow mummers to put on pseudo-historical ceremonies. This stage of post-Soviet Russia has passed, when there was a naive joy and nostalgic tenderness for the abolished monarchy and exclusive association with it for the resurrection of the Russia ‘which we lost’. But it is possible to put on an exhibition which shows us history without imposing commentaries or simplifications. When the Hermitage put on its exhibition of "Nicholas and Alexandra", dedicated to the last imperial couple, I had a discussion with Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of Petersburg. Walking through the exhibition he said, "How is it all this was saved?" Alas, a great deal was not saved; the Soviet authorities destroyed much. But nonetheless a great deal was kept intact thanks to the closed nature of the repository. There is the point of view that a museum should show everything that it has. I have always answered to this, "We have stored things in the repository on the assumption they will never be shown. They have existed in closed collections for a certain ‘closed’ history. But perhaps the very certainty in this ‘never’ is what saved unique things. In this way memory preserved itself by going into hiding." And the time came for discoveries and opening things up in the literal and figurative senses; memory saw the light of day as preserved genuine things. By the way, at the exhibition of "Nicholas and Alexandra" we decided against showing the splendid portrait of Rasputin that we have in the Hermitage collection. It appears in the catalogue but not in the exhibition, and this even elicited some criticism from visitors who considered this a kind of violence to history. However we decided that this demonic and contradictory personality who, after 1917, cast such a shadow over the whole history of the last imperial family should not influence people’s perception. Rasputin is something outside the court, and the exhibition of "Nicholas and Alexandra" should go past the legends down on the ground. It seemed to us this was necessary precisely for the sake of ‘leveling out’ the historical consciousness of post-revolutionary generations.
I would like to add one further vivid and complex example of how we draw out the memory in things. As everyone knows quite well, at the end of the Second World War sever German art and museum collections were brought to Russia from Germany as compensatory restitution. In the 1950’s the major part of what was brought here was returned Germany. We sent back the Dresden Gallery, the Pergamon Altar, the National Art Gallery, the Egyptian Museum, the Gotha Library and much else. Several of the transferred art works remained in special custody of the Soviet museums. During the 1990’s these collections were gradually released from the regime of secrecy and presented to the public. (The Hermitage became a pioneer in the matter of returning these monuments to art lovers. The Hermitage displayed drawings from the Bremen Kunsthalle, a painting and then drawings from private German collections – the "Unknown Treasures" – "Masterpieces of European Drawing from Private Collections of Germany" – and archeological materials from Schliemann’s excavations in Troy. Each exhibition had its own catalogue. In this way important steps were taken for the documentation and presentation of the art treasures from German collections which had remained in Russia. In 1998 a Law on Cultural Valuables Transferred after the Second World War came into force.
The Hermitage held unique stained glass windows from the Marienkirche in Frankfurt-am-Oder dating from the 14th century. In 1943, to save them from the bombing, they were taken down and stored, at first in the church itself and then in a repository in Potsdam. From there they were taken to the Soviet Union and ended up in the Hermitage. In parallel with restoring other ‘unknown treasures’ to the light of day, the Hermitage took upon itself to prepare the stained glass windows for public showing. Within the framework of our scholarly study of stained glass in the main Hermitage collection, the museum created and equipped a special Laboratory for the Restoration of Stained Glass Windows. In May 2002 the windows of the Marienkirche returned home to the Federal Republic of Germany. Prior to their ‘repatriation’ we showed them to Russian viewers. For the purpose of the exhibition we selected 15 windows presenting the main subject lines of this huge and singularly interesting composition. It contains both episodes that are traditional for church stained glass windows and also highly original subjects, motifs and variations. By making this exhibition and by its extensive publication of the other stained glass windows of the Marienkirche, the Hermitage fulfilled its obligations as a museum to present what it has stored for decades both to the public and to those who decide the fate of where cultural monuments are located. Thousands of people took great pleasure in seeing rare monuments and I hope they thought over many of the aspects of human history in the Middle Ages and in Modern Times.
These two exhibitions – "Nicholas and Alexandra" and "The Stained Glass Windows of the Marienkirche" – are, it seems, very vivid illustrations for the theme of preserving and interpreting cultural and historical memory in the Hermitage. You can oppose distortions in the perception of history by mass consciousness only with genuine things. Even books are powerless in these matters: there are many of them and they contain many different views on the given subject to which they are dedicated. But a thing has its own value and is therefore objective. Therefore when a museum takes things out of its ‘granaries of memory’ and shows them off, whether to a simple visitor or to a specialist researcher, it has the right to speak on behalf of itself.