Hermitage View: The Great Game
Recently a delegation from the National Glory of Russia Foundation and the board of trustees for the construction of the church in Ust-Luga (of which I am a member) visited the Italian city of Bari. We consecrated two icons there – one for the church in Ust-Luga and one for St. Pantaleon in St. Petersburg. In Bari there is a basilica to St. Nicholas. It is the same St. Nicholas who is the patron saint of sailors and the patron saint of Russia. He is the most revered saint in Russia. When foreigners ask why we like him so much, Russians usually reply that he himself chose us. There is no other obvious reason why he should be Russia’s patron saint.
St. Nicholas came from Lycia, where he became renowned for his miracles. He was even able to prevent executions. In the 12th century merchants from the city of Bari stole the wonder-making relics from the city, bringing them back and storing them in the vault of the basilica, converted from a palace of the Byzantine emperor. The relics in this church are venerated by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Russian and Catholic icons of St. Nicholas are sold at the church. Many pilgrims come from Russia to Bari. Orthodox Christians and Catholics venerate the same saint – no one would think that they are enemies.
One more curious detail – in the church around the altar, repeated numerous times on the floor, is the name Allah in stylised Arabic writing.
Bari is in the south of Italy. This has always been a place of special contact between Islam, Byzantium and European Christianity. Not far from the city, is located the fortress of Frederick II who was an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He lived in Sicily and ruled part of Southern Italy. This dynasty was known as the Baptised Sultans. In the 12th century, they adopted Arabic customs, in the court they spoke Arabic and wrote poetry in Arabic. The representatives of the dynasty were Christian but adopted Arabic culture. Frederick barely missed excommunication. When Rome was taken by the Crusaders and later recaptured he agreed with the ruler of Egypt that Jerusalem would be handed over peacefully to the Christians. In Jerusalem the walls were demolished and the city handed over to the Christians. The agreement lasted ten years. This demonstrates that despite all of today’s statements to the contrary a peaceful solution is possible even for Jerusalem.
One can say that Bari is a special place where wonders take place. From my point of view, before our very eyes two miracles have occurred. A year ago, during a state visit to Italy President Putin visited Bari. At that time an agreement was reached for the return to Russia of the Russian church and metochion which are located there. In Bari, there is a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate enjoying great influence.
The Russian metochion was constructed shortly before the First World War. The church was designed by no less than Schusev. Following the Revolution, emigrants lived at the metochion. It eked out a miserable existence and later was bought for peanuts by the municipality of Bari. The Russian Orthodox Church leased part of the territory; the rest was used by a variety of offices.
The agreement to transfer the metochion to Russia was achieved with difficulty. The city had to transfer ownership from its own care to the state and only then could it be returned to Russia. As compensation, the state was to give the city the barracks but they cost more than the church. In exchange the building of the prefecture was also included . . .
Just a day before our arrival at Bari Vladimir Putin flew into Italy. He met with Berlusconi and I think he reminded him of the agreement. Literally during the night of our arrival a decision was made. We were the first to learn that the church and metochion where foreign organisations are located had been returned to Russia. An agreement had been reached. We walked through the metochion as its masters.
A year ago in Bari a parallel problem to that of the church was resolved, this time a cultural one. In the presence of the Prime Minister of Italy and President of Russia an agreement was signed about the establishment of a centre The Hermitage – Italy in Ferrara. The centre was established and could be called a Russian scientific metochion in Italy. As with the metochion there is a hotel, living space, a garden and working areas. It is possible to visit, live and work. The centre has begun to operate. Last spring, the President of Italy opened it. The first exhibition was opened extremely recently by three ladies, the wife of the President-elect of the Russian Federation, the wife of the President of Italy, and the wife of the former Prime Minister.
Now in Italy there are two very symbolic places of Russia’s spiritual and cultural presence: church and museum centres. Military and trade contracts, oil and gas are of course important but spiritual and cultural links are no less important; Saint Nicholas is their patron.
It seems to me that this is a coming together of cultures. The Hermitage Centre in Italy is an opportunity for mutual understanding and cultural penetration. We are involved in Russian-Italian connections involving Italian collections which are located in Russia. We are not doing this as a result of Italian protests, ‘Give us our artists!’ We are studying them together.
Incidentally, we have agreed about the possibility of running exhibitions of Russian Orthodox art in Bari. Now thanks to the metochion there is a location where exhibitions and our church can be supported simultaneously. So around Russia’s favourite saint, a Russian cultural centre is being established. The cultural exchange is particularly necessary in our time. In the area of religion and in the area of culture it is necessary to aim for a rapprochement rather than antagonism.
It is possible to place many things in opposition; for museums it is part of a general problem of cultural dialogue. Dialogue is just as easy as conflict, for example, at the State Hermitage Museum we recently opened a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Golden Horde.
How is it possible to demonstrate the Golden Horde? To talk about the Tartar Mongol yoke? And is it possible to hold an exhibition on the culture of the Golden Horde? This was a huge state with general, wide-ranging, trade-links, cities where numerous different ethnicities lived. It is clear that this was the Middle Ages with wars, conflicts and tribute, but the Russian Metropolitans received exemption from taxes and protection by the government of the Golden Horde. It was easier for the Metropolitans to discuss matters with the governors of the Golden Horde than with their own princes. Within the Golden Horde lived representatives of both Islamic and Christian cultures. There were many monuments of Armenian, Italian, and other cultures. It is possible to follow the ways in which cultures were synthesised.
In history real events take place, but it is possible to represent them as a dialogue or as a quarrel. The museum can create conflicts between cultures.
Now a problem has arisen with ethnographic museums. They were constructed on the principle of demonstrating and admiring collections of so-called primitive peoples. Their primitiveness or difference constitutes the purpose of the museum. We are accustomed to this and consider ethnographers friends of all people. But ethnicities do not think so, and ask why, for example, they are not in the Louvre or in the State Hermitage Museum but in an ethnographic museum? I remember how the Australians were overjoyed when several years ago we did a large exhibition on the art of the Australian Aborigines. We displayed it as contemporary art with roots going back 8,000 years. No one in the world had done anything similar. Usually it is done in the following way: ‘Look at the Aborigines. Look at how interestingly they draw.’ Ethnography!
Where, if not in a universal museum, would culture be a means of reconciliation rather than of conflict? We constantly talk about dialogue, but this dialogue can turn so that it becomes confrontational. For example, at the State Hermitage Museum Russian culture is represented in a European guise. This Europeanised view of Russia is not correct in the view of street-nationalists for whom there is a different, good, old Russia, with onion-domed churches and broad-shouldered smocks. That is the ‘real Russia’. One can say that Peter the Great united Russia with Europe, but you can also say that he destroyed the true Rus and harmfully infused it with a foreign element.
Incidentally, several exhibitions are being prepared for which it is necessary to think deeply. There is some experience. At one stage we did an exhibition on Charles XII and Peter the Great. Two heroes, fighting with each other in a battle, in which one came out as the victor. The exhibition was successful in Stockholm. We were doing an exhibition on Mannerheim. We were trying to show him as a Russian intelligence officer and only later as a Finnish officer and destroyer of the Red movement . . . It is interesting, moreover, that one should not forget anything.
Now we must talk about the battle of Poltava. There will be an exhibition dedicated to Russia’s victory in the war of 1812. It is necessary to try to show not only how we chopped everybody up with axes, but also the event for Europe of Russian forces arriving in Paris. Russians changed the face of Europe, changed it for the better in contrast to what Napoleon did.
We are preparing a large exhibition dedicated to the Russian expeditions into Central Asia at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The expeditions took the frescoes from the walls of ancient caves, excavated cities submerged in sand. The Russians were the first. Afterwards there were other expeditions from all over the world. They really found valuable items. In Chinese historiography this is considered to be a heinous crime; on the one hand this is fair, these things were taken away. But on the other hand this region was overthrown in the 20th century with such a shock that much that had remained would have been destroyed, which means that they were saved.
The removal of monuments was part of the famous ‘Great Game’. Central Asia was the location for which England, Russia, France and Germany vied for influence. In this political struggle, culture and archaeology got their share. Almost all scholars were intelligence agents under the cover of studying antiquities. But they knew which antiquities were necessary to study and bring home. Today no one is concerned that they made maps which were used for dragging artillery into China by horses. What they studied is important. They described the habits of the peoples and brought back frescoes.
We want to organise an exhibition reflecting this great cultural, political game. We want to show things not only from our, but also from German expeditions. It is necessary to show how everything took place without tempting the truth and without quarrelling with people.