Interview in the newspaper "GAZETTE"
At the Hermitage the year gone by produced a rich harvest of important
and signal events. Here is a list of just several of them: the 150th anniversary
of the New Hermitage, the 240th anniversary of the Hermitage Library,
a gigantic exhibition on Mexico that was unprecedented in its conception,
sensational archeological discoveries in Tuva dating from the Scythian
period, the acquisition of Malevich’s “Black Square”, the arrival from
the National Gallery in Washington of Titian’s ”Venus Before the Mirror”,
which had been sold in the 1930’s by the Soviet Government, the return
to their historic homeland of the stained glass windows from the Marienkirche
in Frankfurt-am-Oder after storage in the Hermitage during the post-war
period, the adoption by the parliament in Amsterdam of an official resolution
regarding the opening in 2003 of a branch of the Hermitage in the Dutch
capital (similar branches are already functioning in Las Vegas and London,
and, finally, the tenth anniversary of the accession of Mikhail Piotrovsky
to the post of director.The year ahead, 2003, is the jubilee year for
- Mikhail Borisovich, what will the Hermitage finish the year with?
- We will establish a new tradition: on 31 December we will show off the
final gift of the year. And henceforth we will do this every year. A painting
by Pierre Soulages has just arrived from France, a gift to our museum
by this remarkable painter. The year before last an exhibition of his
works was held here and President Chirac, who was here at the time visiting
Russia, traveled especially to the Hermitage to see how his favorite artist
looks in a white hall during the White Nights. Soulages has given us a
triptych, which is typical of his things; and as always is the case with
this artist, it has no name. As always, it is black and a bit of white.
It is especially appropriate to finish the present year with a gift like
this one: one more symbol, one more sign of this year reminding us of
the “Black Square” given to the Hermitage by Vladimir Potanin. Malevich,
Kankinsky, Soulage. I would remind you that our idea for the section on
the 20th century which will be housed in the General Staff building is
partly based on such new approaches: long term safe-keeping of things
and stimulating donors to make gifts. It is a bit nervy, of course, but
all the same… When we put on display well known contemporary artists,
we make a hint… And this hint is frequently understood. As regards the
year as a whole, it was stable. For the first time in several years state
money constituted 65% of the overall Hermitage budget. The remaining 35%
we earned ourselves. The state has finally paid off the debts from the
construction of the new storage facility for works of art. We have approached
the completion of phase one, and this is the most important thing, rather
more important for the museum than the restored facades. Though, of course,
they also do need restoration. Things will not only be kept in good condition,
but they will be accessible. The new storage facility is one of the most
modern in the world in terms of equipment. Moreover, the new district
of Petersburg where it is situated de facto gets a museum, since there
will be exhibition halls there with permanent displays.
- 2003 is a year of festivities. Are we correct in assuming the Hermitage
will offer the city and the country something new, some exclusive gift?
- I will be silent for the moment about some of our plans, otherwise there
will be no surprise. But there are some things that I can talk about already.
We will open the storage facility; we will finish our restoration of the
Hall of Archaic and Classical Greek Art. The War Gallery of 1812. And
the Triumphal Arch of the General Staff complex will be finally restored
in time for the jubilee. (During the celebration of the millennium some
petards fell on the roof of the Arch and a fire broke out which damaged
the Chariot of Glory that is at the top of it – “Gazette”). The Triumphal
Arch is the symbol of our victory over Napoleon. The city is completing
the restoration of the Alexander Column. All of this can be opened together
at a special ceremony. We have two main national victories to celebrate
– 1812 and 1945. Why don’t we celebrate 9 May by remembering 1812 on the
square which essentially is a splendid and brilliant monument to that
- Since you mentioned Napoleon, I can’t help asking about the exhibition
which the Hermitage and the Army Museum are preparing in Paris, in Les
Invalides, where Napoleon is buried. Can you tell us about this project?
- This is a grand affair. We should remind everyone about St Petersburg
and its celebration. In addition to the Hermitage and its partner, the
Army Museum, the Museums of the Moscow Kremlin and the Historical Museum
are taking part in this exhibition. The working name for it is “Russia
– France: War and Peace”. It tells the story of Russian-French cultural
ties. At its heart is the idea of creating a dictionary which brings together
all the French words that have entered into daily use in Russian culture.
It is a beautiful idea and the dictionary itself is fine.
- Are Russian-French cultural ties really an inexhaustible subject?
- Without a doubt, but our initial swing through several hundred years
has narrowed to several decades: we have limited the time frame to the
period from 1800-1830. All relations between Russia and France in the
age of Napoleon and Alexander are very interesting and instructive. There
were remarkable military events, as well as the history of cultural and
political exchanges and interaction. The war led to a situation where
the influence of France on Russian minds became still stronger.
- General Bernard Devaux, the director of the Army Museum directed
attention to this paradoxical feature when he said: “I think that this
war taught our peoples tolerance; moreover the ideas of French free-thinking
began to intensively penetrate into Russia”.
- All of this led to the Decembrist movement, while the uprising on Senate
Square was precisely what provoked the destruction of these freedoms.
But that is a separate subject. In the exhibition in Paris the issue is
how society in its different strata understood the relations between these
- That is to say the exhibition is devoted to ‘war and peace’ in the
Tolstoyan sense, when his followers spelled the word ‘mir’ (peace) the
way you spell the Russian word for ‘society’ and not the antonym for war.
- Absolutely right – both senses of the word: peace as the opposite of
war and also as a social entity. I must make an aside here. This is the
first time such a grand exhibition is completely financed by Russian money;
it is really an exceptional phenomenon. The holding company Interros,
our permanent partner, is financing this interesting event. And it bears
mention that they came up with the original idea, which we then added
to and transformed. All the money is Russian, and this material freedom
gives intellectual freedom – in the choice and interpretation of what
is put on display, which is very important. The exhibition enjoys the
patronage of presidents Chirac and Putin. Besides being a remarkable artistic
event in time for the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg, it is an important
cultural and economic breakthrough for Russia.
- You have mentioned a future section of art of the 20th century which
will be housed in the General Staff building. In recent years the Hermitage
is actively acquainting the Russian public with the work of modern artists:
the appearance on the shores of the Neva of canvasses and sculptures by
Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Pierre Soulages and George Segal have aroused
great interest. The project of the Greater Hermitage assumes the General
Staff buildings will be turned into a museum center. The World Bank organized
a competition to gather draft proposals on reconstructing the building
and the recently announced results gave victory to the Petersburg architectural
group “Studio 44”. Meanwhile that masterful legend of contemporary architecture
Rem Koolhaas, who created a splendid building for the branch of the Hermitage
in Las Vegas, was taken out of the running because of an incorrect filing
of the documents. Are you satisfied with the results of the contest?
- I know “Studio 44”. It is headed by the interesting Petersburg architects
Nikita and Oleg Yavein. (Nikita Yavein is the head of the Petersburg office
of GIOP). The objectivity and transparency of the competition are guaranteed
by an international council of experts who made the decision. However,
this does not mean that in the future we will not collaborate with foreign
architects on the project for reconstructing the General Staff complex.
I have already sent a letter to Rem Koolhaas proposing collaboration and
I got his answer: he did not take offense at the Hermitage and we have
prospects of working with him on the Greater Hermitage.
- Have you reckoned on the reconstruction of the General Staff buildings
taking several years?
- The project of the Greater Hermitage presupposes a whole complex of
programs. One element is the reconstruction of the East Wing of the General
Staff building. We have long been working on a concept for this reconstruction.
At first we decided what we would be putting on display in these premises,
then what changes are needed for this. Let me begin by explaining what
will be there: 60% of the surface area will be put to purely museum use,
and 40% will be commercial. The latter will bring in revenue for the upkeep
of the museum element of the General Staff building. There will be a number
of restaurants (the first will open as early as the coming year – “Gazette”),
museum stores, an information and computer center, a multimedia center,
an internet cafe, and an auditorium which will not be very large. The
Metropolitan, the British Museum and several others proceed without rushing
but with confidence along the knife’s edge, combining tradition and innovation,
what is popular and what suits the elites. We are doing the very same
thing, only in Russia.
- When you create a restaurant in the museum and make use of Hermitage
motifs, don’t you run the risk of being reproached for doing something
unethical: in Russian museum practice there is no such experience.
- Restaurants operate in all the world’s museums and the question of what
is ethical is decided very simply: the restaurant’s activities, by which
I mean its ‘artistic’ component, will be under the control of the Hermitage.
And please take note that we are opening the restaurant in the General
Staff building where there is no inner contradiction to the spirit of
the building. Museum restaurants and other attributes of ‘relaxation’
are necessary. This is the normal philosophy of a museum economy. If we
want people to come and visit us, it means people should feel comfortable.
When someone comes to the museum he wants to rest, then to continue his
communion with art. But to get a bite to eat he has to run several hundred
meters away, somewhere far away. And it is not very likely he will return.
And generally a museum restaurant is one way of drawing people into the
‘museum zone’, into the museum’s field of gravity. The same is true of
a store selling compact discs with a big selection appropriate for all
different strata of our visitors. It is also, to be sure, a factor in
Now let me talk about income. Several Russian museums and also museums
abroad rent out their premises for receptions. The Hermitage doesn’t do
this, and do you want to know why? I don’t want to impose my point of
view on everyone, but in the Hermitage we will not allow any receptions
to take place in our exhibition rooms whatever the amount of money we
are offered, whatever the circumstances. That being said it is possible
and even necessary to arrange receptions in museums. This is also a form
of education, training, a way of fraternizing with people if you like.
But you have to know how this should be done. You cannot sell yourself,
rent the place out for a time, sell the right to dine alongside artistic
masterpieces. That is immutable. What you can do is let a small, exclusive
group gÞ through the museum, take our exclusive tour. (Rare guided tours
like this are personally led by Piotrovsky – “Gazette”). And following
that, away from the palace rooms and exhibition premises of the museum,
you can hold a reception or banquet in an area we have available. But
all of this has to be in our presence as guests of the Hermitage, without
being given the right to feel you are the lords of the palace, even if
just for an hour. When we complete big projects or open large exhibitions,
then we hold such receptions for our staff, our sponsors, and members
of the Club of Friends of the Hermitage.
- Will the General Staff building house art of the 20th century?
-And 19th century as well. There will be a gallery dedicated to the memory
of Shchukin and Morozov. We are also preparing rooms to display the art
of Historicism and Art Nouveau. We will also restore the historic offices.
For example, there will always be exhibitions in the office of the Minister
of Foreign Affairs linked in one way or another with international relations.
In the office of the Minister of Finances there will be something ‘financial’.
We will think something up. This will all take several years. Then there
is the 20th century. This section will be created along several new principles.
One part will be a permanent display of Malevich’s “Black Square”, Kandinsky’s
“Composition No. 6”, Matisse’s “The Dance”… A second part will be available
for temporary exhibitions from foreign museums. Following their transfer
to the Hermitage, all the premises of the General Staff building were
divided into three categories: those where nothing can be altered (where
the historic decor has been preserved), those where something can be transformed,
and those which have to be reconstructed. (Note that several organizations
which were housed in the General Staff during the Soviet period still
have not left the building – “Gazette”). Several years ago we sought advice
from the whole world and from leading architects. I want to emphasize
that we never intended to do everything ‘according to the model and example’
of the West. We simply consider it essential to take existing experience
into account. A special evaluation committee has been created to give
an expert review to the various proposals. We have also looked for sources
of financing for the whole project. (The overall cost has been set at
around $150 million – “Gazette”). Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Michael
Graves, Rem Koolhaas and other leading architects – I have met with each
- The main entrance to the Hermitage is now from the side of the Palace
Embankment but starting in the spring the public will be able to enter
the Winter Palace from Palace Square through the courtyard.
- This will be considerably more convenient and historically justified.
During the first year there will be a lot of confusion, and in the beginning
that is unavoidable. But together with the visitors and tourist companies
we will work out a mechanism which will make this entrance absolutely
- Can it be that the 300th anniversary of Petersburg will pass without
an exhibition dedicated to Peter?
- We will present the city with a big exhibition dedicated to its founder.
There has been a great multitude of exhibitions about Peter. You cannot
astonish Petersburg with exhibitions, it would appear. But we will try.
Never before did we put on display in the Hermitage so many of Peter’s
things though we have the biggest collection of personal items belonging
to Peter. We will stage an exhibition that is not entirely normal or usual,
but rather an installation. Peter as the founder of Petersburg. Peter
as the great conqueror. Peter as the carpenter tsar in the broadest sense.
We will show not only his lathes but also, for example, the socks he darned
by hand himself, the pliars he used to pull the teeth of his courtiers
to teach them about dentistry.. The image of the carpenter tsar is very
complex and is imbued with various cliches, but has not been examined
in detail, in its many facets however paradoxical that may seem. When
he traveled to Holland and Great Britain supposedly to study, to build
- He mainly studied two things. First, to be able to determine who from
among those who came to him in Russia was a swindler and whom he could
trust – and this is very timely today as well. Second, to see how powerful
their fleet was compared to ours. Then there is one further subject that
is not well known: Peter as the collector. We will place next to the wax
figure of the tsar the Tauride Venus. This was really a complete revolution
for Russia – to bring SUCH a sculpture into the country where in general
no one had ever seen three-dimensional sculptures! To the other side of
the wax figure will be “David’s Farewell to Jonathan” – the first Rembrandt
which was brought into Russia. There will also be works by Jan Steen,
Peter’s favorite artist. One of them is in a black frame made in Holland
in the style of the period, Holland’s golden age.
- What about the night in the Hermitage?
-The Hermitage will be open twenty four hours on the day of Petersburg’s
birth, 27 May. Free of charge. At first we even wanted to stay open for
three days. But this is not possible due to security considerations: we
have to mobilize the entire security service and it cannot work without
a break more than 24 hours. And there is no one from outside whom we can
invite to help out, since this job has its peculiarities. I do hope that
people will behave well in the museum halls during White Nights. We will
have several nighttime concerts in the halls and we will have a screening
of Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”. This is a serious experiment, a gift and also
a test for the cultural capital and its guests. We will try it out...
- This year you observed the 10th anniversary of your directorship.
You have been constantly keeping a finger to the pulse of the Hermitage,
generating ideas, holding several other posts including the deputy chairmanship
of the Presidential Council on Culture, the post of chairman of the Board
of Directors of ORT. Do you find time for a private, personal life?
- There is not enough time for anything. Private life? First, there is
the museum. This is the way things have taken shape: I am used to it and
cannot do otherwise. The Hermitage was a given, the most important component
in the life of my parents. Everything that goes on there is also my private
life. Scholarship is also my private life, and though my ‘communion’ with
it also has to be limited, the ties have to be kept up since otherwise
it is not right for me to occupy this post….Not long ago I delivered a
report in the history of linguistics department of the Academy of Sciences,
at a scholarly session. The report was dedicated to the twentieth anniversary
of Russian archeological work in Yemen. I was talking about our expedition,
in which I worked for many years. (Piotrovsky holds a doctorate in historical
sciences and is an academician; he is an orientalist, a specialist on
Islam, the author of monographs about the Koran and Moslem art; he led
the archeological expedition in Yemen – “Gazette”). It ceased to exist
due to financial reasons soon after the collapse of the USSR and then
nonetheless was re-established thanks to our international contacts and
foundations set up by the Academy of Sciences. Now every year 5 – 6 men
work in Yemen, continuing what was begun 20 plus years ago. Our scholars
have done a lot to reveal the secrets of an ancient civilization, the
country of the Queen of Sheba. Much has been done to develop scholarly
methodology and much has been found. Our archeological finds are now preserved
in Yemeni museums and a huge exhibition devoted to the country of the
Queen of Sheba is successfully touring the world.
- What do you recall from those expeditions?
- I remember it all and it was interesting. Pure history. Yemen is one
of the most secretive countries. We worked back then in relatively open
conditions and we were successful. Archeologists were not taken hostage
those days even in the most troubled regions, and it was a time of civil
war there. But two years ago an archeologist, one of our German colleagues,
was for the first time taken hostage. There were many adventures. We dug
up cities which no one before us had touched. Every movement was a discovery.
Either you found traces of a cavern that no longer existed or unknown
systems of irrigation, or the attributes of a ritual hunt. Evidence of
events that took place three or four millennia ago. When you walk through
the hills alongside a camel...
- If you have a camel, why are you on foot?
- The camel should carry a load… When you leave a valley and enter a cavern
during the day, that is at a different hour from when caravans traveling
these routes a thousand years ago arrived, you don’t understand why the
names of divinities so often figure on the inscriptions you see on the
stone walls. But at night, when it is not calm, even if you have water,
it becomes clear to you that the names of gods and protective invocations
were needed precisely at that time of the day in this cavern. Nearby,
in the next one, there is nothing like this. But here evil spirits lie
in wait for travelers.
- Lie in wait?
- Of course. I was walking along the road from the Hadramaut Valley to
the sea together with my teacher, Peter Afanasievich Gryaznevich. We were
going to the large port which we were excavating. There in front of us
was a powerful wall with an inscription proclaiming that it was erected
for defense against the troops of another stÐte. It was not very clear
why this wall was placed here, in the valley. Around it there is a city,
there are passages and crossings. But then we arrived after the rainy
season. And we saw that precisely in this place there is a deep stone
cavity that fills with water after the rain. When this season arrives
there is a torrent 6 -7 meters high which sweeps away everything in its
path. And then a couple of days later it is all a desert once again. The
system of irrigation consists of diverting this water across the land.
Then it is clear that if an army is passing, it can get water for its
further advance only here.And if this place is defended, then the enemy
forces cannot pass: without water no army can move onto the attack. I
walked through many caverns and when you decipher and read the inscriptions,
it seems as though there is not much information there, but it is all
very valuable, remarkable. Then one day as a result of this reading it
becomes clear to you why some of the inscriptions in the cavern are placed
very high: a man noticed that he is sitting here during the time of the
high flood, which, as I already said, reaches several meters… And you
interpret the world, those pictures, those events differently. I can tell
you about one more marvelous impression. ..I found several stones with
ancient inscriptions and just as ancient drawings. One inscription was
a statement of thanks to the gods for healing a camel. There were schematic
but finished depictions of a camel, evidently set down in accordance with
an ancient tradition and by no means accidental. I was delighted with
the drawings and then we arrived at a Bedouin settlement. There I noticed
that a small boy was carving the figure of a camel on an automobile tire.
Exactly the same as the depictions on the stone wall that had delighted
me. He could not have seen those depictions, since there are few of them
and they are inaccessible. Simply this remains in the genes.
-Am I correct in saying that on one of your exploratory trips in the
Orient you made a find predetermined by fate – you met your future wife?
- That was in Baghdad. Iraq is a difficult country. They have a ponderous
bureaucracy and a very cruel people. The entire history of Iraq is bloody.
Everything there happens in a more cruel manner than in other regions
of the Near East. I will never forget a poster devoted to the eradication
of illiteracy. Iraq can be proud of this – it is one of the countries
where they genuinely eliminated illiteracy a long time ago. Well the poster
in question showed a gallows with a figure drenched in blood and over
it is written: ‘Illiteracy’…. We arrived in Baghdad separately, without
knowing one another, as part of a Soviet delegation. Ira was working in
the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow and I, as you know, was working
in Leningrad. She was busy with current economics, with the question of
petrodollars. (Irina Piotrovsky holds the degree of candidate in economic
sciences – “Gazette”). And I was working on ancient manuscripts and the
history of ancient Arabia. They still gave me access to the manuscripts
since they knew that my subject was rather more placid. But as for her
and the other economists, they categorically opposed letting them work
in their field. It was even likely that they would all be sent home a
few weeks after their arrival, though the period of the trip was supposed
to be two months. They needed to apply great efforts by an Arabist who
understands the Orient and the principles of negotiation to patch together
a solution which would turn the trip into a success. Well that is how
we got to know one another, making our way through the Baghdad bureaucracy
- And what happened after that? Did you go your separate ways when
- The conclusion is we got married. For some time after this Ira lived
in Moscow. We grappled with the question of who is coming to live with
whom. I won her over, of course.
- If back then, 20 years ago, you had shown weakness and gone off to
Moscow, there is no way of knowing who would today be celebrating 10 years
of directorship. But persuading a Muscovite to come up to Leningrad was
an act of heroism.
- Yes, but it is also heroism from the side of the Muscovite. For them
it is rather hard to live in Petersburg, since it is really a special
city. In her day my mother made the same heroic act. She is an Armenian
and she moved from warm Yerevan to Leningrad. This is our family tradition:
we import our women (He laughs).
- As far as I know, your family is forever lamenting that you rarely
- Lamenting! I think my father saw me no more often than I see my son.
(He smiles). Of course we do not see one another from morning to evening
and there are times when we do not get together at all since I travel
a lot. But maybe this is why our relations are so remarkable that we miss
- You are an archeologist, a man who takes a professional interest
in the past. And you are the director of a multifaceted major museum that
is quickly developing and looking to the future .Which is the stronger
attraction, which is more interesting for you to engage in: the past or
- The past interests me in close relation to the present and the future.
I am interested in the bond between them. This is the basic philosophical
theme of my historical research. I am most concerned to ensure that the
good which we have received from the past is preserved and developed in
the future. Your question is timely. Not long ago I began to think more
about the future, the present future .
- That is an interesting formula – the ‘present future’...
- Precisely the present future. Much of what we are now beginning to do
in the museum carries with it baggage for the future, not just the coming
10 years but even further out. How do we define the vector of our development
in the future? For the moment this preoccupies some of our thinking. Here
in general we have to be very cautious: we know from the experience of
this country that when you begin to get lost in your thoughts about the
future and do everything in the name of the future, something happens…
We have to keep our feet more firmly on the ground…
- That’s not likely in your case.
- Well, so it won’t happen… (He smiles). I know that it won’t happen but
can’t I think about it?!