An Interview in the Newspaper "Moscow News"
No. 16, 2004
On 20 May 2004 the Russian Government will review the issues of improving
security and making greater use of cultural and historical monuments.
At a session of the presidium of the Union of Russian Museums, which is
a public organization whose president is Director of the State Hermitage
Mikhail Piotrovsky, a letter was composed and sent to the Government of
the Russian Federation. The letter proposes that all materials be first
presented to the museum establishment for their review. Specifically,
the museums would have their specialists study the materials, make comments
and amendments, after which it will be possible to review these problems
at the Government level. In connection with this letter Mikhail Piotrovsky
gave an interview to the newspaper "Moscow News".
-You cannot apply primitive notions of property and possessions to cultural
monuments. Yes, a cultural monument may have an owner. But his rights
to this valuable property can be limited by the framework that a multitude
of rules and regulations impose. And all owners are obliged to follow
these rules, including the Government. But in our country it is precisely
the Government which fails to protect rarities of the patrimony and pass
them on to the next generations; instead it manages these treasures in
the manner of a small trader. Just remember how the first Soviet Government
sold off museum collections to foreign buyers during the 1920ís and Ď30ís!
In my view what we lack is conscientious property owners who are ready
to carry out all the rules governing upkeep of their treasures. Therefore,
instead of selling off valuable property right and left, the State should
create a service which would prevent the new owners from reconstructing
this very property in keeping with their own personal tastes.
There is one further factor about which people have for some reason forgotten.
In their day the Bolsheviks nationalized the old townhouses, rental properties,
and art collections without paying any compensation. The heirs of the
former owners are quite correct in arguing that they have claims against
these properties and valuables. International law supports their claims.
But when they arrive back in their historic homeland and see that in their
former palaces and country estates there are cultural institutions or
rest homes, and when we tell them that their former property now serves
the people, this does not elicit objections. If, for example, the Sheremetiev
Palace were sold to some character or other for a risible sum, then who
will have the moral right to say to the Countís descendants that this
property should remain in the national domain?
I imagine that in such a situation a great number of law suits will arise.
And it is fairly likely that even our judges will come out on the side
of the former owners. Not to mention the opinion of the world community!
Let us honestly speak the truth: we are preparing the way for privatization
of national monuments due to our poverty, our inability to own this property
correctly! The State should admit that this is not a clean affair. It
is obvious that after museum buildings, their collections will be put
up on the auction block next. First they will tell the museum that they
are doing a bad job looking after the treasure in question, then they
will declare that the collection is not stored properly. In this connection,
the bureaucrats love to criticize us for not exhibiting everything to
the public. I am always having to explain to them that in a museum the
main thing is scholarly research work, not the permanent displays and
The Hermitage has on display approximately 5% of all the exhibits in its
collections, of which there are more than 2 million separate items. However,
when we complete the reconstruction of the buildings which the city has
given over to us, then we will be showing between 15 and 20% in the halls.
Governor Valentina Matvienko has announced plans for privatization at
the cityís public architectural council. Now her proposal is being discussed
in the press, by experts and staff of the services responsible for security
at the public monuments. I believe that museum people should discuss this
issue. And not only within Petersburg. We should study all the documents
which are being prepared for the Government on 20 May, and that , strictly
speaking, is why I was compelled to address Prime Minister Fradkov. This
is all the more important given that more than 70% of our museums are
in buildings having the status of national monuments. As a rule they are
located in the prestigious centers of our cities, so that there will be
plenty of people who would like to purchase them.
- Are you aware of any cases of privatization of museum buildings
that are classed as monuments?
- Why just recently the wing of the Ryabushinsky estate house became private
property. This is where the Alexei Tolstoy Museum is situated. It is interesting
that they managed to sell it already twice, but the museum found out about
it only by chance. The first time it was sold by the Government of Moscow
for a very funny price - $114,000.00!
We get a constant stream of letters from the provinces. They take away
buildings from the museums, move them out, combine them with others. Their
rights are being interfered with.
- Who has prepared the documents on privatization of monuments for
- We can only guess that it is people in the apparatus of the new Ministry
of Culture and Mass Communications and in the Ministry of Economic Development.
That is why we sent copies of our letter addressed to the Prime Minister
also to Alexander Sokolov and German Gref.
- What do you intend to do if your letter to Mr. Fradkov goes unanswered?
- I am certain that the museum community has enough strength and influence
to convince our authorities of the need to work together.
The interview is available on the internet at http://www.mn.ru/issue.php?2004-16-4