One Cannot Repent Without Being Aware of What
November 4 is Russia's National Unity Day. While this day appeared in the Russian calendar five years ago, each year it raises a question of what it is that we actually celebrate. Director of the State Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky believes that this day cannot be referred to as National Unity Day. Mikhail Piotrovsky, Ph. D. in history, corresponding member of Russian Academy of Science, shared his views on a day that could become truly memorable in the Russian calendar, on national memory and ways for its preservation, on relationship between culture and authorities, on disturbing historical events that become a small coin in actual politics with Yulia Kantor, News Time reviewer, Ph. D. in history.
- In the end of October public hearings devoted to setting up memorial
complexes at sites of mass shootings, Kovalevsky forest and Levashevsky
waste land, as well
- The reason being is that we need to learn to remember. The truth and
the culture of memory have never been a popular subject. The less it is popular, the more perilous it is. Thanks God, Katyn has been acknowledged
and they even admitted that it was not only Polish tragedy but ours as well and that thousands of our fellow citizens are buried there. Attention
has been drawn to museum memorial complexes in Katyn and Medny which operated
for 10 years, though chronically underfinanced but properly active in historical and museum sense. However museum memorial complexes, all of
a sudden, were transferred to Museum of Contemporary History (located
- Berlin has a remarkable museum, Topography of Terror. There people learn how the terror was put into the conscious and subconscious of masses, how dissidence was suppressed and how people were involved in it.
- That is what we need. Understanding and compassion. Without distancing oneself from history. Authorities are reluctant to do it and people, supposedly, don't need it. It is more convenient to set up one memorial as a showcase. One cannot repent without being aware of what. One cannot abstract away from the common sin. Stalin acted not alone. He is being talked about more than he deserves.
- Do you mean to say that he is not to blame for what happened
- What I mean is that he was not a bright personality. He was embodiment of mediocrity, ordinariness. That is the tragedy... And it was a characteristic feature of the situation in society. One cannot separate oneself from the age. We, as they say, have nothing to do with itů This just doesn't work. Hence we have a hidden reluctance to know history.
- Is not the reason in that it hurts to realize that all that seemed as correct and best to you is in fact an illusion?
- To a lesser extent. Nobody cares about the anatomy of history, the study
of stereotypes of consciousness. Such reluctance has been long cultivated.
And this stereotype cannot be removed at once, with one strike, including
informational one. This requires
- Is a reluctance to know the truth about oneself and the country a consequence of the psychology of closedness?
- Absolutely. It is more comfortable to do so. Some generations of our fellow citizens have atrophied sense of historical dignity. There is a lack of courage to learn the truth and not to separate it from oneself and one's predecessors.
- Authorities believe that knowing too much truth is fraught with
national disunion. November 7, previously known as October Socialist Revolution
Day, was renamed to Accord and Reconciliation Day and subsequently canceled.
Later on, November 4 was appointed
- November 4 should be changed. It is no day of national unity
- Does national unity happen to be in place at all?
- Very rarely. For example, during a war with a common enemy. Also, when there is well-organized enthusiasm. For example, during "great construction" times. By the way, hence there is a sort of nostalgia for this pseudo unity under guard, including psychological guard.
- Many people hope for the church today. Hence they demand to return buildings and property that belonged to it until 1917.
- The church and museums do the common
- By the way, revolutions are also made under the disguise of such declarations.
- Absolutely. A struggle for social justice is not loud. It does not take place at squares. Our social justice is "to steal the stolen". Fair enough. You noticed that charity providers are terribly disliked here. It is believed that they have nothing better to do or are fearful of something and cast their sins off. Long debates are run as to what mean and dirty things stand behind it all. This apriori bitterness is a direct consequence of misapprehended and miscultivated thirst for social justice. Social justice is not about "equality for all". An equal food ration happens only at a prison camp. In fact, not always. Social justice is an equal opportunity for representatives of various society layers to have an access, say, to spiritual values, books, education. If somebody is willing to help the unprotected and provide this access, it is wonderful.
- Could you give an example?
- I will speak about my industry. For example, museums provide low-income population groups with an opportunity to access treasures of material and spiritual culture either free of charge or for a symbolic price. In other words, museums performing a social function are engaged in charity, and, naturally, to its own loss. The state does not compensate us for our charity in any ways. I remember well when benefits monetization started, pensioners, for example, who visit the Hermitage for free, feared that they would be deprived of this opportunity. But we took a decision to continue. And so we do. By the way, all citizens of Russia and Belarus may buy a "charitable" ticket for 100 rubles, whereas for all others it costs 400 rubles, which corresponds to a European price for a ticket to museums of Louvre or Prado, of the same level as the Hermitage.
- This is what the Hermitage is reproached for the most: as they say, it creates discrimination and divides people by their citizenship - that is unfair.
- Any appeals regarding price equalization can lead to only
- Once you said that art is based on provocations. Why?
- Because a provocation, a conflict teach you to think. And to feel. If nothing touches you, there will be no penetration, connection with art.
The museum should teach you to think and make you argue. This is how avant-garde
- Any dispute, in arts or elsewhere, can lead to an outburst. And its suppression. Hence arts and its creators suffer often...
- Culture has always been on the defense at all times. So it was during the French Revolution and after the October Revolution of 1017 and in 30s in Russia when museum valuables were sold abroad for economic reasons. So it is now: it is possible to take away museum items and pass them to someone, or make the museum rent out its rooms for banquets... But during the time of destruction museums indeed preserved themselves and their treasures. That is why they suffer infringement on the part of the state, some influential organizations and the business community. In today's world museums are particularly vulnerable because a notion of value is synonymic to a notion of money. That is atrocious. Museum values are converted to currency. Therefore, a museum item as material memory, an object of history and culture, is devalued. Such thinking exists both among the tops of society and common people. That is because our tops sometimes, alas, come from common people... When I look at the Hermitage paintings sold in 20s, I think that history can be repeated now. And not as a farce: museum items are not sold abroad but a desire to privatize and turn them into a commodity is getting more intense. This is also a consequence of the psychology of closedness you have mentioned.
- Recently Smolny delivered a statement saying that the Government of St Petersburg did not prohibit from holding a meeting to support the freedom of gatherings on October 31, 2010 at the Palace Square. It only provided "a motivated reply to the event organizers" saying that "during the time specified by the campaign organizers works of reconstruction and restoration of the General Staff building will be performed". Performance of these works "requires the observance of special safety rules". It is quite a clumsy attempt to maintain good appearance for works in the General Staff have been carried out for three years already. This was not any obstacle to hold mass events, on the brink of controllability, from rock concerts to mass celebrations at the Palace Square. Why some can do it and others cannot?
- Nobody can do it and I always make a point about it when it comes to concerts, festivals and mass celebrations at the Square Palace. If a meeting
is really prohibited due to caring about the Palace Square and the Hermitage,
it is excellent, thanks, and it is an additional supporting point in favour
of what museum people have been talking about for many
- The Palace Square has always been involved in the country's political life.
- Absolutely, and, in fact, in climactic moments. As for memorable locations associated with the terror, I cannot but mention the Hermitage complex which has everything. The General Staff building has a memorial board set up at a place where Uritsky was killed. As we know, his death triggered the red terror, a certain part of which was directed from the same building. Over all, the Palace Square can be a good instruction for contemporary political players. We remember that the "meeting" arranged by Gapon was shot here. During demonstrations the confrontation between Trotsky and Stalin supporters took place here. Not to mention the fact that the Palace Square was involved in the assault of the Winter Palace.
- On the verge of November 7 it is high time to ask: did the assault actually take place? Today many people believe it is a political myth.
- Yes, it did, though it was bloodless and totally unlike what was shown
in the famous film by Eisenstein
- They also attempted to destroy a soldiers' hospital which, by the tsar's order, was allocated in the Winter Palace from 1915: among soldiers with bandaged heads they searched for members of the Temporary Government.
- That's right but these very soldiers simply threw these assaulters out. We will surely remember all these events and facts when we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage in 2014.
- Who do you feel interested to talk with - people who have a critical attitude towards our country and the Hermitage, or people who are ready to turn a blind eye to many things for the sake of things that they consider as main and important?
- With people who have a kind attitude to Russia. Kind attitude does not imply that all can be forgiven or ignored. For many people I communicate with Russia is a memory or dream. For some, it is work. Among these both categories of people, some have much to dislike about us. But it hurts them to dislike. Such approach to history and the present resembles mine. To love does not mean to ignore or justify bad things. It means to be able, despite all bad things, to aspire for good things. To love means to feel sorry, to suffer. This attitude to Russia is easily identified through human communication. In this sense, the Hermitage is a perfect litmus test: why a person visits it? The Hermitage tests a person and its attitude to Russia in general. The Hermitage is Russia in its entirety, with its drawbacks and grandeur. Or, a bit better than Russia.
- What makes it better?
- It is a declaration of European Russia which preserved its peculiarity.
It is an encyclopaedia of world culture written in a Russian way. In the Soviet times people visited the Hermitage to rest and abstract from sovietivism.
The Hermitage provided them with such shelter. Today people visit our
museum simply to look at the eternal Russian history. Here they find undisturbed
continuity and live Russian history. Sometimes foreigners feel it more
keenly than Russians. In the Soviet times the Hermitage was much better
than Russia, it is repeated today. While our country gradually closes,
we remain open: we travel, bring things, evoke disputes, and, ultimately,
provoke discussion. Naturally, not everyone likes this.