Word and Deed
Yesterday President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev signed the adopted by two chambers of the Parliament law on returning the property of religious nature to religious organizations. Having delivered the annual message to the Federal Assembly, President Medvedev held a meeting with the Patriarch Kirill in the Church of Nativity of the Mother of God in the Grand Kremlin Palace (in accordance with the new law this temple is to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church). "It is a special place. On this occasion, I would like to inform you that today I have signed the law on returning the property of religious nature to religious organizations. It is a serious law which has been discussed and coordinated for a long time," said President Medvedev to Head of the Russian Orthodox Church. "The document attests to the fact that our country is overcoming grave consequences and restoring justice. Only that state may have a future that acts upon justice... The law is a result of certain compromises, and so it should be,"replied Patriarch Kirill.
President Medvedev pointed out that the law was adopted in the optimum revised version. However even following all the discussions the law is still criticised. In this article, prepared for Vremya Novostei, Director of the State Hermitage, President of the Union of Russian Museums, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Science Mikhail PIOTROVSKY tells about his serious doubts both in the law itself, and the policy that led to its appearance.
The law on the transfer of property to religious organizations has been adopted. There have been many extra-parliamentary and non-parliamentary discussions. It makes sense in examining some of the general ideas from the perspective of the museum community.
Firstly, the adoption of the law showed that both the upper layers of society and the common people share a touching Russian feeling of compassion to the offended, a desire to compensate it somehow. I realized the strength of this tradition for the first time during the years of active discussions on problems of "German restitution". At that time, a lot of very intelligent people were sincerely eager to return to Germans all the "pillage" acquired by the Soviet Union in the defeated Germany. Experience taught us that it is no good to hurry and that there is a good recipe: to agree on what is more vital for the one party rather than the other party. The rest need not be touched. Today the same thing is happening as the compassion is sought by owners of nationalized buildings and collections, behind whom there are countries from which many of the museum collections originate – Egypt, Iran, Ukraine... It is no good to hurry.
Secondly, we have completely confused words and terms. One can hear words like "return the pillage", "restore justice". "Guardians of the pillage" appear to be the museums which rescued items of church art having recognized them as museum items. The rest was damaged or taken into private collections. Generally speaking, terminological confusion is one of the main woes of our times. Words "treasure" and "valuables" are understood exclusively as a dollar equivalent. A word "spirituality" is referred to religiousness. Bad words bring about ugly emotions and solutions.
By the way, the transfer of state property to individuals or social organizations is called privatization. In many events of today's life of Russia the museum intelligentsia (which still exists) recognizes a new round of privatization and property redistribution. Meanwhile, if we discard emotions and mercenary moods, all matters relating to museums and church interests can be resolved simply as it was done previously when there were both church and secular museums of church art, private collections, with the transfer of icons from monasteries to museums and cooperation between art historians and churchmen in place. There is no need in aggravating and primitivizing the situation by stylistically inappropriate words. It would be better to communicate without aggressive rudeness. Also, it is necessary to study the history of each item, where and how it actually belonged some time ago.
Thirdly, the adopted law does not change the existing opportunities of transferring the property (horrible word) but establishes a more simple procedure for religious organizations. This means "privileges". For cultural organizations it is a good reason to continue our struggle for privileges of culture. The Culture (see N. Rerich, D. Likhachev) has its rights and should have its privileges – moral, tax, political, civic, budgetary, etc. The Church shows a way for us. Thank you!
Fourthly, it saddens us very much that the discussions over the law referred unobtrusively to long-term raid attacks on museums. Materials of examination that took place in all museums of Russia were used quite inappropriately and very intentionally. Prior to the discussions of the law the TV showed quite an insulting film about museums in which the results of examination were expressly mixed with a story about the black antiquities market as one of the main originators of raid attacks on museums. After a few days similar insulting and surprisingly unintelligent opinions were voiced in interviews of prominent clergymen. We have been hearing this reason for twenty years – museums are not capable of preserving items, transfer them to those who can do it better – foreigners, private collectors, "black antiquarians", simply rich amateur antiquarians, etc.
In this relation, earlier than required, I am forced to present a report on the opinion of the Union of Russian Museums regarding the results of the conducted 100 per cent examination. It has become a unique phenomenon in the world museum practice. For the first time the museum fund of the huge country was fully registered. It became possible only due to the application of the latest information technologies and innovative schemes of their use. Today it has become possible to create a full electronic catalog of the Russian Museum Fund of which it was so much dreamt and talked about.
The total number of "non-presented" items, of which many suppliers of "hidden information" speak with feigned horror, is 0.3 per cent of the Russian Museum Fund. To this effect, the majority of items make sense and present interest only in the museum context. Some dozens of cases need to be actually investigated. The result is clear: Russian museums preserved the public domain in the turmoil of privatization attacks, at least, much better than any other areas of the public domain. They prevented its theft and privatization and therefore evoke anger and hatred now, in the new hunting season for "property". Persecuting instead of thanking is a sinister symptom of the sick society.
This examination showed that for decades the state machinery has neglected its duties in relation to the cultural heritage. On the one hand, repositories were not built and proper conditions for records were not set up. On the other hand, the state machinery took pleasure in putting its hands into the museum repositories for sales or gifts for the right people. Finally, investigations of the stolen were carried out only in rare cases. If the price is low, the case is closed quickly.
The museum community has many claims to the state machinery (it is no synonym of the state) which robbed them not less than the church. Our claim is yet to be made.
Fifthly, this law, like almost all of our new legislation, is hostile to the culture. We greatly appreciate the profile committees of the State Duma and, in particular, the culture committee for suspending some of horrendous threats. Our main claims to the law are as follows. It does not recognize sufficiently the immunity of the Russian museum, archive and library fund. The principle rights of culture rest upon this immunity. The law does not provide for strict guarantees of ensuring adequate and suitable for the museum use infrastructures to those cultural institutions that will be moved out of the buildings necessary for the functioning of church infrastructures.
Finally, it is very sad that material interests of various groups of "the new rich" create a conflict between museum and church infrastructures by putting between them the tempting notions of "property", "assets" and "income". It evokes a feeling of pride of both parties. Maybe, it does satisfy some immediate interests. But it does not comply with the uniform mission of the Culture and the Church. It is uniform and related but differs in detail. This difference should be respected.
For many decades museums in our country have been almost the only institutions
which emphasized and fostered respect to the church tradition as part
of our culture. They will continue to do so under new circumstances which
suddenly appear to be no better than in the Soviet times.