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We speak different languages
An article from Saint-Petersburg Vedomosty
26 January 2011 (N 013)

Nowadays words and terms change their usual meanings. We should be careful using them. We should understand that there is a different approach to words in today's world, different from the one there used to be. When we speak, we believe we are understood but very often we are not.

A good example is the word "museum". We donít like a museum being called a musty and shabby little shop selling old things... Yet, look around - what would be called a museum today. Some time ago any higher education institution began to be called a university or academy. The same thing is happening to museums. Anything, even a chocolate shop, can be called a museum. Talks about interactivity and entertainment brought about the situation when any amusement is called a museum.

When the discussion of church restitution began, I said time and again that this process should not be called a great holy cause. Itís part of restitution as a whole, part of conveyance of property, privatization. Church restitution is in line with claims from other organizations, former owners and countries. The law has not been signed yet but everyone knows it was easy to pass. Property will be conveyed to church. Thank God, wise people introduced limitations: the law does not cover pieces of art and collections of archives, libraries and museums. Perhaps, only for the time being.

What is happening now?
We have just signed a memorandum on culture with Iran. Just imagine what very important people talk about before discussing ways of cooperation. They say, give back the Ardabil treasure seized by Paskevich during the war between Russia and Persia. The treasure is a collection of China porcelain that was kept by the tomb of the Safavid dynasty founder in Azerbaijan region of Iran. However, the Hermitage does not have this treasure. I can give you more examples.

A recent example is the demand of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, an American religious association which represents Chabad-Lubavitch movement, that the famous "Schneerson collection" is given to them. The collection includes the library collected by the Lubavitch rabbinate in Smolenskay oblast of Russia and their archive. The library was nationalized after the revolution of 1917 and ever since it has been in Russia and the Soviet Union and is the national patrimony of Russia in conformity with all regulations. As for the the archive, in 1927 it was brought to Riga and later to Poland where it was seized by Germans during the war. The archive was brought back to Russia together with German archives and can be regarded as a war trophy collection which has a special status.

We believe the fate of these things should be decided by a Russian court. A judicial opinion on this case has already been expressed. I mean the claim made in the US. A judge in Washington made a decision that the collection belongs to Chabad-Lubavitch community and should be returned to them. The Russian Federation took part in the competition at the beginning but then declared a protest believing the decision violates the international law which is above the Washington judge decision.

Russia is supposed to have to return what it has on its territory. How can the "Schneerson collection" be wangled? We know what is done in such cases: the state property - planes, ships, paintings - is arrested. The government begins negotiations with the US showing its concern about safety of the Russian property on the US territory. In response they say there is a federal law in the US on exemption from seizure but it is impossible to guarantee it because courts are independent in a democratic state. They donít want to provide guarantees.

Consequently, the Russian government wonít issue permissions for exhibitions in the US. The Hermitage planned a few of them for this year. In February paintings by Cezanne, Gauguin, Canaletto were to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery, Washington DC, from London. However, they are now going back home. I talked to directors of American museums and I said to them, I am sorry but you have to go to the state department. The problem has to be solved. The year 2013 was declared the year of Russia and the US. Now the established cultural relations are under threat.

We havenít had such problems for a long time. When we had similar problems in France, we publicly listed the exhibitions that would not go there if we anticipate the paintings might be delayed. The courts called it "Piotrokovsky threat". As a result, they weighed everything up before making a decision taking Franceís interests into consideration. I repeat it over and over again - culture is more important than anything else, more important than any legal tricks. Culture has rights and power of its own. It might as well be power of blackmail.

Some time ago when the talks about the pieces of art captured as war trophies only began I warned my colleagues in the West - donít start this, donít open Pandoraís box or troubles and misfortunes will jump out of it at you. They raised that issue. They said, "Russia doesnít want to return what belongs to others..." The first investigations showed they also had a lot of postwar possessions acquired in a dubious way. As a results, other countries submitted their claims, too. Now we all are up to our ears in legal proceedings taken by former owners and have to return what they have claims for. You see, it started with raking over the past.

Donít trouble trouble; donít open dangerous boxes. When we speak about justice in various issues in a loud, almost hysterical voice, we should think about consequences. There is no doubt new claims will soon be brought by Ukrain, Lithuania, Latvia... Then, as we have said many times, there will be a line of heirs of property owners. We have things that people convicted of theft of property forfeited during the Soviet time. Now theft of property is no longer viewed as a horrible crime but is a new economic policy.

There is one more aspect. When we talk about words we should remember that people who come to power now think in a different way. It is not good or bad. It is a fact. They come from business, so they do not have a habit of thinking about state interests along with thinking about their own interests. It is another way of thinking, another concept of justice. They and we speak different languages. And not only they.

Nobody remembers now how the humiliating nickname "the Caucasus native" took root. For years this offensive, humiliating unscientific combination introduced by ignorant enforcement agencies has been used. We should give careful consideration to such words as "benefit". Benefits are not offered for nothing. They compensates for costs that were born. That is why there are almost no government benefits. When we talk about autonomy, I mean that our main objective is to preserve the existing autonomy of institutions of culture. Others understand it as the law on autonomous organizations designed to reduce competitive advantage of state enterprises. Attempts are being made to convince us that competition is fair. I agree, it is fair when it does not come to the weak - children, the retired. It is not fair when fate of institutions of culture is decided; they should exist not turning into commercial organizations.

Obviously, culture needs reliable government guarantees inside and outside the country. Now one of our targets is state guarantee of insuring the exhibitions coming to Russia. We canít afford commercial insurance. To bring a good exhibition would cost millions. We are trying to obtain state insurance. We are told - the exhibition is commercial so the insurance has to be commercial, too. However, although tickets are sold, an exhibition is not a commercial enterprise. It does not bring much profit and this is not its purpose. Insurance is accepted worldwide. When we take exhibits abroad, nobody pays insurance. If something happens, itís the host country that pays.

To arrange an exhibition an agreement between the country museums used to be enough. Then the Ministry for Culture required an insurance. Problems began. How can Kazan make an insurance for an exhibition from the Hermitage? There is another side of the problem connected with law number 94. Commercial approach to insurance means there should be a tender. It means there should be an Internet advertisement specifying what exhibition goes where, the number of exhibits, their cost, how much silver, how much gold... We are not going to take anything anywhere after it.

It turns out now we need reliable guarantees that exhibits will be returned. Everything that is connected with giving museum exhibits to anyone - whether it is church or the fashion house of Prada that wants to exhibit the Hermitage China - should have a guarantee that everything will be returned at due time without delays. Of course, if the government said "yes". Usual agreements are not enough; they donít work as in case with Toropets icon. It was not returned to the Russian Museum at due time and, quite possibly, it will go on its journey from the village in Moscow region. The talks on special kiots worth nothing. The best kiot is a private house. If an icon is locked there, nobody will see it and it will be quite safe.

We know how our internal problems can affect the situation abroad. Restitution is a broad concept. The solution is not in refusing to give anybody anything. We should not do it. At the same time we should not talk about justice. In fact, we do what is required by todayís spiritual development of Russia. Otherwise, there is a question - if you restore justice, why donít you give valuables to Hasidim.


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