Russia's Great Defender of History
and Protector of Cultural Wealth

Mikhail Piotrovsky runs one of the world’s greatest museums – the Hermitage

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AT THE heart of one of the world’s great cities, through the halls of one of the world’s great buildings, moves the man who runs one of the world’s great museums.

Mikhail Piotrovsky is the director of the Hermitage, whose Winter Palace was home to the Romanov tsars for two centuries, before the 1917 revolutions swept the Bolsheviks into power and saw Moscow replace St Petersburg as Russia’s capital.

Piotrovsky presides, as did his father, over a collection of almost three million pieces that is not only a world-class treasure trove of art and historical artefacts, but a key element of Russia’s claim to be a global cultural force.

His stewardship of St Petersburg’s main artistic powerhouse makes him also a reluctant political figure in Russia’s second city, as it regains strength and influence under two native sons who made their names in Moscow: president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin.

“We think of ourselves as the centre of the city, and as the city orientates in the world and as a cultural capital it must ask us, orientate through us, and we provide an example of good taste and other things,” Piotrovsky told The Irish Times.

“In culture, as in sport, you have to prove every year that you are the best. And in culture you have to do it over hundreds of years. We have to keep the museum in good shape, we are always restoring and repairing, but it is our traditions that keep us great. Our role as a universal museum that presents different cultures and puts them in dialogue – that is the main purpose of our existence.”

As Piotrovsky (66) suggests, the scope of the Hermitage’s collection is extraordinary.

From ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts, through Russian icons and imperial treasures, to an array of western European art encompassing Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso and most of their most famous contemporaries, a walk through the Hermitage’s 365 halls can be overwhelming.

Not only do many of these masters have entire rooms to themselves, the walls covered with paintings familiar from posters and art books, but they are set among the splendour of palaces that were built and decorated to convey the wealth and power of the Russian Empire to awed visitors.

The vast scale of the Winter Palace – and the five smaller buildings that comprise the Hermitage – is also daunting, and means that even a museum that is toured by 2.5 million people each year still has plenty of echoing corridors and rooms in which the visitor finds himself alone with Scythian mummies, Babylonian bas-reliefs and ancient gold from the Caucasus.

Many of these items survived one of the great upheavals that periodically strike Russia and St Petersburg, when they were evacuated as Hitler’s forces approached in 1941. About one million items were kept safe in the Urals city of Sverdlovsk – now known again as Yekaterinburg – where Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been executed in 1918.

Having been at the epicentre of the October 1917 revolution, the Winter Palace was bombed many times during the second World War, and its basement provided shelter for thousands of people as the city withstood a 900-day siege in which more than a million soldiers and civilians were killed.

It is this history, as well as the Hermitage’s cultural wealth, that Piotrovsky is defending in his battles with big business and St Petersburg’s political bosses.

He regularly rejects requests from major music acts to perform on the massive Palace Square, and only allowed the likes of the Rolling Stones and Madonna to play there after they promised to keep the volume down, and he also quashed a city plan to turn it into an ice rink.

More recently, Piotrovsky opposed state-run energy giant Gazprom’s bid to build a new 400-metre tall skyscraper overlooking Smolny Cathedral, a baroque St Petersburg landmark created by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the Italian who also designed the Winter Palace. It was decided this month that the tower would be built elsewhere.

“It’s a permanent fight . . . but it’s about a philosophy as well as a question of how to protect monuments,” said Piotrovsky.

“People say St Petersburg is a museum and one can’t live in a museum. I say that yes, you can. A modern museum is a big enterprise with culture, politics, economics, and it can educate people and help them work and live. And all the better if it doesn’t do it in the usual Russian way – by demanding 400 per cent profit.”

Not that Piotrovsky is an enemy of power or big business. He says he sees Putin and Medvedev as allies, and several of Russia’s billionaire “oligarchs” have done their dubious reputations no harm by becoming some of the Hermitage’s biggest benefactors.

When Armenian-born Piotrovsky took over the running of the Hermitage in 1992 it, and Russia, were mired in the poverty and chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The Arab expert has since rebuilt the museum’s annual budget from $1 million to $40 million, and put it on a sound footing for the future. Or at least as sound as it can have in St Petersburg, a city standing on the bones of those who built it in a Baltic bog, a “window on the West” for Peter the Great and a window into Russia’s turbulent past for today’s visitors.

Source: The Irish Times
30 December, 2010