Mikhail Piotrovsky, the veteran director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, told The Art Newspaper in a 2021 interview that “Putin’s been my person since the 1990s.” He has been walking a fine line since Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine, which he has not condemned. To do so would be a crime under the Russian censorship law passed in early March, which carries prison sentences of up to 15 years for the spread of “false information” about the Russian military.
Once a leader in Russian cultural diplomacy overseas, the Hermitage is now isolated by the cultural boycotts of Russia that have multiplied through the western world since the war began. Among the international partners that have suspended ties with the St Petersburg museum are the Hermitage Amsterdam, a privately funded satellite venue that abruptly returned a major loan show of Russian avant-garde art; the Hermitage Foundation UK, a charity set up to fundraise for and promote the Hermitage; and the museum’s International Advisory Board, established under the aegis of Unesco in 1994 and composed of current and former museum directors from around the world. Board members who participated in an online meeting last summer included Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery in London, Barbara Jatta of the Vatican Museums, Max Hollein of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Kaywin Feldman of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The “indefinite suspension” of the advisory board was announced in a joint statement on the Hermitage’s website on 15 March, in which the group expressed hope that “in the future circumstances will allow it to resume its important cooperative work with the Hermitage”. It described the board as “a vehicle for promoting cooperation between the Hermitage and the international museum community through dialogue and mutual understanding, in keeping with a core purpose of Unesco to promote peace and security through international cultural exchange”.
The Bizot group, an informal association of international museum directors, has also suspended the membership of the major Russian museum leaders—Piotrovksy, Yelena Gagarina of the Kremlin Museums, Marina Loshak of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and Zelfira Tregulova of the Tretyakov Gallery. Piotrovsky, a founding member of the group, responded in an open letter that its creation in 1992 “was an important symbol of overcoming international apartheid and a demonstration of our openness... Today that openness is turning on us. The circle is closed.”
Piotrovsky came closest to speaking about the war in Ukraine in a statement posted on the website of the US-based Hermitage Museum Foundation, signed “Mikhail Piotrovsky and colleagues”. Evoking the importance of “protecting cultural bridges between the nations”, the statement says: “The world has gone mad, and it will never be the same again. Things that are happening right now are unfathomable, they should never happen…” The US foundation did not respond to requests for further comment.
Meanwhile, the Hermitage’s partner in China, the Hong Kong-based media company Red 19 TV Limited, and the Hermitage Museum Foundation Israel are proceeding with joint projects. The Israeli foundation “was founded to foster cultural relations between Israel and Russia in both good times and bad, regardless of political conflicts”, says its president Amir Kabiri, who is also the publisher of The Art Newspaper Israel. “Therefore, severing ties with our partners at a time of disagreement and uncertainty is counterintuitive to our mission, especially when the State of Israel is making serious efforts towards mediating the conflict.”
Ukrainian cultural figures have condemned the silence of Piotrovsky and other major Russian museum directors over the invasion, as well as the talk of reconciliation while bombs are falling. Piotrovsky declined to comment to The Art Newspaper. In an interview with Forbes Russia published on 10 March, he did not refer to Ukraine or the war, saying only: “It is very easy to destroy cultural ties, but it is much more difficult to restore them than economic and other ones. Because when bridges are destroyed, the dialogue of cultures turns into wars of memory. And we need to maintain dialogue, no matter how difficult political relations are.”
“Cultural bridges should be preserved” was the message reiterated by the Hermitage a week later, when it announced that works by Titian and Picasso will remain on loan to exhibitions in Milan and Rome during the coming months. The museum had previously sought to repatriate the works ahead of schedule by 31 March, following an urgent order by Russia’s culture ministry. Nevertheless, the Hermitage’s Italian foundation, too, has suspended operations in support of the St Petersburg museum.
The drastic deterioration of cultural ties between Russia and the West is unprecedented, suggests Nicolas Iljine, a French and Russian art consultant who has worked on Russian museum projects since the Soviet era, including advising Piotrovksy at the Hermitage. “Even during the Cold War of the 1950s to the end of the 1980s cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and Western countries, such as art exhibitions, concerts, ballet, went on normally,” Iljine says.
He cautions against a blanket boycott of Russian creatives today: “One should not hold the main movers and shakers in this field responsible for the current misguided and ruthless Kremlin-controlled war against Ukraine, which is certainly not supported by the great majority of performing and visual artists [in Russia].”
Piotrovsky, for his part, has indicated that the Hermitage will refocus its energies on projects in the Russian regions and in international locations outside Europe. “The museum has always been global, and remains so,” he wrote in a column published in a St Petersburg newspaper on 30 March, which referred to a “blockade” on the museum’s soft power abroad. “If a problem arises in Europe, we will be more active in other places.” There are plans, he said, to expand the Hermitage’s domestic outposts, which already exist in Kazan, Yekaterinburg and Omsk, to Nalchik and Orenburg. The museum’s regular “Hermitage Days”, events held internationally to celebrate cultural cooperation, will continue in Russia as well as in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and China, Piotrovsky writes.