Conservator on conflict with Russian Orthodox Church: "We saved Church art"

Negotiating the restitution of religious art is important, but it should not be at the expense of the institutions protecting Russia's cultural heritage

"One of the clearest signs of how Soviet life has become more democratic over the years of "perestroika" has been the way in which monasteries and places of worship that were closed by the Bolsheviks have been handed back to the Russian Orthodox Church. Acts of this kind invariably have a far-reaching and beneficial effect on our cultural life... In our view, the State should help to ensure that all outstanding religious monuments and works of art are transferred to the Church... If the government were to do this, the world would view it as a demonstration of the new political thinking and a further improvement in relationships between Church and State." This letter was published in the Moscow-based Literary Gazette three years ago. It was signed by many leading Soviet cultural figures, including myself. When I signed it, I anticipated that it would be no more than a general plea for unity between the Church and museum organisations, believing that this would help to preserve Church property and save the country's cultural heritage. Now, however, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and civil servants are assuming ownership of Church properties from museums and centres of restoration. They are demanding that artistically important icons be removed from art galleries and put in cathedrals whose interiors are adorned with irreplaceable twelfth- to seventeenth-century frescoes.

For me, as a believer, there can be no question as to whether or not the Church is entitled to recover its property. But to set about solving the matter by scrapping museums and restoration centres is, to say the least, irrational. If one recalls how few museums there are in our country, it becomes clear that the catastrophe which is now looming affects not just some remote bureaucrats but our culture as a whole. In Moscow, closure now threatens the Museum of Architecture in the Donskoy Monastery, which contains priceless items of Church architectural history; the Historical Museum, which is a branch of the same Museum and now needs an alternative to its present home in the New Monastery of the Holy Virgin (Novodeviche), and the All-Russian (formerly All-Union) Restoration Institute in the New Monastery of Our Saviour (Novospassky), which has to this day maintained its tradition of saving irreplaceable Russian icons from ruin.

Nobody has paused to wonder where these museums will be re-housed or what the cost will be. In Moscow, just as in the provinces, there are no available sites for them. Throughout the Soviet era all kinds of building went on, but not of museums.

So what should we do? Have all these things miraculously survived only to face extinction now? Is that really what believers want? And the priests - what do they want? Or have we been left without pastors sufficiently literate to inform their parishioners that vengeance is not the way of the Church? If the 1920s saw the fate of the Church shaped by mobs led by commissars, does that mean the fate of our culture is again at the mercy of the mob? If churches were initially destroyed in the name of Soviet culture, is our national culture now to be destroyed in the name of the Church? I refuse to acknowledge such a faith.

"Give back what you took!" But were we the ones who took it? Was it the restorers who authorised the closure of centres of worship and the State's expropriation of Church property? I have ravelled the length and breadth of Russian piecing together such fragments of our ancient heritage as the communists failed to destroy! I have spent twenty years restoring icons with my own hands and I am, therefore, entitled to speak out on behalf of this culture which has been preserved. When current Church leaders worship with the President and his entourage, or appear on the balcony of the Patriarch's residence with him - that is not faith. It is merely political posturing.

Some while ago I was given a big file of papers that had accumulated over a single month on the subject of liquidating the Estate-Museum in Sergiev-Posad formerly known as Zagorsk near Moscow. In a letter which the Patriarch wrote in the name of the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, Aleksey II has called the museum "a foreign body inside the monastery", demanding that "in the year when the monastery is celebrating such an historical anniversary, justice should be done by transferring what is currently the Sergiev-Posad Estate-Museum of History and Art from the State back to the Russian Orthodox Church as the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius (Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra)".

Leading Russian scholars and museum workers have written several letters to the President and other members of the government expressing categorical opposition to the Church's policy of trying to drive a wedge between genuine faith and culture. They have risen in defence of museum staff who managed throughout the Bolshevik dictatorship to keep thousands of relics of Church art safe from extinction. "The Museum is a composite organism, and any attempt to break it up will inevitably lead to the total loss of one of Russia's must dearly loved and sacred places, entailing worsening relations between the Church and a large number of the intelligentsia. It would undermine such trust as museum staff may have felt in the new leaders at the Ministry of Culture who were appointed to defend the cultural interests of the entire population, irrespective of transient political considerations, or the clan interests of this or that social group. We all now call for wise and responsible decisions..." This letter is signed by people who have not only stood up for our country's cultural life, but have also been to the gulags and had to sacrifice their loved ones for it.

But collective letters are, quite understandably, treated with caution; of late they have also become only too common. I will therefore quote from some individual letters which were in this file.

"The fate of the Sergiev-Posad Estate-Museum is now in the balance. There is no need to prove the value that this collection holds for our national culture... It is one of the few museums where objects are constantly being attributed, receive proper scientific treatment, and where collections are systematically compiled and recorded... I believe that the State has a duty to defend and preserve the museum as an inalienable part of our country's culture". (Academician B. Rybakov)

"The Sergiev-Posad Museum has won a worldwide reputation, and to destroy it under the pretext of creating a new museum would be a crime against our country's culture. Nobody, not even the President, has the right to take what belongs to the cultural heritage of the entire country and give it away to various social organisations and non-state bodies. This is equally true of Church property. I believe that the State has a duty to defend the property of the country's museums from all external encroachment" (Academician V. Yanin).

It is not for me to advise the Holy Patriarch. But I find it impossible not to recall how well secular and Church museums managed to get on with each other before 1917. Scholars and restorers both took an active part in organising Church museums. A splendid example of this is the Church Archaeological Museum in Novgorod. It was created by leading Russian scholars helped by Archbishop Arseny of Novgorod. He joined the experts in touring Churches and monasteries in order to decide which were the best icons for the museum to have.

I would like to think that the head of the Orthodox Church will soon have the opportunity to discuss this matter with fairminded and independent people who have already spoken their mind on the question of the fate of the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius.

An agreement would also make redundant any more utopian schemes for a Museum of Russian Orthodox Culture. Now is not the right time to plan building a new place of celebration to mark the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia, when all we need to do, quite literally, is to open our eyes to see how the walls and towers of the Novgorod Kremlin are crumbling and Rostov the Great is collapsing.

The writer is the Chairman of the Association of Russian Restorers

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 29 June 1993