On June 22, 2022, the Russian official news outlet “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” published the original interview in Russian and in English with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
In a series of outrageous statements, he has appeared as an outspoken supporter of the unjustified Russian war against Ukraine, resulting in tens of thousands of victims. For this museum director, Inter armae, tacent musae is nonsense: “When cannons are speaking, muses cannot keep silent. On the contrary, they must speak out loud.”
Using a deliberately militaristic lexicon, Piotrovsky treats culture as a weapon. “Our cultural export is more important than cultural import… And our latest exhibitions abroad are just a powerful cultural offensive. A kind of “special operation” if you wish.” In this reading, Russia’s cultural presence abroad is conceived as an instrument for cultural domination. Thus, the main result of two major Russian and European art exhibitions in Paris is interpreted solely as the “Russian flag flying over Bois de Boulogne.”
Piotrovsky is not only the director of a major state-sponsored cultural institution emblematic of Russia’s cultural representation worldwide. He is also a friend of Putin, whose goodwill he has been enjoying during his thirty years in the office, becoming part and parcel of all corrupt practices of the Russian regime. The famiglia of Piotrovsky had controlled the Hermitage since 1964, when Mikhail’s father got into office. There is also abundant evidence of Piotrovsky’s misuse of his position, with numerous allegations about selling the Hermitage’s artifacts since the 1990s and the abuse of procurement procedures for personal enrichment.
Piotrovsky’s interview brings us back to the difficulties in decoupling and distilling ‘pure’ Russian culture from Russian politics, state, or society. As of now, such attempts are doomed to fail. Most holders of Russian cultural goods in Russia, be it the State Hermitage Museum, Tretyakov Gallery, or Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, are state-affiliated bodies that either receive direct funding from federal or regional budgets or enjoy the support and goodwill of powerful politicians and oligarchs.
Piotrovsky claims that Russia is part and parcel of European culture thanks to its “imperialist tradition.” He ignores a growing de-colonial narrative prevalent among Europe’s major cultural institutions. He shamelessly endorses Russia’s land grabs in Ukraine, to which he refers as “Russia’s South.” Recent months of the Russian occupation resulted in the ransacking of Ukraine’s many architectural sites and monuments, pillage of museums, and theft of artifacts. Presumably, it is something Piotrovsky gleefully endorses, not condemns. These are the methods Russian Empire and its subsequent iteration applied throughout centuries, and this is how part of the Hermitage collection was amassed.
International cultural relations in the liberal democratic world exist to promote peace and mutual understanding among nations and communities. Unfortunately, Piotrovsky’s despicable statements confirm once again that the Russian state, cultural institutions and practitioners, and Russian cultural relations policies serve the opposite purpose: to weaponize culture to cover and justify war, xenophobia, imperialism, and propaganda.
The Ukrainian Institute calls on all partner institutions to immediately suspend any cooperation with cultural entities directly or indirectly affiliated with the Russian state. If continued, such cooperation would legitimize the corrupt Russian neo-patrimonialism and misuse of cultural relations and endorse Russian cultural managers’ imperial views and ambitions. Cooperating with Russian cultural institutions today equals supporting the Russian imperial agenda that continues to kill Ukrainian civilians, destroy peaceful Ukrainian cities and cause a global food security crisis that may lead to hunger and political instability worldwide.