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Last week, the Hermitage Amsterdam sounded its alarm. As director Anabelle Birnie announced the desperate situation the museum has found itself in, her eyes drifted across the still waters of the Amstel river. Across it lay the center of Amsterdam, normally one of the loudest, busiest places in all of Europe. Now, it was as quiet and empty as a countryside meadow.
The press conference began at 11:55am — a symbolic time, because the Hermitage Amsterdam may be approaching its final hour. After enduring several months of gruelling lockdown policies that kept locals indoors and tourists in their home countries, the museum may remember 2020 and 2021 as the two toughest years of its tumultuous existence, that is, if it manages to outlive them.
The Hermitage Amsterdam didn’t make it this far without sacrifices. As with most organisations hit hard by the pandemic, it was the older, more expensive employees — the ones with the largest families to support and less possibility of switching careers — who were the first to go. After laying off 25% of its full-time staff, including those who had been there since opening day, the museum finally reached the bottom of its reserves last month.
Because the Hermitage is a private institution ineligible for government aid, it is now calling for one million euros in donations by May 1 Whether this ambitious sum can be amassed in time remains to be seen. Whether that will even be enough to survive the pandemic is difficult to say. Given that the Dutch are still not done vaccinating their elderly — a slow process slowed even more by recalls of vaccines by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — the Hermitage Amsterdam may be in for a long, cold winter.
“We really need you now,” state various promotional videos made for the impromptu crowdfunding campaign. Historians stand next to sparkling Fabergé eggs once held by emperors. Teachers talk about how important the museum’s educational programs are for inner city children. Even Mikhail Piotrovsky, the stern and stoic director of the original State Hermitage National Museum in St. Petersburg, participates. “Houd de Hermitage open [Keep the Hermitage open]” he begs, slowly but with respectable pronunciation.
Understandably, Amsterdam’s crowdfunding campaign focuses on its collections to capitalize on the sympathy of art lovers. But while the museum’s cultural importance is widely recognized and celebrated, the Dutch Hermitage also serves another, less obvious, political purpose. Namely, it is an ambassador to Russia, a country which, thanks to its leader, is losing foreign allies faster than it can count and therefore becoming increasingly inaccessible to the outside world.
The Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, meddling in foreign and domestic elections, and imprisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have caused criticism of Vladimir Putin to skyrocket. Unfortunately, condemnation aimed at his person frequently derails and instead ends up hurting the old, complex, multi-ethnic, multicultural society he desires to rule instead — and that’s doing more harm than good.
“Russia’s international image is more negative than positive,” announced a Pew Research report published in 2017. Back then, less than 26% of the world population had confidence in Putin’s capabilities as a leader. At the same time, only 34% held a favorable opinion of Russia as a whole. Attitudes toward the country and its people reached a record low in Europe when the survey was conducted.
Anti-Russian sentiment is as old as the Russian state. It pops up in Eastern European countries where older generations — remembering the Soviet occupation from childhood — struggle to separate Russian identity from imperialist Bolshevism. It endures in North America where, fuelled by Cold War memories, former National Intelligence Director James Clapper professed Russian opposition against democracy was lodged deep in their genetic code. “Russia always equals ‘communism,’ even when that equation makes no sense whatsoever,” Elliot Borenstein, professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, wrote in response to a Lincoln Project ad he believed was unnecessarily xenophobic. “This is not a defense of Putin or his policies [but] a plea to remember the consequences of this sort of demonization.”
That’s where the Hermitage comes in. Piotrovsky and the other Petersburg administrators may have the power to decide which collections are shipped across Europe and which remain locked inside Winter Palace vaults, but once the art arrives in the Netherlands, the Hermitage Amsterdam is more or less free to do as it pleases. The museum works with local artists to organize the layouts and hires homegrown historians to draw up curatorial texts and catalogues.
Much of the work put on display inside the Hermitage Amsterdam tells stories about the country that its modern leadership has actively sought to erase. For instance, one of the last exhibitions to open before the pandemic struck centered on the long-lost jewelry collections of the Romanovs. Pearl necklaces and emerald crowns, once used to signal anything from sexual availability to diplomatic ties, were pawned by the communists to fund their new regime and took ages to reclaim from antique shops and collectors across Europe.
Other exhibitions, such as 1917. Romanovs & Revolution, have made even bolder statements. According to Leiden University history lecturer Henk Kern, this exhibition, organized around the centennial of the October Revolution, presents an “independent story which does not match the script that was distributed by the Kremlin.” Curatorial texts and press releases blamed the fall of the Russian Empire on the incompetence of the Tsar, not the actions of revolutionaries.
To a non-Russian onlooker, this may seem like a small and insignificant detail. But for someone living in a society where history has long been the stuff of politics, it can mean all the difference. Putin is often labelled an “anti-revolutionary conservative.” His regime salutes the loyal Red Army soldiers that crushed Hitler to protect their motherland, but condemns the Marxist revolutionaries that overthrew the monarchy and killed the tsar.
“Unless you’re an expert, it’s difficult to find news about Russia that doesn’t have Putin’s name in the headlines,” Ellen Rutten, professor of Slavonic literature at the University of Amsterdam, told me over WhatsApp. “Our Hermitage is one of the few places in the country catering to a mass audience that does show a different side of Russia, even if some exhibits are a little bit romanticized.”
The Hermitage Amsterdam is the teenage daughter of the ancient State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg: fiercely independent in some ways, woefully dependent in others. As mentioned, not a single artwork leaves Petersburg without approval from Piotrovsky, whose conservative vision marks the parameters his Dutch colleagues are expected to respect but — in their characteristic Dutch way — still try to work around.
While Piotrovsky was elected director of the Petersburg Hermitage before Putin came to power, the fact that he is still around suggests the two are on good terms with one another. Piotrovsky has called Putin “the most cultured leader since Nicholas II.” The president, when honoring Piotrovsky with the Order of Friendship in 2016, thanked him for the “preservation of our rich historical, cultural, and spiritual heritage.”
Considering Piotrovsky was one of 75 people who helped Putin rewrite the Russian constitution so he could stay in power until 2036, that last comment should not be taken lightly. Add that to the fact that the Petersburg Hermitage is planning to set up satellites in Omsk, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok, and one could argue that the Hermitage will have the infrastructure necessary to promote state-sanctioned historical narratives throughout Russia.
Others applaud Saint Petersburg for bringing artwork from the big cities to some of the more remote areas of the country, not to mention across the border to satellites in Amsterdam, London and Italy. A former Russian-Arabic interpreter, Piotrovsky also maintains close ties with museums in Oman and Mumbai, and recently traveled to Dallas, Texas in hopes of ending a decade-long pause in object visa exchanges with the United States
“A museum is a dialogue of cultures that replaces the wars of memories,” Piotrovsky said during an interview with Sotheby’s, referencing the ongoing Russo-Ukranian war. Its duty, he professes, is to “show all sides of history.” When asked about the Petersburg Hermitage in particular, the director said it “belongs not only to Russia, but to the entire world.”
Regardless of whether you believe or agree with Piotrovsky’s statements, there can be no denying that the Hermitage Amsterdam offers something which is becoming more and more difficult to find: a side of Russia that escapes Putin’s shadow. Exhibitions that delve deeper into the life and times of tsars, tsarinas, writers, painters, tailors, jewelers, and revolutionaries reveal a country and people that should not be hated for its vices, but admired for its accomplishments and beauty.
If the financially independent museum will be forced to close its doors, a valuable gateway between two different worlds will be irretrievably lost. It would not only be a tremendous loss for the art scene of Amsterdam, but for Europe as a whole. Without some kind of neutral terrain like the Hermitage Amsterdam, exchange between East and West risks grinding to a halt. Anti-Russian sentiment could then spread like a virus, making it harder for countries to navigate both a present in which Putin is in charge and a future in which he won’t be.
The Hermitage Amsterdam has yet to disclose whether the one million euros was collected. Mere days after the museum began its crowdfunding campaign, the Dutch government — in honor of Museum Week — announced it would relax COVID restrictions to give the culture industry some room to breathe. Nearly 40,000 tickets were handed out to institutions, to be sold to any visitor who passed a rapid COVID-19 test. Compared to pre-pandemic sales, this is little more than a breadcrumb fed to a starving man. Still, it is better than nothing.