The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia (2019) (photograph by Pedro Szekely courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

As Russia’s destruction of Ukraine intensifies, the response of the international arts community ranges from outrage to silence. In a statement on Ukrinform, Ukraine’s national news agency, leading Ukrainian art figures have asked for a cessation of relationships with Russian artists, sponsors, and board members. Slowly the dismissals, divorces, and resignations are trickling in.

But long before the Ukrainian invasion, there were reasons to query foreign partnerships, most of which are utterly uncritical, with Russian state institutions. Russia’s cultural patrimony is among the finest in the world. But President Vladimir Putin is infamous for his suppression of dissent. According to the 2021 State of Artistic Freedom Report by Freemuse, Russia detained 17 artists in 2020, a number exceeded only by Cuba. Artists are regularly fined, detained, and sentenced to prison, usually for political dissent or falling foul of the notorious “gay propaganda” law passed in 2013.

Collaborations are particularly problematic with the State Hermitage Museum. Director of the St. Petersburg institution, Mikhail Piotrovsky, flaunts his bond with Putin. “It’s not that I’m Putin’s person since the early ’90s, Putin has been my person from the early ’90s,” Piotrovsky told The Art Newspaper last year. So intimately does he share Putin’s vision, Piotrovsky actually led the St. Petersburg ticket of United Russia, the political party behind Putin, in last autumn’s elections.

Under Piotrovsky’s leadership, which began in 1992 and which he inherited from his father, the Hermitage has pursued a strategy of global expansion. Today, its outposts encompass Ottawa, New York, Amsterdam, London, Venice, Florence, Tel Aviv, and Beijing. These initiatives are sustained by foundations and “friendship circles” based in the host countries.

Like every grand museum, the Hermitage loans works to partners such as the National Gallery in London who are expecting paintings from them for their Raphael exhibition this spring.

A notably high-profile alliance is between the Hermitage and Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The Hermitage — along with the State Tretyakov Museum and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts — lent the foundation outstanding avant-garde paintings collected by pre-revolutionary Russian collectors Sergei Shchukin, and brothers Mikhail and Ivan Morozov. In return, the foundation funded Russian art restoration projects including the reconstitution of Ivan Morozov’s Music Salon in the Hermitage.

Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris (2018) (photograph by Moktarama courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Morozov collection is currently on display in the foundation’s Bois de Boulogne space. Including precious paintings by Cezanne and Matisse, it has occasioned a sumptuous catalogue. It’s striking that although the foundation is a private enterprise, both Macron and Putin contribute texts to the catalogue. Here, Putin writes eloquently about the power of cultural diplomacy. “Events as significant as these in the field of culture and art, symbolically connecting Russia and France, consolidate the long-standing special relationship between our countries and undoubtedly contribute to the continuing development of bilateral cultural links,” he writes.

Those words reveal why all those linked to Russian state museums — particularly the Hermitage — should consider resigning their posts, closing their shows, and returning or rejecting loans. Culture matters to Putin. That’s why he needs Piotrovsky to be his man and vice versa. 

With such a glittering heritage, Russia’s art is crucial to its claim to greatness. As Piotrovsky expanded his museum’s global network, he boosted the country’s status with every new exhibition and loan. Putin has even used the Hermitage for diplomatic encounters with leaders including Tony Blair and Xi Jinping. Piotrovsky has said: “He knows how to walk around the museum and speak with people when he’s conducting diplomatic negotiations. This is very important. It’s a sign of culture.”

“The Hermitage is the very place where the image of Imperial Russia is celebrated,” writes artist and author Timo Kaabi-Linke to Hyperallergic.

Seminal works of Ukrainian people are labelled as Russian heritage here. Works of other countries, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Armenia are instrumentalised to display the diversified heritage of the former Empire which, as we know by now, functions as an ideological blueprint for contemporary Russian geopolitics.

Little wonder the Ukrainian statement is so vehement. “Russia is effectively a totalitarian state, and too often it uses culture tools picked from its state propaganda website,” states the text on Ukrinform. “The Russian Federation is a rogue state. Russian culture, when used as propaganda, is toxic!”

Sound melodramatic? Last year Piotrovsky admitted he asked Putin whether he could describe the Hermitage’s foreign expansion “as cultural aggression.” Putin’s reply was that he would prefer “cultural offensive.”

Of course, there are excellent reasons to treat culture as a bridge between nations. Art can be a haven for common ground when politics is a battleground. But the bellicose vocabulary used by Piotrovsky and Putin betrays less peaceful intentions.

Will the Hermitage’s foreign partners see the light? The Hermitage Amsterdam have announced their divorce from the St Petersburg mothership. But the general secretary of the Hermitage Italy, Maurizio Cecconi, has actively championed the alliance. Insisting that his work “involves an exchange” only with the museum and not with the government, and that it is financially independent of Russian state money, he claims culture opens a space for “peaceful dialogue.”

As for Piotrovsky, since the Ukrainian invasion, he has written an emotional email now posted on the website of the United States Hermitage Museum Foundation. He says the world “has gone mad. […] Things that are happening right now […] should never happen.” But he never mentions either the war or Putin. Instead, his gesture appears to be a bid to shore up support as he describes their “mission to protect the cultural bridges between nations” and thanks his foreign partners for “their friendly feelings towards the Hermitage.”

Sadly, Piotrovsky’s boss has been instrumentalising art not as a bridge but as a way to whitewash his aggression both at home and abroad. Before the Ukrainian invasion, at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, it was troubling to see Putin’s name entwined with the curatorial narrative of artistic liberation that accompanied paintings suppressed under Stalin, given that Putin has no compunction about jailing his own artists.

The Ukrainians deserve better. Art does too.

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Rachel Spence

Rachel Spence is an arts writer and poet. Her journalism appears regularly in the Financial Times. She has published three volumes of poetry, most recently Call...