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Russian cultural institutions suffer collateral damage from the war in the Balkans

The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, outlines the possible implications for his museum of the NATO campaign

The NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia has inadvertently hit a Russian target. According to one of Russia's most distinguished museum directors, Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the NATO campaign and the Russian opposition to it to weigh heavily on his country's cultural institutions, some of which are already at the breaking point from budget cuts.

"We thought we were getting out of the crisis at the beginning of the year," said Dr Piotrovsky, of Russia's acute economic pains, "but then an additional, very serious, political one came with Yugoslavia."

As the old saying goes, when Europe sneezes, Russian comes down with pneumonia. Dr Piotrovsky predicted that, with the international political crisis and its effect on domestic issues, significant changes will occur in Russia.

On a recent fund-raising visit to New York, Dr Piotrovsky told The Art Newspaper he was being convinced that Russian cultural institutions would suffer: "We are given a small amount of money, and we are always fighting for our budget—and fighting actually to get the money in our budget. It's always been difficult. Now it will be much more difficult, because a lot of money will be allocated to the military."

"It may not last a long time, but the Duma [the parliament] has feelings in this direction. And certainly the military will exploit these feelings, because they want money," Dr Piotrovsky predicted. Even at the best of times, the director has frequently to go to Moscow to lobby Russian politicians for funding for the Hermitage and other museums. He has also spent large amounts of time abroad fund-raising in Europe.

Dr Piotrovsky foresees another problem: an intensification of Europhobic and anti-American nationalism and the severing of cultural ties that have been built up over the past decade. "Certainly the mainstream of public opinion in Russia is for isolation," he warned. "There's a feeling that we do not live in a united world, that we're in a jungle where the strongest win, and that we should not be as open as we have been for the last ten years."

"That could have an economic effect," he added, "since some of the demonstrations against the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia have been carried out under the banner ‘Foreigners, stay home’. These demonstrations have taken place on the Palace Square, right in front of our museum. Our relations with foreign donors, with patrons and sponsors could be affected."

So far, however, these popular tendencies have not affected the Hermitage's expanding international outlook. The museum is preparing to open a branch in Amsterdam, and it will devote galleries to works of art on long-term loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Plans are also underway for a long-term loan project with a Japanese institution.

"This war brings a new and important mission for cultural institutions," Dr Piotrovsky said, "Culture that is the last bridge that connects us; we have to keep this bridge intact. Culture is much more important than wars."

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “Culture is the last bridge that connects us”