Katia Dianina Abstract

The Ruin and Restoration of the Russian Art Empire

Katia Dianina
University of Virginia, Charlottesville

There is a sad tradition in modern Russian culture to selectively discard relics of preceding historical periods. The 20th century witnessed both the radical purging of ideologically incorrect art—be it Faberge, or icons, or non-conformism—and its subsequent reinstatement to the national canon. Such drastic revisions in the treatment of the national heritage have interrupted the continuous history of art collections in Russia and problematized the nominal role of museums as guardians of culture. The predicament of the Russian museum world today consists in adequately addressing the dispersal of the Russian art empire that took place during the Soviet period and reclaiming art lost to momentous fluctuations in history.

By the end of the 19th century, Russia had built a major art empire, with notable collections of both European and national art, a wide network of museums in the capital cities and on the periphery, modern institutions, professional publications, and international acclaim. The Soviet era, by contrast, was defined by the catastrophic dissipation of imperial art collections. The nationalization of art and church property after the October revolution of 1917, the outflow of artworks and artistic talent due to emigration, and the mass destruction of museums and architectural monuments during World War II are among well-known historical events of the period. No less important are recently revealed tragic episodes in Soviet cultural history, including the secret sale of masterpieces from the Hermitage and the systematic squandering of Russian sacred art.

Loss, however, is rarely the focus of Russian narratives about Soviet collections. What I’m interested in the most is the fundamental disconnect between the factual dispersal and rhetorical augmentation of the Soviet art empire. Between the secret sales of Western European art and the overt dismissal of Russian Orthodox and nonconformist traditions—the amount of art that had left the country during the Soviet experiment is substantial. The story of the Soviet museum world, however, has largely been the one of glory: of preservation, restoration, and systematic growth of art collections. Although clearly driven by ideology, there’s more to this celebratory narrative of cultural superiority than censorship alone. Indeed, strategic silencing played a major role. It was also the perpetual state of flux—the sudden “discoveries” of lost traditions, the return of the previously outlawed art—that, rather than undermining the Soviet art empire, surprisingly translated into a celebration of new beginnings. Thus the perceived reputation that the Russian museum world has attained: that of a very dynamic place where revolutionary art events—factual or discursive—always take place.

To take one example, consider the shifting fate of religious artefacts and architectural monuments between 1917 and the post-Soviet era. In the course of the past century, churches and monasteries have undergone radical transformation: from houses of prayer, to either state museums or total elimination, and back to religious sites after the Soviet collapse. Following the loss of countless icons due to sales, destruction, and neglect, the icon has recently returned as no less than a national symbol, to which both state pageantry and a recently opened private museum in the heart of Moscow offer fair testimony. In the context of renewed support for the Russian Orthodox church, private enterprise, and historically rooted cultural nationalism, the return of religious artefacts to public culture in post-Soviet period is greeted with no less enthusiasm than their earlier repression.

Obviously, such extreme fluctuations in meaning reflect and precipitate fundamental transformations in society at large; no less important is the state of public discourse surrounding works of art (its absence or, by contrast, recent explosion). For objects themselves do not change: their disappearance from and return to the public sphere are framed by sundry narratives which emphasize now the revival of old traditions, now the new beginnings, now state politics, now the Orthodox faith. In this scenario, writing about art becomes a major event on par with exhibitions and museums, as the case was with the western coverage of the suppressed 1974 “Bulldozer Exhibition” in Moscow or the publication of Akinsha and Kozlov’s Beautiful Loot, which in 1995 exposed the “Trophy Art” controversy for the first time. The shift of focus between restoration and sales, preservation and loot—depending on who is writing and when—not only creates alternative histories, but questions the permanent status of the material artefacts themselves.