This exclamation, roughly translatable from Russian as “wreckage” or “total disaster,” has been jumping to mind a lot lately. This morning is no exception; the director of the Hermitage Museum and I head to meet the members of our international advisory board, and he dishes out the latest news of disintegrating government and economy.
The annual meeting of the advisory board is, by such standards, a triumph of organization. Today is the first day, a social day, a marathon workday in disguise. The board members are seven directors of world museums and (mostly) heroes of their profession. This year we hope their expertise will help improve our plans for a new wing (in the face of impending economic oblivion).
10 a.m. Our minibus arrives at Peterhof, a palace outside St. Petersburg. We don rather dapper felt overshoes, and a beaming curator shows us one of the homes that 19th century czars favored as a family retreat.
Our guests take in different things–some continually educating their curatorial “eye,” others more interested in how visitors circulate. All are curious about recent developments with our new building. Neil MacGregor of London’s National Gallery, the man who gave me my first job, asks whether a proposal to add a hotel is viable. The whole day continues like this–an amalgam of conversations about 18th century taste, inside museum jokes in three languages, and scattered politicking for tomorrow. Through it all I think about how the palace relates to our exhibition on Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, which is currently in the United States. It seems impossible that these families could have created any semblance of personal or family life beneath the pressures of power.
2:30 p.m. At the Peter and Paul Fortress, where Nicholas II and his family were buried on July 17 of this year.
Dr. Vilinbakhov, the Hermitage’s deputy director, and also Russia’s chief herald, is visibly moved at the tomb. A deeply conservative and gracious man, he had been in the midst of the funeral’s planning, pushing for appropriate ceremony vs. “neon rock circus proposals” emanating from Moscow. He describes being in the back of the cargo plane with the coffins as they were flown to St. Petersburg, and details arrangements for the guards, processions, and music. Someone with an intensely formal, historical, proscribed idea of protocol–who feels that such matters are still of the utmost significance to national culture.
On the funeral day itself, staff members of the Hermitage watched from the czar’s balcony in the Winter Palace as the czar’s cortege passed. The curators seemed divided between those who took the event very seriously, wearing black, and those who ostentatiously worked on and pretended not to notice. Thinking it not too likely I would see another imperial funeral from the imperial residence, I chose to watch. Though meant to be a turning moment in Russia’s struggle to allow its different histories to coexist, the funeral already seems lost and unimportant in light of recent events.
6:30 p.m. After visiting more exhibitions, we adjourn to a boat on the river Neva for dinner. The white nights of summer are over, but the day lingers long enough for a moment of pure theater–Vilinbakhov exercises his temporal authority and switches on the floodlights on the Hermitage’s long façade as we chug by. The board lapses from serious discussion into a series of toasts to the director, the museum, and the city, still unsullied by modern construction in its center.
11 p.m. I am dropped off at home but pop by to meet the new wing’s architectural manager, Chris Seddon, who has just arrived on a plane from London. We discuss strategy for tomorrow morning, when we are to lay out the museum’s plans for a joint cultural and commercial complex to the board. I go home and go online to check if we have a new president, a new prime minister, price or currency controls, and then go to bed.