Staunton, April 17 – The Putin regime has moved beyond banning and confiscating books, an increasingly ineffective measure given that most publications now are available online, to destroying archives on which future research can be based, according to scholars at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.
In the words of Aleksey Larionov, a senior specialist on West European art there, this is a truly frightening development, one without precedent in the recent history of Russia. Moreover, it is one that the powers that be may easily extend to other archival collections as well (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/04/15/72169-pugaet-to-chto-unichtozhayutsya-arhivy).
The Russian security services began focusing their attention on the Hermitage after Mikhail Piotrovsky, the museum’s director, spoke out against handing St. Isaac’s back to the Russian Orthodox Church (novayagazeta.ru/news/2017/01/31/128593-fsb-izymaet-dokumenty-v-ermitazhe).
Nominally working under the direction of the ministry of culture, the security services began ransacking the archives of the museum, devoting particular attention to Stalin’s sale of art to the West in the 1920s and 1930s. The officers took catalogues and other archival materials and carried away “in an unknown direction all archival documents on this subject.”
According to Larionov, the special services accused the Hermitage of “illegally publishing documents” containing secret information “over the course of many years” about “the sale by the museum of art in the 1920s and 1930s.” They banned the sale of books scholars there have published and seized them from the Hermitage’s shop.
At the same time, however, the Russian special services seized archival materials, the specialist says. “To stop the sale of the books is not so horrific in the final analysis: they now have certainly appeared in the Internet. [But] it is frightening that they are destroying archives” and thus the possibility for future research.
The Hermitage has already published a nine-volume catalogue of art works the Soviet state sold in the 1920s, a series compiled under the direction of Elena Solomakha, the head of the manuscript and documentation section of the Hermitage. When asked by Novaya gazeta about the seizures of archives, she refused to comment, however.
The museum itself has denied that any archives have been taken or that any ban on their use or on publications based on them has been put in place “officially” (hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/news/news-item/news/2017/news_72_17/?lng=ru). Serafim Romanov of the Moscow paper’s St. Petersburg branch says that is the key word.
“Officially,” nothing has happened; but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred. As Larionov notes, the authorities have stopped selling the books in question and removed citations to them in others being prepared, and documents have been taken away from the Hermitage archives.
As far as the “official” denials, he continues, it is of course possible that “such efforts are about the improvement of the system of document preservation, but if so that is quite unusual, is it not?”