Interview with the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, Alexander Avdeyev


The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg is one of the country's most renowned museums. How important is it for Dutch-Russian relations that the museum's first international satellite of this scale will be in Amsterdam? In what ways do you imagine the new center affecting relations between the two countries?

There are presently a number of examples of effective cultural activities between countries. But it is those that help bring to light the historical commonalities of separate peoples and cultures, as well as of human civilization as a whole, that bear special significance. Through mutual understanding, constructive partnerships and dialogue between cultures, these kinds of activities help to ensure the sustained and peaceful evolution of humankind. I believe the Hermitage Amsterdam center to be one of the best examples of such a project.

Today, the Hermitage collaborates with a number of different countries, but the relationship with the Netherlands is a special one for us. After all, the affinity that the Russians and the Dutch have for one another has deep historical roots, having emerged all the way back when Peter the Great visited the Netherlands, and that is a extremely significant. The construction in the Netherlands of a permanent affiliate of the Hermitage is a very important event, and it is certain to facilitate the future strengthening of ties between our governments and peoples.

Our cooperation efforts at present are increasing very rapidly. The Netherlands is among the leaders in trade with Russia among our Western European economic partners. Business people and specialists from the two countries, as well as those in the arts and civil society, collaborate intently; one of the vital elements of these efforts without a doubt will be cultural cooperation.

I would like to emphasize in particular that the creation of the Hermitage Amsterdam complex is not simply an important event in the realm of Dutch-Russian cultural ties — it is an event of significance for all of Europe. It is the creation outside Russia of a large museum complex in which will be exhibited exclusively artwork from the collections of the State Hermitage and other Russian museums. This exhibition complex ought to become not just a kind of "embassy" for the Hermitage in Western Europe but the largest institution in that part of the continent presenting the fruit of Russian culture. I am confident that this will provide a new impulse to strengthen the spiritual foundations of European civilization and advance mutual understanding and cooperation between our peoples.

Cultural ties between Russia and the Netherlands extend back 300 years. How are the two cultures connected today, and what can be done to foster further cooperation in this realm?

Russia has a very long-standing relationship with the Netherlands, but it really actively began to develop when Peter the Great was in power. In opening the "window to Europe," one of the first Western European countries he visited was the Netherlands, in 1697. Today, Russia sees in the Netherlands a dependable partner with whom there is a lot of potential for future cooperation. The cultural dialogue between our nations is progressing very rapidly. In recent years, a number of Dutch cultural groups have come to Russia to perform, including contemporary dance troupes Conny Janssen Danst and Katie Duck and theater group Intro Dance, and days of Dutch culture have been held in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. In the other direction, the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theaters, as well as those from Perm and Kazan, have toured in the Netherlands. There is a constant exchange of exhibitions. You could even say that the Netherlands is currently experiencing a boom of Russian culture, and both countries are undertaking serious efforts to keep this trend going.

It is demonstrative of our close relations that for many years in a row now, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has allocated more funding for the development of cultural cooperation with Russia than for that with any other country. In many spheres of culture and the arts, cooperation efforts take place directly between cultural institutions of the two countries. Nongovernmental organizations also take part in the cultural dialogue — for instance, construction of the Hermitage center in Amsterdam came about as a result of a cooperative effort by both the Dutch Friends of the Hermitage fundraising body and the State Hermitage.

As for the future of our cultural cooperation efforts, two events with a great deal of significance will be the Festival of Russian Culture in the Netherlands and the Festival of Dutch Culture in Russia. I also consider very important the development of our cooperation in the realm of collective cultural heritage. By this I mean our archives, museum collections, architectural monuments, landscape architecture and much more. We must be more active in our efforts to exchange information and results of scientific research in the realms of history and culture of the two countries; in our efforts to exchange our experiences of working to expand access to archived materials; and in advancing the qualifications of our specialists by enhancing their abilities and expertise. After all, cultural exchanges help to support strong, long-standing ties between governments, nongovernmental organizations and people, and to align intergovernmental efforts in other spheres, including the economic sphere.

As a former diplomat, you undoubtedly understand how important international projects are in strengthening ties between countries. What other such international cultural projects are planned for the near future?

First of all, the Hermitage is expanding the geographical boundaries of its international exhibition and educational centers. We hope that in addition to Hermitage Amsterdam, Hermitage London and Hermitage Ferrara there will soon be the Museum of New Art in Vilnius, negotiations over the establishment of which are already under way. The Hermitage system of creating satellite centers has become one of the shining achievements of Russian culture in the international arena, and international society long ago recognized its effectiveness and overall practicality. The Hermitage's example has begun to be followed by the largest museums in the world. In the end, our common goal is to open to people the riches of the world's culture heritage — to  provide the opportunity both to relish already  familiar masterpieces and to become familiar with the creative achievements of contemporary artists.

"The strengthening of the cultural sphere is the task of all civil society."

Following this principle, we will also undertake efforts to expand our cultural offerings, with international art festivals, culture days, cinema weeks and exhibitions. There will be the already traditional events such as Slavic Literature and Culture Day, the Moscow International Film Festival and the Chekhov Theater Festival. I consider it very important to organize international cultural projects by way of designating years of different national cultures. Last year, festivals of Russian culture took place in Bulgaria and India as part of the Year of Russian Culture in those two countries. Currently, we are preparing to receive guests on reciprocal visits as part of the Year of Bulgarian Culture in Russia and the Year of Indian Culture in Russia. This allows us to take an important step in the further strengthening of mutual trust and development of fruitful cooperation.

You recently took a trip to the Netherlands to assist in preparations for the visit of President Medvedev for the Hermitage Amsterdam center's June opening. What else did you accomplish on your trip, and how is work progressing on preparations for the opening?

Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are indeed planning on taking part in the grand opening of phase two of the Hermitage Amsterdam museum in June, and their participation underscores the special significance of this project for our countries. And, of course, we will do everything necessary to make sure that the opening of the Hermitage in Amsterdam becomes not only a wonderful celebration of Russian art but also a celebration of the cultures of our two peoples, a symbol of our future cooperation. Essentially, these were the issues that were discussed over the course of the visit.

There were also talks held with the Minister of Education, Culture and Science of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Ronald Plasterk, regarding the development of bilateral cultural ties. One result of the talks was the signing of a memorandum of understanding regarding cooperation in the realm of collective culture heritage.

As in all realms of activity, cultural institutions are struggling through budget cuts due to the financial crisis. What measures is the government taking to support culture and the arts, and when do you anticipate a renewal of more significant expenditures in the cultural sphere?

Culture was addressed in the government's anti-crisis plan, and the Ministry of Culture will be directing the funds received as a result of the anti-crisis measures toward the support of museums and film studios. We will be assisting those cultural institutions at which there exists the danger of employees being laid off — there will not be a single unemployed person in the cultural sphere in these years. The Ministry is planning on limiting prices for tickets to national museums.

As for future budget expenditures for projects in the cultural sphere, they are directly linked to the prospects of the overall economic situation, and making prognoses in that area is not my line.

The Amstelhof building that will house the new Hermitage Amsterdam is a classic piece of 17th-century architecture that has been wonderfully preserved, as have many such buildings in the Dutch capital. In Moscow, the situation is unfortunately different: old buildings often fall in the path of developers, and the government cannot always rescue them. How do you view this problem, and what is the ministry doing to help fight it?

You have hit upon a very important problem. In the last ten years, more then 2,500 historical and cultural monuments in Russia have been destroyed. The state of half of the monuments currently under state guardianship is unsatisfactory; immediate measures must be taken to save some of them. We will solve the problem — in the 2009 budget, despite the trying economic situation and the financial crisis, more than 4 billion rubles have been allocated for the restoration of historical and cultural monuments. Work is under way on developing a set of necessary departmental regulations and legislation so that work on the upkeep and restoration of monuments will be more effective. Measures are being taken for the recreation of a national school of restoration — it was one of the best in the world, with a strong faculty, but now, unfortunately, their numbers are fewer and fewer. We will re-establish a center for restoration artistry in Russia as well as educational institutions.

As for Moscow, negotiations are being held over the issue of privileges and ownership of monuments. There are federal monuments that the Ministry of Culture is prepared to transfer to the control of the city while keeping them federally owned.

You have served as Minister of Culture for not very long now, and before being appointed to the Cabinet, you did not work in the cultural sphere. Other than financial issues, what other challenges have you faced as Minister thus far, and which ones were the most difficult for you to solve?

Financing is, of course, an important issue. But the function of the Ministry consists not only in the dispensation of money. What's most important is to formulate a systematic approach to the solution of its problems. Culture ought to become a national priority of the country. It is very important that everyone understand that the strengthening of the cultural sphere is the task of all civil society. I see the solution to this problem in particular as strategically important for the development of our culture, for the formation of civil society in Russia and for the establishment of a democratic state governed by the rule of law.

Russia - Holland 2009
Russia - Holland 2009
The Moscow Times is proud to announce published on 29th October 2009 the bilingual colour supplement Russia-Finland. This business publication is devoted to cooperation between the two countries in business and tourism and is published in partnership with the Embassy of Finland and the trade enterprise Visit Finland.
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