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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hermitage's Splendor to Air in U.S.

LOS ANGELES -- Television producer Daniel Wilson thought he had a great idea 15 years ago, when he first approached Soviet officials about making a documentary of the Hermitage, the cultural jewel of the city then known as Leningrad. "I wanted to look at one of the world's great museums and see how it functioned in a closed society," he recalls.

His request was refused on grounds that film crews and television lights might damage the artworks. But he didn't give up. In 1991, after Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika policy had opened the country to foreign concepts, Wilson tried again. This time he got a favorable response -- to a far more challenging idea.

"What struck me was that I had to tell a story," he says. "It wasn't enough to look at beautiful paintings. The way to provide access to the art was to put it in historical context so that people could better understand the significance of what they were seeing."

The result is "The Hermitage: A Russian Odyssey," a three-part series airing on the American public television channel PBS. With veteran broadcast journalist Rod MacLeish as narrator, the documentary takes viewers on a journey through nearly four centuries of history, from the founding of St. Petersburg by Peter the Great, through the collection passion of Catherine the Great, to the horrors of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The program charts the phenomenal growth and partial dispersal of the Hermitage's European and Oriental art collection amid a pageant of royal aspirations, political upheavals and human suffering. The first segment, "Catherine the Great: A Lust for Art," focuses on an extraordinary ruler who called herself "a glutton for beauty." She amassed more European masterpieces than the Louvre had collected in four centuries and built a museum in a baroque Winter Palace to house her treasures.

"Tyrants and Heroes: The Nineteenth-Century Czars," the second episode, spans the reigns of Alexander I, who repulsed Napoleon's invasion; Nicholas I, who sold off 1,219 paintings from the Hermitage collection; and Alexander II, who added a priceless cache of Sythian gold. "From Czars to Commissars: A Museum Survives," the final hour, tracks the museum through two wars, a revolution that transferred artworks from private hands to state-owned institutions and the emergence of a new, deeply troubled nation.

"It's hard to show all that history and the vastness of the art collection on television because it's a close-up medium," Wilson says. "But I felt it was essential to tell the story and be as informative as possible."

Right up to the minute when Wilson and his team gained entrance to the museum, the project was tenuous. In one of many glitches, the film crew discovered that they couldn't drive to St. Petersburg from their base in Amsterdam because the roads were too rough for their delicate equipment, so they headed for Sweden and took a ferry across the Baltic Sea.

Then, on Aug. 17, 1991, the day before the shoot was to begin, an attempted coup d'?tat against Mikhail Gorbachev threatened to dismantle the government. Upon their arrival at the museum, the crew found 350,000 people gathered on an adjacent public square to hear a calming speech by the city's mayor. There would be no filming that day, but the team got to work 24 hours later.

Then came the challenge of gaining the museum staff's trust. "After the first couple of days, the curators could see that we were taking great care with our work," Wilson says. "Once they saw that we really cared about the collection, there was nothing they wouldn't do for us. The head curator, Vladimir Matveyev, was enormously helpful. He cut through red tape and was very supportive."

The crew worked from noon to the wee hours, Wilson says, recounting vivid memories. "Filming in the Rembrandt galleries was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. But the challenge was to convey the enthusiasm we felt onto the screen so that others could enjoy it."

The Hermitage portrayed on film is a sumptuous palace, packed with superior examples of artworks by no less than Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio and Matisse.

But, as news reports during the last few years have revealed, the ornate buildings are threatened with decay and the artworks suffer from a lack of air conditioning and conservation.