Hermitage Opened – It Happened Today, February 5

On February 5 of 1852 Russia’s New Hermitage Museum opened to the public. It was already impressive then, and despite or even because of the Bolshevik Revolution became more impressive still as items from around Russia were added. It remains one of the world’s great museums especially for its art. But its story is not altogether a happy one.

From its beginnings under Catherine the Great in 1754 it has held impressive pieces, a tribute to the power of autocrats and tyrants to extract wealth even from an impoverished populace and spend it on the trappings of culture. Catherine herself acquired literally thousands of old masters, along with engraved gems, drawings and so forth. But her people were starving. And as with the infamous Potemkin villages, such museums in the glittering if slave-labour-built Tsarist capital of St. Petersburg convinced not only foreigners but even its rulers that Russia was indeed keeping up with the West.

Unfortunately it was not. Within three years of the opening of the Hermitage, Russia would lose the Crimean war right in its front yard to Britain and France despite the glaring inadequacies of both their military efforts. And this evidence of insufficient or even failed modernization precipitated a half century of halting reform, inept reaction and upheaval that culminated in the disastrous collapse during World War I into communism during which the Tsars continued to pour out treasure on art and other artefacts.

The Bolsheviks in turn made the museum even more impressive, looting Tsarist and aristocratic palaces and adding their possessions to the now state facility. Stalin later secretly sold thousands of works to help finance his forced industrialization. And then the Soviets added art looted by the Red Army in the closing part of the Second World War, although they kept it hidden until after the fall of the USSR, a dubious contribution to culture. But they never gave it back, which is more than a bit uncultured, and even cancelled a planned 2013 visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel because of the danger that she would mention this subject. Especially ironic in that the exhibit she was meant to visit along with Vladimir Putin had the friendly title "Bronze Age of Europe: Europe Without Borders".

Visiting the Hermitage at any point after 1852 one might have felt that was in an institution very similar to the British Museum right down to the impressive Egyptian antiquities. But it was not, right down to the fact that the British Museum was privately founded and has never been a mere branch of the government. And the impression to the contrary has been part of a far larger misconception about the extent to which forced cultural acquisition, like forced industrialization, is an adequate or even superior alternative to the real, spontaneous thing.