Books: Art for the people's sake

THE HERMITAGE: The Biography of a Great Museum by Geraldine Norman, Cape pounds 20
Alarge museum is both a collection of objects and the premises which contain them. Perhaps not for long, though: one can already visit the world's great art on the Internet and dispense with the discomforts of actual tourism. The loss in the case of the Hermitage will be greater than most, because the collections are contained in what is arguably the chief exhibit and, as Geraldine Norman shows, you cannot dissociate one from the other. Her book is not a guide to the exhibits or a history of the buildings, but the story of how a palace became an art gallery; of how the number of treasures expanded or diminished; and of the people who have at various times been in charge of the goods. As for the art, you will have to look for that on the Net or in Petersburg itself.

The Hermitage, properly speaking, was built as a museum by Catherine the Great: it started as an annexe to the imperial Winter Palace, which stands on the banks of the Neva, more or less opposite the Peter and Paul Fortress. The whole complex is more impressive from this side and less so if you approach it (as you are more likely to) down Nevsky Prospect into Palace Square, a space so huge that the Marquis de Custine, seeing it in 1839, felt it made the Winter Palace look "like a palisade" and the Alexander Column at its far end "like a gatepost" (it is 143 ft high). Tourists may feel he was exaggerating, until they get their photos back from the chemists'. Only when you get inside and start to contemplate some of the 2,800,000 exhibits in their 400 rooms, can you appreciate the size of the place; and the whole Hermitage concept - its priceless works of art, its baroque ornamentation, the splendours and miseries of its history - begins to feel like another nightmare of the city of Gogol and Dostoevsky.

Catherine soon found that her "Small Hermitage" was not large enough to house a growing collection and in 1770 commissioned an extension (now known as the "Old Hermitage"). This was further expanded, after the Winter Palace had been rebuilt following the fire of 1837, by the addition of the "New Hermitage". Then, after the Revolution, the palace ceased to be a royal residence (naturally), the museum had another burst of growth because of the confiscation of private collections and the whole complex became simultaneously Winter Palace and Hermitage - the choice of name depends on whether one is referring primarily to the historic building or to the museum.

"A dead mausoleum where dead works are worshipped," the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky called it, demanding its conversion into a macaroni factory. The experimental art that flourished briefly in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution was no friend of the past and the Futurists did their best to disguise Palace Square by hanging banners around it. But the Soviet authorities opted against a wholesale cultural revolution and decided that a truly Socialist attitude meant making pre-revolutionary art available to everyone (provided the people were educated to understand it in the correct way). They sold off parts of the collections for foreign currency and divided up the remainder, sending a large part to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow; a further division of spoils was to take place after World War II. They also added to the people's wealth by acquiring the superb hoard of Impressionist and modern paintings belonging to the Shchukin and Morozov families - then preferred not to exhibit them, for fear of corrupting the people's taste. But, on balance, the work of the Hermitage prospered in Soviet times.

There is a short story by Venyamin Kaverin which shows how a Socialist view of the arts changed in the 20 years after Mayakovsky's plans for macaronification: it describes how a platoon of ordinary soldiers risk their lives during World War II to save a painting by Titian, even though most of them have only a sketchy idea of the artist and the (monetary) value of his work. The story could be based on fact; it certainly reads better than the well-attested accounts of how delegates to the 1918 Congress of Peasants, housed in the Winter Palace, used the Sevres vases as chamber pots. Generally, though, the authorities did not have to fabricate the Russian reverence for the arts. In late 1941, at the worst moment of the blockade, when rations were at a minimum and no new supplies could get through, Iosif Orbeli, director of the Museum from 1934 to 1951, decided to proceed with a two-day event to commemorate the fifth centenary of the birth of the poet Nizamadin Navoi, which involved speeches, an exhibition and readings from Navoi's works. One reader, Nikolai Lebedev, was already too weak to stand; he completed his reading, but died a few days later, allegedly still muttering lines from Navoi's poetry. Only Leningrad, among the cities that had planned to mark the anniversary, put honouring an Uzbek poet above the struggle for survival.

A great museum is, after all, principally dedicated to scholarship, which at its best involves much dedication and expects few rewards - an attitude that the Soviet Union was quite happy to encourage among its citizens. Archaeology fared especially well: the Hermitage, like the Louvre, is not only a picture gallery, but a museum of antiquities and applied arts. Norman's book does include an appendix with biographies of more than 40 members of staff persecuted during the Stalinist purges, a few of whom survived; and one leading curator in the 1930s, Nikolai Marr, gave his name to the heresy baptised "Marrism" which Stalin denounced in an article for Pravda in 1950, where to everyone's surprise the First Secretary revealed his astonishing expertise in the field of linguistics. But, on the whole, the Hermitage and its scholars were allowed to get on with their work.

The museum's biography is not easy to write, because of an excess of material, rather than the opposite: the problem, as Geraldine Norman soon discovers, is juggling the different narrative strands, without letting one run ahead of the others: the state of the buildings and that of the collection, the biographies of the curators and the changing political situation. The volume is handsomely produced, with four well-chosen sets of illustrations; but the text, often fascinating, does tend to repeat itself as the writer switches from one topic to another and some passages are quite dull: this is a feat when one is writing about such an institution in a country that has endured some of the most lurid tyrannies and catastrophes in European history. Worse still, the text has been appallingly copy- edited: a tsar usually referred to as "Paul I" suddenly becomes "Pavel"; Manet's first name is retransliterated as "Eduard"; the curator Tatyana Chernavina is called this in the appendix but "Tchernavin" everywhere else; books are cited in the text, but not in the bibliography; the plural of "roof" twice appears as "rooves"; and so on.

It would be a good idea to read this on one's way to St Petersburg - it might help to take your mind off Aeroflot's alleged bad accident record, for example; but it is sad to have to recommend as airport literature what could, with a little extra care, have been an impressive and worthy work of scholarship.