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Warning: Adult Discontent!

April 14, 2021

The Hermitage Targeted for Perverting the Young

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg is one of the truly great museums in the world. The old imperial palace, a masterpiece in itself by the Italian Barocco architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, houses a collection of art ranging from pre-historic carvings to the French impressionists.

Whether the visitor looks for antique sculptures, voluptuous Flemish paintings or expressive and monumental artwork of Matisse – the Hermitage got it. Add some epochal happenings from European history, and it is understandable how the Hermitage can be a major object for visitors from all over the world and of all ages. Go there!

But not all are happy with the Hermitage. Some visitors have expressed shock about being exposed to unsolicited nudity. Scantily clad ladies. Mammalian protuberances! Filth! Manifestations of abnormal values, strange to the sound Russian society.

The head of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, complained recently in a comment to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti:

Many complain and some are very aggressive. But there are important suggestions and demands that we will have to consider for the future. I used to laugh when someone said, “take away all your nude sculptures and put them in one room with a sign ‘adults only’ to avoid perverting our children”. But now it is a formal complaint from an official authority and we will have to answer.

Piotrovsky explained that St. Petersburg City authorities informed the Hermitage about citizens contacting the authorities with formal complains on displays of public nudity at the museum.

Protect the Children!

The legal background here is a Russian law of 2010, “On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development”. Full text of the law (in Russian) here. Article 2:11 of the law defines the dirty stuff:

A naturalistic depicting or description in any shape or form of any particular parts of a human and/or animal body, action/lack of action, event, appearance and their consequences with attention to detail, anatomic features and/or physiological processes.

Article 2:3 defines public display of said anatomical features and/or physiological processes:

Public display constitutes a demonstration of content at a venue available for children and with a significant number of people present, not belonging to the usual family circles. This includes stage performances, events of cultural, educational, and entertainment character.

The EUvsDisinfo database contains hundreds of cases suggesting Russian moral superiority. The West is depicted as a place of moral decay, perversion and immorality.

Most EU Member States have restrictions on public display of pornography. There are strong issues with sexualising the public sphere, establishing twisted perceptions on women’s bodies and on sexuality. Pornography can be perceived as a type of violence. But this aspect is not a part of the Russian legislation: Russia is virtually covered in sexualised imagery in advertisement. Russian journalist Anastasia Krasilnikova collects the worst examples at her Telegram channel. Most physiological processes and anatomic features are no scarcity in the Russian public space.

Sushi, books, building materials and burgers – sex sells in Russia too.

The aim of the Russian legislation is not about addressing the issue with a sexualised public sphere or diminishing women.

The Russian legislation targets the cultural sector and allows the authorities to crack down on art galleries, journals, theatres, exhibitions, suspected to convey messages that challenge the Kremlin’s message of Russia as a moral superpower.

Sex Sells!

Pornography is not forbidden in Russia, but must be made unavailable for children under 18. The legislation, article 1:4, excludes advertising from the restrictions. Lawmakers have decided that strong sexual innuendo does not harm children if it is used for selling books or sushi or construction material. A painting of Rubens at the Hermitage, on the other hand, might.

Rubens, Rodin and Rembrandt – X-rated art?

It is unlikely that Mikhail Piotrovsky will have to re-organise the Hermitage and hide Matisse and Rembrandt in a guarded area to save Russia’s children. The head or the Hermitage comments the whole story:

I am sad and disappointed that the thing that attracted the attention at my press conference, where I demonstrated a whole program for the development of the post-COVID Hermitage, was this plain and old story about nude paintings and sculptures. This is an old trope in any museum’s life and has always been an amusing joke.

All this, the letter and the reactions to it is a symptom, it is a symptom that something is wrong with the health of our society.

Disinformation, not art, perverts the public discourse.