Per-Arne Bodin presenting his paper.

Per-Arne Bodin presenting his paper.

Conference reports The idea of Russian cultural heritage

What the symposium emphasized was the processes that led to the emergence of the cultural techniques and institutions as well as the conceptual apparatus to deal in practice with the suddenly highly desired Russian cultural heritage. Another focus was on the reception of the Western tradition by the Russian educated society, which took place in parallel with, and sometimes conceptually intertwined with, the re-opening of the Russian tradition.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:1. Vol. XII. pp 46-48
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 7, 2019

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The symposium “Cultural Technologies and the Transfer of Tradition in the Late Russian Empire” held on November 22–23, 2018 at Södertörn University was the third in a series of international public meetings of scholars organized as part of the project “Transnational Art and Heritage Transfer and the Formation of Value: Objects, Agents, and Institutions”. The first symposium was “Against the Scatter of the World: Rescuing, Keeping, and Moving Things (Stories, Biographies, and Geographies of Collectorship)” in November 2017. The second symposium was “Missing: Legacy, Heritage, Value, Historical Justice”, in May–June 2018, and concerned the property of missing persons and their lost history.

The third symposium, “Cultural Technologies and the Transfer of Tradition in the Late Russian Empire” organized in November 2018, focused on the cultural history of one country — Russia. It investigated the emergence of the idea of Russian cultural heritage and the re-consideration of different types of traditions — Russian icon painting, religious rituals and architecture, European art history, Russian neoclassicism, etc. — which occurred in the time of the Late Russian Empire as a part of the construction of a cultural heritage discourse. The participants took their examples from different visual arts, including icons, architecture, painting, drawing, and theatre. The idea, shared by all participants, was that the preservation of tradition in Russia went hand in hand with its modernization. It was never just a desire to preserve the past in an untouched way, as Catriona Kelly demonstrated with the example of church architecture in her presentation abstract: “The institutional and intellectual history of church preservation offers an interesting case where traditionalism, neo-traditionalism, anti-traditionalism, and even iconoclasm are all intertwined”.

The heritage discourse in the last decades of the Russian Empire went beyond purely conceptual debates and influenced the establishment of cultural institutions and the market for historical cultural objects. The notion of “heritage” became crucial for the marketization of cultural goods, as well as the work of newly opened museums, and helped to develop the cultural network with its own codes and specialized knowledge. The symposium delved into several performative examples from Russian cultural history including the exhibition of Scandinavian and Finnish artists in St. Petersburg in 1897, organized by S. Diaghilev (presented by Ilia Doronchenkov); the Russian part of the Baltic Exhibition 1914 in Malmö (presented by Charlotte Bydler); the Russian ballet “Liturgy”, uniting the work of the choreographer L. Massine and the artist N. Goncharova (presented by Per-Arne Bodin); the Passéist movement and its view on classical architecture in St. Petersburg (presented by Vadim Bass); intelligentsia’s attitude to the heritage of church buildings (presented by Catriona Kelly); the icon painter’s workshops (presented by Wendy Salmond); and the formation of an icon expert community (presented by Irina Shevelenko).

These new cultural institutions and networks did not remain within the limits of the cultural world but challenged the authorities’ and public’s attitudes toward the preservation of Russian cultural heritage. For example, N. Kondakov, whose work was analyzed by Shevelenko, was commissioned to describe the way of life and work in the villages that specialized in icon painting in the traditional style — Palekh, Kholui, and Mstera — and he tried to introduce the reform of this kustar production. This interaction of intelligentsia was not without controversy. As it became clear at the symposium discussions, the measures proposed by Kondakov were predominantly in favor of his own agenda for the preservation of the old craft tradition rather than the improvement of the working conditions of the peasants involved in the icon production. Another example of how intelligentsia tried to influence other spheres of social life is the activity of the artistic group Mir iskusstva, described by Bass, who popularized their taste in different cultural spheres, for example, in architecture, being interested in pre-bourgeois imperial style.

The newly established cultural institutions and technologies were built on the ground of the symbolic value of cultural objects. Cultural heritage objects are involved in market transactions, but also constitute a special niche with its own laws. Art objects are a part of the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods and a part of status-building practice, addressed by the concept of symbolic capital (Bourdieu) where the possession of the valuable cultural object and its price are linked to connoisseurship, the act of performative understanding of the cultural value.

The symposium demonstrated that Russian history is full of examples of value-exchange practices, where cultural objects are put in motion by different institutions and by both professional and amateur circles. The market for Russian antiquities was established in the circumstances of a rapidly growing interest in the Russian past as a reference to an even faster-changing present. This process was not without its own grey zones. For example, according to testimonies of contemporaries the production of fakes was common even before the revolution, for example, when icon restorations were consciously done to suit the popular style of the old Novgorod icons. Later, after the revolution, the market for cultural heritage objects came under full control of the Soviet government as well as already existing institutions, and knowledge about cultural heritage and its preservation was adapted and used for the Soviet ideological and administrative machine.

What the symposium emphasized was the processes that led to the emergence of the cultural techniques and institutions as well as the conceptual apparatus to deal in practice with the suddenly highly desired Russian cultural heritage. Another focus was on the reception of the Western tradition by the Russian educated society, which took place in parallel with, and sometimes conceptually intertwined with, the re-opening of the Russian tradition. Interest in the past was without doubt inspired by Western European intellectual movements such as romanticism, the emergence of medieval studies, and the heritage discourse, which became widely spread after the French Revolution. The Russian tradition, as analyzed in the symposium, demonstrated its fluidity, being just an illusion of permanence. Its continuity and stability were a result of various efforts of its invention and re-invention, interpretation and re-interpretation — an intellectual project developed by many participants in the time of the Late Russian Empire. ≈

References

1   Supported by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies (Östersjöstiftelsen).

2   See “Nostalgia and stories of loss”, in Baltic Worlds, May 2018, vol. XI:I, 80—81.

 

  • by Anna Kharkina

    PhD in history and philosophy. Previously an archivist at the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design (ArkDes); currently involved in the research project “Transnational Art and Heritage Transfer and the Formation of Value: Objects, Agents, and Institutions” at Södertörn University. Anna Kharkina previously worked in various cultural institutions in Russia and as a freelance curator and writer.

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