WASHINGTON — In the movie "Russian Ark," centuries of history are reenacted by a cast of thousands in sumptuous period costumes. Time flows, but the characters, including the Greats, Peter and Catherine, are trapped in the galleries of the State Hermitage Museum. In this eerie fantasy, Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, the museum's director and Russia's cultural ambassador, plays himself.
Piotrovsky's scene is set in the tumultuous 20th century. He wears a black muffler he donned in protest in the 1990s, when the government withheld funding and heat had to be rationed to keep the galleries, with their 3 million artworks and 2,000 employees, from freezing. In the film, Piotrovsky encounters the ghost of his father, Boris, who directed the Hermitage for 26 years. He asks for guidance, but the older man cannot speak.
"The Hermitage is a mirror of Russia," Piotrovsky explained on a recent visit here. As head of Russia's largest television channel, ORT, and Vladimir Putin's deputy on the Presidential Council on Culture, Piotrovsky is Russia's official voice on matters of culture. "All the problems of Russia you can see in the Hermitage. All the developments, you can see in the Hermitage."
Actually, one of the problems is best seen at the National Gallery of Art.
Andrew Mellon founded the National Gallery with 21 of the finest paintings the czars' Hermitage ever possessed. Piotrovsky is doing his best to take them back, one by one, on friendly temporary loan.
Mellon acquired the treasures when the government of Joseph Stalin needed hard currency more than it wanted Old Masters. In all, 2,880 paintings were sent to auction abroad.
Mellon acquired Rembrandts, Van Dycks and Raphaels, a Van Eyck, a Titian, a Rubens, a Botticelli, a Perugino, a Veronese, a Velazquez, two by Hals and a Chardin, for about $6.65 million. (The value of such a collection in today's dollars is almost beyond calculation. London's National Gallery is trying to raise $45 million to keep a single Raphael from sale abroad.) More than 60 years after Mellon, scholars have reattributed a few, leaving only one pure Rembrandt. When not on tour, the paintings hang in second-floor galleries of the West Building.
One afternoon, Piotrovsky took them in at a leisurely pace. He paused before Botticelli's "Adoration of the Magi." He acknowledged Perugino's "Crucifixion," Raphael's dazzling "St. George and the Dragon" and Raphael's luminous "Alba Madonna," a bucolic Virgin in a heavily carved and gilded frame.
"It's terrible," he said and exhaled. "Deaccession is wrong. A museum is a monument in itself, an organism of history."
This is the lesson he is trying to convey in Russia. And the National Gallery is helping.
The early years of the Soviet regime were a curator's nightmare. Officials plundered the collection to provide gifts for foreign officials and sold items as well. Three buyers are named on the Hermitage Web site (www.hermitagemuseum.org): Armand Hammer, the American industrialist; Calouste Gulbenkian, an oilman whose collection is in Lisbon; and Mellon, then secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
In "Russian Art and American Money," historian Robert Williams tells how Mellon set up a charitable trust to which he gave the paintings, deducting their cost from income while keeping the paintings at home. Tax investigators closed the file after Mellon promised to build a public museum in Washington to house his art. Mellon died in 1937; the building was completed in 1941.
The museum is about to publish the first documents on the deaccessions.
Piotrovsky dismissed official justifications, then or now. "They always talk about feeding the starving children," he said. "They buy arms. They don't feed the children."
The Hermitage began as the private collection of Catherine the Great, who in 1764 bought 225 Flemish and Dutch masters intended for Prussia's Frederick the Great, who was too impoverished by war to pay for them. They were hung in the Winter Palace on Palace Square, centerpiece of the museum's cluster of baroque and neoclassical buildings. Almost every czar added to the collection.
Piotrovsky became the museum's first post-Soviet director in 1992. Shortly afterward, he journeyed to Washington and met with National Gallery Director Earl "Rusty" Powell. He pitched the idea of borrowing a Mellon painting for special display "to remind people in Russia that this kind of thing can never happen" again.
Powell agreed to Piotrovsky's appeal as a gesture of "friendship and collegiality." For Powell, relations with the Hermitage are no different from those with London or Paris museums. But he acknowledges the view from the Hermitage is far more complex.
"It's important for them because of the history of the pictures," he said. "That's unique to them."
The 15th century "Annunciation" by Jan van Eyck went first, a one-painting show that lasted 10 weeks in 1997.
Titian's "Venus" followed last year. The Venetian Renaissance masterpiece shows a voluptuous goddess admiring her face in a mirror, while the figure of Cupid tries to place a crown on her golden braids.
Piotrovsky says negotiations over the Venus slowed as relations between governments cooled. But last May, in time for the 150th anniversary of the opening of the New Hermitage building, President Bush toured with Putin, and the National Gallery's Titian was on view.
"It is a great sign of trust between countries," Piotrovsky said, "which may be more important than missiles."