My love is 100 years old now

The debate about Russia being closer to the East still rages on, with the West currently losing heavily


When I was a student and wanted to impress a girl, while avoiding excessive spending, I took the young lady to a place where I was king — to the then Moscow Museum of Oriental Cultures.

That was a place to demonstrate my belonging to a rare tribe — a tribe of people able to tell a thing or two about that mysterious East.

It was with a bit of surprise that I’ve learned today that my old love, the museum, has turned 100 years old.

What is now the State Museum of Oriental Art was officially founded on Oct 30, 1918. And ever since, it has been a living proof of Russia’s complicated relations with things Oriental.

The idea of a collection of arts from Japan to Armenia belonged to an Egyptologist of the Imperial era, Dr Vladimir Vikentiev, who wrote a letter to the Communist People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, stating that “the Russian national character is closer to the East, rather than to the West, basically and historically”.

His idea had been accepted, and that’s how the new state began to collect things Oriental from the ravaged nation, getting them into a princely mansion and nationalised by the new regime.

Funny, but that debate about Russia being closer to the East still rages on, with the West currently losing heavily.

Next January, Russia may exit an organisation called the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has been trying in vain to lecture Moscow about the so-called European values to be utilised in Russia’s domestic policies.

And that’s just one example of the West’s eagerness to demonstrate to us that we are aliens and don’t belong — while the East never tried to impose anything on Russia, be it values or anything else.

The whole history of the grand old museum shows us the complicated internal stress lines between all things Eastern and Western in us.

First of all, the original idea of the year 1918 was to collect and preserve mostly Oriental arts of nations that comprised the Union of Soviet Socia- list Republics (USSR), where Russia had only been a part.

Simply speaking, the people managing the museum were demonstrating that we actually were the Orient, considering the fact that the USSR comprised all those Uzbeks and Azeries with their ancient Eastern culture.

That idea was gone with the end of the USSR in 1991, but then there have always been a very different and ethnically Russian idea of the Orient.

To put it plainly, the mysterious East was a kind of a permissible and acceptable alternative to religion at the times when religion as such were frowned at.

I still remember that famous exhibition of oil paintings of the Roerich family that lived in India for decades — not exactly quarrelling with the Communist regime, but keeping a distance from it.

And here they were, these famous oils from the Himalayas, with saintly creatures hovering above the snowy peaks.

The year was 1984, the USSR had only seven years to live, but the best of the best people in Moscow were already deep into the permissible mysteries of India.

Predictably, hordes of ethnically Russian tourists began to invade India in the early 1990s, studying Hinduism in all its aspects.

The result was unexpected — a lot of such people became very Russian Orthodox Christians as a result, with an underlying idea that our religion was somehow connected with the ancient East.

The Ogonyok weekly magazine currently publishes a series of interviews with today’s museum curators.

They themselves cannot say for sure how did it happen that Asia is in vogue in contemporary Russia.

Hundreds of Asian restaurants may be more important in that regard than all our collections may be, they modestly admit.

Then there are Asian museums that gladly exhibit some of their items in the same 100-plus-year-old Moscow mansion.

And, of course, Asia is back to the era when it was the centre of the world, so Russia is not unique in that regard.

Paradoxically, the return of the Asian age makes the Moscow museum…well, small. You can easily see that its Chinese collection represents just a fraction of that nation’s huge cultural heritage, in spite of a respectable Sung Dynasty ceramics section.

And you have to admit that South-East Asia is simply a blank space in that array of articles.

Almost no Cambodia, nothing much of Thailand or Malaysia, not to mention the Philippines. You are still a land of mystery, as far as Russia is concerned.

But then, that used to give me a chance to invite some ladies to my flat (at the times when I was unhappily unmarried still) and show them some artifacts from my own modest collection of South-East Asia memorabilia. Just like I did it in the museum, but with better results sometimes.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories, as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.