Home Arts What happened to visits to Russian museums since the start of the war?

What happened to visits to Russian museums since the start of the war?

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Nearly a million people are said to have left Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, including those from the country’s cultural and museum capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, many of whom were fleeing ideological repression and military mobilization. European and American visitors, for whom the Hermitage Museum and the Kremlin museums were a must, have almost completely disappeared, and the borders have been practically closed to Russians.

Domestic tourism boomed in Russia, offsetting losses from wartime mobilization

In 2021, Russian museums took four of the top ten places in The arts journalthe list of the most visited museums. The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg came second, with 2.3 million visitors; the Hermitage sixth, with 1.6 million; and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow ninth, with 1.58 million.

A dramatic drop in visitor numbers would not have been surprising given the turmoil – however, domestic tourism has boomed in Russia, offsetting those losses, as has the lifting of Covid restrictions. The overall picture is a gradual return to pre-Covid numbers, similar to museums in other regions.

resounding success

In 2022, Russian art lovers made their way to the Hermitage (2.8 million visitors in 2022, 43% less than in 2019) and the Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow (1 .2 million, 17% less) to see the latest chapters of blockbuster exhibitions featuring the pre-revolutionary Shchukin and Morozov collections of modern masters, which had been loaned to the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The Shchukin collection returned to Russia just before the curtain fell between Russia and the West.

In February 2023, Moscow Deputy Mayor Natalya Sergunina said the number of visitors to city-run museums had risen to 16.7 million in 2022, the highest in three decades, from a low of 7.7 million Covid-19. The Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve, home to a palace built for Catherine the Great, was the main draw, with more than two million visitors, she said.

At the same time, two Moscow museums collapsed The arts journalThe 2022 list. The multimedia art museum, which was third in 2021, closed for renovations in September 2022 (it is expected to reopen by summer 2023). The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, a private museum founded by Dasha Zhukova and billionaire Roman Abramovich, posted a message on its site on February 26, 2022 saying that it “has decided to stop working on all exhibitions until that the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased.” It is illegal in Russia to call the invasion a war and to accuse the Russian army of war crimes.

The Garage Museum continued a public program including research, lectures and films, and its cafe remained open. The statement on the suspension of activities has been moved from the home page of the museum website to another part of the site; it now simply has a statement saying exhibits are “temporarily suspended.”

“The high season had become a real challenge for the curators”

Other Russian museums put a more positive spin on falling visitor numbers. A spokesperson for the Hermitage Museum tells The arts journal that the pre-Covid level of four to five million visitors per year posed problems for the conservation of its historic Winter Palace home and its collection.

“It was a heavy burden both for the ceremonial rooms with their decorative decoration, and for the historical paintings, sensitive to the slightest variations in temperature and humidity”, explains the spokesperson. “The peak vacation and holiday season has become a real challenge for museum curators, protecting the exhibits in the halls, which are literally crowded with tourists.”

Anti-Covid measures such as timed tickets and small groups have been beneficial for the museum as a whole and the loss of foreign tourists has been compensated by Russian visitors “at a level comfortable for the museum and safe for its halls and its exhibits,” the spokesperson adds.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum, was a strong supporter of the Russian invasion © Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images


St. Petersburg was a major stopover for cruise ships, especially during the spring-summer “White Nights” period. Olga Arkhipova, director of the Hermitage’s tourism and special programs department, reported in January that foreign tourists now accounted for just 1% of museum visitors, down from 38% in 2019.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage and a public supporter of the Russian invasion, noted that military conscripts and veterans are now among those eligible for free admission to the museum. In February, veterans of the “special military operation” were able to visit Kremlin museums, according to its website.

The State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia in Moscow recently opened an exhibition on Donbass, one of the Ukrainian territories illegally annexed by Russia. Major Russian art museums have yet to have such overt displays related to the invasion of Ukraine, but many observers say it’s only a matter of time. Such speculation accompanied the appointment of Elena Pronicheva– whose father was a senior FSB official under Vladimir Putin – as the new director of the Tretyakov Gallery in February.

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