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Big Politics in Moscow
by Andrey Kovalev

Russian president Vladimir Putin likes to give tours of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to visiting dignitaries -- recent guests have included the king of Jordan, the president of Iceland and the president of Croatia. So, on May 25 during the recent U.S.-Russia summit, Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, took George W. and Laura Bush to the museum, in a party led by Hermitage director Mikhail B. Piotrovsky.

By all accounts, the group spent only about an hour at the Hermitage. The brevity of the trip was wryly noted by local commentators, as the Hermitage is huge and it takes at least 15 minutes to cover the distance between the entrance and the nearest painting. Thus, observers calculated, the Bushes spent less than 30 minutes with the masterpieces of the Hermitage.

Nevertheless, George W. clearly saw at least two paintings and had a chance to demonstrate his IQ. When the portrait of Catherine the Great was shown to him, he asked cunningly, "And where is Potemkin?" The official account of the visit -- on the Hermitage website -- suggests that Bush was making a learned reference to "the most famous of the empress's numerous lovers."

But the query seems more likely to be a political jibe, as Count Grigori Potemkin is notorious for building bogus villages with painted facades to give a benevolent face to Catherine during her tours of newly acquired lands in the south of Russia -- an idiom that would later be applied to U.S.S.R. propaganda during the Cold War. In any case, this anecdote looks like a mutual product of speechwriters of both Presidents -- Putin actually told the story in public during a meeting later that day of the two Presidents with a large group of students at St. Petersburg University.

Putin is proud of his roots in the intellectual university milieu of St. Petersburg, which in Russia is renowned as a city of rich cultural traditions. Thus the president distinguishes himself from the more churlish Yeltsin, who was a construction engineer by profession.

As for the second painting Bush was shown at the Hermitage, he could have seen it in the U.S. just as well. The work in question is Titian's Nude before the Mirror, which is currently on loan to the Hermitage from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as part of an intra-museum collaboration. The situation derives a bit of added piquancy from the fact that this painting used to belong to the Hermitage -- until it was sold by Stalin to raise funds during the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the touring presidents and their wives seem not to have made it to view the primary conversation piece of the season for art-smart Muscovites -- the famous fourth Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. This historic work was formerly in the possession of Incombank, one of the new post-Communist businesses that went bankrupt during the financial crisis of 1998.

After being declared "an especially valuable movable monument," the painting was taken off the auction block, where the rest of the Incombank collection was sold by Gelos, a Moscow auctioneer, on Sept. 13, 2001. In the end, it was bought by the state for $1,000,000, a sum provided by Vladimir Potanin, a well-known oligarch. On May 24, just in time for Mr. Bush's visit, the work was hung in the halls of the Hermitage, not far from where Composition #6 by Kandinsky, The Dance by Matisse and Three Graces by Picasso are on display.

Potanin, the millionaire owner of Norilsky Nickel Co. (who happens to be extremely interested in raising the ban on imports Russian steel to the U.S.), was installed as a Guggenheim Museum trustee two months ago, supposedly after having donated another $1,000,000 to that institution. Potanin has also announced that he is willing to take part in the reconstruction of a building on Palace Square to house the museum of 20th-century art, a scheme hatched by the two most energetic museum directors of the world, Piotrovsky and Guggenheim chief Thomas Krens.

So, perhaps missing the Malevich wasn't that much of a loss for Mr. Bush -- he will probably be able to see it at Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue, eventually, should he care to appear in that alarmingly modernist structure.

ANDREY KOVALEV is a Moscow art critic, whose commentaries in English can be found here.