The Place-Museum and the Problem of Culture in Russian Ark

by Anton M. Kolev Volume 25, Issue 4 / April 2021 14 minutes (3326 words)

“Consider the darkness and the great cold
In this vale which resounds with mystery.” – Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera

The first thing that comes into inevitable conflict with our habits as audience when we first encounter Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) is the whim of its visual perspective. Along the entire 99-minute length, we witness – literally! – just a single take. This is the reason some Western critics, accustomed to constant shifts in visual perspective, pronounced Russian Ark purely an exercise in style. Other painfully familiar prejudices against Russian artists surfaced. Many accused Sokurov of nationalism, bourgeois philistinism, immodest nostalgia about the days of Russian imperialism, and so on. Support for these accusations may indeed be found in the movie. However, they make it difficult to identify the real problem posed not only in the narrative, as well as in the technical approach itself, but also in the general historical situation in which it was produced. The context from which the movie arises is far more complex and nuanced. In other words, it is far from being limited exclusively to the Kremlin’s political ambitions, and has more to do with the local problems that Russians face.

Sokurov’s theme is obvious to an open-minded viewer, and it is, in fact, a theme-problem or, if you wish, a philosophical problem – culture itself. Understood in a narrow sense, as a carrier or an artifact, and even more as a means of transmitting and re-transmitting values and meanings through the mediation of its inherent objectivity, culture becomes problematic mainly when its continuity has been ignored. And this, let us call it neglect, has many different manifestations. The demonization of the humanities in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989, through their representation mainly as an ideological tool, is one of them. This was a consequence of the furious invasion of conspicuous consumption within a previously unaffected sphere – a questioning of culture and the cultural as such, as well as of both the author and authority. Attempts at a deep interpretation of the past’s heritage beyond the simplified accessibility of its thereness is barely important now; the market needs the cultural to be consumed, immediately, just like any other goods or services. Works of art, as this heritage’s embodiment, have largely turned into beautiful objects. One might argue that the problem with art in general, and especially with these “high” or “noble” arts that the movie is concerned with, is that it is for the materially satisfied. Hegel, contrary to the scripture, wrote: “Seek food and clothing first, and the Kingdom of God will come to you of itself.” We should never let ourselves be deceived by those elitists who insist that art can flourish everywhere. Where only misery and necessity persist, it certainly cannot. Only apathy sprouts in such a substratum.

Moreover, it is important to note that in some ways apathy towards art is similar to apathy towards the Other. If we cease looking for the work of art, we simultaneously stop looking for the artist, who is always the Other. Art is a gift that is given to the Other by those who do not have it, but are ready to pro-duce it (from the Latin prō- “forth, forward” + dūcō “to lead, bring out”), almost as if ex nihilo (“out of nothing”). To lead others forward with products of your own making means to create yourself, to lead-forward the very history in which you participate. The problem of culture, especially as posed within Sokurov’s film, is the problem of historicity. The work of art is, by definition, always for the Other. Those emotions that it wakes and to which art can lead us – the fiery trembling and reflexive ecstasy – are an inverted, hidden bond. They come and lead to a deeper understanding of our relationships to ourselves and to the Other, but also to the world which, in the last analysis, remains the scene of our mutual dependence. Aesthetic experience is not just some “conscious deception”, as Konrad Lange insists. It is not a “swinging between the illusion that we are dealing with a particular reality, as well as the consciousness that we possess an illusion,” as Atanas Iliev summarizes Lange’s argument. However, this simple, one-sided subjectivism is remarkably persistent through the history of ideas. The encounter with the work of art resembles more of a pendulum, swinging between the I and the Other, between the opportunities of exchange and the empathizing with the common, inter-subjective space of collective becoming. It is precisely this space that unfolds in art as a special reality within the Real – as an oasis of eternity in the desert of time.

The same thing happens when our perception is influenced by opinions like those criticizing Sokurov’s film. Our biases toward a work of art, whatever their source, might be easily recognized by anyone with a well-developed habit of thoughtful engagement. The point is to learn how to restrain those shallow and glib external influences. Each work can reveal itself fully only to those who dare to face it as it is, within its historical context and individual problematics; deeply meaningful or painfully trivial, the piece must always be lifted up through the process of self-demonstration. Only through this means can its inner dynamism and external exchange be revealed, in this way constituting the very collectivity of art and communication. By saying this, I am not suggesting the work of art is apolitical either by definition or by consideration. Precisely the opposite is true. However, we are obligated to allow its political dimensions to unfold by itself, in and through its artistic becoming. The apriori framing of the political endangers our ability to thoroughly empathize with what generates those dimensions and therefore conceals the specific external structures to which they relate. Our ability to exist for each other is manifested precisely through the shared ability to achieve the common, subjective exchange concerned with the connectedness of things and ideas.

And the main direction in the movie problematizes exactly this sort of issue, generalized within the trope of culture’s place in the life of modern man. The walk through the Hermitage is presented as a movement back and forth within a separate, almost atemporal space – the museum as the place of culture. Its separateness is in an inevitable affinity with the flow of characters in it. On the one hand, the culture’s place (the museum), allows a walk in a time range of about three hundred years, full of multi-faceted historical events, and on the other, this very same walk allows the meanings, laid down in the same range and space, to become realized. Thus there is a line of (trans-historical) memory, falling into the moving vector of historicity, always experienced as a curve, of what is passing – the present-available becomes indistinguishable from what’s already past: “It’s too late! Everything has already happened.”

In a strict parallel to this line of memory moves, naughty and tense, the line of perception, personified mainly by “the Wanderer” or “the Stranger”, Marquis De Custine. 1 And this line is not simply embodied, but in some instances brought to a pure identity with the line of memory. De Custine walks around the art pieces. He smells them. Sometimes he even passes his fingers over their frames. Occasionally he talks to or about the works as if he knows both them and their creators; as if he remembers the time before they were realized, a period when what is captured on them was still (t)here: “Why are you all silent? And the partridges, and the children, and the Madonna,” the Wanderer exclaims while watching Van Dyke’s “Madonna with the Partridges”. This rich embodiment of the moment in a concrete, material form does not imply the silence and the lack of breath – on the contrary. Then the question, posed as an incitement, “Why are you all silent?” refers to something other than the evident physical presence, and so it has nothing to do with the possibility or impossibility of speech, but with the reason for their silence. One must hear this question resonating on quite a different scale – what made this lively work of art fall into lifeless oblivion? The answer, it seems to me, is their right to be heard in such a way that what they are capable of saying, to transmit through the generations, has a weight and meaning fulfilling both to itself and to us up to the collective present. As some sort of legacy that precedes what’s presently available, what’s here, the work of art – to be an actual heritage – must be thought as more than just a thing, and in this sense as overshadowing its owns presence. And for it to be more than presence, it must speak.

The halls of the museum, filled with various works and historical situations, each have their unique significance and historical charge. Also, the attitudes of those inside them – the historical personages, depicting the epoch – are different from the main actors’ presence in the historical fragmentation that the walk involves them in. Therefore, the real protagonist in the drama is the Hermitage (the place-museum) itself. The dynamics of the movie follows the place’s capability to narrate. It is interesting how, although purely temporal, and, as the protagonist himself demands, topographical, Sokurov’s characters somehow manage to maintain the necessary distance, which allows them to experience themselves as viewers, who they are and are not at the same time: “Theater! What actors, what costumes and all.”

They observe the past as if it were happening now, in front of them and for them. In some of the situations, they are even involved in it and participate in its repetition. Being there, the participants help the repetition’s individualization, its transformation, bring it to light from the deep dream of the ghostly past and hence grounding it as a necessary prerequisite for a unique opportunity – to repeat itself and be different at once. On the other hand, the prohibitions and remarks they receive from the long dead within the different historical periods are results primarily from the attitude of the “Stranger”. De Custine’s disrespect and unhidden rebuke aim to reveal the impurity of Russian culture and its desire to imitate a European one – an act in which, according to him, it loses its own identity. It is as if Sokurov raises the question of how much culture can fit into the culture in general, and to what extent the world’s culture takes place within the limits of the local one. And the answer that Sokurov, whose voice we hear from our visual perspective, gives is that the universal culture is a concept of inner completeness and, therefore, in a sense concerns the infinite that assimilates all its finite or local incarnations. The limits of individual culture are and are not where they are and are not. The individual weaves the universal into itself, and the universal weaves the individual, each of which passes into its other to strengthen and announce themselves. Great art is not great because it matters everywhere, regardless of whose collection is in, who the author is, in which country it is located or created, and even more so, what kind of policy is conducted by its rulers. It is great because it is heard. The great works of art have that voice which, despite all attempts, has not been silenced and is still being heard. It is great, as far as it is aimed at the universal, that is, at problems and situations that represent little or much of a human’s place in time and the world.

The first half of the film, dominated by the interaction of the actors with the works of art, leaves them skillfully aloof from their life as ready-at-hand, as available and, consequently, from their human vocation. The “inherited secret,” as Jacques Derrida would put it, or, in our case, the work of art as a secret to be solved, requires the courage and intimacy that characterize an actual encounter outside of the virtual plane. At the same time, however, the encounter with the authenticity of the work encourages us to be cautious and critically distanced, thus allowing its disclosure. Moreover, the conditioning that the “inherited mystery” brings us concerning the limits of a work’s creator, conditioning embedded and unfolded in the very work, is redefined by the perspective of one potentiality – the eternity assumed in it. Thus the Marquis (or the Wanderer) will exclaim when he contemplates the canvas of the Baroque Dutch master Frans van Mieris: “The eternal people! Live, live, outlive all of us! (The eternal people, the eternal people…)”

The eternal people, depicted through their creator’s skillfulness, we find mainly in realistic art, which prevails in Sokurov’s film. Art, in this framework, is seen as the ability to be skillful, and with this skill to seduce the Others with the artificial (unnatural, fake) eternity, produced, even tailored, by its creator, which is essentially, if not denying, at least an attempt to escape the boundaries of reality. Art is the offspring of eternity-obsessed finiteness. It is an inner echo for the work’s materiality, an absence that is woven into it but is still present, whether as a phantom or as a personification of our liveliness or an embodiment of our death. The culture (from the Latin cultus, derived from colō – “caring, processing”, most often land; for example wheat culture) is in a sense processing and cultivating eternity or the idea of it through the methods of art. But art also involves the preservation and the transfer of that cultivated eternity (of the technical means of work’s implementation as well as the abundance of meanings and experiences that it can carry) to those who are not born yet. The transience of the present, with all the abundance of its manifestations, is locked and thus fixed in the work, thereby promising a unity of times and epochs which penetrate each other. Culture is the heritage par excellence. This is not a question of inciting a reaction and longing for the past as necessarily “better”, but only as necessarily influencing and carrying out the present – its substratum as well its root, its stem as well its juice. In this way culture hints, reminds, brings to the surface, and in some cases even imposes what must, without which historical self-consciousness would not exist. This must, while essentially historical, entails the responsibility for, to, and often beyond what lies ahead.

As for the place of the place in the movie where every step, every next door, opens up new – all old – events, which seem to be the inevitable realization and re-realization of the place itself. It is precisely the place that ensures the historical continuity. The place-museum is no longer seen as a memory carrier or a mirror of its line, but as a concrete awareness of memory within and for itself, an expression of the pure temper of simultaneity. A Genius Loci (the location’s distinctive atmosphere) transformed into a continuum, promised by his existential pseudo-eternity, which is a perfect image and embodiment of heredity and its repetition. In a broader sense, what exists or is present here and now is presented in terms of its only actual condition – historicity. Stories in the story, narratives within the narrative told not by the narrator, but by the place at which he retells what is being told to him just now. A kind of simulacrum, lost within the assimilation process only to reveal itself as an irrevocable whole, like any other work of art. The place-museum then is a collection of its identity with itself, a temporally preserved collection, a collection in search of both what is past and what is about to come. And even though these two poles are lifeless and breathless, even though they are speechless, they live and breathe, and even speak. Pulsating, oscillating beneath the layers of time, the place-museum becomes, in the fading present of its future, the history that is. This place is, in a sense, the forthcoming past.

In essence, the place is an abstraction from a group of objects, from the objectivity of what is present here and now. But its conditional form of universality implies internal completeness. A place can only be considered as a pure place because it is the original receptacle of any real or thinkable singularities. In its present-ness, however, it is primarily a synthesis of anything that was and everything that will be. Thus, this “temporally distinct spatiality” makes it possible to lay in the present all the possibilities with which time parades. Here the spatial is not the becoming of self-movement, but self-moving as such. It thus reveals the concrete unity and coexistence of that which otherwise exists one-after-another, and is therefore heterogeneous, divided between subsequent and preceding. The temporally distinct spatiality produces homogeneity. The place, as Sokurov teaches us, remembers and while remembering it tells. Its past is first and foremost an anamnesis (recollection). In its attitude towards us, however, it is a manifestation and as such, a re-minder. The past of what was once present, in its phantomic re-being, evokes the need to recognize our place in history and its immanent impossibility to be other than what it is. All the beauty and brilliance of the happenings before their eyes (during the ball of the Russian aristocracy, which the characters “attended”), comes to remind us of the inevitable death of this splendour, the sole purpose of which is to please the few. A doom that will not be long in coming and is part of the same historical diapason (sudden burst of swelling harmony) in which the walk takes place. The deviations from and in time are such only insofar as we intervene in them, cutting their natural and irrevocable outflow, which leads to radicalization of temporality as such, even if only for a short period.

The entire movie carries this sense of the timelessness of time, which observes in relaxed coldness how everything else passes within him. It imposes itself on the viewer as the last horizon of his forthcoming. The morning that follows the ball only comes to remind us of the old and evident truth that everything that is, here and now, will end. That eternity is identical with the incomprehensible, and the water, which has mottled its other – a life, vulnerable and fleeting – necessarily leaves it. With this magical morning and its raging waters, the awareness finds our insignificance, which we must somehow overcome. And what other means is there besides art, besides culture, besides heritage? After all, we are first and foremost heirs, as Jacques Derrida would put it, heirs in mourning, like any (even false) heir. Mourning requires reassessment, judgment, criticism. Mourning sifts.

When De Custine asks the art pieces “Why are you so silent?”, he really asks: “Why have we come so far as to have no one to tell what you know?”, which means to tell about the eternity and the meaning of history and therefore of the place that we have in it as heirs of what is coming.

Walter Benjamin argues that the present is almost as if impregnated by salvation, and our generation, like all previous ones, has “a weak messianic power to which the past has a claim.” The time that stands before us as an insurmountable wall in Sokurov’s work has a similar claim – a claim for a better future, if not for those already here, then for those about to come. One thing is certain, as the first-person cinematic perspective reminds us, no one will satisfy this claim for us.


  1. A real person, born 1790 and died 1857, the Marquis is best known for the diaries from his trip to Russia in 1839, during which he visited St. Petersburg, Moscow and Yaroslavl.

The Place-Museum and the Problem of Culture in Russian Ark

Anton M. Kolev is a Bulgarian philosopher. He is the founding editor of, a Bulgarian-language web portal specializing in literary & film theory and social critique and a member of Collective for Social Interventions, Sofia — an engaged research NGO and publishing house.

Volume 25, Issue 4 / April 2021 Essays   culture   russian ark   russian cinema   sokurov