Nick Hoffman,

Nick Hoffman,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 2 1998 3:30 AM

Nick Hoffman,

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

26000_26256_4smoker
26000_26257_3jordanstaircase

     9 a.m. My emergency economic plan for the Hermitage is too dull. Between meetings I have been scribbling down a list of things a large organization might do to protect itself (somewhat) against hyperstagflation and severe loss of income. In our case, it's likely that our main funding source, the government, will be, shall we say, reticent in its affections next year, while other sources such as tourist admissions plummet. My colleagues are not impressed--because the emergency plan has in fact been the operating plan for the past six years. A semi-functioning financial system, inflation below 20 percent, stable exchange rates: all anomalous figments of the past two years. This museum, similar in staff and building size to the Metropolitan in New York, runs on a budget one-eighth as generous.    Clearly my sense of what constitutes a crisis is immature compared with St. Petersburgers' knowledge of life. The plan, admittedly a bit overstructured and confident in tone (a lingering effect of coming to work here straight from McKinsey), goes in the bin. 10 a.m. The director echoes these sentiments half-jokingly at our advisory board's final session: "We deal with eternity, so we're not in a hurry, we're not falling apart." I feel very temporarily relieved. 12 p.m. The noon cannon from the Peter and Paul Fortress frees the board to go walk about. I generally accept any excuse to look at the collections and join them through the Scythian gold and temporary Cézanne and Magritte exhibitions. Early on in my stay I caught myself power walking up the Jordan Staircase reading papers for a meeting I was going to. I pledged to actively look at the collections whenever in the museum proper.     Our tour is gratifyingly slow. Russian protocol dictates Byzantine rules about who goes through doorways first, necessitating all sorts of bowing and gesturing. In New York last year the chairwoman of a commercial firm held her conference room door open for Dr. Mikhail Piotrovski to exit. He didn't budge, and after 20 seconds of awkward pause I decided to offend both of them and dive through the gap. 2 p.m. Piotrovski and the head of London's National Gallery literally trade war stories at lunch in the canteen. During the blitz in London the public demanded that one painting at a time be brought back from evacuation and endure bombing to revive the nation's spiritual life. At the Hermitage, soldiers were given tours of rooms full of empty frames and told, "This is where the Leonardos were. ... Here was Rembrandt's Prodigal Son." 3 p.m. Our guests head to the airport; perhaps real work will begin again. On the way there we pass closed shops and long queues of people trying to buy and hoard food before supplies dry up or their money is completely worthless. People are buying computer parts they have no intention of using to keep as a safe store of value. At the airport I spot a curator arriving from Copenhagen who is traveling with a Picasso that was on loan. 4:30 p.m. I catch up on odd jobs that have fallen into my lap. Try to arrange an exhibition loan to the Brooklyn Museum, talk to a friend about improving our Web site, guess at some financial analysis to help a World Bank project think about initiatives to "rehabilitate" St. Petersburg. And that was the verb used before last week. 6 p.m. The two block walk home has me testing the pulse of youth culture. I weave between teen-age Rollerbladers on Palace Square (the square is the city's best spot, I'm told). I go around an intimidating group dressed in leather before realizing they're heading to a Depeche Mode concert. And I navigate through a group of cadets from the naval academy, whose caps jollily tell me their ship is named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the terrifying boss of the secret police in 1917. His nickname was "Iron Felix," so perhaps it's not a bad name for a boat after all.

Nick Hoffman is assistant to the director for economic affairs at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.