‘The entire museum community was in shock’ A colleague remembers Russian icon museum founder Mikhail Abramov, who died in a helicopter crash on August 20
On August 20, a helicopter with Mikhail Abramov on board crashed near the Greek island of Poros. Abramov, the founder of the Museum of the Russian Icon, was “a true patron of the arts in the line of the Tretyakovs and the Shchukins,” leading ancient history scholar Alexei Lidov wrote following the crash. We asked another of Abramov’s colleagues, Svetlana Lipatova, to recount the curator and collector’s contributions to the rise of modern-day Russian museums and to the preservation of Orthodox Christian religious art. Lipatova is the assistant director of the The Central Andrey Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art.
In the morning, we were all still holding out hope that it might be someone else with the same name, that we might receive some kind of encouraging news. All of my colleagues — the entire museum community — was in shock. I don’t know how else to put it. We were all hoping there would be a denial, that information would emerge saying this person was still with us.
Right now, it’s hard for all of us to talk about it. Of course, Mr. Abramov was entirely unique even though quite a lot of people do collect icons and other religious art. Mr. Abramov’s work was characterized by incredible breadth. He strove to do as much as possible and to make that work as openly accessible as possible. He started putting together his collection in the early 2000s, relatively recently. Nevertheless, not long afterward — in 2006 — he opened his Museum of the Russian Icon, which is privately owned but publicly accessible. It was fundamentally important to him for all kinds of people to have access to this public resource. He never did any of it for the sake of his own reputation; what was always at the front of his mind was doing a service to Russian culture. The museum existed solely on Mr. Abramov’s financial support.
Our museum, the Andrey Rublev Museum, had numerous collaborations with the Museum of the Russian Icon. Last year, we had a major international project in Italy. Three Italian cities—Rome, Palmanova, and Bari — hosted an exhibition called Russian Prayer and Mercy. The exhibit included works from our collection and from the Museum of the Russian Icon. It was a colossal success. Everything Mr. Abramov did resonated broadly with the public.
He brought icons back to Russia. The entire history of 20th-century Russia is deeply tragic. After the revolution, valuable cultural objects were removed from the country. Searching for the items that were really invaluable national treasures at auctions and in private collections — that’s what Mr. Abramov did. He bought those things and brought them back to Russia so that people could see them, so that these pieces would remain in Russia, where they were made.
The Museum of the Russian Icon was the first private museum to display Russian religious art. There are approximately 5,000 items in its collection. It’s called the Museum of the Russian Icon, but the collection also includes pieces that are not Russian. There are early Christian objects, Byzantine texts, all dating back as far as the sixth century; there’s Ethiopian art. But the museum’s main priority, of course, was Russian historical pieces. Very recently, the museum hosted an exhibit of icons from the Serpukhovsky Art Museum. That was a big deal too because museum visitors in the capital aren’t very familiar with the unique collections that exist in Russia’s regions.
I can only hope that [Mikhail Abramov’s death] will not affect [the museum’s work] in any way. It’s very difficult to speak about this now because it happened so recently. I hope that this exceptional museum will continue to exist because it can now become a monument to Mr. Abramov’s work as well.
Translation by Hilah Kohen