Alexei Sergeev: Dialogue With an Adventist Art Historian in Russia

Alexei Sergeev is an administrator at the renowned Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Born in 1947, he is a trained art historian and a linguist, fluent in English, French, German, and Italian. After completing his secondary education, Sergeev studied at the Institute of Culture and later at Zdanov University in Leningrad, where he obtained a teaching degree in French language, literature, and culture.

In 1971, while still a student at the university, Sergeev began working at the Hermitage Museum. After graduation, he was promoted to be administrator of the educational department and since then has served as administrator of several other departments.

Sergeev recently completed his first lecture tour of Adventist colleges and universities in the United States, sponsored by a La Sierra University art foundation. We interviewed him during his visit to Washington, D.C.

Please tell us about your family background.

I was born in Leningrad, which in 1991 reverted to its original name—St. Petersburg. My father was the head of the main bank in the city. When I was three, a car ran over my father and killed him. My mother was just told the news. Even today we do not know the details. Both my parents were Russian Orthodox Christians, and my mother took me to church every Sunday.

St. Petersburg is quite a famous city.

It is. In fact it's a classical city, with beautiful palaces, churches, and public buildings. Pounded by Peter the Great in 1703 on the northwestern comer of Russia, the city served as the capital of the Russian Empire for two centuries and has continued to play a vital role in our nation's history. During World War II it suffered a terrible siege and was fiercely defended. The city has always been a cultural center, open to the rest of Europe, attracting writers, artists, and creative people. I'm proud to be a citizen of St. Petersburg.

What makes the Hermitage a special museum?

The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world. It includes more than 350 exhibition halls in five large interconnected buildings. The art collection was started in 1764 when Catherine II purchased 225 paintings in Berlin. Through the centuries, it has continued to grow, not only with many additional paintings, but also with hundreds of engravings, drawings, carvings, coin collections, and books, including Voltaire's personal library. Each year 3.5 million people from all over the world visit the museum.

What are some of the unique art works exhibited at the Hermitage?

The museum has a Rembrandt collection of 24 paintings that represent the main periods of his life. Among them is the famous "Return of the Prodigal Son." There are also two beautiful paintings by Raphael and two by Leonardo da Vinci. The list could go on and on.

When did you become interested in art?

As a child, going to the Orthodox church with my mother, I was attracted by the icons—those beautiful paintings of religious people and scenes that decorate the walls and ceilings of the Christian churches in the Eastern tradition. My mother also showed me art books with illustrations. Later I began to visit the Hermitage and admire the paintings of the western European artists and the Russian masters.

What are your responsibilities at the museum ?

I have worked in several departments, conducting research and training the staff. Frequently, because of my ability to speak several languages, I'm asked to guide some of the special visitors who come to the Hermitage. They represent many countries and professions such as government officials, dignitaries, religious leaders, writers, and artists. Some of them visit the museum privately, and we have very interesting conversations.

What gives you satisfaction in your work?

I enjoy showing visitors the master-pieces and paintings from various periods and styles. I get a lot of satisfaction when I notice that a visitor captures the meaning of a particular work of art and enjoys the experience.

Are you interested in a specific period in the history of art?

I have studied in depth French art of the 18th century, the period before the French Revolution. During the late Baroque and the Enlightenment, there was an attempt to make the world a better place by sheer human effort, without any spiritual or divine dimension. There was the illusion that national-ism could subdue the problem of evil, only to explode tragically during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Do you find modern parallels to that period?

We repeated the experiment in the Soviet Union under Marxist ideology. We also wanted to create a perfect society through rigid control of people and ideas, by human effort and without God. Now we see the results.

Tell us about your spiritual pilgrimage.

My mother was a very religious person and truly loved God. When I went to the Orthodox church, I was moved by the beautiful paintings, the wonderful choir music, and the colorful rituals. I felt that God existed. I wanted to understand Him better and to communicate with Him. But I didn't know how to do it, how to make Him real in my life.

Later, as I began to study the paintings at the Hermitage I realized that many of them depicted Christian scenes and characters, and conveyed religious feelings. In my desire to learn more about the background of these paintings, I went to the library and asked for a Bible. But I was told that only those with special permits could read this book.

How did you get access to a Bible?

For years I sought in vain to get one. One day, after I had completed my university studies, I was returning to Leningrad by train and noticed that the man sitting next to me was reading an unusual book. When I asked him about it, he told me it was the Bible. I learned that his name was Vladimir and that he was a Christian. He also told me that he could help me have access to a Bible like his.

We agreed to meet the next Saturday at a metro station. From there we walked a very long way until we came to a small house—a barn really. There was a group of about 25 Sabbathkeeping Christians meeting almost secretly. I took a seat near the door, just in case, because I was afraid of what might happen. But when I listened to the people and felt their Christian love, I decided to come back the next Sabbath.

That was your first contact with Seventh-day Adventists?

Yes. The congregation had approximately 40 members, and with them I started to study the Bible. At first I didn't even tell them my name, but slowly I began to feel part of a family of Christians. It was in that church that I began to understand God and His role in my life. The pastor and I discussed a real problem I faced. My work at the Hermit-age did not always allow me to come to church on the Sabbath. So we decided to postpone my baptism until that matter could be resolved. For 15 years I kept going to that church as frequently as I could.

When did you finally get your own Bible?

In the mid-1980s. A foreign visitor came to our church and brought with him one Russian Bible. He gave it to our pastor, and the pastor in turn gave it to me as a present. Then in 1991 an Adventist pastor from Portland, Oregon, came to St. Petersburg to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. He baptized me, and so I formally joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

How would you describe the status of Christianity in Russia today?

For years communism tried to stamp out Christianity in our country. Their leaders destroyed or desecrated many of our churches, but they couldn't destroy the faith in Christian hearts. There were always people who loved God and, in spite of many difficulties, hoped for better days. Since perestroika we have been enjoying increasing freedom of religion. People have been able to read the Bible and attend churches without fear.

What about the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

Russia is the largest of the 15 republics that made up the former Soviet Union, now called the Confederation of Independent States. In Russia itself, we have approximately 40,000 members in a country of about 150 million people.

What about St. Petersburg?

We have four congregations in the city. The one where I am a member is located downtown and has about 400 members. We are in the process of building our own church, with assistance from Adventists in the United States.

What are the challenges our church faces in St. Petersburg?

A physical facility, yes. We are on our way to having it. More than that, we must build a temple in our own hearts. We need to anchor our new members in the truth and create a stronger sense of community among ourselves. Only then will we be able to effectively share the truth about God with the five million inhabitants of our city. Many of them are intelligent, well-educated people who are seeking knowledge and a new under-standing of life. With the economic changes that have taken place in the past few years, there is a great deal of uncertainty and discouragement among the people, and we could give them hope. I dream of our church becoming a center for counseling, education, and training for a better life. Young people, particularly, need guidance and help, which our church can provide.

This is your first visit to Adventists outside of Russia. What impressions will you take back with you to St. Petersburg?

I was surprised to find so much openness and friendliness. My brothers and sisters in Christ welcomed me to their churches, schools, and homes. They treated me as if they had known me for years! Although I had come from far-away Russia, they truly made me feel as a member of the Adventist family. I will never forget their Christian love and kindness.

Interview by Humberto M. Rasi. Humberto M. Rasi is director of the General Conference Education Department and editor of Dialogue. Alexei Sergeev's address: Kamennoostrovsky Pr. 39, Apt. 19: St. Petersburg; 197022 Russia.