Moscow’s New GULAG History Museum: A Ghetto for Memory?

The creeping rehabilitation of Stalin in Russia is not a secret. In January 2016, Russians’ approval of his policies reached its peak in the past decade, according to the independent polling organization, the Levada-Center. On the 5th of March, the anniversary of Stalin’s death, people queued to lay flowers at the bust of the dictator at the Kremlin wall in Moscow while similar commemoration events took place in other Russian cities. Yet, the perception of Stalin in Russia is far from being a consensual one. There are many people and organizations, the most consistent among the latter being the International Memorial Society, that have fought against the ambiguity of Stalin within the official memorial discourse and for a full-scale condemnation of his role in the Great Terror of the 1930s and other deeds as a leader of the Soviet Union. This tension was not born yesterday. While historians write numerous articles and monographs about Soviet political repressions, which climaxed when Stalin was in power, the memory politics of the Russian state attributes to him a leading role in the victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.

All the more reason to expect animated debate among historians, journalists and the general public when plans to create a new GULAG museum in Moscow were announced a few years back. The museum was to replace the State Museum of GULAG History created in 2001 by the historian Anton Antonov-Ovseenko. By the 2010s it had become clear that the latter’s exposition was behind the times and badly needed upgrading. The nature of this upgrade, if one takes into account the diversity of interested parties and the controversial nature of the current Russian memory politics, was bound to initiate a conversation. Professional historians and memory specialists knew little about the perspective on the GULAG that the creators of the museum were planning to show – for there was no public discussion, neither at the stage of the preparation of the concept nor during its implementation. A strange silence surrounded the topic even after the museum opened to the wider public in late October last year.

Despite this strange lack of commentary, there is no doubt that the creators have done an accomplished job. The museum tells the story of the terror that swept the Soviet state from 1917 till the death of Stalin, with a focus on the GULAG (the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements), and manages to do this in a non-biased and engaging way combining factual and empathic modes.

The experience starts with the building itself as an inherent part of the exhibition. The architects Dmitry Barjudin and Igor Aparin of the Kontora bureau have successfully turned a former dormitory into a memory museum. The façade and the sidewalls of the building are clad with copper plates that with time will darken and thus make the building look appropriately gloomy. The back wall, where the main entrance to the museum is located, has been preserved and renovated. Some of the windows have been equipped with wooden shutters symbolizing, presumably, the closed nature of a prison and lack of freedom. In sum, the building is a proper introduction into the GULAG story.

In the museum, the creators skilfully combine traditional and new approaches: authentic objects, photographs and documentary footage, video testimonies of victims, audio recordings, archive documents, etc. Notably, the viewer is actively engaged in communicating with the displayed objects: in one part of the exhibition, a visitor can lift a wooden tablet and read a facsimile copy of a document; another offers an opportunity to sit down at a desk similar to those of Soviet investigators, take a prisoner’s dossier out of a safe and leaf through it; yet another allows you to write a note saying what can be done to prevent the Great Terror from happening again (It will not repeat “…if I vote for whom I see fit”, says one of the notes; “…if I become president and I become an immortal leader I will rule wisely and no camps will not [sic!] exist”, says another written in childish handwriting).

The emphasis is not on affective techniques – for instance, photographs of dead bodies or displays of human hair as in Auschwitz and other memorial centres in former Nazi concentration camps – that can have a complex somatic and psychological (to the extent of trauma) effect on a person. Instead, less controversial empathic instruments directing visitors’ emotional reactions towards compassion for GULAG victims are used.

The best example here is an installation presented in the first room: prison doors from all over Russia are placed along the perimeter of a rectangle evoking the sensation of a closed space and reminiscent of a jail cell. One can enter and stay there as long as one likes – only one can’t: too daunting are the thoughts of how, when there are only doors into prison cells around and the unfreedom is total and omnipresent, a society begins to experience metamorphoses. The installation is conducive to reflection but does not pretend to offer an “authentic” prison experience, which places it on a par with the best world examples. Among these, parenthetically, are the Galerie der verschwundenen Dinge by Via Lewandowsky and Unausgesprochen by Arnold Dreyblatt in Jüdischen Museum Berlin: both are powerful statements about what has been lost in the Holocaust.

Fortunately, the curators of the new GULAG History Museum do not try to recreate a “standard” prison cell or a “standard” camp barracks. For that, by the way, one should go to the Perm-36 memorial museum, which has just been appropriated by the region’s authorities and “renovated”, i.e. de facto turned from the museum of political repressions (opened in 1996 by a group of enthusiasts) into a museum of the Soviet penitentiary system. There one can visit the camp’s former medical sanitary unit, with lace table cloths, and pleasantly scented barracks, with wool blankets on the beds and felt boots in the hall. It looks disconcertingly cosy and domestic. Perm-36 is another story, of course, but the crucial question here is: why destroy the only Russian museum of political repression occupying a former Soviet camp and simultaneously create a new expensive museum in Moscow?

So, there is no recreation of a “standard” cell or barracks, but there is a huge and detailed plan of “a standardized camp for 5,000 people” hanging on a wall in the first room. The notes to the plan state that the ground for a camp was chosen based on “location conditions and its [the plot’s] maintainability”[1]. Sadly, a caption that would explain the rationale behind placing this plan in the museum is missing, so the exhibit item remains puzzling.

In this room too, there are also contours of famous prison cells drawn on the floor, with their sizes specified (Butyrka prison – 72 sq.m., “Vladimirsky Central” – 24 sq.m., etc.). The idea is not bad in itself, but with no explanation of how many people were kept in each cell it brings little of value. The creators of the exposition understand this as well: when asked about the purpose of the exhibit item, a museum representative said that “so far it is more a designer technique to organize the space”.

You now continue to view the exposition by ascending metal stairs, the eerie sound of one’s steps echoed in distant corners of the museum. The second room is dedicated to the Great Terror. The information panel explicitly says that Stalin’s aim was to destroy the slightest possibility of political opposition and suppress any dissidence. As a result, even inner-party discussions frequently resulted in the arrest, imprisonment, and – from the mid 1930s – execution of Stalin’s opponents. This macabre situation disoriented people and led them to look for “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” even among their neighbours and family members. The picture painted in this section of the museum is unequivocal.

In this room, there are also a series of posters that the regime used to fight with non-conformists and an enlarged copy of the secret NKVD Order № 00447 which started the campaign against “anti-Soviet elements” and established the number of people to be repressed in each Soviet republic. Used to exceeding initial targets, regional authorities repeatedly asked Nikolai Yezhov (in 1936-1938 head of the NKVD) to increase the “quota”. He usually did so.

There is also here a screen showing names, photographs, and short bios of those repressed by the regime. This traditional memory museum technique allows to “humanize” history book information (in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, for instance, each visitor is given a person’s identification card that allows the viewer to symbolically live another person’s life – and death).

One of the explication panels is dedicated to the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, “an integral part of Stalin’s terror machine”. The text is accompanied by a photograph of the building occupied by the Collegium and its address. This is an important, albeit minor, step of returning memory to an urban space. One could only wish that the museum would cooperate with the Memorial Society’s Alexandra Polivanova who has recently launched the online project Topography of Terror that places Moscow’s places of terror on a virtual map.

Down the stairs again, the exposition continues with a set of lighted display cabinets that are worth looking at both aesthetically and for content. The objects on show are not too many, so one can study them all in detail. There are letters written on pieces of cloth, handmade notebooks, handicrafts. Next to the cabinets are tablet computers containing information about each of the displayed objects, including the prisoners’ memoirs in which they are mentioned. Textile masks that protected labourers from wind and frost – uncanny and yet simple circle-shaped pieces of fabric cut out of what seems to have been pillowcases and sheets, with holes for eyes and a nose – are probably the most impressive items. Illuminated with a cool blueish colour, they look heartbreakingly moving. All the objects displayed are part of the exposition “From Solovki to Kolyma. National memory of the GULAG”. Brought from all over Russia, they will be constantly replaced with others.

Above the cabinets, there is a huge screen showing archival and specially made (in Chukotka and Magadan) footage accompanying two pieces of music – Alfred Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns and Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei. This multimedia installation initiates a powerful empathic experience central to the exposition.

Nearby in two small rooms video testimonies of victims are screened. They have been shot and montaged with great care and taste. As a result, one wants to watch them all from beginning to end, while in other memory museums a few minutes of such footage often seem more than enough. Some of the interviews are presented in the form of a “Living book”: when a visitor turns the pages, the projector placed above switches on different video testimonies. The technology is simple but appropriate – children should especially like this type of museum interaction.

In sum, the museum is well made. Not only does it honestly tell the most terrible part of Soviet history but does so in a compelling way. Nevertheless, certain emphases continue to perplex. For instance, the insistence of the narrative about the role of Stalin’s concentration camps in the economy of the USSR: a whole room is dedicated to this, with detailed descriptions of the use of prisoners in various industry sectors. One cannot but wonder whether this is meant to counter-balance the horrors of the Soviet terror machine worryingly echoing Stalinists’ old refrain that “all of that was necessary for the country”? At the same time, the daily camp life of an individual prisoner remains obscure.

Equally strange feels the absence of any mention of the political repressions in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death and the abolishment of the GULAG: after all, the latter is widely associated with the Soviet repressive system as a whole, and Stalin’s demise did not exactly stop the persecution of dissidents. The museum exposition ends with an explication dedicated to the rehabilitation of Stalin’s victims. And though it does say that a prisoner’s release was not always followed by his or her acquittal, a feeling of something unsaid prevails.

The opening of the GULAG History Museum in Moscow raises a lot of questions. On the one hand, the museum had long been awaited and the creators have definitely done an effective job. On the other one, it is rather unclear what place the museum will occupy in the current Russian memory politics that contains such contradictions as the recent concept of state politics aimed at the perpetuation of memory of political repressions victims (2015) and the repurposing (not to say “destruction”) of Perm-36, the creation of a national GULAG museum and the proclamation of the Memorial Society a “foreign agent” (i.e. an NGO receiving funds from outside Russia). What is next is even more uncertain. It would be disturbing to see the new museum to become a ghetto of Russia’s memory of the GULAG and be used as an excuse to close as unnecessary or “reinvent” the other Russian places of memory about Soviet terror.

[1] Here and below the quotes are translated by the author from Russian, rather than taken from the English-language explications of the museum.

Lernen aus der Geschichte Magazin, «GULAG» issue, 2016, pp. 19-23.

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