The State GULAG History MuseumRussian: Gosudarstvennyi muzey istorii GULAGa or Государственный музей истории ГУЛАГа is dedicated to one of the most tragic chapters in Russian history – the Stalin-era political repression and labour camp system. The GULAGRussian: ГУЛАГ (Main Camp’s AdministrationRussian: Glavnoe upravlenie lagerey or Главное управление лагерей) was a system of prisons, labour camps and industrial sites that operated on a much bigger scale than any other penitentiary organisation intended for a country’s own citizens ever created in history. Over the course of two decades, 15 to 17 million prisoners are estimated to have passed through the GULAG system. Of those, some 5 million were convicted on the basis of politically-driven false denunciations and fabricated cases. During the peak periods of political persecution, over 2 million convicts were simultaneously imprisoned in labour camps.
MUSEUM’S BUILDING AND ATMOSPHERE
The GULAG Museum was founded in 2001 by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, a historian and social activist who went through Stalin’s camps himself, accused of being the son of an ‘enemy of the state’. It was on PetrovkaRussian: Петровка Street that the Museum first opened its doors to the public in 2004. In 2015, it moved to a new spacious 3,000-square-metre building in the area of the Garden RingRussian: Sadovoe koltso or Садовое кольцо. The building was constructed back in the 19th century as a tenement house, and completely revamped in 2013–2014 to accommodate the Museum’s collections. The building has been styled to look like a prison, with its long brick façade, its windows shielded with the so-called ‘muzzles’ and a camp fence running along the lane. The oppressive atmosphere of forced confinement prevails inside: gloomy, dark corridors, tin lamps, black cell doors with windows, dimmed lights and metal bars along the staircases all contribute to this atmosphere. Still, the aim of the GULAG Museum is not to leave you with a grim impression. On the contrary, it will make you realize the scale of suffering and humiliation that the Soviet people were subjected to in Stalin’s time, and the price paid for Russians to enjoy their freedom in today’s Russia.
The exhibition consists of eight rooms located on two floors, each of them focusing on a particular stage of the Soviet repression policy and camp system. Note that seeing the exhibition requires considerable walking up and down stairs.
The museum displays both genuine relics of the camp era, such as clothes, work tools and household items, and numerous visual and public information materials, including maps, schemes, filing cabinets, interactive modules and posters. If you read the comprehensive list of victims of repression, you may even find a relative affected by Stalin’s Terror.
Every room in this interactive museum has something unusual on display. In the first room, the floor has squares drawn on it representing the standard layout of cells at that time. These cells are only 6- to 10-square-metres in size, but accommodated up to 20 people.
Political persecution was at its worst in 1937 and 1938 (‘the Great TerrorRussian: Bolshoy terror or Большой террор’). The propaganda tools of that period are worth a glance. Exacerbation of mass hysteria through films, broadcasts, posters and rallies was the prelude to the 1937 disaster. Several mini-cinemas show non-stop footage of Stalin’s parades, people with happy faces, and remarkable achievements in ‘the great construction projects of communism’. Meanwhile, screens on the opposite wall are the survivors of Stalin’s prisons and camps talking about torture, humiliation and the unjust sentences they served.
Several sections are devoted to the USSR camp system and the role of prison labour in the creation of the Soviet industry and infrastructure. A large interactive map illustrates every aspect of this system, ranging from the building of the Moskva-Volga CanalRussian: kanal Moskva-Volga or канал Москва-Волга to the construction of the famous road to IntaRussian: Инта, a town beyond the Arctic Circle. Camp prisoners lived in extremely harsh conditions, with no consideration for human rights; minor infringements of camp rules were severely punished. At times, the death rate among convicts was as high as 20%. According to official documents, a total of 1.6 million people died in GULAG camps and prisons.
The central part of the museum displays artefacts from the 1930s through to the 1950s which belonged to camp prisoners. These documents, photographs and other exhibits came from the GULAG-focused collections of regional Russian museums. Among the most valuable exhibits is an album containing photographs taken at the Solovki prison campRussian: Solovetskiy lager or Соловецкий лагерь, which came from the S. Kirova prominent early Bolshevik leader in the Soviet Union memorial apartment. The fabric masks worn by prisoners to protect their faces from the cold are odd in appearance; they were necessary, however, as prisoners were expected to work outside and fulfil their allocated work in any weather, even if it was below 50 C°! These and other authentic items from everyday prison life can be viewed in small display cases lit with a cold light making visitors feel as if they are walking through a small-scale necropolis.
One stand contains the well-known ‘Doctors’ plotRussian: Delo vrachey or Дело врачей’ trial initiated by the aged Stalin shortly before his death. It was discontinued immediately after his death on 5 March, 1953. The unique motion picture, The Death of StalinRussian: Smert Stalina or Смерть Сталина, shows the funeral procession and people saying farewell to their leader. You will also learn about the Russian people’s mixed reactions to Stalin’s passing.
A film entitled Agnus Dei screened on a huge monitor in the central room tells a deeply touching and tragic story of Stalin’s camps. You will see modern-day panoramas of what were formerly places of imprisonment in Siberia, the Far East and the North. The floor commemorates the dates and titles of the Soviet decrees that led to repression of a number of Soviet social classes. The list ends with Russia’s law on ‘The Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression’ dated 18 October, 1991, which put an end to the historic dispute about Stalin’s Terror. Meanwhile, Stalin’s Terror is Russia’s recent past that is still closely connected to our present, with over 800,000 victims of political repression still living in Russia today.
If the Russian history is a subject of your interest and you want to know, for example, what is the oldest church in Moscow, what are the famous monasteries around Moscow, which style of Moscow architecture you can see only in this town, you can read about it on our website pages about Kremlin Moscow and “History and Architecture”.
The last section of the exhibition deals with the rethinking of political repression after Stalin’s death. You will be horrified to read the list of prominent GULAG prisoners that includes writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of The Gulag ArchipelagoRussian: Arkhipelag GULAG or Архипелаг ГУЛАГ and Nobel Prize winner; the founding father of practical astronautics Sergei Korolev, ; the famous aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev; archbishop Luka Voyno-Yasenetsky; writers Varlam Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg; painter Boris Smirnov-Rusetsky; historians Dmitry Likhachov, Lev Gumilyov and Dmitri Antsiferov; actors Vatslav Dvorzhetsky and Georgiy Zhzhonov; philosopher Aleksei Losev, and many more. Each biography is a heart-wrenching story about the confrontation between ‘an unarmed person and an excruciating, mean and sadistic machine’, as put by those who lived through the GULAG.
Visitors are in for a surprise at the end of their museum tour, where they will see a row of safes from the 1930s–1950s containing ‘personal files’ with copies of authentic documents from the time. You are free to pull out a file and read it by the light of the notorious carbolite table lamp, a symbol of the 1930s that stood on the desk of almost every investigator during interrogations.
Last but not least, the GULAG Museum features areas for special exhibitions, a movie theatre, storage rooms, a research centre, a visual anthropology studio, a library, a publishing centre and centre for volunteers. It frequently hosts exhibitions displaying works by painters who are former GULAG prisoners, along with those by some modern artists. The Museum is engaged in awareness-raising activities and organizes lectures and seminars on a regular basis. Museum employees record interviews with former camp prisoners, their family members and GULAG staff.
A visit to the GULAG Museum enables the visitor to reflect on this particular time in history and arrive at his or her own conclusions as to how to ensure that mass terror never happens again in any country on our planet.© 2016-2019 moscovery.com