The Gulag Museum and Russia’s Historical Memory of Communism

During my recent visit to Russia, I visited the Gulag Museum in Moscow, one of the few recent Russian efforts to accurately portray the horrible atrocities of communism. The mass murders and other crimes of communist regimes have often been neglected in both Russia and the West. In recent years, that neglect has deepened in Russia, because of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to whitewash the record of the Soviet regime in order to legitimize his own government and promote Russian nationalism.

The Gulag Museum, established by Gulag survivor Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, is an admirable effort to counter these trends. There are several interesting exhibits, and I certainly recommend it to visitors to Moscow who are interested in the subject and can read Russian. But I also have some serious reservations about the Museum and its approach to the subject matter.

First, the Museum simply lacks the resources and scale to do the subject justice. Most of the exhibits are primarily photos attached to bulletin boards, often with not very detailed explanations. If you are not already familiar with the relevant history, it’s hard to grasp the true scale and horror of what happened just by looking at the exhibits in the Museum. This problem is not so much the fault of the people who run the Museum as that of Russian government and society, which have been unwilling to devote enough resources to create a facility truly worthy of the subject. In contrast with Germany’s extensive efforts to document and publicize Nazi crimes and make the younger generation of Germans aware of them, Russian endeavors to acknowledge the horrors of communism are comparatively piddling.

The second problem with the Museum is more easily remedied: Far too much of the material in the exhibits focuses on Stalin’s purges of communist party elites, especially the “Old Bolsheviks” who led the communist regime early on but where executed by Stalin after the famous “show trials” of the 1930s. This shortchanges the millions of ordinary people murdered by the communists in favor of a focus on a tiny and unrepresentative elite. It is rather like focusing a museum on Nazi crimes primarily on the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler did away with various rival Nazi leaders. To the extent that the Museum is intended to focus on the Gulag system specifically rather than communist crimes as a whole, it’s also worth noting that most of the Old Bolsheviks were never even incarcerated in Gulags. They were mostly arrested, tortured, and executed in secret police facilities in Moscow.

Moreover, it is important to recognize (as the Museum does not) that the Old Bolsheviks were far from innocent. Led by Lenin and Trotsky, they themselves – not Stalin – had established the secret police, the Gulag system, and other oppressive institutions that were later used against them. They were all in favor of mass murder and political repression when it was directed at non-communist political parties, or just ordinary workers and peasants. When Stalin purged the Old Bolsheviks, he merely gave them a taste of the same treatment that they themselves had meted out to millions of others.

I wonder if the flaws of the Museum are in part due to Antonov-Ovseenko’s own background as the son of a prominent Old Bolshevik executed by Stalin in 1938. Obviously, the younger Antonov-Ovseenko cannot be blamed for the wrongs committed by his father, and he deserves great credit for his efforts to commemorate the crimes of the Stalin era. But it is possible that his background understandably skews his perspective on the subject.

I’m far from being a qualified museum planner. But, as I see it, a better-organized Gulag Museum would focus primarily on the impact of communism on ordinary people. It should perhaps devote about 95% of the space to that subject, and only 5% to purges of communist elites. It should clearly and dramatically explain the vast scale of the atrocities involved (some 10 to 20 million victims in the USSR alone). And it should make more clear than the present museum does that the origins of most of these crimes date back to the very beginning of the regime, rather than to the period when Stalin was in power.

The purge of the Old Bolsheviks and other elites does deserve some attention. But that section of the museum should note the irony that these elites were devoured by the very institutions of repression that they themselves had created. To a large extent, they got what they deserved, even though not for the reasons why they deserved it.

Finally, a well-run Gulag Museum would explain what happened in a way that is readily accessible to visitors who don’t have much prior knowledge of the subject. It should also have more and better material in English and other foreign languages.

The flaws of the Gulag Museum wouldn’t matter much if there were more other efforts to publicize the crimes of communism in Russia. But, as far as I know, it is the only such museum in Moscow, and one of the very few in Russia as a whole. For the moment, both the government and many ordinary Russians prefer to forget and in some cases even deny the crimes of communism. But that sad state of affairs need not last forever. Future generations of Russians may yet acknowledge these atrocities more fully and help ensure that they never happen again.

On a more optimistic note, I would note that attitudes towards communist crimes are very different in neighboring Ukraine, which I am presently visiting for the first time. Here, memorials and museums commemorating the victims of communism are ubiquitous. So far, the relatively pro-Russian government elected in 2010 doesn’t seem to have changed that. I may write in more detail about the Ukrainian approach to this subject in a later post.

Part of the explanation for the enormous difference between the two countries on this issue is that many Russian nationalists have an ambivalent or outright positive attitude towards the Soviet Union, despite its having killed millions of Russians. Under communist rule, Russia reached the height of its power, and nationalists lament its decline from superpower status after the USSR fell. By contrast, most Ukrainian nationalists unequivocally condemn the USSR because it not only killed millions of Ukrainians, but also repressed Ukrainian aspirations for independence. I’m no great fan of either nationalism in general or Ukrainian nationalism specifically. In Ukraine, however, nationalism has helped promote a more thorough recognition of communist crimes. In Russia, it has had the opposite effect.