June 24, 2016

Moscow guts Gulag museum while Kyiv gets ready to open one


Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, the philosopher said, while those who remember it can perhaps draw lessons from it and avoid tragedies in the future. Thus, it is indicative of the future of Russia and Ukraine that the former has gutted a museum devoted to the Gulag while the latter is getting ready to open one on totalitarianism.

The travails of the Perm-36 museum, the only museum in Russia devoted to the Gulag organized by society but taken over by the state two years ago and transformed from a memorial to Stalin’s victims into a celebration of him and their jailors, has a long history. (See windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/03/moscow-closed-gulag-museum-because-it.html.)

But now things have taken a turn for the worse there. Many of the museum staff have resigned and, at the end of May, one of their number, Grigory Sarancha, the former deputy director, gave an interview about their reasons, an interview Boris Sokolov summarizes (zwezda.perm.ru/newspaper/ ?pub=17767 and day.kyiv.ua/ru/article/mirovye-diskussii/sideli-pravilno).

One of the events which pushed them to resign, Mr. Sarancha says, was “the publication on the museum’s website on the Day of Cosmonautics, April 12, of an article about the effectiveness of Soviet ‘sharashkas’ where [scientists] condemned for political reasons worked” on projects for the state.

The moving force behind this approach, he continues, was the Stalinist movement, The Essence of Times, which is headed by the notorious political commentator Sergey Kurginyan. But the situation is now even worse: the museum’s site now notes the birthday of “’the great government worker of the Soviet Union, Comrade [Viktor] Abakumov.’”

It is thus likely that other Soviet secret police chiefs like Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrentiy Beria will be given the same treatment.

One can only imagine, Mr. Sokolov observes, how the world would react “if something similar took place at the museum in Auschwitz! And what would happen with the leadership of the museum! But in Russia not only did no one think about removing him but rather praised him for good work.”

“In general,” he continues, “the current attitude of the Russian powers that be to the theme of Stalinist repressions somehow recalls the attitude toward them in the times of Khrushchev … Then Soviet publicists widely discussed the theme of illegally repressed Communists who in the camps organized underground party organizations, conducted secret party meetings and even paid their party dues.”

According to Mr. Sokolov, “Putin and his comrades in arms are even prepared to condemn Stalinist repressions, but not Stalin himself, who was the builder of the empire.” But they go even further, they profess to see in the Soviet dictator’s punitive system “something positive,” which they define as anything that worked to the benefit of the Russian state.

Thus, “from Putin’s point of view, it is completely possible to praise the main heads of the Gulag even while not denying their crimes.” Thus, Abakumov is presented not only as someone who brutalized and killed inmates but also established SMERSH, something the Putin regime celebrates as “one of the most effective special services in the world.”

And for the Kremlin leader, Mr. Sokolov suggests, Beria will be treated not only as the man who executed Polish officers at Katyn but as one who was “a very effective manager [who] created the atomic and hydrogen bombs.” The notorious Yezhov can expect to get the same treatment and be praised for his work in setting up the Communist Party’s internal control system.

The situation in Ukraine is very different, as a Kyiv press conference on June 1 showed. There officials and activists shared their plans for creating a museum of totalitarianism along the lines of those in Hungary, Bulgaria and Lithuania in which all the Soviet statues now being taken down could be placed (qha.com.ua/ru/kultura-iskusstvo/gde-v-kieve-budet-muzei-totalitarizma/160378/).

Vladimir Kadygrov, an art manager and activist, said that such a museum will serve three purposes: to support patriotic Ukrainians who want to know about their past, to mollify “retrogrades” by saving the statues rather than simply destroying them, and everyone by providing a new park in which Kyivans can relax.

Volodymyr Vyatrovych, the head of Ukraine’s Institute of National Memory, stressed, however, that he would not want to see the future museum of totalitarianism become simply a place for “stone idols.” It must be a base for research and education, so that the lessons of totalitarianism will be learned and transmitted to new generations.


Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia who has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau, as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The article above is reprinted with permission from his blog called “Window on Eurasia” (http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/).