I met my guide Natalia outside of the apartment at 10:00 am to begin our all-day tour of Moscow. We went around the corner to the bus stop across the street from the American Embassy. The bus took us close to our first destination of the day: the Gulag Museum.
The Gulag Museum is a large red rectangular building with numerous windows covered with closed wooden shutters. This is the first unsettling clue of what awaits inside.
The Museum, which was moved to this area from its former location closer to central Moscow a couple of years ago, is now open to individual visitors for self-guided tours, whereas before only group tours were accommodated. Natalia explained to me that this new iteration of the Museum was more elaborate, having been designed by professionals for a more realist atmosphere and the addition of more artifacts from the actual prison camps.
The atmosphere, including dim lighting and dirge-like music in some areas, was certainly evocative and creepy. In the first room was a large four-sided frame with about 8 to 10 actual doors from Gulag cells affixed to three of the four sides. Each door included a card, in both Russian and English, stating which camp the door was from. The worn and pock-marked doors were made of wood, metal, or a combination of both. Most had a small square window that opened out in the middle, presumably for the passing of food. All had sliding bars and heavy locks. The fourth side of the frame was open and I could see the interior of the doors – the side the prisoners saw for hours, months or years – that is, when they weren’t toiling in the extreme cold.
Standing in that dark entryway and gazing into the enclosed space with those doors, I was overcome with a sudden wave of nausea and had to sit down for a minute before continuing on with the exhibit. I had requested to visit this museum for educational reasons but wondered how much of this I’d be able to get through before wanting to bolt. Ultimately, I was able to push myself on for about an hour.
Various artifacts from the Gulag prisons could be seen hanging on the walls of this same room, such as a prisoner’s shirt, a small lantern from a cell, metal beds and benches, and a pair of handcuffs.
On one wall was a schematic illustration of one of the gulag prison camps before it was constructed.
In the next room were several glass cases. One displayed fragments of letters written by the prisoners on cloth, typically parts of clothing, as they were provided no paper. Another displayed pieces of wood with messages written on them by the prisoners, demonstrating their need to communicate with anyone who might see it. One case had items that had been made by some female prisoners, such as a utility box and shoes, constructed from whatever materials they could get their hands on.
In another room was a long table with photos and biographies of prisoners who survived the camps and wrote about it. A copy of some of the books written appeared in front of the author’s picture. Of course, the most recognizable was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The second to last room I was in had 3 video screen displays on one wall. The middle screen had a continually scrolling list in white against a black background of the names of those who’d been executed directly during the Great Purge of 1936-38. This would have been 700,000 to 750,000 people out of the 1.5 million that were arrested during that period.
The screen on the left had photos and a brief description of certain prisoners along with the dates of their arrest and execution. These people were engineers, teachers, military officers and other average people – all of whom had been declared “enemies of the people.” I stopped to study the faces of a few of these individuals – one man in particular stood out to me because of his sad eyes. I wondered if the photos were taken at the time of arrest (did he know his fate?) or if they were just everyday photos that may have been available.
The screen on the right had portions of actual lists of those to be arrested and executed projected on to it.
The last room I was in had a large television with video interviews playing of several elderly people who’d survived the prisons, discussing their ordeals, particularly their feelings about what life was like after they were released, including the process of becoming “rehabilitated.” After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and gradually released all of the prisoners, shutting down the Gulags and implementing a program of re-integration. Khrushchev later admitted that he’d had much blood on his hands from the Stalin era, but that he and many others knew that if they resisted they would have also been executed without a second thought.
I remembered one of the explanatory panels in the exhibit stated that Stalin’s goal was to “destroy the possibility of political opposition, to nip non-conformity in the bud.”
Natalia and I sat on the bench in front of the television talking about the video when a young man from Kazakhstan briefly joined in our discussion. Upon realizing that I was American he politely asked me some things about the United States, including Guantanamo prison. I answered his questions as best I could. He also mentioned that there were people in Kazakhstan – a part of the Soviet Union at the time – who lived in the old buildings there that had constituted some of the Gulag prisons. When Natalia and I expressed surprise at this, he simply replied that the buildings were sturdy so people put them to use.
We finally left the museum, both of us spent emotionally and spiritually. We went over to the old Arbat street, a charming area that had been closed to auto traffic in the 1990’s and turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare with shops, gardens, restaurants and sculptures. We passed by the Pushkin monument comprised of statues of the poet and his wife, across the street from the house they had lived in.
We stopped for lunch at a Russian buffet style restaurant and I asked Natalia her opinions about the Revolution, what alternatives (if any) might have prevented the Bolshevik coup in October of 1917 and the subsequent repressions, culminating in Stalin’s concentration camps and mass murder. We discussed Nicholas II’s tragic incompetence and whether the February Revolution, led by social democrats, would have had potential if it had been allowed to run its course.
We also talked about the Monument to Victims of Repression, aka The Wall of Grief, which will commemorate Stalin’s victims. I had originally requested to see this monument as part of the tour but was told that it would not open until October 13th, which is the officially designated day of remembrance for victims of repression in Russia.
Reportedly, Putin played a key role in getting this monument approved. Despite Western depictions of Putin as a dictator, he must arbitrate among different powerful factions when making his decisions. I imagine there were some factions that weren’t too keen on this monument.
400 artists competed for the opportunity to design the monument. The winner, Georgy Frangulyan, has designed a bronze wall that will have the names and figures of the victims. The Wall of Grief monument will cost around 400 million rubles and will be placed in the center of Moscow at the intersection of Sakharov Avenue (named after the famed Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov) and the Garden Ring. The history director of the Gulag Museum is overseeing the project.
Image of what the Monument to Victims of Repression will look like upon completion. Photo courtesy of Press Service of Russia’s State Museum of GULAG. https://www.rt.com/politics/317172-putin-orders-to-erect-monument/
I, of course, have my own opinions of Stalin – that he was likely a psychopath as well as a product of the Revolutionary milieu of his time that believed that the ends justified the means with regard to violence – but I believe it’s ultimately up to the Russian people to morally reconcile this part of their past, just like it’s up to the American people to morally reconcile the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans as the price of expanding and developing our nation. If Washington unveiled an officially supported monument acknowledging the Native Americans and the victims of slavery, it would represent an important step forward.
After lunch, we visited a park where the Elbe Monument was located. Dedicated in April of last year, the Elbe Monument commemorates the meeting up of the US and Soviet armies on a broken bridge over the Elbe River near Torgau in Germany on April 25, 1945. Some iconic images of the meeting are below:
The monument was much smaller than I expected and was one of several sculptures by the same artist at this location. Right next to the Elbe Monument is a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln shaking hands with his contemporary Alexander II. Alexander II, the reformist Czar, freed the serfs in Russia in 1861 and Lincoln freed the slaves by 1865. Alexander II had also sent naval support to the Union during the Civil War. Both were later assassinated.
We then took the Metro to another part of Moscow to go to the history museum that had a special exhibit on the Russian Revolution A bright young man guided us through the exhibit while Natalia translated. We concluded with an interesting conversation among the three of us about what might have averted the Revolution, Lenin’s motivations, what fueled his fanaticism, and whether he knowingly received assistance from the Germans for his journey from western Europe back to Russia in April of 1917 after which the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government. Subsequently, the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany under terms that were widely seen as humiliating to Russia.
Overall it was a fulfilling but exhausting day and I was glad to get back to the apartment so I could fall onto the bed. Later, I would begin processing what I had seen and learned.
Tomorrow we leave Moscow and go on to St. Petersburg by train.