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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Is Russian Indifference more Horrifying than the Gulag Itself?



The Moscow Times reports:

The barbed wire and watchtower visible through an archway across from the Marriot Hotel stand in stark contrast to the restaurants and upscale boutiques on Moscow's fashionable Ulitsa Petrovka.They are part of one of the city's most unusual, and neglected, museums, devoted to educating people about the horrors of the Soviet forced-labor camps.

"Our main idea is to document what happened, to show personal memories and to be accurate," Gulag Museum guide Oleg Kalmykov said. Kalmykov dresses in a typical prison guard's uniform as he leads visitors through the museum. Twelve photographs of political prisoners who died in the Gulag, such as theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold and Comintern chief Nikolai Bukharin, hang in the courtyard.

The museum basement has a mock up of a Gulag barrack and camp office. "The coat is genuine," said Kalmykov, pointing to a heavy, wool coat hung up on the wall of the office. Kalmykov knows it is genuine because it belonged to his grandfather, who served as a prison camp guard. His other grandfather was a prisoner in the same camp. "One grandfather was imprisoned, the other guarded," said Kalmykov. "In Russian families there are lots of these kind of tragedies."

The museum impresses on visitors the enormous size of the Gulag system. A large map of the Soviet Union shows the vast network of camps across the country. It provides information about the colossal construction projects driven by prison labor, such as the Moscow-Volga Canal, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The map shows there was even a camp on Vrangel Island, one of the most remote and inhospitable places in a country with a lot of competition for that title. The camp was probably built to provide a runway for U.S. planes bringing Lend Lease aid, Kalmykov said. Pictures by former prisoners in the camps hang on the museum's walls. Igor Abrosov's pictures, which used to hang in the Tretyakov Gallery, tell of his father, Pavel Abrosov, one of the founders of the Sklifosovsky First Aid Institute, and of his sufferings in the Gulag.

The city-funded museum was originally conceived as a four-story complex complete with video displays, a chapel and numerous exhibition halls. Three years on, however, the museum occupies just 300 of the 3,000 square meters it was promised, and it faces pressure to move to a less expensive location, director Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko said.

Antonov-Ovseyenko, 82, spent 12 years in the camps. His father, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, was a revolutionary who later became a prosecutor in 1934-36. He said the museum was needed because it touched nearly everyone in the Soviet Union.

"The Gulag touched every second family," he said.

The museum, which works with the Federal Archive Agency, is currently limited to an exhibit about political prisoners in the Gulag, acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps. A system of forced-labor camps was created in 1919, shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power. After a series of organizational changes in the 1920s, the system was consolidated as the Gulag in 1930. By 1936, it held some 5 million prisoners. The Gulag was filled in three main waves -- during the collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the purges of 1936-38 and immediately after the end of World War II. Estimates vary as to how many prisoners passed through the system; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose book "The Gulag Archipelago" first revealed the horrors of the system to people around the world, claimed that 40 to 50 million people served lengthy sentences in the Gulag from 1928 to 1953.

Some Western scholars estimate that as many 30 million people died in the camps from 1918 to 1956.

LR: That's more Russians killed by the Russian GULAG than by the German Nazis.

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, the population of the camps decreased dramatically as the result of mass amnesties. The Gulag itself formally ceased to exist when its activities were taken over by various ministries and the camps were placed under a new organization, the GUITK, or Main Administration of Corrective Labor Colonies. The museum originally intended to deal with this tragic history in all its complexity, as well as the history of prison camps in the Soviet satellite states, but funds -- and public interest -- were lacking.

Fewer than 3,000 people visited the city-funded museum from 2005 to 2006, the only years for which data are available. On a good day, a dozen people might come through its doors. And with so few visitors paying the 30 ruble to 70 ruble entrance fee, the museum will not be able to expand on its own anytime soon.

Antonov-Ovseyenko wants to attract private sponsors, as he fears that city support will dry up or will be used as leverage to move the museum to a less desirable location. Last Friday was a typical day at the museum. Apart from a group of French schoolchildren in the morning, the only visitors were a local pensioner and an English tourist. "It is of little interest for the new generation," said Antonov-Ovseyenko. "They are interested in television and the Internet, while the older generation is tortured by daily life -- how their pensions are not enough to live on."

Supporters of Stalin sometimes come to the museum and insist that the Gulag never happened, Kalmykov said.

The museum is better known among foreigners than Muscovites. "I walked past and there was a sign. It is not in my guidebook," said Lucy Bell, a software engineer from London, just before she was taken to the mock-up of a camp barrack in the museum's basement. "It is really interesting." Despite a paucity of public interest, Antonov-Ovseyenko is convinced the museum is increasingly necessary in a society seemingly intent on whitewashing its past. "It's as if nothing happened," he said, "The process of rehabilitation of Stalin has begun, and even [secret police chief Lavrenty] Beria, and it needs to stop."

In January, NTV launched a series called "Stalin Live," which has been criticized for glamorizing Stalin.

"This kind of museum is essential," said Tamara Agafonova, 75, whose father was shot in 1943, and who was then exiled with her mother to Siberia. "For me it is very important that it exists." Agafonova volunteers at Return to the Truth, a group that helps former political prisoners who are retired or disabled. There are other museums that deal with the Gulag. Perm-36 is a museum based in a former camp near Perm, closed in 1988. Israeli politician Natan Sharansky was a prisoner there. The human rights group Memorial also has a small museum, as does the Sakharov Center, but the Gulag Museum is the most comprehensive.

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