История – не что иное, как деятельность преследующего свои цели человека». Маркс, Энгельс
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Exhibition “GULAG: Traces and Testimonies: Return from Nonbeing”

13 июля 2012

Exhibition “GULAG: Traces and Testimonies: Man’s Return from Nonbeing” opened on April 29, 2012 in Neuhardenberg Castle near Berlin. Its name has not been chosen at random: this exhibition does not claim to present the complete history of GULAG. Instead, it creates a visual image of GULAG and places our memory in the cultural context of the European reflection. It implements an idea of reviving a person’s biography and life experience from the “camp dust.” Irina Scherbakova, Director of Educational Programs at International Memorial, speaks about the exhibition, its concept and opening ceremony.

Exhibition “GULAG: Traces and Testimonies: Man’s Return from Nonbeing” is based almost entirely on materials from the archives and museum collections of International Memorial. Its concept and scenario had been formulated in partnership with The Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Museums Foundation1.

Memorial has already had experience in organizing exhibitions about GULAG outside Russia. For example, an exhibition in Italy a few years ago was almost twice as large as the one in Germany, and focused on the history of repressions in the first place. There was also an exhibition in the Geneva Museum of Ethnography but it attempted to present a broader picture, too. The German exhibition is rather small-scale and even laconic. Its objectives are more global, on the one hand, and methodological and awareness-building on the other hand. Therefore, a visitor is able to grasp its material in all entirety and make a clear picture of it. The exhibition seems to create an image of an archive, an image of memory, and gives an idea of what Memorial collects in its archive.

This exhibition had to be held in Germany some time or other for different reasons. Firstly, this country has its own experience of totalitarianism and a very well developed museum culture. There are monuments in almost all places that are related to the Nazi terror if these places no longer exist. If the places do exist there are museum centers (e.g., on the territory of former concentration camps). The culture of memory about repressions in the GDR (East Germany) is interesting, too: important memorial centers are being established in the areas where prisons belonging to the Ministry of State Security (Staatssicherheit) were located, e.g. in Potsdam.

But an exhibition about GULAG, an exhibition that would tell about soviet history, has not been held [in Germany] so far. Why? This question requires a long answer but we can try to make it short. The Cold War and its “hawks” hindered it. It is not by chance that left-wing intellectuals and the generation of 1968 had been fighting the Cold War dogmas for such a long time, and opposing anticommunism that had not been reflected on and even deserves to be called “fundamentalist.” There was fear that any exhibition of this kind would be made in the spirit of propaganda of the Cold War, and in this case it certainly would have been anti-historical. This was one of the reasons.

Another reason is in that many pro-communist people lived and still live on the territory of former GDR. They simply do not want to recognize and admit this past (this is very similar to what we have in Russia).

The third important reason is this: there were concerns that an exhibition about GULAG might make the history of [Nazi] concentration camps less frightful. Everybody recalled a debate with Ernst Nolte in the first half of 1980s when almost all historians turned away from him. Nolte argued that the crimes of the Nazi Germans were not uniquely evil and repressions were practiced in other countries, too. Many historians suspected at that time that he wanted to dilute the guilt of the German people and shift it over to the whole mankind.

All this explains why the exhibition about GULAG had been delayed for a long time despite Memorial’s long-lasting contacts with Germany and the Germans’ admiration and sympathy with its collections and documents.

It is not by chance that a professional museum center set to organize the exhibition and that management of the Mittelbau-Dora Museums contacted Memorial. Former NKVD camps (the so-called “special camps” that were established after the war) were located on the territory of their museum in Buchenwald. A motley crowd of people, from members of the Nazi parties to many innocent individuals, Russian citizens and Russian emigres, were kept in these camps, so the museum people had some experience of working with this topic. Furthermore, Memorial and Mittelbau-Dora Museums had experience of running joint projects (e.g. when they prepared an exhibition on forced labor).

This is why a decision was taken to continue cooperation and make a new exhibition – about GULAG. The Neuhardenberg Foundation provided support. This explains why the exhibition opened in the Neuhardenberg Castle. A place close to Berlin, it is a former Prussian estate of Neuhardenberg who had been shot by the Nazis as a member of the [anti-Hitler] plot on July 20, 1944. The estate later became part of GDR’s territory, was nationalized and fell into decay. After unification of Germany it was handed over to the Foundation which now holds regular exhibitions here.

“GULAG: Traces and Testimonies: Man’s Return from Nonbeing” will move from the Neuhardenberg Castle to the Schiller Museum in Weimar this summer. A special complimentary program will be arranged for the exhibition (some of its components are already employed in the Neuhardenberg Castle): methodological materials for guided tours are ready, and an audio guide will be available to help visitors understand what is displayed. We hope that after Weimar the exhibition will travel to various other locations including those outside Germany. It would certainly be wonderful if the exhibition could be brought to Russia, the more so that its format is quite acceptable for our visitors.

The exhibition will be of interest in Russia in terms of its approach to the display of history: visitors should be taught to understand that the exhibition area might not be overloaded with artifacts. On the other hand, the Russian exhibition could include more documents and have a broader context because we here in Russia know more about this history, after all. But it turned out to be a laconic project as well as an all-embracing one for the Western visitors. We cannot say, though, that an ultra-modern solution had been offered because this way of presenting materials fits in with a certain well-established tradition.

While speaking about oral history, we always emphasize that a person cannot tell us how things had actually happened. He recalls things that he can recollect here and now, and his recollections are from the perspective of today. Similarly, it is impossible to reconstruct history exactly “as it was” when people try to find arrangements that would be suitable for an exhibition. All attempts to offer reconstruction that would be as verisimilar as possible would turn into a sort of Disneyland attraction in that it would be false. There are projects in this area, such as the State Museum of the History of GULAG where dummies of victims and guards are displayed. But there is a richer project in this respect, e.g. the House of Terror in Budapest which also tries to immerse a visitor in the old days – and this is an extremely challenging task. The result is something between historical kitsch and a game play with a visitor. Reflection on what traces of the past have been preserved can be a way out of this situation in a case when the immediate historical experience could not be communicated.

The GULAG exhibition begins with a conventional image, a symbol which demonstrates the difference of our system from the German one. This symbol is Tatlin’s Tower. Its model is placed at the entrance to the exhibition but as a visitor goes on he finds himself in another area where this tower transforms itself into a dismantled structure which symbolizes anti-utopia. These ruins are made of genuine museum pieces. These include broken plank-beds, a window frame with bars on it (brought from the Solovki camp) and a rusty sledge that had probably been used for transporting coal somewhere in Kolyma. Tatlin’s Tower symbolizes a dream about a new world where man would find himself – a brave new harmonious world. The contrast to this dream is a rusty wheel which takes us back into Middle Ages. A mining pick and a barrow come to be the main items of this “new world.” Instead of utopian projects of the future, a frightful Platonov-style anti-utopia of an endless foundation pit is in store for us.

One of design elements is a map of the USSR which the organizers turned upside down in a special way, as if making the country prance. There is a small dark area in the central part of the exhibition, behind the map, where visitors can see a 20-minute film presenting numerous biographies. A lot of additional information is in the touch screens (figures, statistics, division into periods, e.g. waves of repression, etc.). It looks as if exhibition materials are put in large archival cases, and each “case” presents an aspect of the topic.

At the same time the composition of the exhibition is simple and austere, with no excessive repetitive details. For example, Memorial has many similar objects in its collection, and an idea occurs at times that as many similar objects should be displayed as possible (there is a rich collection of embroideries or hand-made skullcaps or quilted jackets), thus making the effect stronger. This cataloguing principle is employed in several museums, by the way. For example, the Katyn memorial center displays many items that had been found during excavations. But in this case the organizing team chose a different way, i.e. generalizations. The display case shows only one object but it is a very vivid object.

Arseniy Roginsky who spoke at the opening ceremony said that a camp never has color. Prisoners do not pay attention even to nature. And the exhibition does convey this absence of color to some extent.

The last part of this exhibition focuses on the work of Memorial. The first photos of its constituent assembly are displayed, with Elena Zhemkova and Andrey Sakharov who was elected as chairman of Society Memorial. There is also a case highlighting dissident samizdat publications. It displays typewriter Erika, Solzhenitsyn’s first publications and a samizdat manuscript. I contributed my own copy of The GULAG Archipelago, a small pocket book that was published in Italy and printed in very small font on cigarette paper. The title page says “Flanders Travel Guide” – as if it could hide what the book is about.

Almost all exhibits, with very few exceptions, are from the collection of International Memorial. A few suitable photos were borrowed from GARF (the State Archive of the Russian Federation) because this archive has one drawing made by Kersnovskaya, and a few items were borrowed from the archive of Osteuropa Forschung.

Dr. Volkhard Knigge, Director of the Buchenwald Museum, spoke at the opening ceremony. He thanked us and emphasized the importance of Memorial’s collections and those materials that helped to create the image of “another memory.” He said that the exhibition followed the same principle which is underlying our archive and museum, i.e. the return of man from nonbeing. The return of a person’s biography and life experience from the GULAG ashes. This exhibition is not about the history of GULAG, nor does it speak about its perpetrators. This is an exhibition about victims. It is the victims of GULAG that had built the archive and museum of Memorial.

Arseny Roginsky, Chairman of the Board of Memorial, made a great impression on the audience because he spoke about his own experience. He was born almost in a GULAG camp, and when he met lines of prisoners on his way to school he took it as something natural. Children of exiles or released prisoners were in his class, and this school world did not divide into parts in the same way as barbed wire divided people. He also related how he himself was put to a camp in early 1980s. He recalled that his barrack was built in 1929, his clothes (cotton wadded jacket and head cap) were not very different from those that prisoners wore in the first decades of the century and that many morals, manners and customs of those earlier years remained very much the same.

About three hundred people were present at the opening ceremony, which is a large number for this kind of place. Many of our colleagues were present, as well as representatives of foundations, people who study this topic, people who study the works of Varlam Shalamov, Slavic scholars, and activists. The event had very good media coverage including from Tagesschau, a daily TV news program which wired a special news report about this exhibition and presented it as the main cultural news event.

Exhibition “GULAG: Traces and Testimonies” (detailed information is available on the Internet in the German language) helps to create a visual image of GULAG because we do not have such a visual image. On the other hand, it places our memory in the cultural context of the European reflection.

Irina Scherbakova’s narration was taken down in writing by Natalia Kolyagina

References (in German):

  • 1. Research directors: Prof. Dr. Irina Scherbakova, Prof. Dr. Volkhard Knigge. Curators: Ricola-Gunnar Luthgenau, Nikita Okhotin, Bodo Ritacher. Design project: Hans Ditter


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