He defied the system, and though he paid a terrible price, the book and the knowledge it contained outlived that system.
The exhibit, which opened this month at the Museum of Political History, explores the relationship of the individual to the power of the state. Housed in the former mansion of the ballet dancer Mathilde Kschessinska, who was the mistress of Nicholas II, the museum was 10 years in the making and is, in a significant way, more relevant in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than when it was conceived.
Yelena Lysenko, who helped plan the exhibit, said the idea was to show the effects of state power — and resistance to state power — on personal life, through documents, photos and artifacts. A snippet of a century-old moving picture hints that Nicholas II, the last czar, was thinking of the good of his family when he abdicated the throne. An open drawer, in what might be thought of as a cabinet of perestroika, reveals a yellowy photo of a woman selling her household goods, spread out before her on the ground, by an old, beat-up Soviet car.
A tin lunch pail, raggedly pierced by bullets, belonged to a soldier in besieged Leningrad during World War II. A tin bowl, intact, was used by one of the crowds of ordinary people who, for three tense days, stood up against the failed Soviet coup of 1991.
Portfolios hold the summonses, verdicts and poignant letters of Stalin’s victims. A woman is photographed standing in a field of bodies: It is the Russian civil war in the early 1920s. You can’t quite tell whether she is bewildered or jaded.
Between 8 million and 13 million people died in that war, and an additional 2 million left the country. There were 4 million to 7 million abandoned children, Lysenko said, “and these are the people who then began building the Soviet empire.”
“Labor in the U.S.S.R. is a matter of honor, valor and heroism.” So said a sign posted at a prison camp.
“The people who had been in the gulag tried not to talk about it,” Lysenko said. It was shock at what befell them, but also humiliation and fear, and a conviction that no one would believe them. Solzhenitsyn broke that ice jam with his history of the gulag. Maybe, thanks to people such as Moskvin, that was the moment the Soviet state was doomed.
The exhibit begins with the Decembrists, who plotted a failed revolt in 1825, and it ends — ironically, perhaps — with a copy of today’s Russian constitution, which, like its Soviet predecessor, guarantees freedom of assembly and speech. Those rights have been sorely tested by the protests of the past year and the crackdown that followed.