There is a slavery museum on Gorée Island in Senegal, at a site where slave ships took their cargos of chained men and women to the New World. There is a museum at Tuol Sleng, the former high school in Cambodia that was a Khmer Rouge torture center. In Cape Town, South Africa, the District Six Museum commemorates a lively, historic, mixed-race neighborhood that was razed to the ground to enforce apartheid. A museum in Nanjing, China, attracts enormous crowds to view exhibits on the “Rape of Nanking” massacre by Japanese troops in World War II. And in Buenos Aires, there’s now a museum in the Naval Mechanical School, the building that was the most notorious torture center in Argentina after the armed forces seized power in the late 1970s.
All of these museums were established at sites where atrocities took place to commemorate those events and provide future generations opportunities to learn about crimes that should not be forgotten. Now, however, one such museum has been taken over to present a complete revision of the history it was intended to preserve.
This rewriting of history has taken place at the Perm 36 Gulag Museum near the Ural Mountains in western Siberia. Local Russian historians and human rights proponents established the museum at the site of an abandoned prison camp in 1992, the year after Boris Yeltsin became president of Russia. Its purpose was to commemorate the suffering of many millions of citizens of the Soviet Union who were sent to hard labor camps by the regime of Joseph Stalin between the 1930s and the dictator’s death in 1953 and, in lesser numbers, for years after he died. Some eventually returned to their homes, but the majority died in the camps from poor nourishment, cold, disease, overwork, ill treatment or some combination of these factors. By far, the largest number were sent to the camps for political reasons. They mixed with prisoners sent there for common crimes. Relations between the two groups of prisoners were sometimes a cause of further suffering.
The Perm Ministry of Culture took control of the museum in 2013. It was closed earlier this year by Russian authorities as “a foreign agent.” A Russian law, adopted in 2012, designates non-governmental organizations receiving any foreign funding that engage in political activities — defined as influencing public opinion — as foreign agents, a term in Russia approximately equivalent to saying that they are spies.
It was reopened this summer by Russian regional officials with ceremonies marking Russia’s revised version of its history. Now, the museum celebrates the role of the camps in contributing to the Soviet victory over the Nazis in World War II. So the back-breaking labor in which the prisoners engaged harvesting timber from the surrounding forest is no longer portrayed as forced labor; the camp is now to be celebrated for supporting the war effort by providing timber for war-related construction projects. It demonstrates that even criminals in Russian prisons joined in the patriotic struggle for victory. There is no mention of the political prisoners sent there simply for disagreeing with Stalin and his loyal followers.
The revised version of history now being presented at the Perm 36 Museum seems to reflect a trend in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia to develop a favorable image for the Stalin era. In the past, Putin himself had been somewhat ambivalent about Stalin. He praised Stalin as “an effective manager,” but he also took part in ceremonies in 2010 with Polish officials commemorating the 1940 Katyn Massacre. The Soviet Union had attributed that terrible crime — in which some 22,000 Poles, including about 8,000 Polish army officers, were murdered in the Katyn Forest — to the Nazis. In taking part in the ceremony, Putin acknowledged Stalin’s actual culpability.
More recently, however, Putin’s cultivation of ethnic nationalism has been the dominant political force in Russia. It has been intensified by the conflict over Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea, and includes such bizarre episodes as the public destruction of food imported from Western countries. The glorification of Russian history, extending even to Stalin’s totalitarian tyranny, plays an important part. Stalin may have made a few mistakes, but in Russian discourse now, his achievements are part of that glorious history. Above all, his victory over the Nazis — celebrated this year, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II — outweighs all else. Stalin’s collaboration with the Nazis for two years under the Hitler-Stalin pact, until it was unilaterally abrogated by Hitler, is largely overlooked.
It is sad that the relaunch of the gulag museum took place at about the time of the death of Robert Conquest at age 98. The British American historian’s 1968 work, “The Great Terror,” was the first effort to document comprehensively the crimes of Stalin. Along with the publication of Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech to the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th Congress in 1956 and publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s monumental “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1973, Conquest’s work helped to inform the world of the horrors of the Stalin era.
Instead, now the revised history on display at the Perm 36 Museum will help to instill Putin’s ideology of ethnic nationalism in the busloads of schoolchildren who visit to learn about their country’s past.