Treading Difficult Ground

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Publicerad: 2012-01-17


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


This essay focuses on two emerging Russian institutions – Perm-36 Gulag Museum; Perm; and the Gulag History Museum; Moscow – to consider challenging questions about how; and why; the murder of around 15 million people through the Gulag system might be remembered in Russia. This topic represents a new and courageous intervention into the Russian landscape of public memory. During my professional contact at both institutions; conversation often turns to what I can share about comparable sites of this kind – particularly European Holocaust memorials that lie on authentic sites of genocide. Although the Gulag predated – and faroutlasted – the Holocaust; these European sites are the primary Russian reference point for this kind of national commemoration.

This paper is structured around three important issues that make a contemporary Russian politics of recognition problematic; vis-à-vis Holocaust memorials. First; it was socialist government-sanctioned designers and sculptors who; eager to expose these sites as evidence of Fascist atrocity; created the early (and sometimes defining) features of Holocaust memorials. The issue of how – or whether – to avoid this ideologically-driven formal design vocabulary is pressing. Second; beyond Germany; most European nations have managed to frame the Holocaust as a foreign perpetration of atrocity. These Russian memorial museums be unprecedented public attempts at historical self-incrimination. In discussion; an often-raised question is whether Russians are “ready for this topic.” This prompts another question: whether disturbing national histories are histories presented too soon; or whether they defy some impenetrable sense of national selfhood? Third; national memorials that document disturbing pasts can be geared towards both political reconciliation and social reawakening. While the political excavation of Perm-36 and the Gulag Museum at this point appear geared towards the former; might there be unexpected social passion around the result; where evidence and stories retrieved from the forced labor camps flow into other public dissatisfactions in the contemporary era. Addressing these three questions; my paper will describe my professional fieldwork at Perm-36 in comparison to my work at European Holocaust memorials; and; using my findings from my Memorial Museums research; I suggest ways forward for this Russian case.


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