INTERVIEW: ROMAN ROMANOV, DIRECTOR OF THE GULAG HISTORY MUSEUM, MOSCOW
The GULAG History Museum in Moscow, Russia, covers one of the darkest eras in human history. The GULAG – the acronym for the Russian translation of ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies’ – best embodies the repression of the Soviet system in which millions of “enemies of the state” were sent to forced labour camps between 1918-1960. It is estimated that GULAGs across the former USSR held some 20 million people, and around 2 million died as a result of disease, starvation, hyperthermia, and physical exhaustion. Some 700,000 were systematically executed on false charges between 1937 and 1938 during the period of Stalin’s Great Terror.
In this interview, James Blake Wiener speaks to the GULAG History Museum’s Director, Mr. Roman Romanov, about the museum and its recent relocation, the centrality of the GULAG in our understanding of Soviet history, and the research work being undertaken by the museum in remote regions of Russia every year.
James Blake Wiener: What events lead to the museum’s establishment and founding in 2001? Additionally, when did the museum move to its new location, which, I must say, resembles a prison camp?
Roman Romanov: Thank you for your interest in the GULAG History Museum activities! So, the GULAG History Museum was founded in 2001 by writer and historian Anton V. Antonov-Ovseenko, who survived a 13-year sentence at forced labour camps as an “enemy of the people”. Leading the civil movement of victims of political repression during the “Perestroika” era, Antonov-Ovseenko has sought to create a museum dedicated to this topic since the 1990s. He managed to gain the support of State Duma Deputies and the Moscow government, and finally, in 2001 the Museum was founded by the Moscow Department of Culture. Initially, we were based at a small building on Petrovka Street, but in 2015 the Museum relocated to a large separate house. It should be noted that the new location has no relation to GULAG history. As far as I know, the current building of the Museum was constructed in 1906 as a tenement for renting. However, during the reconstruction, we aimed to elaborate such a design that could reflect both the concept and the content of the Museum. As a result, we recovered the historical appearance of the facade, while the other walls of the building were covered with the copper panels. This architectural solution enabled us to make the building “alive” — the copper walls will darken with time, under the rain and snow. This turns the building into a physical metaphor of memory working through the trauma.
JBW: When one first enters the GULAG History Museum, they are confronted by a multitude of different doors — a door from a camp barrack, a door from a prison cell, and doors from the apartments or homes of individuals sent to gulags. How and why was it decided that this would be the best way to introduce visitors to the GULAG?
RR: During mass repression, no one was insured against accusation; the Secret police could literally knock on the door and take a person away forever. The doors at the beginning of the exposition are a metaphor of moving from a peaceful and prosperous world to another one, a terrible one, filled with despair, a world with interrogation, investigators, transit and distribution facilities and camps. There are numerous doors being exhibited in the Museum—a door from a camp barrack, a door from a cell in a remand prison in Magadan, a door from one of the Seven Sisters buildings in Moscow. From one of the doors the poet Mikhail Koltsov was exiled to the GULAG, cross-questioning and tortures were carried out after the other. These doors can tell us a lot, becoming a link between the past and present.
JBW: Your museum not only highlights the history of the GULAGs, but also the state-sanctioned system of political repression that endured until the 1950s CE. On display throughout the GULAG History Museum are various documents and personal effects belonging to victims from across the Soviet Union. How did the GULAG History Museum acquire these personal belongings and artifacts?
RR: That was a very time-consuming and complicated process to select which of the items to include in the permanent exhibition, mostly, because we were seeking to present the GULAG history through the human dimension. Thanks to the former prisoners and their families, we managed to get numerous letters and other documents. The governmental documents were discovered in state archives. For example, one of the objects from the Museum collections, a very special diary compiled in the form of a graphic novel in the 1940s, was donated to our Museum by Zoia Eroshok, a journalist of the Novaia Gazeta newspaper. A woman living in Siberia, whose mother took this book out from the camp in 1946 and thus saved it, sent this artifact to the newspaper office. The only thing known was that this diary had been created by a woman called Olga, who had probably worked at the meteorological station of Karagandinskiy Corrective-Labour Camp (Karlag, Kazakhstan). In collaboration with the GULAG History Museum, Zoia Eroshok started her investigation to identify the author of the diary and to reconstruct her story. Based upon preliminary results of Zoia Eroshok’s research, the museum’s staff requested information on the diary’s author at the archives of different secret police agencies, courts, and other organizations in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Overall, it took seven years to collect all the elements of the puzzle and to present it as a part of the exhibition. The result of the research was the following story: During the period of the Stalin’s Great Terror, in 1937, the author of the diary, Olga Ranitskaia, was accused of espionage for Poland and sentenced to five years in the Karagandinskiy Corrective-Labour Camp in Kazakhstan, where she worked at the meteorological station. While she was in the camp, her son Sasha stayed with his grandmother. It was for him that Olga created a handwritten diary entitled Meteo-Devil: Works and Days. It looks like a graphic novel and consists of 116 pages of drawings and witty verses on how the main character the Little Meteo-Devil, the author’s alter ego, endures the camp. In 1942, her 16-year-old son, Sasha, unable to live through the bullying from his schoolmates on his mother’s imprisonment, committed suicide. He had never seen his mother’s diary. In 2014 Zoia Eroshok donated this unique artifact to the GULAG History Museum. Impressed by this story, we published a copy of the diary in a small, handbook format, as well as elaborated the concept of the exhibition The Evidence, consisting of only one object, which personalizes the horrors of Stalinist repressions. The Evidence was later turned into a series, but the very first one was a handwritten book with drawings and verses created by the GULAG prisoner Olga Ranitskaia for her son Sasha.
JBW: Have any artifacts, in particular, raised considerable interest amongst your visitors? I found the tools made by GULAG prisoners were both fascinating and haunting, myself.
RR: As a rule, the exhibits related to children in the GULAG leave the strongest impressions. Numerous camps included “kindergartens” for children of the ages of 2-4. Some of them were born in camps, the others were taken there along with their detained mothers. The survival of these children depended on many factors, such as the camp’s geographical location and climate, its distance from the family’s place of residence and, consequently, the duration of transportation, and, finally, the general attitude of the camp’s staff, educators and nurses. For instance, we exhibit children’s stockings and slippers that little Svetlana Turchinova wore in prison, where she was spending time as part of her mother’s sentence. When they arrived to the camp, she was around one year old. Someone from the prison staff, taking pity on Svetlana, bought these stockings for her.
JBW: It surprised me that I was able to take a virtual-reality (VR) tour of the Butugychag camp in the Russian Far East while at the museum. How would you describe the museum’s layout and Interview with the GULAG Museum — OCA Magazine Autumn 2019 2 organization, and how does the museum utilize other interactive and multimedia tools to better explain the painful history of the GULAGs?
RR: From the very beginning the integration of the VR into our permanent collection was a goal for the museum’s new incarnation. In a broader sense, the VR supports the museum’s pedagogical goal: educating the public about the horrors of the Soviet penal system using the tools of “entertainment”. Based upon an expedition to a former GULAG camp, the VR experience confronts the viewer with the material reality of Russia’s past. Moreover, last year we released the Interactive map of the GULAG — a permanently updated database of the history and geography of GULAG camps. This project shows the scale of the Soviet punitive system with prison camps scattered across the entire country — from the Baltic Sea and the Crimea to Chukotka. The map shows the birth and the evolution of this phenomenon, its climax in the times of the Great Patriotic War, and the eventual decline in the year of 1960. Touching the red spot on the map, the visitor opens a window containing geographic, historical and economic information about each camp. It is available online in English and Russian, so you can see it without visiting the museum on the website (gulagmap.ru). This year we commenced integrating the GULAG interactive map into regional museums all over Russia.
JBW: I was intrigued to learn that your museum undertakes research trips to the remote corners of the Russian Federation on a regular basis. What projects is the GULAG museum currently overseeing, and how are these research expeditions altered our collective understanding of the GULAGs?
RR: Yes, we regularly undertake expeditions to the former camps. For example, this summer we visited Nakhodka, Magadan region, the former camps in Kazakhstan. We usually return from these research trips with objects of everyday camp life, work equipment, personal belongings of prisoners and other valuable artifacts. During these trips, we take photos and videos of the camp ruins. We thoroughly scan the place with a quadricopter, making 2d and 3d scans to create a detailed mapping system of the place. With time, these objects disappear, so our most pressing concern is now to preserve these sites or, at least, to capture them, using modern technologies. In some cases, we manage to preserve the former camps assigning them heritage status as we did with the Chaunski Dalstroi camp. Heritage status is equal to a guarantee of the conservation of the camp construction, protection of the site and availability of the area to researchers.
JBW: I saw so many young people while visiting the museum. Several were crying, as they had relatives and ancestors interned in the gulags. Why should people — especially young people — visit the GULAG History Museum? What lessons do you hope can be learned through a visit?
RR: I think the new generation of Russian people understands that the origins of our present lie in the Soviet past. I see a lot of creative and independent-minded young people in Russia, and, as I believe, they are striving to realise what actually happened to their families in order to move forward. It is not a surprise that almost every family in Russia and the former Soviet republics suffered from the repression. So I think it is a kind of post-memory with the Soviet basis. They are striving to understand the past they were excluded from. I believe this knowledge can provide a basis for a strong and truly free nation, as well as serve as a reminder that we should not let this happen again.
Roman Romanov is the head and chief curator of the GULAG History Museum (Moscow, Russia). He received his MA of Psychology at the Russian Academy of Education. In 2012 he also completed the program in Museum studies. Romanov started his career as a volonteer at Optic Theatre, where shortly after he became the deputy director. From 2005 to 2008, he worked as a chief manager of Modern Museum Technology company. In 2008, he was appointed as the deputy director at the GULAG History Museum, which he has been heading since 2012. Being the head of the Museum, Romanov initiated the expansion of administrative and exhibitional areas of the Museum, the relocation of the Museum and its collection to the new building, as well as increasing staff. Under his leadership, the Museum turned into an international museum and a research centre. In 2018, Romanov joined the Presidential Human Rights Council. In 2014, he was given a Moscow Award as a Manager of the Year in Culture. In 2018, he also got special acknowledgment from the Moscow mayor for the development of Russian culture and was awarded the Order for Service to the Motherland for contribution to the development of the Russian culture, Art and Media.