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But Moscow's little-visited Gulag Museum tells a darker history of the Soviet Union and Josef Stalin.
The Gulag Museum tells a different story.
The entrance mimics the gates of an average labor camp. Inside, scores of documents detail the Soviet leadership’s decision to set up the prison network to purge society of perceived enemies and provide a free workforce for the massive infrastructure projects that would industrialize the nation.
There are boots and chains from Magadan, the site of Russia’s most notorious camp. One wall is devoted to the tale of Georgiy Zhzhyonov, a famous Soviet actor imprisoned for speaking to an American on a train. Another is devoted to Bulat Okudzhawa, Russia’s Bob Dylan, who lost most of his family to the dreaded Gulag system.
“The museum is devoted to the people who suffered in the camps, for no reason. Many have yet to be rehabilitated,” Kalmykov said.
It was opened in 2004 by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, the son of Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, one of the fathers of the Bolshevik Revolution who was killed during Stalin’s purges in 1938. The son was arrested two years later, at the age of 20, and interred in the Gulag until Stalin’s death in 1953.
About 30 people visit the museum every day, and it stands a small testament to the suffering of millions. It is not a federal museum, approved instead by city authorities.
Passing through a model of an average Gulag camp room, with a hard wooden bed and snowy scene painted on the windows, Kalmykov got a call from a Spanish tour group due to visit the site the following week.
“I wish more Russians would come to the museum,” he said. “It’s we that need to learn history.” Remembering Stalin’s crimes doesn’t suit the national project to re-write Soviet history as one of glory, both at home and abroad. As European nations gathered in Poland last week to commemorate the start of World War II, Russian officials caused an uproar by praising Stalin and releasing documents that allege that Poland started the war.
Russians — both officials and average citizens — have reacted particularly harshly to a resolution passed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in July, which condemned both Nazism and Stalinism equally.
Few can answer why the cult of Stalin is being reborn now. Lev Ponomaryov, a prominent human rights activist, said it is the cult of authoritarianism being promoted by Putin, its latest Russian incarnation.
“To revive a totalitarian regime, they need to hold Stalin up as its shining star,” he said.