Gulag History Museum

   - darkometer rating:  7 -
A unique museum in Moscow about the grim Soviet legacy of the Gulag system (cf. Perm-36!). It moved to this new location a few years ago and now has plenty of space. There aren't too many original artefacts on display, but the exhibition is state-of-the-art modern and very engrossing if you're into the topic. It's also a very important counterweight to all the resurging Soviet nostalgia in contemporary Russia.     
More background info: in general see under Gulag, Magadan and especially Perm-36 (the latter is the only preserved authentic Gulag commodified for visitors).
The Moscow Gulag museum was founded in 2001 by a former Gulag prisoner and well-known dissident. The first incarnation of the museum opened to the public in 2004.
For over a decade it enjoyed a surprisingly central location on fashionable Petrovka Street (Ulitsa Petrovka), where many a tourist came across it by chance. When the museum closed at that location and moved to the current premises, it was initially suspected in the West that this might be another case of the contemporary Russian state interfering with the commemoration of the darkest chapters of Soviet history (see also Perm-36).
However, the museum goes to great lengths explaining that the relocation was indeed a good move since the new place offers several times the floor space the old one had. It even shows a video of Putin himself overtly endorsing the museum's efforts (though you never quite know with Putin's media savviness …).
Yet while on the one hand, in practical terms, it may be better for the museum to be able to expand so much, the new location on the other hand requires a dedicated journey to a rather hidden address, and I doubt it will get as many “by chance” walk-in visitors as it had at the old address. It's just too far from the beaten tourist tracks.
But the museum designers certainly made the best of the new location and even the interior design alone is quite remarkable – see below.
What there is to see: Even from the outside, the building that houses the museum these days has a certain ominous look about it. It's a large brick block, five storeys high and all the windows on the first and second floor (where the museum exhibition is) are blocked by wooden shutters. It already gives you a sense of foreboding.
Inside you pay for your ticket and can pick up an audio-guide on the ground floor. You are quite strongly advised to use the audio-guide. As it turned out some of the labelling of exhibits is indeed in Russian only, but the larger text panels and the interactive screen contents all come with English translations of their own. But the audio-guide provides extra context.
You are then sent upstairs to the beginning of the exhibition.
The layout and design is quite unusual. The exhibition is on two levels, and you repeatedly have use black wrought iron stairs to go up one level, then back down again, up again, etc., to proceed through the different sections … and there is no natural light, since (as was already indicated) wooden shutters keep it out. So it's quite gloomy with all the exposed red brick and black stairs.
The first room of the exhibition is rather spartan. There are a few metal bed frames and lines on the floor indicate the size of cells in various Gulags/prisons (including St Petersburg's still working Kresty Prison). Furthermore there's a collection of cell doors retrieved from various such locations on special expeditions, all lined up in rows to form the walls of a “cell”. Other than that there's a small collection of a few more authentic artefacts in one corner, some info panels and a large map showing the layout of a typical Gulag. A video screen plays footage of an expedition to a remote former Gulag site (where one of those cell doors was taken from).
Moving on you can see a collection of propaganda posters, a big map showing the locations of the various Gulags across the territory of the (former) USSR, and additional text panels as well as interactive screens provide plenty of background information, e.g. about the great purges of the 1930s, the activities of the NKVD (the predecessor organization of the KGB), show trials, the hierarchies within Stalin's politburo, and so on. It's all available in English translations, whose quality is generally excellent, well above the standards you often encounter elsewhere in Russia.
The largest floor space on the ground floor is taken up by two rows of smaller display cabinets, their bases eerily illuminated, and containing a range of personal belongings of Gulag inmates as well as letters and hidden messages. Some items of clothing give you an idea of the cold conditions the prisoners had to endure. But there are also uplifting items such as makeshift toys for children and home-made games. The labelling here is all in Russian only, but an interactive screen to the left of the cabinets provides explanations in English.
One upstairs section is about the forced-labour system and some big construction projects that depended on it, such as the White Sea-Baltic Canal. The most interesting thing I learned here was the fact that the “prison-industrial complex” (as they call it here) was anything but profitable, despite workers not being paid anything. In fact the costs for prison camps, maintenance and supervision outweighed this. So the forced-labour system still had to rely on huge subsidies from the state. Forced labour was readily available and could be used flexibly, but the system operated at a loss! I would never have thought that …
Another big topical section is about the so-called Doctors' Plot of the early 1950s, when members of the medical profession, especially those working for government agencies, were purged on absurd counts. The denunciation of doctors was greatly pushed by the media too (as is amply illustrated in the exhibition). In a way it was a reflection of Stalin's personal distrust of doctors. Yet this may have come back to haunt him on 2 March 1953 when he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died three days later, while apparently doctors were too afraid to help (yet there are also conspiracy theories that Stalin may have been deliberately poisoned and that medical help was withheld intentionally). The following section about the mass hysteria at Stalin's state funeral rounds off this chapter of the USSR. Oh, and of course his death also meant the end of the persecution of doctors.
In a side room is a section with a number of selected personal stories, including some well-known names, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but also plenty of less prominent names (at least for a Westerner like me).
The final section is entitled “The Long Return” and is about the rehabilitation of Gulag victims. A series of filing cabinets and safes symbolize this – doors are left unlocked and you can take out files on victims.
In addition there is a large screen showing a film featuring former Gulag prisoners revisiting sites of their incarceration such as the Lubyanka. This was one of the absolute highlights of the museum in my view. Apparently it is one of the museum's projects to collect more of such first-hand accounts on video.
There is also a short video featuring President Vladimir Putin explicitly endorsing the Gulag Museum, its projects of documenting political repression and calls for a special monument to the victims of such repression. I was just a little bit astonished to see this endorsement here, to be frank …. though astonished in a positive way (even though I can't deny feeling some shadows of doubt over this).
All in all, I found the Gulag History Museum quite impressive and illuminating – more so than I had envisaged. The main exhibition is quite a text-heavy, though, so it's not an “easy” museum, and it's perhaps a bit thin on the original artefacts front, but that's more than compensated for by the excellent textual documentation and wealth of photos, posters, etc. – and not least by the very engaging film with former gulag victims. Overall: highly recommended.
Final note: the museum is a project under ongoing development so it is likely to further expand and change in the future. It also has a travelling exhibition and runs an education centre.
Location: in then north of Moscow, at 1-Y Samotechnyy Pereulok (1-й Самотечный переулок) No. 9, building 1, in 127473 Moscow.
Google maps locator: [55.7772, 37.6137]
NOTE that some sources still list the old address in the city centre (16 Ulitsa Petrovka), but that closed down a few years ago. Don't go there.
Access and costs: a bit hidden and out of the centre, but not too tricky to get to; reasonably priced.
Details: To get to the museum from central Moscow it's easiest to first get the metro line 10 (pale green) to Dostoyevskaya. From there it's a ca. 10-minute walk. You either have to fiddle through the housing blocks to the south of the metro exit across the road, or, to make navigation easier, first head down the main road Samotechnaya ulitsa, then turn right into Delegatskaya ulitsa, then second right (1-Y Samotechnyy Pereulok), which leads to the museum on your left.
Opening times: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., on Thursdays 12 noon to 9 p.m.; last admission is an hour before closing time. Closed on Mondays and the last Friday of the month.
Admission: 300 RUB (concession 150 RUB), free on every 3rd Sunday of the month.
The audio-guide costs another 300 RUB, plus you have to leave a 1000 RUB deposit.
Time required: I spent quite a long time in this museum, going through every section thoroughly, but I saw other visitors doing it at much greater speed. So you'll need something between an hour and over three hours, depending on how deep into the topic you want to delve.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Moscow.
Two other major sites are in the vicinity (though it would be pretty much impossible to do all three in a single day, which anyway would only be possible on certain days of the week because of the restricted overlap in opening times). The Central Museum of the Armed Forces is less than a mile (1.2 km) away to the north, so quite easily walkable. Just head back to Dostoyevskaya the way you came and then head north past the big Army Theatre and onwards along Ulitsa Sovetskoy Armii and the museum is on your right.
The Jewish Museum is also within reach. From Dostoyevskaya head north-west along Ulitsa Dostoyevskogo, then turn right into Ulitsa Obraztsova and keep going until you get to the museum entrance on your left. The walk there from the Gulag Museum is just over a mile (1.8 km).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing out here (except perhaps the Dostoyevsky Apartment Museum at No. 2, Ulitsa Dostoyevskogo) – you'd have to head back to the centre of Moscow for proper mainstream tourist attractions. 
  • Gulag Museum 01 - converted buildingGulag Museum 01 - converted building
  • Gulag Museum 02 - insideGulag Museum 02 - inside
  • Gulag Museum 03 - assorted cell doorsGulag Museum 03 - assorted cell doors
  • Gulag Museum 04 - cell spaceGulag Museum 04 - cell space
  • Gulag Museum 05 - relicsGulag Museum 05 - relics
  • Gulag Museum 06 - turn the wheel of historyGulag Museum 06 - turn the wheel of history
  • Gulag Museum 07 - locations mapGulag Museum 07 - locations map
  • Gulag Museum 08 - multi-level layoutGulag Museum 08 - multi-level layout
  • Gulag Museum 09 - display boxesGulag Museum 09 - display boxes
  • Gulag Museum 10 - with personal itemsGulag Museum 10 - with personal items
  • Gulag Museum 11 - masks against the coldGulag Museum 11 - masks against the cold
  • Gulag Museum 12 - inmate numberGulag Museum 12 - inmate number
  • Gulag Museum 13 - forced labour systemGulag Museum 13 - forced labour system
  • Gulag Museum 14 - individual storiesGulag Museum 14 - individual stories
  • Gulag Museum 15 - final filing cabinetsGulag Museum 15 - final filing cabinets
  • Gulag Museum 16 - camp-like fence and gateGulag Museum 16 - camp-like fence and gate



©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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