Museum of Contemporary History

   - darkometer rating: 4 -
A museum located in central Moscow, Russia, that is about modern Russian history, covering the 20th century, i.e. Soviet history in its entirety (with an emphasis on its latter phases), as well as contemporary Russian issues. It is especially interesting for the latter as that includes aspects that, especially from a Western perspective, can be seen as controversial, e.g. the coverage of the Crimean issue.  
More background info: The museum is housed in a grand mansion built in the second half of the 18th century that between 1831 and 1917 was home to Moscow's English Club, a prestigious and exclusive gentlemen's club whose members included Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy.
After the October Revolution of 1917 the building was selected to house a future museum about the revolution. Its first incarnation was the “Red Moscow” exhibition that opened in 1922, followed by the “Museum of the Revolution of the USSR”.   
At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (i.e. WWII in the Soviet Union) the museum's contents were largely evacuated for safe keeping. Yet it already re-opened in 1942 with an exhibition about the Red Army's heroism in fighting the German Nazis. By 1944, the Revolution museum was being reconstructed. In the decades after the war it continued to grow and also became major research centre.
The perestroika years saw substantial renovations to the building and an opening up of previously restricted access to some of the museum's collections.
After the collapse of the USSR, the museum was renamed, its full title is: “State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia”. New exhibitions were added, also covering historical periods before the Revolution, in addition to more modern/contemporary coverage.
Between 2014 and 2016 the museum received a complete renovation both of the façade (including the iconic lion sculptures on the front fence by the gates) as well as of the interior. Moreover, an all-new exhibition was added about Russia in the 21st century. Parts of the museum are still (as of March 2018) undergoing refurbishment, namely those covering the periods up to the 1980s and the one on the Moscow English Club, so those halls are currently closed to the public. The museum is scheduled to be back in full working order by 2020.
The museum also runs several branches both within Moscow (e.g. one in a former conspirational apartment with an underground printing press from the 1905-06 revolution) as well as outside the city. The memorial site at Katyn near Smolensk, for instance, is also under the aegis of this museum (cf. Katyn Museum, Warsaw).
What there is to see: Before rushing into the museum it's worth taking in the building as such, with its grand classicist columns and the little lions on the fence by the gate. There's also a funny-looking early armoured vehicle parked outside as an open-air exhibit.
When I visited this museum (in the summer of 2017) parts of it were still closed for refurbishment, so I can't report on its coverage of much of the earlier and mid Soviet periods.
On the other hand there was a special temporary exhibition about the 1917 October Revolution, to coincide with its centenary anniversary. Since this will by now have been replaced by something else, I won't say anything about that either. The earlier history parts, i.e. pre-revolution, I think I can skip here too, as they are at best of marginal interest from a dark-tourism perspective.
So we can jump straight to the really recent and contemporary sections, starting from the onset of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms in the USSR from the mid-1980s up to the dissolution of the USSR and continuing into post-Soviet Russian history.
All labelling of displays is in Russian only, as are many texts, but some material, especially on screens, also comes with translations into English, and there are general summaries at the beginning of each exhibition hall. Still, without at least some knowledge of Russian (or at the very least being able to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet) quite a lot of the exhibits will remain mute to international visitors, unless you have somebody to assist linguistically (which in my case I luckily had in the form of my Russianist wife).
In the first few sections about the late Soviet period Gorbachev's name features quite a lot, naturally, and sometimes in unexpected ways, e.g. there's a cheesy wooden sculpture of a “book of peace”, which apparently was a gift from the old Austrian town of Enns and “signed” by the founder of the “SOS Children's Villages” NGO. The kitsch level is upped even further with a sculpture featuring a gold-plated globe circled by doves of peace, which was a gift from the USA in 1987. All this is of course in recognition of Gorbachev's role in promoting peace, and in overcoming the Cold-War confrontation with the West (which began at a time when the anti-Soviet rhetoric by US president Reagan had initially made such a development look very improbable).
Darker episodes of this time included the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, which is also featured here, as is the final withdrawal of the Soviet military from its disastrous intervention in Afghanistan. The waning star of the Soviet Space Age achievements is illustrated by a model of the Buran space shuttle, a project that eventually had to be cancelled due to lack of funds before ever making it to an operational stage (see Cosmonautics Museum, Baikonur, and VDNKh).
A major turning point and arguably the final nail in the coffin of the USSR was of course the failed putsch of August 1991. The museum has some dramatic exhibits on this, including metal shields onto which people defending the White House in Moscow against the military painted the words “soldiers, don't fire on your brothers”.
Out of the defeat of the putsch came the new strongman Boris Yeltsin, who was the driving force in the unseating of Gorbachev and the eventual dissolution of the USSR and the formation of the looser CIS alliance.
Civil-war-like scenes returned to Russia not long after, in the crisis and power-struggle of 1993, when Yeltsin eventually even resorted to having tanks fire on the White House in Moscow in an attempt to consolidate his power. Again, the exhibition has a large number of artefacts from those days, including a bullet-hole-riddled glass door from the Supreme Soviet building, or bulletproof vests worn by people defending the Ostankino TV Tower and television centre at the time.
The next big turning point for Russia came with the resignation of Yeltsin and the takeover of the leadership by Vladimir Putin. You can listen to Yeltsin's 1999 New Year's Eve announcement of his resignation (video and headphones) and Putin's first address to the nation.
The Putin (& Medvedev) era is portrayed as one of economic consolidation and defence of national interests. But the exhibition does not fail to mention the problems either, such as the Chechen Wars and ongoing terrorism, the latter as one of the biggest issues Russia is still facing today. On display here is an ISIS flag, for instance (accompanied by a sign that hastens to emphasize that this is an illegal organization within Russia).
In terms of the issue of “national interests” one of the most interesting sections in this museum is that on what's referred to here as the “Reunion of Crimea with Russia”. Naturally the narrative here is very different from what the West's view on this topic tends to be, where it is regarded as a military annexation in violation of international law. In this museum it is described more as an act of self-defence in reaction (by a strong Putin) to the chaos in Ukraine, and of course as perfectly legitimate. To illustrate the latter, the referendum ballot used shortly after the Russian takeover to legitimize the annexation is on display. It doesn't look too good, though, that the “correct answer” on this displayed sheet is already pre-ticked in red …
The rest of the museum is devoted to less politically charged topics, such as improvements to housing and food standards, sports (especially the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi), the military, and, in particular, the economy, in which the nuclear and oil industries get especially celebratory coverage.
There is also a section about the great territorial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in Russia, followed by a rather strange section whose aim it is to emphasize the importance of “spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society” as equally important as political or economic stability. Other than calling for “fostering love for the Motherland” I couldn't quite figure out what the purpose of this final section really was. Maybe it is indeed just a general call for patriotism. But as this is clearly aimed at a domestic audience, it feels rather weird to the international visitor ...
All in all, this museum left me with very mixed feelings. Parts of it are quite fascinating, especially those covering the end of the USSR or the recent developments in Crimea. But many other sections I thought were rather tedious to work one's way through and often found myself wondering what it was all for.
Location: at 21 Tverskaya Ulitsa, in the north-west of the centre of Moscow, Russia, some 1.2 miles (2 km) from Red Square.
Google Maps locator: [55.7662, 37.6017]
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; not expensive.
Details: From the very centre of Moscow you could simply walk it (it's less than half an hour from Red Square), but you could also get the metro to either Tverskaya on line 2 (light green), Pushkinskaya on line 7 (purple) or Chekhovskaya on line 9 (grey), which are all interconnected at Pushkin Square, a couple of hundred yards from the museum.
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Wednesday when it is open from 12 noon to 9 p.m.; closed Mondays. Ticket counter closes half an hour before the museum.
Admission: 250 RUB (concessions for pensioners and Russian students: 100 RUB), under-16-year-olds and people with disabilities get in for free.
A photo permit costs 250 RUB on top (no flash or tripods), a video permit 500 RUB.
Guided tours are also available, as are ten-day combination tickets for all the museum's various branches (550 RUB).
Time required: Depends. If you want to read everything, including the not so contemporary bits, and if you know Russian well enough to be able to go through all the original material too, then you could possibly spend a good few hours in this museum. I was more selective and spent roughly an hour and a half in there.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Moscow.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Moscow
  • Contemporary History Museum 01 - grand buildingContemporary History Museum 01 - grand building
  • Contemporary History Museum 02 - vintage armoured vehicle outsideContemporary History Museum 02 - vintage armoured vehicle outside
  • Contemporary History Museum 03 - insideContemporary History Museum 03 - inside
  • Contemporary History Museum 04 - branchesContemporary History Museum 04 - branches
  • Contemporary History Museum 05 - exhibition about the revolutionContemporary History Museum 05 - exhibition about the revolution
  • Contemporary History Museum 06 - prison doorContemporary History Museum 06 - prison door
  • Contemporary History Museum 07 - anniversary yearContemporary History Museum 07 - anniversary year
  • Contemporary History Museum 08 - a shouting LeninContemporary History Museum 08 - a shouting Lenin
  • Contemporary History Museum 09 - Russians todayContemporary History Museum 09 - Russians today
  • Contemporary History Museum 10 - overviewContemporary History Museum 10 - overview
  • Contemporary History Museum 11 - Perestroika and GorbachevContemporary History Museum 11 - Perestroika and Gorbachev
  • Contemporary History Museum 12 - gift from AustriaContemporary History Museum 12 - gift from Austria
  • Contemporary History Museum 13 - kitschy gift from the USAContemporary History Museum 13 - kitschy gift from the USA
  • Contemporary History Museum 14 - BuranContemporary History Museum 14 - Buran
  • Contemporary History Museum 15 - soldiers, do not shoot at your brothers - 1991Contemporary History Museum 15 - soldiers, do not shoot at your brothers - 1991
  • Contemporary History Museum 16 - unrest in 1993Contemporary History Museum 16 - unrest in 1993
  • Contemporary History Museum 17 - protest relicsContemporary History Museum 17 - protest relics
  • Contemporary History Museum 18 - shattered glass doorContemporary History Museum 18 - shattered glass door
  • Contemporary History Museum 19 - severing old tiesContemporary History Museum 19 - severing old ties
  • Contemporary History Museum 20 - Putin partyContemporary History Museum 20 - Putin party
  • Contemporary History Museum 21 - the Russian perspectiveContemporary History Museum 21 - the Russian perspective
  • Contemporary History Museum 22 - the mark has been madeContemporary History Museum 22 - the mark has been made
  • Contemporary History Museum 23 - contemporary sectionContemporary History Museum 23 - contemporary section
  • Contemporary History Museum 24 - anthemContemporary History Museum 24 - anthem
  • Contemporary History Museum 25 - oil economyContemporary History Museum 25 - oil economy
  • Contemporary History Museum 26 - military strengthContemporary History Museum 26 - military strength
  • Contemporary History Museum 27 - ISIS flagContemporary History Museum 27 - ISIS flag
  • Contemporary History Museum 28 - present dayContemporary History Museum 28 - present day

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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