Russia’s political history

Our second day in Moscow was full of cultural museums. We hopped on the metro (practically a tourist attraction itself) and went to the new Gulag Museum.

Nestled in a quiet neighborhood a few miles from city center, the Gulag Museum documents the lives of Russians who had the ill luck to be on the wrong side of Stalin’s regime. Labor camps began around 1920 as a way to punish monarchists, White Army sympathizers, and anyone not interested in the Bolsheviks in power. The first was housed in a monastery in the northwestern part of Russia, near the sea. At first it was all very hush-hush, and then Stalin took power.

Today Russians are pretty evenly split on their opinions on Stalin—about 46% think he was a sadistic, evil man while about the same number think he was a good leader, albeit flawed. I personally think that if WWII (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War) hadn’t happened during Stalin, people would have a much more unified, negative opinion of him. To many he’s the man who protected the Motherland and beat the Nazis.

Interesting story: not only were Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany allies in the 30s, but Stalin and Hitler were friends (at least, Stalin thought so). When the call came, telling Stalin that the Nazis had invaded and attacked without a declaration of war, he felt so betrayed that he locked himself up in a rural retreat for three days, grieving, until his advisors pulled him out and said he had to address the people and get the counter-attack moving.

In the 30s, under Stalin, the Soviet government became more paranoid, always worried about “enemies of the state” and “foreign influence.” Government agents routinely stalked civilians, then approached them for “questioning.” Once the person was taken in the black car, they didn’t come back.

“My mother went white with shock,” a survivor recounted on a video. “She said, ‘she must have her coat!’ and the agents said, ‘that is not necessary, we are just going to talk and she will be back tonight.’ Well, was I grateful to my mother for the fur coat! During the winter I would tuck my hands and feet inside the coat, and that’s how I stayed alive for the years I was in the gulag.”


We saw different doors used, heard recordings of the common sounds in a gulag, and saw old guard uniforms displayed. The most interesting parts, I think, were the survivors’ accounts streaming on tv screens throughout the museum.

Soviet prisoners would interrogate the suspects for hours or even days at a time. While they were held in cold, concrete prison cells, police would ransack their apartment to find proof they were American spies or disloyal to the party. One teenager had his poems used against him.

A woman said that during her sessions the interrogator would pause to use a phone, calling hospitals and clinics and doctors’ houses to search for penicillin. “My son is sick, he’ll die without the medicine,” he’d demand.

“Let the boy die, oh please, let the boy die,” she wished silently, sometimes bruised and bloody.

Finally, after days of interrogations (and sometimes torture), the guards would shove a piece of paper at them. “Sign this. It says you’re guilty of being disloyal to the party.”

One woman stood in complete shock, throwing the papers in the interrogator’s face. “I won’t sign it! I won’t! I’m not disloyal!” She said later that it hadn’t been on principle, but just in shock.”

Most were sentenced to 20 years of “corrective hard labor” and shipped far away. Russia opened mines, lumber companies, and railroad lines in far, remote corners of the country and forced millions of innocent people to work 13, 14 hours a day with little food. Often camps were over-populated and people had to share their twin beds with another prisoner. Shock therapy was used as a punishment, and mining was probably the worst labor camps. A few of the mines were in search of uranium, so of course their workers died frequently.


As word of the gulags got out to the general public, the government released marketing in support of the camps, claiming it was a cost-effective way to pull the country into modernity. They showed photos of people working while smiling, of promises of extra rations for hard work, and how much money the government was saving. These newssheets also were distributed in the gulags—a nice bit of gaslighting on top of the cruel and inhumane conditions.

Stalin died in 1953, and thousands, perhaps millions, of people silently rejoiced even while their neighbors cried in sadness. The very next day some villages tore down their Stalin statues and some of the gulags opened the gates, the guards allowing the people to walk free. Over the next three years changes in the Soviet government reformed the system, creating more oversight and less harsh punishments.

Unfortunately, not all gulags closed. The last closed in the early 80s. The end of the museum was dedicated to the writers and artists that had been imprisoned. Poetry and moving passages from their books were displayed on the wall and the books sat on a nearby table.

“They always go after the intelligentsia, don’t they?” Jordan asked as we left the building. “Undesirables and tiny ethnic minorities, then the educated.”

“Yeah, it seems so.” We reflected on the different museums we’ve visited. “If you kill the intelligentsia, there are no professors warning the people about what’s going to happen next. No doctors to tell you how inhumane conditions are. No judges or lawyers to tell you how illegal something is. No religious scholars to tell you how unethical the regime is.” It’s what they did in Soviet Russia, Pinochet’s Chile, Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, Eastern Europe and Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Mao’s China.

Jordan looked at me. “Where to next? Something more cheerful, right?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Pogroms come next.”


“We’re off to the Jewish Heritage and Cultural Center.”

“Pogroms?” Jordan cocked his head.

“Think Fiddler on the Roof.

“This isn’t going to be a happy day, is it?” Jordan pulled out the map and we started walking.

“Probably not,” I agreed.

It ended up being a bit happier than we expected—mainly because the Jewish Center’s exhibits were so well done. It definitely ranks up in the Top Five Museums we’ve been to.

After an 8-minute 4D movie on the beginnings of Judaism and Jewish culture, we wandered through exhibits beginning with and overview of the Jewish Diaspora and timeline—this was so helpful for me. I’d heard the terms Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, but was never quite sure what they meant. Primarily, they’re geographic terms. The Sephardic immigrated to Spain (and got hit with Ferdinand and Isabel’s Inquisition in the 15th century), the Ashkenazim immigrated to Eastern Europe, though mostly Poland. We even discovered a tiny sect of Jews in China! The museum mostly centered around the Ashkenazim.

As Jews moved across Europe to the west, Europe responded with strong anti-Semiticism. Many retreated back to Poland and surrounding countries, where they were more-or-less accepted into society in the 13th century. However, after the War of 1812 against Napoleon, Emperor Alexander I of Russia took control of the majority of modern-day Poland. Suddenly Russia had a pretty sizable Jewish population it didn’t know what to do with. Although the Ashkenazim had been considered more of a religious group rather than an ethnic group, that changed under Russia. They mostly tried to live as they always had, slightly separate on religious terms, but still involved in village business (towns with sizeable Jewish populations were called shetls, in a region the empire restricted Jews to, called “Pale of the Settlement”). However, laws were passed limiting their right to travel, abolishing their right to go to university, and more. Every so often a pogrom rolled through town. Soldiers encouraged anti-Jewish riots that usually ended with the destruction of Jewish property and the death of Jewish men. Restrictions grew tighter, and then suddenly Jewish boys were drafted into the military alongside Russian boys. In the later half of the 19th century there were all-Jewish platoons, Jewish military social groups, and more as the Jews struggled to retain their heritage while appeasing the ever-demanding empire.

By the turn of the 20th century Russia was spiraling downward. After WWI, which ravaged the Jewish homeland, anti-Semeticism exploded. Jewish reaction was varied—the older generation said that they had to keep their lifestyle, keep their heritage, and ignore the looting and burning (think Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof). The young villagers were tired of being poor, being looked-down on, and just wanted to make a living. A few looked to large cities, like Kiev (think Motel the tailor). And a few young people were revolutionaries, ready to bring political change across the empire, ready to protest and demand the right to attend university as full-fledged Russians (think Perchik). With much of Russia in an economic downturn after WWI, Russians were ready to blame anyone they could—anyone that appeared “other” and therefore suspect. Pogroms erupted again, more deadly than ever. With entire villages pushed out of their homes, a few emigrated west to Germany or Hungary, looking for land. The lucky emigrated to America.


When the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin expressly invited the Jews to join their cause, while the White monarchists tended to favor anti-Semeticism. Eventually, Jews that hadn’t left joined the Socialist cause. It didn’t really protect them, and in 1938 the Nazis attacked Poland.

From there the museum widened it’s scope, showing the Great Patriotic War from a general Russian history view, not just the Jewish angle (we were quite grateful, as we had little frame of reference for special angles of history).

We worked with a Russian girl in Argentina, and she had explained to us that WWII is as just a big deal to Russians as it is to Americans, perhaps more so. “Plenty of Russians are still angry with Germany,” she told us. “It’s a deep, deep scar.”

And as we watched old newsreels, warning citizens of air raids and sieges and how not to freeze through winter, we understood.  massive amounts of Jews were murdered, their bodies thrown into rivers, or they were made to dig their own mass grave, crawl down into it, and wait for a bullet to the skull. And then there was the Siege of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), one of the bloodiest sieges in all of the war. The battle was waged for months house to house, street to street, while civilians ducked and tried to avoid tank shells. Few survived.

“The snow was red that winter,” a Russian veteran recounted.

“We had no heat. We had no food. We melted snow, and that’s how we stayed alive,” another survivor remembered. “I remember a little girl, my age, coming up to me one morning and saying, ‘I have good news!’ And I said, ‘what is it?’ and she said, ‘My mother died last night!’ And I remember staring at her saying, ‘that’s good news?’ ‘Yes,’ she told me. ‘Now I have double the bread rations.’” The man shook his head. “That’s how warped our minds became.”

Through sheer determination and massive amounts of civilian manpower, the Russians pushed against the Nazis and took back their Motherland. It was a fight for their very survival, in ways that it wasn’t for the U.S. or even England, and the memory runs deep, perhaps even deeper than Americans’ collective memories.

After the war, during Soviet Russia, Jews were finally allowed to be true citizens. All racial restrictions were lifted off them, but it came at a high price—Judaism, the Torah, and synagogues were all outlawed. A few Bible stories were preserved by being recounted as fables in books printed by rabbis and Christian priests together.

And today, while the Jews have retained their rights they received in the Soviet era, there is still some anti-Semeticism they must deal with.


Jordan and I left the museum impressed with the sheer size and cutting edge exhibits. Videos played flawlessly, recording of folk music played whenever we walked past, and there were lots of interactive displays showing original 19th-century newspaper articles and government decrees. We highly recommend a visit to this museum.

Jordan and I had one last stop to make—the Novodevichy Convent. Hopping back on the metro, we crossed under the river and went south. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the massive clock tower chimed five o’clock, right when the museums closed. The complex is still a working convent, founded in 1524 by a Grand Prince of Moscow to celebrate taking Smolensk from Lithuania. According to the Lonely Plant guide, “From early on, the ‘New Maidens’ Convent’ was a place for women from noble families to retire—some more willingly than others.”


Our time in Russia was over, and we had to catch a plane that night. Russia was amazing, beautiful, complex, and enigmatic as we expected it to be.

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