A Chance Find of a Hidden Diamond

by Kenneth Rayman on November 25, 2017

When I returned to Moscow in July, I was unable to secure a guide since its a high tourism time for the country, as such I wanted to explore as much as possible on my own. My first order of business was to get a SIM card so I could use my phone for GPS to walk; I wanted to use UBER sparingly since I didn’t want to over extend my expenses. Using my hotel as a home base I looked at the map for things that seemed walkable. One such place was the Gulag History Museum. I thought it was a great thing to do since I’d first heard about the Great Terror of the 1930s from the History Channel and it began my knowledge of Stalin as a merciless dictator. I knew, by then, the history of Communist dictatorships but intimate knowledge of Stalin’s paranoia was not part of that knowledge.

It was also away from the main attractions, in a nondescript neighborhood. I felt safe walking the streets where I was in the center ring so I relished the chance to see more of the concrete jungle of Moscow. I found my way to it easily but had I not known about it, I might have past it because the building reminded me of a neighborhood gymnasium. I bought a ticket but I decided against an audioguide headset (poor choice on my account).

The first thing you come to is a wide open, dimly lit room with audio sounds mimicking prison sounds (wind, chains waving in the wind, doors swinging shut, etc.) and prison doors on display from the various camps. It was surreal to actually see, having studied in detail and watched numerous documentaries on the Terror and Stalin’s Purges. The main exhibit starts with a collection of propaganda posters and the first screens you see are a scrolling list of names. Next are screens that show copies of the actual lists signed by Stalin ordering the arrests or executions of those listed.

I saw pictures of men I’d heard names of but not their actual roles and people that I didn’t know existed in the story of the Terror’s history until a year ago, men like Kliment Voroshilov, a Politburo member who was instrumental in the military denouncements (until then I only knew his face and his title and role within the government) or Genrik Yagoda who headed the first iteration of the State Security, the Cheka. Then came the previously unknown figure of Nikolai Yezhov, the leader of the NKVD in the 1930s during the terror. My Russian history class in college only mentioned the key figures like Lavrenti Beria in relation to the secret police, Yezhov was the fall man for Stalin when the early Purges reached their pinnacle. He was arrested by Beria, on Stalin’s order, executed and replaced by Beria.

Prisoners were shown through recorded interviews with survivors and videos of the show trials in the 1930s. Camp life was shown through relics of clothing and tools. It reminded me of the stories I heard growing up of the Japanese internment camps and of the Red Scare congressional hearings. One of the last things I saw was a map of the camps throughout the country of which the only one I was familiar was Kolyma, a gold mine in the far North that was infamous for it’s conditions.

The museum was a great place for my trip to begin to wind down and satisfy a historical curiosity. It was a grim reminder of a tragic time in Russia’s past that has so stained the American view of the country, it’s culture, and it’s people, that persists to this day.

A final thought on the museum, and it’s time period of the Cold War, is from Kenneth Branaugh in the CNN Cold War Documentary of the 1990s, “Both sides turned their fear inwards against their own people, they hunted the enemy within.”

I highly recommend this museum for visitors to Moscow to learn without filters or misinterpretations by a third party but from the Russian words of those who lived it.

Visit their website for more info!