Arriving in Moscow in the early afternoon, we decided to head first off to the Museum of Gulag History. It’s probably not the usual first port-of-call in the city, but we wanted a sunnier day for the Kremlin and other ‘outdoor’ sights.
We’d been to smaller gulag museums, but this was far more extensive. I found it very interesting to learn about the persecution of Russians by their own government after having visited so many museums in Eastern European countries dedicated to the treatment of their citizens during the Soviet era. It doesn’t make it any better that they treated their own Russian citizens so terribly, but it helped me to work towards a slightly more complete picture.
Millions of people suffered through the gulags of Soviet Russia, with families torn apart and lives destroyed. The gulags are the ultimate symbol of political repression, and I felt that learning something about them would help a little to understand the Russian people. It’s hard to imagine living in fear of being deported to the other side of the country to labour camps for often ridiculous ‘crimes’. The museum also includes many personal stories and objects, which really brought home that it was individual people who suffered. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s easy to turn off when faced with statistics like ’18 million people passed through the gulag system’ – when you see photos and letters and items of the people this policy affected, it really hits you that each person was an individual, and had their own stories and experiences and trauma. And many more people would have been affected – friends and family, the community around them. One of the rooms in the museum contained a number of paintings by a man who survived the system, and the paintings are fascinating and terrible at the same time.
It’s not a happy place, but I think it was an important place to visit. And it meant that we had a lot more ‘happy’ places to go next.