Learning from history — experience of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century

The website "Learning from History" is a publication platform for educational projects dedicated to the history of Poland and its neighbors in the 20th century and human rights

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The Battle for the Past

As Andy Potts writes “Russia’s culture ministry, headed by the ultra-patriotic Vladimir Medinsky, is barreling into another row over the country’s recent history. The abrupt withdrawal of funding for Perm-36, a museum on the site of a former gulag camp in the northern Urals, has outraged many who believe that Russia is embarking on a dangerous game of whitewashing its Soviet past.”


He describes the ideals of museum’s supporters following: “The museum’s supporters have put up a petition calling for renewed support for what they regard as a valuable guardian of Russia’s national conscience. Representatives of Memorial, Russia’s society for the remembrance of the victims of political repression, state their case eloquently before the governor of Perm Region, Viktor Basargin.”

“For those who suffered in the years of repression … the memorial museum has been and remains an monument to the innocent victims, to our parents who died in the Gulag labor camps,” the statement reads. “Activities like the museum in Perm Region were a confirmation for us that the regional and national authorities have learned from the past and are ready to do everything necessary to prevent a repeat of the national tragedy of the 20th century.“

The conflict goes on thanks to the activities of the opposite party: “In the opposite corner, state-backed TV channel NTV produced a documentary for nationwide broadcast which described the camp as a home for fascist sympathizers and Banderites – the current slur of choice during the on-going Ukraine crisis. The film alleges that the museum itself endorses fascism.The same rhetoric gets plenty of coverage on the conservative nakanune.ru website. Amid headlines complaining about falsification on the pro-museum petition, the site also ran an extended piece detailing an open letter to Putin calling for the site to be closed.”

Potts remarks that “Perm-36 is unusual precisely because it is the only Soviet Gulag that was converted into any kind of museum. While other sites exist – about 10 years I visited the remains of a mica mine operated by convicts in the taiga near Severobaikalsk – the Perm museum is, along with Moscow’s Museum of the History of the Gulag, a rare voice seeking to recall the tribulations of Russia’s tortured 20th century.As such, therefore, it attracts a great deal of anger from a section of society still reluctant to believe that the USSR’s achievements came on the back of a significant dark side – or, in the case of Terentiev, directly implicated in the black secrets of Soviet history. At a time when patriotism is being loudly promoted as a core Russian value – and any criticism of Russia, past, present or future, is seen as the stamp of a foreign-paid traitor to the glorious motherland – Perm-36 finds itself in a vulnerable position.”

Potts is commenting the conflict as following: “Many nations have difficulty with aspects of their past; experience suggests that adopting an ostrich-like position and blaming everything on outsiders is unlikely to improve the situation.”

Finally he summarizes the situation with a current comment: “As an editorial in Vedomosti puts it: “The state’s reluctance to spend money on this program [of commemorating victims of repression] – if the ministry’s review means just that – is an important sign in our society. Efforts to perpetuate the memory of the victims of Stalinist repression, or conversely to promote Stalin as an ‘effective manager’, are not a static phenomenon. They represent a path along which policy and society develops.””