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#31 - JRL 2006-79 - JRL Home
Context (Moscow Times)
March 31-April 6, 2006
Lenin Lives
An exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see the collection of the now-closed Central Lenin Museum.
By Anna Malpas

Its exhibits filled 34 rooms of the brick building just off Red Square. The shrine to all things connected to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin -- purged of any seedy details, naturally -- was practically compulsory viewing for visitors to the capital. It was also the place where small Oktyabryata traded in their badges to become full-fledged Young Pioneers.

But while other museums of the Soviet era have adapted and survived -- such as the Museum of the Revolution on Tverskaya Ulitsa, which is now the Museum of the Contemporary History of Russia -- the Central Lenin Museum was one of the first victims of the fall of the Soviet Union, closing in 1993. Boris Yeltsin donated the building to the Moscow City Duma, but the deputies decided they didn't want it.

Since then, its doors have been closed, although on weekends the porch is a meeting place for Communist activists selling newspapers and badges. Last year, the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art housed its main exhibition in the museum's empty rooms. Stripped bare, the interior retained little of its once-solemn atmosphere. Artists drew on the walls and rigged up a quirky installation with a toilet sticking out of one of the windows.

But that's not to say the museum's exhibits have been treated in a similarly iconoclastic spirit. Numbering around 100,000 items, they are still stored in the museum's back rooms, the enormous paintings rolled up to save space. Now, the Historical Museum is showing a small part of the collection in an exhibition called "Symbols of the Soviet Epoch."

Displayed in a medium-sized room hung with red banners, the exhibits range from a waxwork of Lenin created soon after his death to the ponderous gifts given to Leonid Brezhnev on the leader's 70th birthday in 1976. The walls are hung with giant paintings showing landmarks events of Party history, while glass cases contain humbler items such as a red kerchief with the badges of a band of Oktyabryata -- the junior equivalent of Young Pioneers -- who visited from Tula in 1989.

Exhibitions of Soviet artifacts are nothing new, but somehow the rediscovery of items from a museum that no one has visited for 13 years has touched a nerve. The fashionable entertainment magazine Afisha gave the show two pages, mostly made up of laments that it wasn't big enough. The visitors' book has comments that fall roughly into three camps: nostalgic reminiscences, attacks on the organizers for glorifying the past, and complaints about climbing three flights of stairs to find so little. Radio Liberty did a piece on the exhibition, calling it "one-dimensional and openly propagandistic."

The woman behind the exhibition is Tatyana Koloskova. She started working at the Central Lenin Museum in 1976 and was one of the deputy directors when it closed. Now, she is in charge of a museum that no longer exists, and never could exist again, as she freely admits.

Far from the battle-ax type, Koloskova is carefully coiffed and looks a bit like the popular actress Lia Akhedzhakova. She was wearing small glasses and a colorful stripy top at a Wednesday interview. Contacting her had been a bit of a problem, as the museum's communications are evidently stuck in 1993. Koloskova said that her telephone had not worked for four months.

The curator was keen to respond to critics of the exhibition. They had missed the point, she said. "First of all, they criticize me because the exhibition is propagandistic, because it doesn't show the gulag," she commented. "I'm very sorry that they didn't understand what we are showing. We are showing the collection of the Central Lenin Museum, and the Central Lenin Museum had a totally defined task: to form an attachment among simple people to the politics and practices of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And therefore we could not have any gulags in the exhibition."

To those who said they wanted more, Koloskova parried, "People write that there's too little and that the room is empty, not understanding that this emptiness is an exhibit in itself." The message she wants to get across is that the scope of the exhibition was intentionally narrow, covering only what she called "that limited area of memory that the state considered compulsory for its people."

As an example, she pointed to a picture by Vladimir Serov called "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin at the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets." It shows Lenin addressing an audience of soldiers and workers in a hall hung with chandeliers. "That picture was painted for the 30th anniversary of Soviet rule; 30 years had passed, and already the real participants of that gathering could not be shown," Koloskova said. "Trotsky was there, as were lots of people who by then had simply been spirited away to the zone of anti-memory, as I call it."

The original picture, which won a Stalin Prize in 1948, was given to China and the artist painted a similar one in 1955, which is the version on display. Not long afterward, the goalposts moved again when Nikita Khrushchev condemned his predecessor's abuses at the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Josef Stalin had to be painted over with an ardent worker carrying a banner. The differences can be compared on framed postcards next to the picture.

Another painting, by court artist Isaak Brodsky, shows the delegates of the Second Congress of the Comintern, held in 1920. Since many of them were later purged -- including Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev -- the painting was taken out of service, only to be shown again in 1989. Museum workers had preserved it against official orders.

"The history of creating these pictures is not the history of a state, but the history of how the authorities determined what could be remembered," Koloskova said.

The daughter of peasant parents who worked her way up to a doctorate, Koloskova said that she didn't always look at the museum's paintings this way. She called the exhibition "the result of inner work," and said that preserving the museum's collection was worthwhile because it was "a complete collection of political mythology."

One figure keeping a conspicuously low profile at the exhibition is Stalin. He is represented only by a bust in military uniform, representing victory in World War II. "Here he is not the Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin who was such-and-such an age, and had such-and-such wrong with him," Koloskova said. "In this situation he is a symbol who appropriated, or personified the heroic deeds of millions of Russian men."

The Stalin era could certainly be covered in more depth. The museum, which first opened in a small way in 1924, moved into its large building on Ploshchad Revolyutsii in 1936. One of its aims was veiled, Koloskova said, but nonetheless clear: to show that Stalin was marching beside Lenin all the way.

The museum's Stalin-related exhibits were not destroyed after the 20th Party Congress, she said. They survive, and she would like to devote an exhibition to them. But not yet, she added, saying that the huge paintings -- often semi-fictionalized depictions of historical events -- need to be unrolled, catalogued and assessed.

Meanwhile, the long-vacant building on Red Square may become a branch of the Historical Museum dedicated to the 20th century and displaying some of the former exhibits, although the plan has yet to be officially approved. As for the Central Lenin Museum itself, there are "no plans," the curator said. "I am personally an opponent of restoring something destroyed."

"Symbols of the Soviet Epoch" (Simvoly Sovetskoi Epokhi) runs to May 22 at the Historical Museum, located at 1/2 Red Square. Metro Ploshchad Revolyutsii. Tel. 692-4019.