Skip Navigation

Fine Art and Forced Labor

April 25, 2009 at 8:34 am
By Mark, Tigan, and Kenny

This week brought us to a wide variety of Moscow’s cultural and historical treasures.  We strolled through a couple art museums, explored the old art exhibition center to the north of Moscow, learned about the tragic history of the Gulag, took a guided tour of the interior courts of the Kremlin, admired the former imperial cathedrals, and watched the monthly parade of the Russian military.  With so much to talk about and share, we will limit ourselves to about half of the locations:  the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Gulag Museum.

After reading about the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in my Rough Guide, I formed the impression that it was chalked full of classical artwork.  After the Great Patriotic War (World War II), the museum acquired much of the pillaged treasure from the defeated Germans, and the debate over the rightful ownership of this art continues today.  The museum’s archives are extensive, and a new, much larger gallery is currently under construction to display some of the works currently in storage.  After braving the long lines an unseasonably cold Saturday, we decided that the museum was not as impressive as we were hoping.  Granted, the collection is extraordinarily diverse and has several fascinating statues and paintings by various artists, with each room dedicated to a particular period or region of art history.  The Greco-Roman rooms, with numerous plaster copies of famous Greek and Roman statues (including “Winged Victory” and Michelangelo’s “David”), was more of a puzzle than anything—why were these plaster copies in a museum named after Pushkin and why were there plaster copies at all?  Authenticity aside, these rooms were impressive for their narrative of ancient history as told through art, and were especially enlightening with the aid of an audio-guide narrator.  (The museum was actually founded by Ivan Tsvetaev, father of the famous Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva.  It acquired Pushkin's name in 1937 when the Soviet Union celebrated the centenary of the poet's death.  [Source:])

Pushkin Museum of Fine Art 

We also visited the GULAG museum, dedicated to the history of the extensive system of concentration camps that existed throughout the Soviet era.  Some of the first prisoners sent here were early Party elite in the 1930’s—the original Bolsheviks, the “early adopters” and the men who made the 1918 revolution happen. By this time Stalin’s “Great Terror” was in full swing, and you could be sent to one of these camps for any number of things—from being late to work on a collective farm, to being a wife or child of an “enemy of the people” (anyone already sent), to being an official in a high position. The constant fear (and accusation) was treason, that people in high places were working for “outside enemies.” As our guide informed us, Stalin’s regime sent so many generals and high-ranking military officials to the GULAGs that a few had to be taken back out since there was simply no one who could command. The prisoners in these camps, referred to as “zeks,” were used on government construction projects such as building canals and more prison camps.

Gulag Museum 

The museum had an impressive collection of original artifacts from the various camp sites as well as artwork produced by survivors of the camp system. Our guide was very knowledgeable and, as Ben noticed, the most common two words during the guided tour were the verbs “die a violent death” and “shot to death.” One room of the museum has two broken red wheels built into the architecture to recall Solzhenitsyn’s “Red Wheel” series of novels. But by far, the most impressive room of the museum is a mock-up of different areas at a GULAG—the commander’s office, with mannequins of the commander sitting and an accused, bloodied man standing before him; the living quarters of the zeks, with one man trying hard to get warm by a small stove; and a solitary confinement chamber (for those who did not work hard). On the whole, the museum is an impressive institution, though small, and we learned a great deal about the specifics of the GULAG prison system.

It has gotten to the part of our stay, where the beginning is still a recent memory and the end is already in sight.  While we won’t be heading home for another month, upcoming trips to St. Petersburg and Lake Baikal limit our remaining time in Moscow to a few short weeks.   And there are so many sites still to see—so many Rough Guide pages unconquered.   Now more than ever before, in true Carleton spirit, we will sacrifice sleep and try with every waking minute remaining to unravel the mystery of the Russian soul.