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Museum of the Unpredictable Past

April 26, 2009 at 9:48 am
By Kevin McGrath, Laura Roberts and Megan Milligan

One of the charms of Moscow is that just about every museum has a checkered history. Take for example the Museum of Contemporary History. Originally the home of an aristocrat, it became famous as the exclusive haunt of the male aristocrats of Moscow throughout the nineteenth century, the English Club. After the 1917 Revolution, such frivolous bourgeoisie wasn’t tolerated. Instead, the building housed the Museum of Revolutions. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the more politically correct title of Museum of Contemporary History was deemed more appropriate.

printing press

The museum goes in chronological order, beginning in pre-revolutionary Russia. One of the first interesting things we found was a printing press a couple rooms into the museum. The censorship under Nicholas I led a number of secret societies to create clandestine printing presses in order to spread the word of their groups’ activities and ideas. Over the next fifty years the Okhrana and these secret societies played a game of cat and mouse, with the Okhrana constantly trying to break up these printing presses, and with the secret societies constantly shifting their location and distribution methods to protect them. One such group was Narodnaya Volya, the People’s Will. This group is famous for killing Tsar Alexander II. Their successful assassination of the tsar encouraged the growth of other dissident societies and their success was greatly admired by groups that would become the Bolsheviks. This also made them by far the most hard-core of the secret societies, as most of the others were content with increased political rights as opposed to actively overthrowing the government.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the composition and distribution of the population of Russia changed drastically due to industrialization and the freeing of the serfs. Workers came into cities that weren’t ready to support them and began to brush up against the young elite, some of whom were influenced by the European debate about social progress. Pressure began to build and everything got worse and worse.

With Lenin as their leader and the idea of the social commune as the basis for their new society, the tsardom was overthrown and a provisional government was established. Enough time past that people became impatient again and that winter there was another revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power on promises of fixing society. After about ten years, the country managed to get itself together and overcome famine at which point they decided that it would be a good idea to start creating the communist state. This period starting changing the lifestyle and the ways in which people lived in a more overarching way than ever occurred under the tsars. For example, communal apartments were introduced and the upper class was actively eliminated with anyone considered wealthier than their neighbor hunted down by Soviet societies.

Soviet star

Then the first of the Great Purges started in 1936. The Great Purges then managed to wipe out anyone in the society who was able to do anything, from the educated and artists to almost all of the military officers of the Soviet military. Later purges wiped out veterans and returned prisoners of war, false and real spies for the West and a collection of Jewish doctors. The museum neglected to go into the details of the gulag system to which most of these people were sentenced. It seems that this was left to the small Gulag Museum, tucked away in a corner in Kuznetsky Most.

big seal

After World War II, the dreams of socialist realism were being propagated to the people through art and symbology. Approved artistic forms, like socialist realism and its strange translations into other forms of art (the peoples’ ballet?), monumental architecture and an admittedly beautiful metro system all carried communist ideology to the people. Soviet technology really took off and education came to the foreground. However, Russian society as a whole grew stagnant. Posters about cosmonauts and Sputnik were a far cry from daily life. Plenty of examples from the former were present in the museum and not much of the latter. The Soviet government had big dreams for its people but gave them little opportunity.

Overall the museum was a very interesting excursion into how Russian history is perceived by the government. This official version of Russian history was very black and white. The fates of dissidents weren’t discussed and the social troubles of mainstream Russia throughout the 20th century were never mentioned. From our perspective the museum was very interesting, but gave us a very filtered view of history.


  • May 10 2009 at 1:52 pm
    Deb McGrath
    What an exciting museum! When was it established? I have never seen such a museum in post-communist central Europe. I think it is an excellent perspective on Russia's past.