Skip Navigation

The Museum of Contemporary Russian History

April 26, 2010 at 6:00 am
By Ben Hellerstein, Denis Griffis and Ken Ellis-Guardiola

On Thursday evening, after classes had gotten out, we celebrated the beginning of our weekend with another cultural excursion: this time, to the Museum of Contemporary Russian History.  The building in which the museum is housed was originally the Moscow English Club, but was taken over by the Soviets in 1917 in order to create the Museum of the Revolution.  The building was then renamed to the slightly less Soviet-sounding Museum of Contemporary Russian History in 1998.  The focus of the museum changed with the name, shifting from just the Revolution to an overview of the last hundred years of Russian history up to the present. After walking up the ornate staircase that was once used by English Club members Lev Tolstoy and Aleksandr Pushkin, we were greeted with a room that was thoroughly draped with Russian flags and featured large interactive television screens showing scenes from Medvedev’s inauguration. We also had the privilege of summoning a speech by Putin with just the push of a button.

Continuing through the museum, we jumped back in history to the turn of the century, seeing memorabilia from explorations, [other stuff], and many examples of the excesses and oppressions of the tsarist period: bits of several rooms were roped off and made up as examples of how different rooms in many homes would have looked at the time, and tucked away in one corner was a mock jail cell, complete with electric candle and praying prisoner mannequin.

In fact, the museum itself is something of a testament to the excesses of the pre-Revolutionary period. Despite its name, the English Club did not have a single English member, and a mid-19th-century visitor testified that the library was filled mostly with old French books. According to Caroline Brooke’s Moscow: A Cultural History, the club was called the English Club because it was modeled on a British gentleman’s club, a place for men to play cards and dine together. Moscow noblemen waited for years to be invited to join this elite institution. Women, on the other hand, were permitted to enter the club only on the day of a tsar’s coronation.

The sumptuousness of the old English Club building is still very much in evidence. From the ceiling, Classical figures reclining among lush greenery gaze down upon the museum’s exhibits of Revolutionary artifacts and Soviet propaganda posters. In part of one room, the furnishings have been preserved as they would have been in the days of the old English Club, and they are certainly more than comfortable.

As most historical museums, the course of the exhibit follows chronological order. Some periods of the past century seem to receive a significant glossing-over, noted by the sheer difference in the size of certain sections. Nevertheless, the museum reveals as much by what it doesn’t show as by what it does. Though incredibly important to the course of Russian history, the section on the Soviet 1930’s gives a cursory look at the purges of Stalin’s reign of terror, skimming over a period that did so much to form the events of the much-emphasized Great Patriotic War (WWII). Similarly, the shadowy figure of the Gulag that haunted the entire Soviet period is barely mentioned. These absences are a reminder of some of the unease with which these epochs are remembered in Russia.

An interesting thing to note about the museum is that, while it does feature primarily Soviet history, as might be expected, there is also a strong international presence in some areas (WWII, recent technological developments, etc.), which brings to mind something that I’ve noticed a lot in wanderings around Moscow.  Russia seems now to be dealing with itself both as a new country—the Russian Federation was only established in 1991, after all—and as one with a lengthy history behind it, and it is fascinating to note how these dual perceptions interact with each other.  For example, Victory Day (the celebration of the end of WWII—a really, really big deal over here) is coming up soon, and in many of the decorations that have been popping up around the city, we’ve noticed a lot of Soviet pride.  Now, this makes sense, as Victory Day is something of a nostalgia holiday (it was the Soviets who fought so hard and lost so much, after all, not the Russian Federation), but it’s a great example of how Soviet past and Russian present tend to mix together in not-entirely-predictable ways in Russian society.  This was very visible in the Museum of Contemporary History—there was a lot of Soviet pride, and a lot of Russian history as Soviet history, but the modern era had its place as well, and was not separate from Soviet times, but all of recent Russian history was brought together as one succession of events.  Perhaps both this clash and unity of histories can be seen as a part of the modern Russian identity, or perhaps as a part of the process of re-forging the Russian nation that has been going on for the past twenty years.  Either way, it’s certainly here, and we saw it well in our time at the museum.


  • April 27 2010 at 10:00 pm
    Isobel aka G

    Very thoughtful, insightful --and even humorous--reporting!