Pieces of barbed wire. A tattered dress, patched in so many places that it is more patch than dress. A homemade lamp cobbled together out of a tin can. A padded jacket to protect against Siberian winds.
These humble relics recall the horror of the Soviet labor camps in a Berlin exhibition, “Gulag: Traces and Testimonies, 1929-1956.” The show at the German Historical Museum remembers the estimated 20 million people incarcerated during Josef Stalin’s reign. About 2 million are believed to have died.
Yet the historians trying to ensure the suffering isn’t forgotten say they are becoming the target of persecution themselves. The exhibits in Berlin belong to Memorial, a Russian non-governmental agency founded in 1988, whose first president was the nuclear physicist, dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov.
Memorial has been threatened with having to close by President Vladimir Putin’s government for refusing to comply with a law requiring institutions that engage in “political activities” and receive aid from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”
That requirement “is like a yellow star, a sign on the chest,” Irina Sherbakova, a historian and co-founder of Memorial, said in an interview at opening. “We do not consider ourselves foreign agents. This seems to us the peak of absurdity.”
The word “agent,” Sherbakova said, is one you see in “hundreds of thousands of death sentences” in the biographies of those persecuted by Stalin. If Russia were prepared to support Memorial’s work, she said, the organization wouldn’t be forced to seek funding from abroad.
The exhibition details the brutality of gulag life: Hunger, disease and extreme temperatures were prisoners’ everyday companions. Brutal punishments and random executions were commonplace. During the years of World War II, one in five prisoners died because of a lack of nutrition.
A list of names on a wooden board seems innocuous enough. Yet they all belonged to women imprisoned in a gulag in Kazakhstan, whose only crime was widowhood. Their husbands had been shot, accused of “betraying their country.” Children were taken away from their mothers.
Memorial has collected thousands of objects from former prisoners, as well as personal letters, official documents and photographs. The group has also conducted interviews with survivors and recorded them on tape and video, compiling a database with the biographies of 2.6 million former prisoners.
One room of the exhibition screens these tales. A Chinese man was arrested in 1938 as part of a national operation against his nationality. After a confession wrung from him under torture, he was sentenced to 10 years. He died a year before his release from the consequences of a leg amputation.
Semyon Ivanovitsch Kolegayev, a Russian soldier, was a prisoner of war in Germany. Two years after the war, he was imprisoned in the Soviet Union, accused of collaborating with the enemy.
The Berlin show has funding from the German government and was mounted together with the foundation that runs the memorials at the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora.
For Sherbakova, the way Germany has dealt with its dark past is an example for the Soviet Union. Yet confronting the truth about the camps is not a priority for Putin’s government, she said, because it taints a national narrative that focuses on victory in World War II.
She is hoping that legal steps Memorial is taking together with other organizations will protect it from closure. A Russian polling agency called the Levada Center is also under threat, as are the vote-monitoring group Golos and the Moscow branch of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
“This is a campaign against civil society,” Sherbakova said. “It could mean we can no longer carry out our work. Things are getting much harder for our organization.”
“Gulag: Traces and Testimonies (1929-1956)” is at the German Historical Museum through Sept. 1.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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