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Russian Officials Shut Down Gulag Museum

Russian authorities have reportedly shut down the regional Memorial National Museum of Gulag History in the western city of Yoshkar-Ola in what its founder claims is the country’s latest effort to expunge the horrors of Soviet imprisonment. Pressured to vacate, museum founder Nikolay Arakcheev packed up the volunteer-run institution’s collection in mid-August, reports Sophia Kishkovsky of The Art Newspaper. The 5,000 objects had been housed in a former headquarters and torture chamber of the Ogpu, a secret police that preceded the KGB—it was until recently the only Gulag museum out of Russia’s six that existed in an actual Ogpu building. The museum’s objects and archive documents will now return to their donors, many of whom were among the millions sent to Gulags in the 1930s and ’40s.

“For ten years, no one touched us,” Arakcheev told The Art Newspaper. “It was difficult, but we reached an agreement with all levels of power that we must educate [the public] about non-violence, that it’s wrong to violate human rights, that freedom of speech must be protected. Now there is a new governor and the vector of thinking has changed.”

President Vladimir Putin has recently made attempts to downplay the atrocities of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, emphasizing his impact on the economy and World War II victory. The Yoshkar-Ola museum’s closure follows reports earlier this summer that a clandestine Russian order in 2014 instructed the destruction of data on Gulag prisoners. According to Arakcheev, the museum had become a tourist attraction under Mari El republic’s ex-head Leonid Markelov, whose showy urban development projects included replicating the Moscow Kremlin and St. Petersburg’s Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. After being arrested on bribery charges, Markelov was replaced by Alexander Yevstifeyev, who “wants to show off in front of the Kremlin,” claims Arakcheev.

The museum was deemed “a warehouse” of unattributed items by Yulia Kantor, a research director of the activist-founded Perm-36 Gulag museum, which was taken over by the government in 2015. The director of Moscow’s State Central Museum of Contemporary History, Irena Velikanova, compared it to a “grandmother’s trunk,” while Artem Gotlib, of Moscow’s Gulag History State Museum, said the Yoshkar-Ola museum’s objects are “dying.” Mikhail Fedotov, the country’s chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, said that while the museum is in need of “professional museum attribution,” it would be “absolutely inadmissible” for the building to be redeveloped commercially. Mikhail Vasyutin, the deputy leader of Mari El, offered an ambiguous plan for the property. “After restoration and reconstruction, the building will be used for social purposes, and what is more will be accessible to various types of groups,” he said.