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Regime Change at the Museum

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A major regime change happened in the Soviet Union around 1990, after which there remained no Soviet Union as such, but instead Russia and a number of newly sovereign neighbors such as Ukraine. It would have been around this time that a museum/historical site such as Perm-36 became possible, even useful to Russia’s government. Revisionism, ever present in its more-deceitful forms in the USSR, was afoot in Russia on an industrial scale, quite as George Orwell envisioned in 1984.

Museums in the West are funded and operated in some cases by private entities, or even as hybrids like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, operated by a private entity and funded by the US government. Even though Perm-36, a former GuLag camp near the city of Perm, was run by a “human-rights group,” it seems to have received not only approval but at least some funding from the local regional administration.

No more. The present more “assertive” Russian regime will not abide talk about government repression – perhaps bad news for those who fear government repression. The museum is now closed and “in the process of self-liquidation.” The many museums on – and not on – sites of Holocaust labor and transit camps can be attributed in crucial part to the utter extermination of National Socialism and its governmental apparatus following the invasion and conquest of Germany in 1945. Germany’s erstwhile foes, such as Poland, operate many of these sites, while Germany itself has hosted many such installations in the time since its occupation by the victorious Allies.

Insofar as on-site museums such as Auschwitz, Perm-36, Sachsenhausen and the like are concerned, history comes and history goes – often goes  forever. It is but fleetingly visible at such installations, and but as through a veil, darkly, as the regnant regimes permit and encourage for their own ephemeral purposes. Perhaps the most-similar installation in the US is that at Andersonville, Georgia, a former prisoner-of-war camp operated by the Confederacy, at which far more atrocities were alleged by the victorious Union than in fact occurred. The present displays and interpretations are, at this remove in time, encouragingly free of cant and condemnation.

More self-abnegating are federally sponsored sites such as that of the massacre of indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota and of even more-recent provenance, National Historic Monuments such as that at Manzanar, California, where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. The narrative presented there is sympathetic enough to the captives, considering that it was written by the captors, but they (the captors) could easily afford the gesture: after all, their side not only won, but was never invaded, never occupied, nor ever had atomic bombs dropped on it.

Substantive changes at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are not to be expected anytime soon. And certainly not “self-liquidation.”

The Perm-36 memorial museum, before “self-liquidation.”