State Musem of Gulag (ГУЛаг); Moscow, Russia

This evening I visited the State Museum of Gulag, in Moscow. There were personal items and photographs from exiled and tortured prisoners, personal and legal documents, artifacts unearthed years after the Gulag shut its doors in 1960, replica prisoner barracks, and a map that shows the locations for the hundreds or maybe thousands of primary and secondary prisoner camps spanning the entire country, from Moscow to Vladivostok and beyond. It was prisoners who built the same railway I took from Vladivostok to Moscow, and you can see photographs of these prisoners hanging out of the railways cars, making the same journey I did but in the opposite direction and with a very different outcome. When they reached Vladivostok they often boarded boats and headed farther north, never to be seen again, to the places in Russia where even polar bears would not want to go.

Until tonight I always thought gulag was a generic term for the camps themselves, and collaquially this is often how the word is used today, not only in reference to Russia but in other countries as well, but it was actually an acronym for the name of the state agency that oversaw the camps and prisoners (ГУЛаг: Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies ).

At the museum there were also paintings done by surviving inmates, and not paintings that are noteworthy because they were done by former prisoners, but paintings that would be haunting in their own right. Other contemporary Russian artists contributed paintings, mixed-media pieces, sketches, drawings and sculptures.

The smaller camps held between 2,000 and 5,000 prisoners each, so it is hard to comprehend just how many people died. I was told that as many as 18 million prisoners, many if not most of them innocent, were imprisoned by Gulag, and more than one million of these died. When I saw a death toll listed by year, I asked if that was how many people died in all of the camps, but was told, No, that is the death toll for only one camp, and it was a secondary camp.

Unfortunately most of the exhibit was not translated into English; however, I went with a Belarusian photographer name Саша (Sasha) who translated what he heard into English. Even without a translater it would be worth seeing, provided you do a little homework beforehand.

Tonight Sasha and I are going to a hookah bar to smoke shisha. He lives in the capital city of Belarus (Minsk) and I may visit his city with him before I head to St. Petersburg, because you do not need a seperate visa to visit Belarus, which I am told is a throwback to the Soviet era. One person in Siberia (or maybe it was the Russian Far East, I forget) told me that Belarus is where people who miss the Soviet Union go on holiday, to reminisce and recall the good ol' days. Sasha tells me the food is wonderful, and so far his information has proved reliable.