Author: Konstantin Akinsha
Published: REPORT. REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, May 2006

Konstantin Akinsha was born in Kiev in 1960. Studies in art history in Moscow (Ph.D., 1990). In the 1990s Moscow correspondent and contributing editor (since 1996) of ARTnews magazine, New York. He worked on the problem of confiscation of cultural property during World War Two, as research fellow of Kunstverein Bremen, Research Center for Easteuropean Studies, University of Bremen, and Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. 1997–98 senior research fellow at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, Washington, D.C. 1998–99 adjunct professor at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, USA. 1999–2000 deputy research director of Art and Cultural Property of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.

Since 2001 Senior Adviser for a Research Project for Art and Archives, New York. His publications include Beautiful Loot: Soviet Plunder of European Art Treasures (1995) and AAM Guide for Provenance Research (2001). He has curated exhibitions of modern and contemporary art and given numerous public lectures in Europe, Asia, and North America. He publishes in leading international newspapers and magazines and has received several awards for journalism.

Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation
project-relations

“Bringing Communism to the Museum”

A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of communism. (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party)

The Socland Foundation had invited the citizens of Warsaw to come there on that day and to donate exhibits for the future Museum of Communism to be housed in the cellars of the palace...

It was Saturday. The day was sunny and warm - probably the first warm day after a week of strangely cold weather. At ten in the morning Warsaw was still leisurely sleepy. As I approached the Studio Theater - one of two theater halls housed in the Palace of Culture and Science, a skyscraper constructed in 1955 as a gift from the Soviet people to the Polish nation and named after comrade Stalin. I heard the sounds of old official speech interrupted by loud applause. As I stood there in shock, the loudspeakers near the entrance of the theater unexpectedly began to wheeze and then spat out the next portion of the speech. The feeling of deja vu gained strength when I entered the lobby of the theater. The sensation was understandable - some years back I had been a student at Moscow University and spent a lot of time in its main building, a Stalinist skyscraper designed by Lev Rudnev, the same architect who had constructed the Warsaw Palace. I had decided to pay a visit to the Studio Theater on June 4th, 2005, because the Socland Foundation had invited the citizens of Warsaw to come there on that day and to donate exhibits for the future Museum of Communism to be housed in the cellars of the palace. Large posters depicting one of statues decorating the facade of the Palace of Culture. A figure of a young man optimistically looking forward with a sizeable volume with the names of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on its cover in his hand could be seen on every billboard in the city. The perky slogan “Bring communism to the museum” accompanied the image. In the entrance hall of the theater I found three tables staffed by a group of young people - students who had volunteered to help the Socland Foundation receive the donations - and an assortment of journalists, there to document the event. So far, the donors were absent, but it was too early. Nobody expected people to crowd in with their gift on Saturday morning at ten a.m. A young energetic woman called Maja – an official of the foundation - told me that the project’s coordinator Marek Kozicki was giving interview to German television and would be available in a half an hour at the earliest, and left me to my own devices. The donors were still absent. I struck up a conversation with the students, inquiring why they had volunteered to spend such a nice day at the Palace of Culture and not somewhere else. Their answer surprised me. All of them were from the history department of Warsaw University, and all wanted to see artifacts of the communist past in order to understand how people lived during those years.

It turned out that I’d forgotten about my own age and believed naively that people, even very young ones, were naturally familiar with the material culture of the vanished evil empire. It was nearly eleven but the donors still hadn’t appeared. I went outside and smoked a cigarette while listening to the endless Party Congress soundtrack being broadcast by the loudspeakers in order to create a mood corresponding to the event. When I returned to the theater, I found both the volunteers and journalists in a state of animation: the first donor was seated at a table and extracting 378 Warsaw Critique in the Marketplace gifts wrapped in old newspapers from his bag. The donor was a shy young man, who certainly hadn’t expected such attention. He took a long time unwrapping his parcels and finally put the donations on the table. They consisted of three objects: a little round electric heater, a yellow glass lampshade, and an old electric hair dryer. All three items had a touch of the universal style of the epoch of Charles Eames. They could have been produced in America in the late 1950s. Maybe in Poland they were manufactured at the beginning of the 1970s. The poor and late offspring of international design trends that had trickled through the Iron Curtain provoked excitement among the reporters. A couple of resourceful radio journalists immediately started searching for a socket to plug in the hair dryer to record the sound of “communism.” In the meantime, a group of newspaper reporters tormented the generous donor with their questions. The young man was not verbose. He could not reveal anything beyond the fact that he had found the relics in his grandparents’ cupboard. He was eighteen years old at most and didn’t have first hand experience with socialist reality. The second donor was much more promising. This was a corpulent man in his eighties who came to donate some communist brochures. The brochures were few in number; their soiled yellowish covers decorated with red banners looked decidedly unappealing. Still, if the brochures themselves were devoid of value, their owner provoked the interest of the press correspondents crowded around the table where the ceremony of donation was taking place. Soon, however, the polite expression disappeared from their faces; the radio reporters hopelessly lowered their microphones and tried to retreat. The old man himself had provoked such a change of attitude by using the word “yidds” rather too frequently. In the meantime, other donors entered the lobby. A father and his six-year old son donated a little collection of communist badges. The boy was reluctant to part with the shiny red stars of the Soviet communist children’s organization, but was visibly pleased with the attention of reporters. The best donation I witnessed was a collection of insignia - sporting awards, brought by a lean old man who had certainly been a sportsman in the past. Undoubtedly, his donation was not just of useless “communist” artifacts but mementos of his own life.

At last, the German reporters set Mr. Kozicki free and I had a chance to ask him a few questions. Marek Kozicki proved to be a tall, wellmannered man with a short haircut. I tried to get from him a description of the conception behind the future Museum of Communism. He was not the first person in Warsaw whom I asked this question. At first, Kozicki attempted to give me a general description of the idea. It was instantly clear that he had repeated his explanation many times before. However, after my inquires as to why the Museum of Communism as such has to be located in Warsaw, Kozicki deviated from the well-rehearsed version and told me that he believed that the future institution should be dedicated not so much to communism in general, but to the life of Polish people during the years of socialism. As he spoke, the project coordinator became increasingly animated, as he declared that the museum should not only recreate the interiors of the period, but also employ actors who would reenact different life situations typical for the socialist years, from lines in food stores to the interrogation of political prisoners. His fancy carried him away a bit, as he stated proudly that “We will even reconstruct the smells of communism.” His words took me by surprise. I tried to remember the smells of my own personal communism. The odors of Soviet life of the 1960s to the 80s. We had many of them: the odor of rotten cabbage in the dining halls, the trademark army barracks funk of sweat and shoe polish, the fragrance of Red Moscow perfume (sold in bottles produced in the shape of the Kremlin Spassky Tower and adored by my grandmother), the sharp smell of the cheap “Triple” eau de Cologne frequently consumed by alcoholics as an affordable substitute for vodka and, of course, the allpenetrating stink of chlorine used for disinfection purposes everywhere from public toilets to prisons. I was not sure that all of those smells (maybe with the exception of the Red Moscow perfume) were specifically “communist.” As I began to muse that it is possible that Polish not to mention Chinese or Cuban - communism could smell different than my Soviet past, Mr. Kozicki unexpectedly changed the topic. He admitted that the organizers of the museum had no concrete conception of the future institution and that they were planning to organize a conference to invite museum experts to discuss how the museum should be arranged. “We are not museum professionals”, the coordinator conceded.

A few days prior to this memorable Saturday on which the population of Warsaw was invited to “bring communism to the museum” I was sitting in the office of Czesław Bielecki, an architect and the former Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Polish Sejm. Bielecki knew what communism was only too well - he was one of the founders of the democratic opposition in Poland in the mid1970s and had spent some time in prison. In later years, Bielecki was the moving force behind the establishment of the Socland Foundation. The creation of the Museum of Communism was his old dream. The foundation, established in 1999, includes such celebrities on its board as film director Andrzej Wajda. The list of honorary members includes Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US National Security Adviser, French historian Alain Besancon, and former Czech President Václav Havel. “Look at the font!”. Bielecki exclaimed, pointing to the logo of the foundation. “We’re using the same font that was used for the name of Tribuna Ludu, the main party newspaper. Every Pole who lived during that time can recognize it.“ The architect’s eyes glistened with excitement behind the lenses of his heavy rimmed glasses.

Bielecki was thrilled at the idea that the future museum would be interactive. In 2003, his foundation had already organized an exhibition in the cellars of the Palace of Culture, which was rich in various computer tricks - visitors entered a room where documentary footage of the May Day parade was shown and then they unexpectedly could see themselves among crowds waving to the party leaders; in the other hall they could recognize themselves among the strikers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gda.sk. Bielecki’s special pride was the 380 Warsaw Critique in the Marketplace “interrogation machine”. Here, people entering a room decorated as an interrogation office were met by the screaming voice of invisible secret policemen demanding that prisoners sign their “confession”. Bielecki’s vision of the future museum was a mixture of a memorial to victims and hightech entertainment park. The foundation’s name was not accidental - Socland is directly related to another entertainment venue, one deprived, however, of the stern seriousness of “retrospective justice”: Disneyland in Florida. Like many practitioners of his profession, Czesław Bielecki was not completely immune to the temptation of megalomania. In his little office situated in the attic of a fin de siecle residential building and furnished with a collection of a half dozen unmatching Viennese chairs the architect proudly showed me the initial project of the Museum of Communism.

I was treated to the blueprints of a pyramidal skyscraper, which is to be located near the Palace of Culture and to be built higher than its neighbour (the Palace is 231 meters high). Bielecki told me that he had hoped to interest some South Korean corporation in this project by allowing the investors to use part of the building as their central European headquarters. However, the corporation either became bankrupt, or was simply not interested in such an impressive investment. Accordingly, the “pyramid of communism“ was doomed to join the corpus of utopian architectural projects. The downscaled design of the museum looked much better than the initial grand plan. Now, the future institution is to be housed in the cellars of the Palace of Culture. The main underground hall situated in front of the Palace will be, in this conception, covered with a glass ceiling through which the visitors will be able to see the colossus of the Palace in a striking perspective. I asked Bielecki his opinion on other museums dedicated to the socialist past established recently in the countries neighboring Poland. He was very complimentary about the Budapest House of Terror, but was not aware of the existence of the Prague Museum of Communism. Bielecki didn’t know that the Budapest museum had provoked controversy and become an integral part of a kulturkampf between Hungarian nationalists and liberals. Initially, the Budapest House of Terror was to be more than a museum of communism; however, as a result of political manipulations it became one. It is situated in the center of Budapest in a large residential building on Andrassy ut 60, which in 1944-45 was used as the headquarters of the Ferenc Szalasi’s Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi party. In its cellars, the Arrow Cross thugs killed communists, other members of the opposition and, of course, Jews. After the war, the house was used by AVO (later AVH).the communist secret police. The building, which for many Hungarians had become the true symbol of terror, was transformed into a museum and inaugurated on the eve of 2002 parliamentary elections. Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary at that time, gave a speech at the opening ceremony. For the conservative nationalist Orban, the new institution was not only a memorial to the victims of Nazism and communism, but a political project - a perfect card in the election campaign. The communist terror was to be interpreted as the historical legacy of the rival Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

The museum’s designated purpose was reflected in its logo - the Nazi Arrow Cross and the communist fivepointed star were situated on it side by side. Yet, it is difficult to describe the House of Terror as a museum of “two evils”. The exposition’s only hall occupying three floors and the cellar of the large building - is dedicated to the Hungarian Nazis. It isn’t mentioned anywhere in the museum that Hungary, even prior to the German occupation of 1944, was a loyal ally of the Third Reich participating in the division of Czechoslovakia; nor was it mentioned that Hungary had occupied the Backa basin of Yugoslavia and that Hungarian soldiers fought on the eastern front in general and in Stalingrad in particular. The creators of the House of Terror have also failed to remind its visitors that the Holocaust began in Hungary not during the short and bloody rule of Szalasi, but as early as 1938 when the government of Admiral Miklos Horthy adopted the first anti-Jewish laws, followed later by the sacrifice of 64,000 Jews sent to the “labor services” of the eastern front. In the halls of the House of Terror, perpetrators have been transformed into victims of the “double occupation”, as the organizers of the museum merged the Nazi and the Soviet occupations of Hungary into one trauma. For instance, the willing participation of the Hungarians in the bloody destruction of the Budapest Jewry was barely mentioned by the museum’s creators; however, they didn’t fail to stress the Jewish origin of the leading AVO officers.

The bias of the exhibition is obvious - the minor evil of the Arrow Cross followed by the great evil of communism. The museum became no more than a manifestation of government sponsored manipulation of memory. The halls of the House of Terror were filled with largescale artsy installations inspired by communist crimes and betraying the bad taste of their creators. But if the Budapest attempt “to bring communism to the museum” had an openly political motivation, the Prague Museum of Communism was created for sheer commercial purposes. It was established by the thirty-six year old American entrepreneur Glenn Spicker, who moved to Prague after the Velvet Revolution and introduced the population of the Czech capital to such an important article of New York cuisine as the bagel. In 2001, the owner of the Bohemian Bagels Company decided to test himself in a new field - the museum business. According to press reports, Spicker spent $ 28,000 roaming about Prague junk stores and flee markets. He succeeded in obtaining an impressive collection of communist memorabilia and, with the help of Jan Kaplan, the Londonbased Czech documentary film producer, worked out a simple conception: the museum was divided into three main sections: Dream, Reality, and Nightmare.

The new enterprise was located in the very heart of the city in the Savarin Palace, in the vicinity of the Wenceslas square. The museum shares the building with a casino and McDonald’s - defeated communism is symbolically contrasted with victorious capitalism. The famous theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky said once that, “theatre begins in the cloakroom”. Similarly, the contemporary museum begins in the museum store - in the entry hall of the Prague museum visitors can buy reproductions of communist posters, memorabilia, and such striking objects of “communist” kitsch as candles in the shape of Lenin’s and Stalin’s heads. The entry ticket costs five dollars (no courtesy for press.the enterprise is strictly commercial!), after which visitors finds themselves in museum halls filled with everything from fullsize sculptures of communist leaders to old motorbikes.

Spicker succeeded in capturing in his museum the spirit of those dusty Prague junkshops where he bought his collection. The moderate investment excluded the possibility of interactivity. However, the creators of the museum couldn’t resist the temptation of reconstructing the past. The Prague museum has recreations of the obligatory interrogation room, a food store, and even a school class. I must admit that some of these recreations are perfect. The archaeological flair of the American entrepreneur helped him amass an impressive quantity of authentic objects - the grocery store, for example, looks hyper realistic. Another quality of Spicker’s creation is its touching outmodedness. The Prague museum is based not on still or moving images, as are the majority of contemporary museum institutions dedicated to the history of the twentieth century, but on real objects covered by the patina of time. In the final analysis, Spicker’s enterprise can hardly be qualified as a museum. It may be more appropriate to define it as a cabinet of communist curiosities. When I visited the Prague museum, it was full of tourists: Americans were attentively reading the wall posters, laughing Japanese ladies were working their digital cameras, posing in front of the Lenin statues. Glenn Spicker is successful - he has not only introduced the Czechs to bagels, but foreign tourists to the material world of the communist Atlantis. However, the Prague museum is now in imminent danger of competition. In 2005, the Canadian Association of Czechs and Slovaks, an influential emigre organization, undertook the initiative to create, in the Czech homeland, a museum of communist shame concentrated around political repressions and slave labor. The news of the establishment of the Museum of Communism in Warsaw was one of the factors behind this new enterprise. It seems that all of central Europe is obsessed with the idea of a museum of communism. Strangely enough, Russia, the former center of the communist system, is keeping a significant silence on the subject. The modest attempts of the Memorial Foundation to collect information and to create exhibitions about the GULAG are treated as virtually antistate activity. It appears that new Russian ideologues are still upholding communism as part of the potentially “useful past”: if not Marxist, at least imperial. Oddly enough, the idea of creating a museum of communism originated not in central Europe, but in the United States of America. On December 17, 1993, the US Congress passed the public law 103-199 signed by President Clinton. The law authorized the “The National Captive Nations Committee, Inc. to construct, maintain, and operate in the District of Columbia an appropriate international memorial to honor victims of communism, tragically numbering more than 100 million, struck down in an unprecedented imperial communist holocaust through conquests, revolutions, civil wars, purges, wars by proxy, and other violent means.” The National Captive Nations Committee established the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was mandated to deal with the construction of a memorial seen from the start as a museum equal to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. The National Advisory Committee of the Foundation included a great variety of Cold War warriors, from senator Bob Dole and Jeane Kirkpatrick to historians Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest. The Foundation’s International Advisory Council housed a constellation of famous dissidents: among others Yelena Bonner, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Lech Wałęsa. The initial mood was victorious - the Soviet empire lay in ruins, the Cold War had been terminated with unexpected victory.

The rising of a new American century looked imminent. 1997 was declared by the foundation as a year for fundraising. The aim was to collect one hundred million dollars. One of the foundation’s officials even stated bravely that if people would donate one dollar for every victim of communism the target could be a “very reasonable goal“. Architects were already drafting preliminary plans for the museum, and the budget was calculated - the initial museum cost was to be twenty-five million dollars. The remaining seventy-five million were earmarked for research and the future maintenance of the institution. But something went wrong - the foundation failed to raise any substantial sums of money.

In 2004, the foundation’s director Lee Edwards confessed, “We kept waiting for a billionaire to show up and write us a big check. After a while, it became clear this wasn’t going to happen”. The impressive project of the Memorial Museum of Victims of Communism was replaced by a modest plan to erect in Washington D.C. a monument to the victims of communist repressions, which will be accompanied by a virtual museum of communism developed on the World Wide Web. Finally, in April of 2005, after eighteen months of hearings in federal and city commissions, the location for the new monument was approved - it is to be erected at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., New Jersey Avenue, N.W., and G. Street, N.W. This is not the plot of land just north of the Capitol which the foundation wanted initially; however, Lee Edwards found consolation in the fact that, “There is a clear view of the U.S. Capitol, topped by the famous Statue of Freedom“. As for the monument, the foundation decided to put up a replica of the Statue of Liberty erected by the Chinese students of Tiananmen Square. The American version of the Chinese simulacrum of the Lady Liberty is to be cast in bronze but painted in white, to recall the Tiananmen prototype. Sculptor Thomas Marsh has agreed to work for free, but the problem of the money for supplies has not been resolved yet – the foundation is short of $ 300,000 needed to build the monument. Keeping in mind that one of the most impressive 384 Warsaw Critique in the Marketplace donations of the year 2004 was $ 35,000 collected by Vietnamese emigrants in Northern Virginia, fundraising does not promise to be easy. “They have to outsource the production of that monument to China”, one New York journalist joked bitterly in private.

Back in Warsaw, it is difficult to judge now what will happen with the Socland Foundation project. What is clear is that until now all attempts to establish such a museum have failed (maybe with exception of the Glenn Spicker’s undertaking - it is succeeding). The attempt to create the Museum of Communism in the Polish capital takes place against the background of the true museum boom. Recently the new Museum of the Warsaw Uprising was opened. It instantly became one of the most popular destinations in the city, visited both by foreign tourists and local residents. It is modelled on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and is one of those museum institutions focused not on the real objects, but on so-called “museum experience”. It is possible to question the appropriateness of some devices used in the exhibition (such as drawers with biographies of the heroes of the uprising, which the visitors have to pull out of the walls. A kind of interactivity which looks silly at best.) However in general the challenge of the creation of the revision of history in the form of the museum display, not to say the theater set, has been met very well in the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. At the moment preparations to establish the Jewish Museum in the Polish capital are in progress. This project is politically charged and could be interpreted in the context of the process of the national awareness of the tragic history of Polish-Jewish relations. However the new museum boom is not restricted to efforts to reinterpret history. It is planned to construct a Museum of Contemporary Art, which will be situated in vicinity of the Palace of Culture on the location of an ugly iron hangar housing a secondhand market. This blossoming of museum projects is reminiscent of the nineteenth-century passion to forge national identity through the establishment of museum institutions, and it also looks like a wish to complete the list of the noblesse oblige establishments, which are the must for every selfrespecting capital. But it remains much earthier to create the museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising than to communism. Historical proximity and hot political agendas are preventing a calm analytical approach to the problem. People are even beginning to forget that communism as such never existed - it was no more than an unachievable utopian goal of socialist society. It is very difficult “to bring communism to the museum” because communism, or to be precise “real socialism” was a complex and many-sided phenomenon. It is a more complicated task to fit it into museum walls than to create a comprehensive display about Nazi crimes. In contrast to Nazism, communism outlived the period of its absolute evil and died of senility - in its history the unheard of crimes are interlaced with the comedy of absurdity, a comedy of which the equally absurd Nazi Germany was deprived. It is possible to make a memorial dedicated to the victims of political repressions or a museum of everyday life during socialism, but to show both tragedy and comedy in the framework of one display is a highly difficult, if not impossible task. The passion of Czesław Bielecki for interactivity corresponds to recent trends in American museology - experienced museum officials are everywhere repeating the magic term “edutainment”. It seems that Disneyland has become the model not only for the Socland Foundation.

However, even if the Warsaw Museum of Communism were to be equipped with the most contemporary computer gadgets I doubt that comrades Gierek and Gomulka could compete successfully with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Of course, we still have the last resort. If we want to see real communism in action as opposed to the virtual type we can (easily) fly to Cuba or to North Korea (much more difficult). Why go to a museum of paleontology if Jurassic Park is readily available?

P.S. We forgot about Romania. Are Romanians constructing a museum of communism? It seems that the country has a different agenda - according to press reports, the Romanian prime minister recently reassured investors that the government is continuing to back the project of construction of a Dracula theme park. “The government has pledged to provide the land needed to build the park, which is to include a Gothic castle with spooky effects, golf courses and a hotel.”