In this article, we look at a very odd museum in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan.
Earlier this week, I came across this article (1) on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty site. The article describes how the Museum of Political Oppression in Dolinka, Kazakhstan, formerly head of the KarLAG prison camp system through which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens passed during the Stalinist-era terror, had recently begun conducting ‘night time tours’. To provide visitors with an ‘authentic’ Gulag experience, the article went on to describe how:
“… actors performed a mock interrogation scene in which a young woman is pressured to denounce her father. The group also witnessed performances that included an inmate who was hanging by his hands while being mistreated by a guard. To have a better taste of being a prisoner at KarLAG, the visitors were also offered gulag-type meals. The museum initially planned to offer visitors the chance to become “Stalin-era prisoners” for one night, but museum director Svetlana Bainova told RFE/RL the plan was scrapped following a request by local officials. She said the officials argued that such an experience could scare or even psychologically traumatize the participants”.
The photo gallery that accompanies the article shows that the museum’s exhibition hall contains a number of informative displays including prison files and information about the impact of the great Soviet famine of 1930-33, while the Hall of Remembrance pays tribute to those individuals who died in KarLAG. However the photos also depict real life ‘actors’ – museum employees – playing the roles of prisoners undergoing interrogation, torture and demonstrating hard labor, while others play the role of the uniformed prison guards.
I must confess to feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the thought of this. I realize that dark tourism (or ‘thanotourism’, defined by the iDTR as ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’) will always be a subject that evokes controversy. Sites that commemorate and educate about the ‘darker’ aspects of human history play an important role – speaking as a ‘tourist’ who has actively visited numerous such sites, including Auschwitz Birkenau, The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin and the controversial TerrorHaza (Museum of Terror) in Budapest, I do agree with the often cited argument that while visiting the sites of former atrocities can be a rather harrowing experience, the experience can help bring these historical events alive in a very different way from studying academic texts, or even reading the memoirs of those who experienced these terrible events first hand.
As a historian, I recognize the importance of acknowledging, remembering and commemorating the darker aspects of human history, as well as celebrating our more glorious achievements. And – stepping down from the moral high ground and speaking as a realist – I also understand that ‘money talks’. Economic benefits must be taken into consideration, as popular demand for thanotourism is potentially lucrative, with high visitor turnover injecting much-needed cash into the local economy. But does the Museum of Political Oppression risk crossing the line between education and schadenfreude? Having actors playing the part of tortured and exploited Gulag inmates and offering tourists the chance to experience ‘authentic Gulag conditions’ feels like unnecessary theatrics, designed to create an environment akin to a macabre theme park, which is particularly dangerous given that the horrors of the Stalinist-era remain within living memory for many today, including those who experienced the hardship and suffering of KarLAG first hand and survived to tell the tale and out of respect for the memories of the many who lost their lives.
However, the Museum of Political Oppression is not the only Gulag-related ‘attraction’ to blur the boundaries. Grutas Park sculpture park (also known as ‘Stalin’s World’) in Lithuania, combines extensive exhibitions featuring Soviet sculptures, artwork and museum artifacts with a mini-zoo (‘fun for all the family!’). The park also features a recreated Gulag camp, complete with wooden paths, guard towers and barbed wire fences, among its exhibits, but original plans to transport visitors to the park packed into a ‘Gulag-style train’ were blocked. In 2006, Igor Shpektor, Mayor of Vorkuta, – one of the most infamous outposts of Stalin’s Gulag where over two million deportees passing through the camp 1932-1954 – was criticized for plans to charge foreign tourists over £80 per day to ‘holiday’ in an ‘authentic’ Soviet-era prison camp. Shpektor’s plans to renovate an abandoned prison complex, complete with watchtowers, guards armed with paintball guns, snarling dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions and forced labor were condemned by camp survivors as ‘sacrilege’. But Shpektor defended his plans, arguing this would provide a much-needed cash injection for the depressed Vorkuta region as: ‘The chance of living in the Gulag as a prisoner is attractive to many wealthy foreigners … A whole trainload of people turned up in autumn last year wanting to go to such a concentration camp, for money”.
In 2006, a re-created Stalinist-prison camp near Vilnius, Lithuania hosted 400 students from 19 EU countries in a role playing exercise designed as a ‘live history lesson to foster deep reflection of the common past of European nations and people’. During their stay in the camp:
“The students are “forced” to travel for one hour in an “authentic Soviet truck ZIL157K” to a forest bunker … Then, for the next two hours, they live through the experience of being “political prisoners”, which includes being interrogated by NKVD (security service) officers, shouted at and insulted by the guards. The roles are performed by professional actors. The “excursion” ends with the announcement of Stalin’s death and subsequent amnesty.”
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that a couple of hours of role-playing equates to the ‘authentic’ reality experienced by Gulag inmates, many of whom endured lengthy sentences spanning several years or even decades, having been interred for imaginary or fabricated crimes, not knowing if they’d ever live to see release, or what the fate of their families had been. Some of the student participants seemed to agree, with one participant (rather worryingly!) commenting that:
“I think that everybody can do this. We really enjoyed the deportation day, but I would prefer something more difficult, with more blood and maybe lasting for one week and not just one day.”
So, why does the idea of ‘experiencing’ the Gulag – an instrument of repression, fuelled by brutality, where millions of Soviet citizens lost their lives – hold such appeal for many people? Would you want to spend ‘Saturday night in the Gulag’? What limits – if any – should be applied to the ‘performative aspects’ of tourist attractions such as these?
By Dr Kelly Hignett
Kelly is the owner of The View East blog – here.