This article appeared in the NY Times.
There are two sides to this exhibit
I would be interested in knowing what we all feel about this exhibit
after reading the article.
June 7, 2006
'Gulag,' a Show at Ellis Island, Depicts a Penal System Gone Awry
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
An American-made shovel, two translucent toothbrushes, the Russian
word for "comedy" sometimes it is in the small things that large
truths are found. For in a compact exhibition at Ellis Island
devoted to Soviet-era prison camps "Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor
Camps and the Struggle for Freedom" how much can possibly be shown
to reflect the experiences of 18 million human beings who were
imprisoned in these camps over the bloody course of the 20th
With the retreat of the cold war into memory, what can be done in so
little space to give some sense of the kind of regime that created
these slave-labor camps, beginning with Lenin's utopian calculus,
climaxing with the megalomaniacal plottings of Stalin and still
sputtering on until the Communist system itself began to splinter in
In "The Gulag Archipelago" an epic account of the camps' world of
death, pain and venality even Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn could
begin with only small things. A 1949 issue of the journal Nature, he
recalls, told of the discovery of ancient creatures salamanders
frozen in the ice of the Kolyma River. They were so well preserved
that their flesh, tens of thousands of years old, was devoured by
the excavators. "With relish," he writes.
What caught his attention, though, were not the well-preserved
creatures that were found, but the fact that in that frozen
wasteland, the excavations must have been done by prisoners in one
of the most notorious of the Soviet Union's labor camps, where near-
starvation did not permit much delicacy about paleontological
So look to the salamanders, objects that make the horror palpable.
They are crucial in this exhibition, designed to be seen by visitors
who have come to this island museum in celebration of very different
kinds of displaced persons: immigrants who, with dedication and
ambition, have sought better futures in the United States. An
introductory panel explains that the National Park Service, which
administers the Stature of Liberty and Ellis Island, collaborated
with Amnesty International USA and the Gulag Museum at Perm-36, a
former labor camp, to tell this story of repression and its legacy,
even as a freer, more democratic society is being sought in Russia.
As it turns out, in this exhibition, perhaps because of some
discomfort caused by the blunt force of this morality tale, small
things tell large truths more plainly than larger arguments. Had it
been even smaller, the exhibition would have been still more
Before considering its failings, though, begin, as this exhibition
does, with the camps themselves. In the first part of the show, amid
the photographs of laborers, the diagrams of living quarters, the
pock-marked map showing the archipelago of camps, there are the
relics. The shovel, for example, was provided by the United States
to help the Soviet Union during World War II, but it was, like many
other supplies, routed to the camps, where the glories of manual
labor had been celebrated in the propaganda clips shown here on
television monitors. Shovels like this one, found not far from where
the prehistoric salamanders were devoured, were luxuries.
From 1931 to 1933, in fact, 100,000 prisoners were set to work using
the crudest of hand tools to dig a 141-mile-long canal in 20 months
that would link the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. The canal turned
out to be too narrow and too shallow to serve much purpose, but it
provided a propaganda bonanza for Stalin, supposedly demonstrating
Soviet citizens working alongside one another, transforming the
There are also drawings here from Stalin-era camps, including one by
Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, showing naked women being inducted into
camp life, stumbling across the snow: "Above our heads the stars
twinkled," the former prisoner writes, "below our bare feet lay
Evidence of the "crimes" that led to such fates is also compelling.
On a 1949 ballot on which citizens were supposed to proclaim their
support for the single party candidate, Ivan Burylov, a beekeeper,
had scrawled his intemperate commentary, "Comedy." It cost him eight
years in a prison camp. As for the toothbrushes, they are relics
from the 1960's and early 70's, when a husband and wife, both
arrested as dissidents, could communicate only by inscribing such
ordinary objects with nearly invisible messages of affection.
So, in spareness and simplicity, the scale of the gulag is
suggested. There are also a few displays showing how readily many in
the former Soviet Union are now forgetting that past and
resurrecting Stalin's reputation, while other displays show how the
Perm-36 camp was turned into a museum to stave off those delusions.
Then something else happens. In the last third of the exhibition,
the small objects disappear, and big concepts take their place. But
in their way, they, too, seem eager to slight the gulag past.
The exhibition's text reads:
"Brutal systems have played a prominent role in many countries,
including the United States. Although slavery ended after the
American Civil War, its consequences persist. The repercussions of
the Holocaust in Europe and apartheid in South Africa reverberate
even today. Similarly, Russians face the legacy of the gulag. How
can citizens in these countries face up to the horrors of the past?"
It turns out that the gulag museum is part of an association it
helped establish in 1999, the International Coalition of Historic
Site Museums of Conscience, described as "a network of organizations
committed to teaching and learning how historic sites and museums
can inspire social consciousness and action."
That coalition now has 14 sites, which range from a 19th-century
workhouse in Britain to a slave house in Senegal, from the
Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic to the Lower
East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Not to be left out, the
National Park Service has its own displays about "civic engagement"
and points out that three of its sites are "accredited members of
the coalition": the Women's Rights National Historical Park in
Seneca Falls, N.Y.; the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in
Hyde Park, N.Y.; and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic
Site in Atlanta.
No doubt noble sentiments are at work in this roster, but as a
result, all specificity and judgment disappears; conscience consumes
everything and contains nothing. To make a grand rhetorical gesture,
encompassing all human injustice when one particular example seems
inconveniently egregious, has become a museum ritual, a political
When I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam several years ago,
the somber concreteness of the Annex and the dread fate of its
inhabitants were nearly erased by a final multimedia display in
which the Holocaust was calculatedly eclipsed by invocations of
every contemporary example of racial and social injustice the museum
could formulate. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center,
in Cincinnati, did the same thing with American slavery, ending its
account with a potpourri of international injustices, as if
recruiting activists for a litany of causes.
In the gulag show, on a smaller scale, the approach is the same. The
particulars of the past, so carefully presented, are suddenly tossed
aside, and all differences in nature and scale are eliminated.
Stalin really does get off easy. The coalition claims a higher moral
vision. Actually, it cheapens injustice, leaving everyone equally
guilty and equally innocent. Are 19th-century English workhouses and
New York tenements comparable in any way to the gulag? Is the plight
of women before receiving the vote similar to the starving of Kolyma
prisoners, who scrambled in the ice to eat prehistoric amphibians?
Harvard University's National Resource Center for Russian, East
European and Central Asian Studies is developing curriculum packets
for this exhibition. (After July 4, it will go to Boston University,
and then to Independence, Calif.; Atlanta; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and
Washington.) The educational material I was sent is careful and
informed, but here and there are whiffs of this homogenized
"Are there lessons to be learned from a study of the gulag that
might apply to prison systems in countries like the United States?"
the curriculum proposes asking students. "For example, should
prisoners in this country be forced to work jobs such as picking up
trash on the highway?"