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Białoruskie Muzeum Państwowe Wielkiej Wojny Ojczyźnianej

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Yulia Chernikova redaktorka portalu „Uroki istorii” przeanalizowała ekspozycję Muzeum Wielkiej Wojny Ojczyźnianej w Mińsku i twierdzi, że jest ona typowa i wyjątkowa zarazem.
Zamieszczamy artykuł (po ang.) z partnerskiego portalu „Uroki istorii”.

Belorussian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War is an environment of memory about the war; this environment is typical (for the national collections) and unique at the same time.

On the one hand, the museum in Minsk is a memorial center in the first place – in the same way as the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War on the Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow. Its mission is not to tell visitors about what had happened and analyze causes and their implications but to ingrain very specific content and form of memory about the past.

On the other hand, the first items appeared in the museum collection during the war years (it has been built since 1942). This is why, by definition, the image of the war could not be presented from the perspective of the Victory (as in other museums). Attention is paid to non-heroic topics, such as the retreat of the Red Army, occupation, ghettos, concentration camps, and victims.

But the language which is used to describe the war events is the same in all cases. It is subordinate to the primary objective, i.e. to show the “heroic struggle of the working people of BSSR [Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic]” against German invaders; everything else remains outside the boundaries of memory about the war.

Commissioning the Museum
The “heroic struggle of the BSSR’s working people against German invaders” is one of the two topics on which the Commission for the Collection of Documents and Materials about the Great Patriotic War (established in 1942) began working. The second topic was “Treacherous invasion of German fascism in the Soviet Union.”

This decision was taken by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belorussia (CC CP(b)B) that worked in Moscow because Belorussia was occupied. T. S. Gorbunov, CC CP(b) secretary for propaganda, was appointed chairman of the Commission, and executive secretary was V. D. Stalnov (later he was the Museum’s first director).

Accordingly, the formation of the Museum collection was not guided by information-sharing, historical or educational objectives. It was closely related to propaganda, i.e. to a certain prescribed message which was to be communicated from top downwards to the largest possible number of people. This principle is important for understanding the logic of the exhibition and, more broadly, the way in which the Museum is organized.

The history of the war which is displayed in the chronologically located exhibition hall is not presented as a consecutive story but rather as a hymn. All its stanzas (i.e. exhibition topics) repeat and re-communicate, with different examples, the same “message” or tune: the perfidy of the enemy (“German fascism is invading treacherously”) and heroism of the soviet people (“the working people of BSSR struggling heroically”).

The stanzas are thematically diverse (“Defensive actions on the territory of Belorussia on June 22 – July 3, 1941,” “Nazi fascists’ occupation regime in Belorussia, 1941-1944,” “Minsk tragedy during the war” and others) are interchangeable and equal to each other.

“Victory Hall” and Memory About the War
The history of the organization of Museum is also constructed as a myth. For example, the Museum’s official website which was launched in 2005, before the 60th anniversary of the Victory, says:

“Former partisans became the first staff members of the Museum: after they came out of forests, they brought their weapons to the museum and began peaceful construction. They accepted the Red Army’s trophies and went on expeditions to the frontlines. One such expedition collected the would-be exhibits in Berlin when street fighting still went on in the city.”

Victory Hall opened after the war. This is why it does not become the fulcrum point (the exhibition does not vary in the degree of emotional tension at all because the tension is at its highest from the very first exhibition hall). Victory is not described either through reference to an official document or summit meeting (as a political treaty) or through personal life experiences either (as a dimension of a human life).

It is presented through photos of the Victory Parade in Moscow – a collective march which unites the power holders and the people, the party and the nation, the civilians and the combatants. The Victory Parade has a symbolical meaning; furthermore, the rigid construct of memory about the past dictates a very specific image of the war and a strictly-set list of eligible war topics.

This is why the museum workers do their research on “Byelorussians who took part in the Victory Parade on June 24, 1945” by way of bridging a gap in the history of the war instead of studying, for example, the story of Minsk ghetto or daily life during the occupation.

“Belorussia Lives, Belorussia Fights, Belorussia Was and Will Be Soviet”
The work of the Commission for the Collection of Documents and Materials about the Great Patriotic War resulted in an exhibition “Belorussia Lives, Belorussia Fights, Belorussia Was and Will Be Soviet” in Moscow. It was displayed in the State Historical Museum in Red Square in 1942-1944.

The resolution to “establish <in Minsk> a museum dedicated to the fight of the Belorussian people against the German fascist occupants during the Great Patriotic War” was one of the first resolutions issued by the Central Committee of VKP(b) after the Red Army’s offensive and gradual liberation of Belorussia from the occupants.

The resolution had a clear ideological and personality-development message, and it could be seen that a three-dimensional history of the war is being simplified into a one-dimensional one because history is perceived and presented as “history of the people’s struggle against …”

The museum exhibition was based on this display, and in 1966 it was relocated to a building that had been specially constructed for the Museum. But even this exhibition displays only a part of the existing collection. This is why the foundations of a new building have been laid. The museum workers say that legends under exhibits will be in three languages (they are now in Belorussian and in some cases in Russian).

Meanwhile, the “Museum Today” booth has the following legend under the photos of executives: “the goal of the Museum is to commemorate the defenders of Motherland and the Belorussian people’s contribution to Victory.”  Interestingly enough, the museum whose exhibition seems to have remained unchanged since the soviet times is located in a sovereign state but there are no controversial opinions as to what should be regarded as Motherland.

Museum as a Monument
The Museum does not envision commentaries but only names of halls and legends under exhibits. The Museum was established as a repository of memory about facts and events that were well-known (great and heroic), i.e. the museum has de facto taken up the functions of a monument. Thus, exhibits do not give evidence about history or stories but are things-in-themselves, relics and sacred items. They seem to exist in an air-free space, outside of context and explanations; they can tell us as much as they can display, and nothing more.

The history of the war is a collection of such things: newspaper clips, photos, posters, weapons, medals, jars, and colors. There are also theater-type stage sets (e.g., a life-sized partisan outlet that produced clothes; dummy medals) and panoramas. Their form and content are sometimes at variance with each other.

A panoramic view of a concentration camp is built in one of the museum halls: barracks behind barbed wire, guard box, corpses in the background, and men with barrows. The camp is presented as a battlefield, with the same lighting, composition techniques and elevated heartbreaking tone. And with the same figure of an impassionate observer i.e. a visitor who comes and finds himself in front of the exhibit.

But a “peaceful” camp and a battle are different things. While the demonstration of a battle as an attraction has had a certain tradition (the genre of battle scenes in painting, panoramic views in museums, films and thrillers about war), a camp is a special place. The very fact of its existence poses many questions: why it was established, what happened in it, how people got there and how they lived in the camp, who worked in it, who knew about it, etc.

A museum can become one of the most effective ways of telling visitors about such things (by using documents and evidence). Yet, in this case the topics of camp and ghetto are presented in the same way as others topics that tell the visitor about the perfidious enemy and the heroic nation, and do not speak about anything else. The theme of Holocaust is excluded from the picture of the war.

“Prologue” Hall
On the other hand, a few topics that are either acute or “dangerous” for the heroic image of the war were unexpectedly included in the memory about the war. If proper attention were paid to them, they should have transformed this memory fundamentally. This does not happen – firstly, because a visitor cannot understand much from the exhibition (there are no comments; the displayed items do not communicate any message but demonstrate themselves, and if a visitor does not know the context, they would be mute and hollow). Secondly, these topics are in the “Prologue” Hall which precedes the main exhibition and which visitors usually pass through quickly.

The first exhibit in the hall is a booth with the fascist uniform and photos of parades.” The legend says,

“In late 1930s the fascist Germany, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919, built a strong military and economic basis and launched on the path of straightforward aggression.”

However, neither this booth nor the Museum as a whole makes any attempt to explain how fascism had emerged, what it means, what its history, ideology and practices are, how it became popular and spread around (and, accordingly, what should be done to prevent the revival of fascism or any similar state and social regime). There is an impression that fascism (and Nazism) is a sort of a natural disaster that bolted out of the blue and disappeared forever.

Symbolically, the exhibition begins with the military parades with political symbols in Berlin and ends with the military parade with political symbols in Moscow. One photo taken in a club in Minsk shows how portraits of Lenin and Stalin and red banners are removed from the building: that was how one regime got rid of the other regime’s symbols during the occupation.

The “Prologue” hall has a booth dedicated to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; furthermore, it displays the secret protocol and a map showing the division of Europe into zones of influence, signed by Stalin and Ribbentrop.

The legend under this map (which explains what map it is) comes to be covered by the secret protocol; in the next hall a German tank breaks into Belorussia spectacularly, tearing down the gigantic pact document.

The “Prologue” Hall then offers well-known descriptions of historical events but the wording of these descriptions remains sophisticated. They state that

“On August 23,1939 the USSR and Germany signed a non-aggression pact. On September 1, 1939 the fascist Germany attacked Poland, thus waging the Second World War,” and “As a result of the Red Army’s military campaign march in western Belorussia (September 17 – October 5, 1939), five regions were established and included in the Belorussian SSR.”

The hall also displays Molotov’s report which points out that Poland had lost its statehood, and brother nations need to be saved from the Polish exploiters. No details of the “military campaign” are given, and it is not explained why Germany treated this event as an invasion into Poland and initiation of a war while the USSR treats similar actions as the establishment of five regions.

The legend further says that “Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina joined the USSR in 1939-1940,” and “during the soviet-Finnish war of November 28, 1939 – March 12, 1940) the state border was moved 150 kilometers away from Leningrad.

This is a unique situation: nothing is said although much has been said. Impersonal phrases (“the state border was moved,” “oblasts joined”) and closed phrases prevent any doubts and questions. And this technique does work.

Inhuman War
A war which is understood only as the history of the state leaves no place for a human element: there is great sorrow but there is no place for personal grief; there is great suffering but there is no place for personal compassion (of course, if we do not perceive the chance to have a look at a toy concentration camp as a chance for compassion); there is enemy and Heroes but no place for a “man from the street”; there is the great “we” but there is no “I.”

The result is a very specific picture: three years of occupation without any daily life, concentration camps without Holocaust, and faceless enemies and heroes. Enemies are described through horrible crimes (these are described in detail), such as massacres, cruelty, photos of hanged persons, etc. Heroes are described through awards, uniform which has been preserved, symbolic relics (a communist party membership card which has saved a person’s life), etc.

The third party (victims) is not represented at all. Victims are described either through criminals’ crimes or through the defenders’ heroism, or through artistic installations with nameless photos (photos on strings against a black background). There is also a figure of a partisan which has turned into a symbolic expression of the Belorussian people’s heroism. In the halls dedicated to the partisan movement, we learn a lot about heroism but almost nothing about partisans.

There is no direct speech, no witnesses’ stories and people’s voices; they are replaced with newspaper clips at best, and with a presenter’s voice at worst; the voice says “how it was in reality.” The war is seen and shown as a kind of the highest instance.

It is not known who these people were, how they lived, what their relations with their neighbors were or whether they liked animals. Included in the history of the Great Patriotic War, they are devoid of their personal history. The Museum and, in a broader way, the entire soviet system of working with the past has created all possible conditions for keeping eternal memory about the great war but – paradoxically - there is almost no opportunity for keeping memory about individuals.

The War and Bears
The Museum, even though it is filled with exhibits that are sacred relics, looks more like a monument than a temple or shrine. It no longer has rituals and mandatory tours for school students now (in the post-soviet period). Its contents are in no way related to the everyday life of citizens. This seems to be the common fate of all solemn and majestic monuments that are full of pathos: while they communicate a straightforward message about the past (the “heroic fight,” “Victory,” etc.), they lose their link with the present and come to be perceived as a “zero address,” a neutral “hollow” place.

For example, roller skaters perfect their acrobatic movements at the foot of the monument “Tragedy of Nations”, and the Minsk museum displays a temporary exhibition of toy bears (entrance for a separate fee) which has been extended at visitors’ request. History which is put in a sacred cocoon is a rather endurable thing (neither the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact not toy bears can do it any harm) but it is a harmless phenomenon. It can exist outside of time and space, and reckoning on eternal memory turns out to be the first symptom of the forthcoming oblivion.

By Yulia Chernikova
Translated by Marina Burkova

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