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Russia: U.S. Exhibit Portrays Russian Suffering During World War II

  • Robert Lyle



Washington, 11 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - The mournful, haunting but somehow stirring strains of the Leningrad Suite from Dimitri Shostakovich's 7th Symphony slowly build through the entry hall as enlarged photographic images of Nazi Germany's early successes -- and the resulting horrific losses of the Soviet Union and its neighbors -- are showing Americans a view of World War II few have ever seen.

The photographs, and over 500 artifacts from the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow, are in an unusual exhibit which opened on the weekend in Washington in a new U.S. government International Trade building named for former President Ronald Reagan.

It is the first time any of these articles have been seen outside Russia and the first time some have been shown publicly.

Entitled "World War Two Through Russian Eyes," the exhibit was assembled in just three weeks under the private sponsorship of Kermit Weeks, the owner of a Florida aeronautics museum.

He hired prominent American exhibition director Mark Talisman -- a designer of the Holocaust Museum in Washington -- who worked closely with the director of the Russian museum, Colonel Alexander Nikonov. The two put together a view of the war in which the U.S. and Russia were allies, but never fully shared the experience after the victory because of the Cold War.

Talisman says history has finally come full circle and, with the end of the Cold War, it is time for Americans to see a different view. Nikonov agrees, saying Americans and Russians were partners during World War II and now, more than 50 years later, are "partners once again in exhibiting and viewing the history."

At the beginning of the exhibition are huge photographs of captured Soviet soldiers in 1941 being forced to dig their own graves, the summary execution of civilians in Estonia, and the unbelievable destruction in Leningrad during the German's 900 day siege which claimed tens of thousands of Russian lives.

There is a piano sitting in front of the huge photos of the destruction, with a video screen showing a Soviet documentary of the time which includes rare scenes of Shostakovich conducting the Leningrad Suite before a cold and hungry-looking audience in the besieged city. A music stand holds a 1942 Time magazine which featured a drawing of Shostakovich on the cover wearing his fireman's helmet -- the composer's job during the siege. A caption says: "Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad, he heard the chords of victory."

Another mural size photograph shows the destroyed tower of Murmansk, opposite of it, a recreated Russian home scene where furniture is being burned for heat. Propaganda posters show huddled Russian women and children at the point of a blood-stained Nazi bayonet.

Only Shostakovich's music seems to offer some hope in a very bleak picture by early 1942. But as the visitor passes through what designer Alexander Okun describes as a 15-meter "tunnel of history," the first sparks of the eventual turn-around are seen.

In a recreated birch forest, large photographs show partisans in Belarus and other areas where fragments of destroyed Soviet army units reassembled with civilians and began harassing German units.

Photographs of orphaned children -- often called the sons or daughters of specific military units because they had nowhere else to go -- bring, to a very personal level for American viewers, how deeply the destruction of country and people was for the USSR.

Artifacts such as a child's wooden sled used to carry soup kettles through snow covered forests, a chess set hand-carved by an unknown soldier, boots woven from straw, and even caricature puppets of Hitler and his top aides used to entertain and inspire Soviet army units, fill the forested tunnel.

While focusing on the destruction of the Soviet Union and the suffering of its people, the exhibit tells viewers about disastrous moves the Moscow leadership itself made, especially in the early years of the war. Narratives explain that because Stalin didn't really believe that Hitler would break their pact, Soviet military units were left in vulnerable positions. And even after the Nazis' were moving across Soviet soil, Stalin's purges of the military leadership continued.

Emerging from the forest tunnel, viewers enter a huge room that portrays Moscow on one side as it prepared for the threatened German invasion in 1941, and on the other side as it celebrated victory in 1945. From the archives, Stalin's uniforms and famous great-coat are seen hanging in his recreated office, with the actual maps with which he followed the war laid out on his desk.

In the middle of the room, are photographs of Soviet troops climbing the steps of the German Reichstag in triumph, with the first Soviet flag raised over the building -- a hand-made affair -- included in the exhibit. The iron eagle and Nazi swastika toppled from the top of the building is laying on the floor.

Hitler's bunker is recreated, with the uniform jacket -- slightly singed when aides tried to burn his body rolled up in a carpet -- and the boots he wore when he committed suicide sitting on a chair.

Hitler's desk is there, with many of his personal belongings, including a world globe over which had been pasted a swastika covering territory the Nazi's had captured. On top of Russia is printed the phrase "I'm coming" and over the United States is printed the phrase "I'll be there soon."

On the left side of the large room is a recreation of the downing of the flags ceremony in Red Square at the end of the war. The actual Germany battle banners thrown to the ground, including Hitler's personal standard which historians thought had been destroyed, are there for all to see.

Designer Okun, whose family fled the Soviet Union in 1981, says he could easily recreate the scene because as a young boy he sat atop his father's shoulders to watch the victory celebration.

In a separate theater, three Soviet documentaries produced during the war are being shown continuously. Many of the film makers were killed in the war, but their films, including the "Great Patriotic War" and "The Battle for Berlin" were never shown in the U.S. Exhibition Director Talisman says he left the films unedited, without English translation, because of the power of the images in portraying the war from the Soviet perspective.

The exhibition has been an immediate success, with large crowds of American visitors, quietly standing and absorbing entirely new images of a war that occurred before many of their lifetimes.

The exhibit is to travel to five more U.S. cities over the next year. Talisman says 23 cities are bidding to be included.
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