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Kazakhstan: Former KGB Headquarters Reopened As A Museum

A museum dedicated to the victims of Soviet-era oppression has opened in Kazakhstan's former KGB headquarters in Almaty, offering visitors a first-hand look at a dark chapter in the Central Asian republic's past. Two former Kazakh detainees recently shared their feelings with RFE/RL about the museum.

Prague, 28 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has taken an important step toward exploring some of the darker elements of its recent past.

The Kazakh Association of Repressed People this month opened a "Museum of the Victims of Soviet Oppression." The building is especially significant. It once housed the KGB.

Thousands of people were imprisoned and killed in the building by the successive organizations responsible for the harsh internal security system.

Ninety-five-year old Bekbolat Mustafin is the chairman of the association and director of the new museum. His connection to the building is strong. He spent three years in cell number 14 after being arrested in 1938. He later spent 20 years in a Soviet labor camp.

He tells RFE/RL, "This is where people's blood was shed. This is the place where people were tortured."

One floor is open to the public, exhibiting cells where prisoners were held and tortured. Also on display are pictures of those arrested and documents ordering their execution.

Mustafin said more about the building's gruesome past. "In 1937, every day, [some] 50 to 60 people were shot in this building. For example, between 25 February and 12 March that year -- in only 10 days -- 560 people were shot here, in the building," he said.

Hasen Qojahmet was held in the building for eight months in 1977, before being sent to a labor camp. He says the museum is the culmination of a more than decade-long dream. He remembers a speech he made in front of the building in 1991, just before the Soviet Union collapsed.

"This is a KGB building [where] many people died. It has 22 cells. It is still a functioning jail. Many people can find their [former] jails there -- the Soviet Union was still alive at that time. At that meeting, I raised the issue and asked that the building be turned into a museum," he said.

The Almaty museum is not the first to be established at a KGB headquarters. In 1992, the former KGB headquarters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius was turned into the "Genocide and Resistance Center" -- although it's still known locally as the "KGB Museum."

Many other former Soviet republics have created museums and memorials to pay tribute to the millions of victims of communist oppression.

In Uzbekistan, the "Museum of the Victims of Repression" was opened in 2001 to raise awareness of repression during the tsarist and Soviet eras.

Laura Adams is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. She says museums -- as well as street names, monuments, and memorials -- reflect a society's need to remember and form a collective identity.

According to Adams, there is a personal need to get the truth out in public as part of the integration of one's personal family history and the nation's history.

"The openings of these museums in Almaty and in Tashkent are both expressions of the need to come to some sort of understanding of the bad parts of the Soviet past because for a lot of people the Soviet past still holds a lot of nostalgia. At the same time, I think people need to have some sort of recognition of the trauma that the Soviet past often imposes upon them," Adams said.

Adams continues, "This is a very hopeful expression, I think, in terms of coming to understand and acknowledge the past, and in a way to put perspective on it and perhaps to put it behind them somewhat after some period of time. But of course, museums are also a way of educating people who may not have directly experienced these repressions."

So far, the Almaty museum has attracted mostly old-timers, but hopes are that younger generations too will take an interest.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service's Merkhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.)