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St. Petersburg 'Novorossia' Museum -- Shrine To An Imaginary Reality?

Supporters of Russia's Other Russia party take part in a rally in St. Petersburg on February 23 in support of the forces in eastern Ukraine and southern Russia pressing for a united "Novorossia" under Russian rule.
Supporters of Russia's Other Russia party take part in a rally in St. Petersburg on February 23 in support of the forces in eastern Ukraine and southern Russia pressing for a united "Novorossia" under Russian rule.

ST. PETERSBURG -- A local hairstylist in Russia's second city hopes to open a museum celebrating pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.

Galina Puchnina, whose sister hails from Ukraine's war torn Donbas region, hopes to open the facility by May 9, when Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The museum, she said, would be dedicated to the idea of Novorossia, the name supporters of separatists in Donbas give to the large swath of land in southeastern Ukraine the rebels say they are seeking to control.

"We will show films, shells, explosions, blood, violence," the middle-aged Puchnina says from underneath a shock of yellow hair. "Everything just as it is -- we'll have fragments from shells, helmets from the Azov battalion decorated with swastikas," she says in a reference to one of the volunteer units fighting against pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

The site for the museum is the basement of a building in central St. Petersburg where the early 20th-century poet Aleksandr Blok lived and wrote.

It is unclear who is financing the project or whether it has official approval, although Puchnina says she is getting help from the Russia-backed separatists in Donbas.

For the time being, the museum's site is an uninspiring, crumbling basement of moldy walls and exposed plumbing. The only sign of life in the space is a pile of boxes that Puchnina's nongovernmental organization, Our Fatherland, is planning to send to Donbas.

"I have already sent six shipments of humanitarian aid," she says with pride.

Pressed to explain why she feels a Novorossia museum is so important, Puchnina hesitates.

"How can I explain?" she says. "My soul tells me that something needs to be done. Something needs to be done; I have to help somehow. You come here and you write about things, right? Well, I can do this."

"There is something tormenting me in my head that I have to do something," she adds.

Tatyana Kosinova of the St. Petersburg branch of the rights-advocacy group Memorial doesn't take the project seriously, even if it is given direct or indirect support from the state.

"I think the best reaction is laughter and irony," she says. "We shouldn't exaggerate the significance of this -- it is a very marginal, underground initiative."

But others are not so quick to dismiss the phenomenon, which they say is indicative of deeper cultural processes going on in Russian society today.

"The function of museums is to document reality, to document the past," says Ilya Utekhin, who teaches anthropology at St. Petersburg's European University. "But many of these [new] museums fulfill the function of churches rather than the presenting documentation because they are establishing a reality."

Utekhin sees echoes of Soviet times in Puchnina's initiative, comparing it to exhibitions erected at places that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin passed through or never even visited that functioned more like shrines.

"I think this phenomenon has deep roots that resound perfectly with Soviet traditions," Utekhin says.

St. Petersburg is not the only Russian city showing signs of a cultural transformation.

In the Perm region, the country's only museum dedicated to GULAG camps of Soviet-era repression has been taken over by local authorities and seems slated to focus on the Russian penal system, according to Memorial.

Since 1996, the museum, which is located at the Perm-36 camp about 100 kilometers from the city, has hosted exhibitions on Soviet -- particularly, Stalinist -- oppression and the dissident movement.

In Moscow, city authorities have preliminarily approved a new monument to Kievan Rus Prince Vladimir -- who adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988, about 150 years before Moscow was founded.

Back in St. Petersburg, Nina Popova, the director of city's Anna Akhmatova Museum, is worried about the proposed new Novorossia exhibition and the cultural shift it embodies.

"The thing that really bothers me about this museum is that there is so much chauvinism and war and aggression," she says.

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