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Russian Museums Alarmed By Order For 'Patriotic Education'

World War II veterans touch an exhibit showing Soviet leader Josef Stalin at the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Late last month, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky set off alarm bells among culture aficionados when he sent a letter to regional administrations ordering them to bring the museums in their purview into line with "the state's priorities."

The state news agency TASS reported about the letter and quoted a paragraph of it in which Medinsky orders regional officials to pay particular attention to "the embodiment of [state priorities] in exhibitions about the most important events in the history of modern Russia."

According to the TASS report, local officials have been ordered to report back on the progress of their work by April 30.

Medinsky has been a leading figure in the Kremlin's efforts to glorify Russia's imperial and Soviet past, including by seemingly downplaying atrocities to counter what President Vladimir Putin says is "excessive demonization" to "attack" the Soviet Union and Russia.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky (center, file photo)
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky (center, file photo)

Vladislav Kononov, director of the Department of Museums at the Culture Ministry, told TASS that the order from Medinisky was motivated by the fact that museum visits are on the rise around the country.

"We all see the lines at the museums and the growth in visits as well as the heightened public attention to museums," Kononov said. "This is true not only for federal museums but for regional and municipal ones as well."

He added, "We want to make clear to regional officials that the museums in their territory are not some sort of atavism, but an important social institution that can and must be used for important functions in the area of teaching and patriotic education."

Lively Discussion

The report sparked lively discussion in closed social-media groups frequented by museum workers and advocates. Many comments speculated that the government of President Vladimir Putin intends to "politicize museums, with all that that entails."

When one commenter asked what museums would be asked to promote, another joked, "More likely 'whom'?" -- hinting that museums would be forced to glorify Putin. Another lamented that museums would be guided by "the government's point of view, rather than science."

One wag wondered if the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow would soon be exhibiting "that very Buk," a reference to the Russian antiaircraft system that is widely believed to have been used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.

They point to the Culture Ministry's flagship Russia-My History project -- the construction of 19 historical theme parks in which "every visitor will feel solidarity with the events of the 1,000-year history of his Fatherland," according to the project's website.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) poses with participants in celebrations to mark the Battle of Stalingrad during a visit to the Russia-My History museum in Volgograd in February 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) poses with participants in celebrations to mark the Battle of Stalingrad during a visit to the Russia-My History museum in Volgograd in February 2018.

​It has been widely criticized in academic circles as tendentious and error-prone. Nonetheless, the Culture Ministry touts the initiative at every opportunity.

Museum workers also point out that before the 41-year-old Kononov joined the Culture Ministry in June, he was the executive director of the Russian Military-Historical Society (RVIO).

Although nominally a nongovernmental organization, the RVIO was created by Medinsky and has very close ties with the Culture Ministry. Historians, however, have often criticized the society's projects as unscholarly.

As head of the RVIO in 2018, Kononov signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian Foreign Ministry aimed at "coordinating the common efforts of the government and society in the matter of preserving Russia's military-historical heritage in various other countries," according to the state-run military television channel Zvezda.

'Inconvenient Carriers Of Historical Memory'

Many of the comments recall the 1930s, when the government of dictator Josef Stalin imposed strict control over all Soviet museums and many scholars and historians were repressed as "inconvenient carriers of historical memory." Or the 1970s, when museum workers grew accustomed to rearranging exhibitions in response to inquiries or orders from the Communist Party or the government.

Irina Velikanova, director of the Museum of Contemporary History in Moscow (the former Museum of the Revolution on Red Square), in an article published on the ministry's website, offered to assist regional museums in complying with the Culture Ministry's instruction.

"The Museum of Contemporary History is ready to become a methodological center providing assistance to regional museums on the creation of high-quality, modern exhibitions covering the most recent period of Russian history," she was quoted as saying.

The article praises the museum's exhibition on the last 30 years, noting that it includes, among many other things, a soccer ball signed by the Russian national team that played in the 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia and the pen with which Putin signed the document on the annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014.

"Our people often do not remember and do not know the history of the beginning and the middle of the 20th century, and often don't even know about the events of our history from the end of the 1980s to the 2000s," she said, noting that in a recent survey, 74 percent of respondents were unable to name Mikhail Gorbachev as the first and only president of the Soviet Union.

An installation titled The Last Supper by Andrei Filippov in a Russian museum.
An installation titled The Last Supper by Andrei Filippov in a Russian museum.

Anna Gorskaya, director of scholarly and educational programs at the Murom Historical-Art Museum in Vladimir Oblast told RFE/RL that the government's apparent focus on contemporary history is problematic for museums.

"Speaking as a historian of education, I can say that it can be rather complicated for museums to treat contemporary history," Gorskaya said. "Modern times are more a field for political scientists than for historians. Historians need to look at events from some remove, and for that the passage of time is necessary. Only then does the possibility of making historical judgments arise. That's why I think maybe it isn't a good idea to rush to bring exhibitions right up to the current day."

Gorskaya said the April 30 deadline was puzzling.

"By the time the letter gets from the governor's office to the department of culture and then is distributed among the various institutions, the time will have expired," she said. "There definitely isn't time to change any exhibitions. I think the ministry understands this and, most likely, they are just trying to carry out some sort of monitoring of the state of affairs in museums in the provinces."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lilya Palveleva