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Gulag Memories

In response to:

Circles of Hell from the April 28, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin [NYR, April 28], Michael Scammell concludes with an inaccurate generalization and thus a misplaced prescription. “Russia,” he writes, “…has not itself come to terms with what the Gulag represented….” As evidence, Scammell asserts, “There are no such museums…in the larger cities, especially not in the capital.”

In fact, as I point out in the book (pp. 166, 172–173), the State Museum of the History of the Gulag has existed in the center of Moscow (Petrovka, 16) since 2004. Indeed, the illustration from my book that accompanies Scammell’s review, depicting prisoners in one of Stalin’s Gulag prisons, is correctly credited by The New York Review to that institution!

This vital and expanding Moscow museum is, as I also explain in The Victims Return, part of the intense public debate and political struggle still under way in Russia today over “what the Gulag represented.” With the help of Moscow City authorities, the museum was created by a heroic figure, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, himself a Gulag prisoner for thirteen years under Stalin and who now, at age ninety, has turned its administration over to a devoted team of Russians still in their twenties. As this generational transition suggests, Scammell is also wrong in thinking that “Gulag research and Gulag studies” have been unable “to develop and flourish at home” and that therefore there should be instead “a Gulag Museum here,” in the United States.

However lamentable the Kremlin’s reluctance to acknowledge fully its history of inhuman repression and slave labor, we might wonder why nonetheless there is in Moscow a large museum memorializing the Gulag’s victims but none in Washington devoted to the history and victims of American slavery.

Stephen F. Cohen
New York City

Michael Scammell replies:

I want to thank Stephen Cohen for reminding me of the existence of the State Museum of the History of the Gulag on Petrovka Street in Moscow. My oversight can be explained by his own description of it in his book as “little known,” and by its unusual character. Despite its grandiose and misleading name, it is not a “state” museum, but a “municipal museum,” as the independent Russian Memorial Agency correctly describes it on its website, and it is rather small at that. It is certainly no substitute for the kind of major museum planned by Memorial, by far the largest and most reliable organization devoted to studying the Gulag and the one with undisputed authority.

Cohen criticizes my view that “Russia…has not itself come to terms with what the Gulag represented,” yet concludes The Victims Return with the following statement: “Clearly, the political struggle over the crimes of the Stalin era is again under way in Russia at the highest levels. It will almost certainly intensify. If so, the long return of the victims is not over” (p. 178). I fail to see how this differs from what I wrote.

Regarding the “misplaced prescription” Cohen claims to find in my review, I did not offer a “prescription,” nor did I say that such studies were “unable” to develop and flourish. I wrote that the KGB’s successors in and around the Kremlin were unlikely to “allow” them to develop and flourish, and I made a suggestion that more attention be devoted to them in the West. The fact that such studies are grudgingly permitted to exist at all in Russia doesn’t mean that they are flourishing, and even if they were, it wouldn’t exclude such studies being carried out elsewhere. In my view the West should devote more attention to the subject anyway; and as with Holocaust studies, multiple programs in different countries would be mutually enriching (there is, by the way a Holocaust Museum in Moscow).

Cohen’s point about the lack of a museum devoted to the history of American slavery in Washington (an argument he makes at greater length in his book) is a red herring. Whatever the failings of American attitudes toward slavery, they hardly invalidate the claims of the Gulag’s victims to sympathy and study.

On another subject, I should like to make it clear that all but one of the essays collected in Anne Applebaum’s Gulag Voices: An Anthology, though previously published—some obscurely—were heretofore out of print, and five have been newly translated from the Russian.

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