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How Russia Created a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center Even Vladimir Putin Can Tolerate

Today, post-Communist Europe is experiencing a museum boom. Countries are trying to consolidate a collective identity in museums that tell their nation’s story in a way that was not possible under communism. Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials offer not only histories of Jewish communities in a given town or country, but also a perspective on the place of those communities within a larger national history and a country’s self-understanding. For decades, the subject of Jewish history and memory was largely off-limits in the Eastern bloc. However, since the fall of communism there has been a revival of public Jewish culture and institutions in the region. New museums, memorials and education centers have emerged all across Central and Eastern Europe as well as in the former Soviet Union.

One of the most ambitious is the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, which opened in 2012. A multimillion dollar endeavor, the museum is supported by Jewish donors as well as by non-Jewish benefactors, foundations and local authorities. Its core exhibitions, which rely on the expertise of both local and international scholars and designers, offer an affecting multimedia narrative of Russian Jewish history. In the short time since it was established, Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center has become part of the international museum scene and a tourist attraction, with 85,000 visitors in 2014.

Major museums are usually expensive undertakings, involving legislation, fundraising and planning, and as such they reflect a society’s agenda. The elements of a museum — architecture, curatorial choices and exhibit design — all convey its political narrative. History museums are cultural documents offering a glimpse of the past, which they are ostensibly trying to preserve, as well as of the present. Naturally, a Jewish museum in Russia has to grapple with local historical and cultural heritage and to stake a claim in the national past: Which stories are told in its displays? What is highlighted and what is omitted? How is the Jewish story integrated with the broader national narrative?

While in early Soviet times, synagogues (as well as churches) were turned into stables and barns, in Moscow a garage was turned into a Jewish museum. Granted, this was no ordinary garage. The Soviet avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov designed the historic Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage in 1926.

The museum project was initiated by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia — the umbrella organization for Chabad-Lubavitch in Russia — supported by the Kremlin and financed by a handful of Russian Jewish oligarchs at a cost of $50 million. The journey to museum from garage began in 2001, when Moscow City Hall donated the dilapidated building to the Hasidic Jewish Community Center. The idea was that the building would house a cultural center, including an exhibition on Jewish culture and an art gallery. While this site is neither central nor easily accessible to tourists, it is part of an entire campus of Jewish religious and cultural organizations that sprouted in the post-Soviet era in the traditionally Jewish neighborhood (to the extent that Moscow has Jewish neighborhoods) of Maryina Roshcha. The museum building shares its territory with a Jewish day school, a yeshiva, a medical center and several Jewish charity organizations.

Several years of faltering attempts to renovate the garage building ended in 2007, when Roman Abramovich, a federation board member, restored it. In 2008 it opened its doors to the public as the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, managed by Dasha Zhukova, Abramovich’s girlfriend at the time. While the art center was there only temporarily, the name stuck. The institution is still known in Moscow as “the Garage.”

The federation had a vision for the future museum, which the Russian chief rabbi, Berel Lazar of Chabad-Lubavitch, discussed in an official conversation with Vladimir Putin in June 2007. Lazar, known for his close relationship with Putin, emphasized the necessity of creating a museum that would not only educate new generations of Russians in the spirit of tolerance, but also celebrate Russia as a model of the co-existence of different religions in a multinational and multi-confessional society.

Putin was so moved by this idea that he donated one month of his salary toward the creation of the museum. Shortly after this, the FSB (the Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB) pledged its support by providing documents from its archives. Close ties between the Chabad-Lubavitch leadership and Putin’s regime, as well as Putin’s widely publicized support, created the perception that the museum-in-the-making would be an officially sanctioned institution, even though it would be created with private funds. Indeed, the final exhibits tell a story that is consistent with the regime’s customary positive portrayal of Russia to the West. To that end, the museum positions Jews as a model minority.

To implement this vision, the federation wanted the museum to be designed on the principles of “edutainment,” where visitors could learn the history of Russian Jewry in a fun way. The federation retained Ralph Appelbaum Associates, an international design firm with experience working on major Holocaust and Jewish museums. RAA was charged with creating a world-class museum using cutting-edge digital technology and interactivity. The exhibition was to address the widest possible audiences to appeal not only to Russian Jews, a very small minority today, but also to non-Jewish Russians, tourists and, most important, young audiences.

Aside from a modest collection of Judaica and art, the new museum had no curators, collections or research, only a budget, a building and a deadline.

To create the museum content from scratch, RAA put together a content committee consisting of five international scholars in the field of Russian Jewish history and in Jewish religion and culture. Many other scholars were brought in for consultation and for filmed interviews, which were later featured in the exhibits.

The museum was created in record time — less than four years from start to finish; by contrast, the core exhibition of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews was more than 10 years in the making. To satisfy the client’s vision of a museum as a popular educational attraction, RAA decided to use a multimedia narrative approach. The starting point would be not only original, valuable objects or works of art, but also reconstructed artifacts, film, sound, immersive installations and interactive presentations of various kinds.

The exhibition, located on a floor of enormous size, about 92,000 square feet, presents more than 2,000 years of history, including a detailed multimedia timeline of 230 years of the history of Jews in Russia. There are about 5,000 photographs, 200 artifacts, 34 films, 32 digital interactives, six listening stations, eight custom maps and a 4-D theater with an animated film. The texts are in Russian and English, with occasional Hebrew and Yiddish. The multimedia exhibits are supplemented with some original objects collected in the area of the former Pale of Settlement. To say the least, this is an unprecedented undertaking. Although there are other smaller and more traditional Jewish museums in Russia, this is the first one on such a scale. It is also the first interactive and multimedia museum anywhere in the country.

Committed to the Cause: Vladimir Putin reportedly donated a month's salary towards the creation of the museum. Image by Getty Images

The original historic building reflects the modernist avant-garde sensibility of the architect. The bus garage is a parallelogram, a design decision consistent with Melnikov’s constructivist aesthetic and a way to help buses maneuver in and out of parking spaces. RAA’s design maintained the original diagonal sensibility and organized the central space in the shape of an inverted V. The spaces along the sidewalls are similarly dynamic in shape.

A ramp at the entrance leads to the Beginnings Theater, a 4-D experience dedicated to the history of the Jewish people as told in the Bible. A multimedia installation on Jewish migrations, starting with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and ending with the partitioning of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century, shows how Jews found themselves in the Russian Empire. A large exhibit presenting traditional life in a shtetl occupies the very center of the floor. Along the sidewalls of the space are exhibits dedicated to the history of Russian and Soviet Jews, with World War II and the Holocaust occupying the entire back wall. The Tolerance Center, a separate area furnished with tablets and a screen, concludes the museum.

The federation made clear to the designers that the three most important parts of the museum were the Beginnings Theater; the gallery, “The Great Patriotic War and the Holocaust,” and the Tolerance Center. The stories told in these three areas express the tensions between Jewish and Soviet/Russian narratives. The Beginnings Theater is dedicated fully to presenting the biblical history of the Jewish people. “The Great Patriotic War and the Holocaust” combines the Soviet story of the war and the Jewish story of the catastrophe. The Tolerance Center promotes a universal idea of multiculturalism in the New Russia. Tensions between Jewish and dominant cultures are emblematic of every Jewish museum, but the question is how the Moscow Jewish museum resolves these tensions.

The Beginnings Theater is the most Jewish and least historical of the exhibits. Using immersive animations and an ambient soundtrack, a 20-minute film presents the biblical narrative from the creation of the world to the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., explaining the origins of the Jewish people and the major tenets of Judaism. This 4-D multimedia extravaganza is designed to be particularly appealing to young audiences. As animated images fill the circular screen that surrounds the viewers, the seats of the theater rock to the scenes of biblical destructions; droplets of water are sprinkled on the audience to signify the flood, and, in the story of the Exodus, laser projections of locusts fill the space.

In the main exhibition space, the tension between Jewish and Soviet/Russian narratives starts to emerge. That can first be felt in the spatial organization of the exhibit, presenting two conflicting approaches to time. In the words of the museum’s own narrative, “In the first case, it is linear historical time, in another case, it is time of tradition — the circle of life and Jewish holidays.” Jewish time is a sacred time — cyclical and eternal.

The emotional heart of the museum is an exhibit called “Shtetl: A Jewish Home,” framed on one side by “Storyline”— a chronological narrative of Russian Jewish history told through texts, images, maps, timelines and short videos — and on another by an exhibit called “Judaism — a Living Religion,” an overview of the Jewish lifecycle and holidays, with nods to local observances in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Located between the axes of history and religion, “Shtetl” functions as both a historical exhibit about a Jewish town in the Russian Empire and a chance to experience, through re-created environments and interactive technology, such Jewish settings as the synagogue, Heder and Sabbath table.

In the interactive exhibits, touch-sequence videos bring the shtetl to life. In a Sabbath tableau, a mother blesses the candles and a father says the Kiddush. Attractive actors portray the parents, and equally attractive children surround them, creating an idealized nostalgic picture of a traditional Jewish family. In the next gallery, visitors can inhabit the space of the synagogue, sit in a pew while immersed in a soundscape of prayer and song, and even imagine themselves as Jewish scholars, as they scroll through the pages of a digital Torah.

Contrasting with this eternal Jewish time, the events of Russian-Soviet Jewish history, from the 19th century to the 21st, are arranged according to a secular historic timeline. The first gallery is designed like a cafe, with interactive displays at each table. It covers events of the late imperial period, including urbanization, migration and the entrance of Jews into politics. The next gallery shows World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the pogroms that followed the post-Revolutionary Civil War, The gallery, “Soviet Union: 1922–1941,” depicts the rise of Soviet Yiddish culture and its figureheads. Next comes “The Great Patriotic War and the Holocaust.” The two remaining galleries focus on the postwar and current periods. “Postwar Era” covers the anti-Semitic campaigns of late Stalinism, as well as Khrushchev’s liberalization, represented through a re-created Soviet apartment, home to an average Jewish family. The Brezhnev period is portrayed through a re-created birch forest where Soviet Jewish activists gathered for underground celebrations of Jewish holidays and culture. The final gallery features a lavishly produced film that portrays Russian Jewish experiences during Perestroika, Yeltsin’s era and the current regime, culminating in a celebratory speech by Putin. The narration emphasizes the revival and flourishing of Jewish culture and religion in contemporary Russia, including synagogues, organizations and schools.

While this is the part of the museum where the national narrative of the “New Russia” becomes palpable, it is present in the other historic galleries. Whether these events cover tragic occurences, like anti-Semitic persecutions, or joyous ones, like the stories of Jewish accomplishments, the museum inscribes them on the larger canvas of general Russian history, moving forward, in contrast with circular and eternal Jewish time. The takeaway is that Jews in the past endured antagonism and discrimination, but they nevertheless succeeded in the face of these trials and tribulations. Thus the museum delivers on Lazar’s promise to Putin to “truly show the difference between the historical past and today’s reality.”

Moreover, the Soviet part of the exhibit demonstrates clearly not just that Jews contributed to Russian/Soviet culture, but also that they shaped the very core of it, through music, literature, cinema and other arts. By creating this narrative the museum asserts that Jews are part and parcel of the Russian nation, and their triumphal story makes them a model Russian minority, a facet of the new multinational, multi-religious Russia, tolerant of Others (although high fences around the museum and a security checkpoint at the entrance suggest otherwise).

The tension between Soviet and Jewish narratives is felt most acutely in the exhibit on World War II and the Holocaust. Holocaust memorialization in the West, including museums and memorials in the United States, Germany and Israel, is a well-explored subject. But in the Eastern bloc, the subject of the Holocaust, and Jewish history in general, was largely off-limits. In Soviet historiography, the Holocaust was universalized —subsumed as part of the overall Soviet tragedy, with Jewish victims euphemistically labeled “peaceful Soviet citizens.” To the extent to which the history of the Holocaust was discussed, only crimes against Jews in Germany or Poland were mentioned, thus absolving the Soviet Union of any historic responsibility for mass Jewish losses on its own soil. Since perestroika and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, this has been changing. But the question of Holocaust memory in Russia is a new one, and how to integrate it with the memory of the war is not yet clear.

If the Soviet story of the war leaves little space for the Jewish catastrophe, the Jewish (and Western) narrative of the Holocaust largely excludes the tremendous Soviet losses — about 27 million lives, including 12 million civilians. In the Western memory and popular culture, the history of the Holocaust on Soviet territory — so-called “the Holocaust by bullets” — is often overshadowed by representations of ghettos and camps, mainly Auschwitz.

The Moscow museum tries to reconcile these two approaches, as the gallery name shows. The gallery keeps the Soviet name and dates of the war — the Great Patriotic War, 1941–45 — but appends to it the term “Holocaust,” a word that was introduced into Russian circulation only in the mid-1990s, and one that is still not well known there.

Image by Courtesy of Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center

In a departure from a Soviet discourse, the museum highlights the particular significance of the war for Jews, representing both its heroes and its victims. The story of the Jewish war effort in the Red Army and partisan movement features prominently in the gallery. A large screen shows video testimonies of former fighters. Two enormous objects illustrate their heroism: a real T-34 tank, a legendary Red Army weapon and a life-size model of a Po-2 airplane, famous for being flown by “night witches” — female military aviators, some of whom were Jewish. These large-scale videos and artifacts are complemented by such intimate documents as letters, photographs and personal papers of Soviet Jews who fought at the fronts. Such memorialization would have been unthinkable in Soviet times, and yet its framing retains Soviet strategies. Jews are simply added to the heroic Soviet story. The introductory text of the display reads, “Like the entirety of the Soviet people, Jews participated in the defense of their motherland.”

The gallery also tells the story of Jewish loss. The main exhibit, a panoramic film projected on a massive, curved screen, interweaves wartime archival footage, testimonies of Holocaust survivors and scholarly commentary to tell the history of the war, as well as the story of Jewish death and suffering in the occupied Soviet territory. Survivors’ testimonies became familiar in the West, thanks to the work of such organizations as the USC Shoah Foundation, but they are entirely new in Moscow. Throughout the Soviet era, the identity of “Holocaust survivor” did not exist. In fact, survivors had to conceal the history of their imprisonment in ghettos or camps to avoid being suspected of treason.

At the same time, the museum avoids dealing with more difficult subjects, such as relations between Jews and non-Jews during the war. In the entire exhibit, there is only one brief paragraph about local collaborators “in some Lithuanian and Ukrainian towns.” In that story, Russians are not implicated in the anti-Jewish violence. It is true that most Jewish victims in the occupied Soviet territory were killed in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Lithuania. But even within the contemporary borders of Russia there were also dozens of ghettos and numerous sites of mass executions. The museum, however, presents the Holocaust as part of the heroic narrative of the war, according to which the good Soviets defeated the evil Germans. Consequently, the museum succeeds in glorifying and mourning, but without raising more controversial and relevant questions that would require the viewer to come to terms with a nation’s difficult past.

Issues of memory and dealing with the past also emerge in the memorial part of the exhibit, the Remembrance Space. Comprising a partially enclosed cube, it is a space with an entrance on one side that faces the panoramic film, and with candles on the interior wall. Projected above the flames of the candles are the names of victims. Although reminiscent of a conventional Holocaust memorial, with its candles and inscribed names, this treatment differs because the identities of the victims, other than their names, are missing. When I pressed the tour guide, I was given a number of 5 million victims but was not sure who they were — Jews? Civilians? Prisoners of war?

It turns out this ambiguity is by design. Instead of a Holocaust memorial, the federation envisioned the Remembrance Space as an ecumenical space. In fact, according to the original concept, the inscribed names should represent all 27 million Soviet lives lost. However, technical limitations made projections of 27 million names impossible, forcing the media designers to cull together a selection of names from the three databases of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the war, accessible from the computer monitors installed in the space. Here, memorializing overall losses arguably continues the Soviet legacy of universalizing Jewish victims. According to the logic of the Remembrance Space, Jewish victims are a part of the larger losses of the Great Patriotic War, and it is sufficient to focus on the generalized story of the entire event.

It is in the Tolerance Center, the least specifically Jewish part of the museum, where the narrative of the “New Russia” comes to the fore. This open space, with minimalist white seating, is reminiscent of the Museum of Tolerance, in Los Angeles. Here, too, visitors can watch educational videos on individual stations and take quizzes to assess their own tolerance of minorities based on disability, race and religion (but not sexual orientation). The Tolerance Center can be read as an attempt by the Russian state to respond to Russia’s growing xenophobia, which is aimed today at new ethnic and religious minorities, including people from Central Asia and the Caucasus. In today’s Russia, members of these groups face hostility and discrimination at the personal, social and state levels, including race-motivated riots.

The Tolerance Center is a distinct and separate part of the museum. Its videos and texts were initiated and produced entirely by the federation, without the involvement of RAA designers or scholars.

The Tolerance Center is not the only semi-autonomous entity within the museum; the historic building also houses a children’s center, with programs and classes for young visitors, and the Schneerson Collection, a library of precious Jewish books and manuscripts assembled by the early rabbinic leaders of Chabad which were moved to the museum on Putin’s initiative. The museum also houses the Avant-garde Center, with a library and public programs dealing with contemporary art (not necessarily Jewish).

What makes the Tolerance Center stand out is that, unlike the Avant-garde Center and the Schneerson Collection, it is positioned as a crucial part of the museum. Its importance is further emphasized by the museum’s reported plans to open 11 more tolerance centers across Russia, an initiative for which it will seek both private and public funding.

Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center represents both the cutting edge and the essential paradox of a new generation of Jewish museums in post-Communist Europe. In attempting to align Jewish and national narratives, tensions arise that show how in many Eastern European countries, true integration of Jewish history is still a work in progress.

Olga Gershenson is the author of “The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe” (Rutgers University Press, 2013) and a co-editor of a special issue of the journal East European Jewish Affairs, dedicated to new Jewish museums in post-Communist Europe.

The article’s publication coincides with the Center for Jewish History’s symposium “Jewish Museums in the 21st Century,” on January 10 and is based on Olga Gershenson’s contribution to that publication.

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