Wednesday, September 28, 2016

GULAG History Museum

In college I dual majored in history and social studies education. I have a terrible memory, so I will not brag about how many dates I can remember because, let's be honest, the only date I can remember is December 7, 1941. I was a little obsessed with Pearl Harbor when I was a middle schooler. I was so disappointed when my eighth grade history teacher told me we wouldn't learn about it that year. Anyways, what I liked about my history classes in college was learning how events impacted one another. I had an amazing professor who used three quarters of our intro to American history class to have us look at historical evidence and decide whether or not the USA is following the ideals set about in the Declaration of Independence. During this time I also took a million other history classes and learned more about Soviet history, which is where I learned about the GULAGs. When I saw that a GULAG History Museum existed I knew I had to go.
GULAG is the acronym for the Russian word meaning "main camp administration." It was not the place where prisoners were sent but the center of administration for the camps. In this post I will refer to the camps as GULAGs because it's just easier for my train of thought and comparison to Nazi concentration camps.  The GULAG system was not invented by Stalin. It actually existed before the Russian Revolution for those who were against the Czar. However, it took its modern, more well-known form during Stalin's reign. Do not be mistaken, the GULAG system was a corrective labor camp through forced labor, similar to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. You should also know that concentration camps, are not extermination camps, although the former didn't really care about protecting the lives of those behind its bars. Anyone could be sent to the forced labor camps in the Soviet Union whether there was evidence of your guilt or not. There were videos shown in the museum of survivors who were tortured into admitting their guilt even if they were innocent. More people were killed under Stalin's rule than Hitler's, almost 10-20 million more people.
I remember Anton telling me that his grandmother cried when she learned of Stalin's death. My immediate thought was, "WHAT? She cried?! Do you have any idea how many people he killed?" He answered, "Yes, but he also did many good things for the country." Immediately I flashed back to my grandma telling me she cried when John F Kennedy was shot and learning about how FDR pulled the United States out of the Great Depression in school. Can we even compare the USA to the Soviet Union? Maybe we can. America has done some horrible things in it's history, but maybe you can't compare two completely different events. I also began to think about how we create Hitler to be a demon (which he is), but what about Stalin? In my opinion he was much more ruthless than Hitler so why don't we consider him to be on the same level? A while ago I looked into this and I found that Hitler is considered worse because he lost the war. Stalin was one of the winners so we tend to brush his brutality aside. Also, Hitler's Germany killed civilians almost exclusively for the ethnic cleansing while opponents of Stalin were sent to the GULAGs for the modernization of the Soviet Union. Those found guilty were mostly charged as standing in the way of modernization.

The GULAG History Museum, like Holocaust Museum in Washington DC or the S-21 Museum in Cambodia, was a very somber place. It's free to enter on the third Sunday of every month, which happened to be the day we went. I was surprised how empty it was considering it was free to enter. The museum itself was remarkable. I was amazed how much thought was put into the planning of this museum and it's very clear they want the history to be known. The museum was very interactive. As you can see in some of the pictures you can move the displays around. Unfortunately, like most museums in Russia, almost everything is in Russian. There are some displays in both Russian and English, but for the most part everything you want to read is in Russian. However, there are giant touch screens that show the same displays in English, but they are also shown in Russian so you might have to wait for someone to move from the display in order to read about the objects in the museum.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 11am-7pm (Thursdays 12-7) and is closed on the last Friday of every month. Like I mentioned above admission is free every third Sunday of the month.

I think it's important for everyone to go to such museums and historical sites in order to educate yourself and prevent history from repeating itself. No one actually believes mass extermination and forced labor camps will exist until they actually do. Also, I recommend the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I read in college, and the movie The Way Back. They are both about prisoners in the GULAGs.

How do you feel about visiting such places? Have you ever done so? Which historical sites or museums have you visited?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Offbeat Moscow: 3 Unusual Places to Visit


If I were to give you travel advice it would be to figure out what you like to see and do before you go on your trip. If you like art go to art museums, if you like history go to that really historical spot. I wish I would have thought of this before I went to Southeast Asia, heck, even when I'd visit new cities in the USA. Alas, traveling is a growing experience as much as an experience to learn about a new culture. Okay, that's about as inspirational as I'll get on this blog because I'm not an inspirational person, nor do I want to be. What I'm trying to say is that if you figure out what you like it'll make you feel like your trip was worthwhile.

Right before I moved to Russia I realized I really liked unusual things and abandoned places. This blog is like my own personal Atlas Obscura. I was a history major so I like going to historic places, especially related to World War I and World War II, but I also like those unknown places. I know I say this a lot, but I really like the challenge of finding something unusual online and then going out and trying to find that place in real life. On our first trip to Moscow we saw all those touristy spots, which I totally recommend in Moscow because they are worth it. Our second trip was an opportunity to go see those weird places. Plus, I didn't procrastinate to make a list on our second trip which meant I already had an idea of what we should see. Below I have a list of 3 unusual places you should see.

Children are the Victims of Adults' Vices Monument


This monument is within walking distance of the Kremlin. It may be frightening, but I was surprised when Anton told me it was "really cool" because we usually don't agree on what we find "cool." The monument was created by Mihail Chemiakin in 2001 and gifted to the city of Moscow. It depicts statues of 13 evils with two children playing in the foreground unaware of what surrounds them. The center statue depicts indifference which, not to get too political, I think is the most dangerous of all the evils. My favorite statue was "war" which contains a man wearing a gas mask holding a bomb with Mickey Mouses' head. I don't know why that one is my favorite, but maybe because I find the social aspect of war and it's impact fascinating. I'll clarify that I do not condone war, but I think studying it is fascinating, which again is why I like learning about World War I and II. This blog has a great description of each figure if you'd like to know more or read a more elegant recollection of the piece.

Fallen Monuments Park


This is one strange park, and, to be honest, I'm not at all surprised one of these exists in Russia. Right within the MUZEON grounds and next to Krymsky Val you can't miss this unusual park. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many of the statues of former communist leaders were taken down and brought to the park. In the 1990s the park began adding more modern sculptures eventually arranging them into the display you see today. As someone who is obsessed with Vladimir Lenin statues I was having a field day here! There were so many statues of him, and I really had to pace myself and not go overboard with too many Lenin selfies. It was also pretty eerie seeing statues of Josef Stalin. I know it wasn't really him but it's still an unsettling feeling seeing so many statues of him. 

Giant Chess Board


I don't play chess but if I did I would have definitely come to play on this chess board. Not to be confused with the Chessboard Killer, this large size chessboard is right outside Trubnaya Station in Цветной бульвар (Tsvetnoy bul'var). It's also really close to BB & Burgers if you are looking for somewhere delicious to eat! I tried to find information on this place, but unfortunately my search left me dry. I'd also like to know how this exists without people stealing it or maybe it's only in America where you have to worry about people stealing public property. If you have any information, let me know! What do you think? Would you visit any of these places?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Novodevichy Cemetery


I get it, cemeteries aren't the most attractive places to go on a vacation, but bare with me while I try to convince you to add Novodevichy Cemetery to your list. Moscow is known for its monuments, and Novodevichy Cemetery is no exception. Every inch of the grounds is covered in some unique statue or gravestone. On our last trip to Moscow I tried to persuade Anton to go with me, even going so far as to say we could split up for a while and do separate things because I was dying to go to this cemetery. I was unsuccessful which left me really irritated. I'm pretty laid back when it comes to decisions because I hate making them and I honestly am happy doing whatever. When I do want to do something I really want to do it, so I was really bummed that we didn't go.

A few years ago, on my birthday, I went to Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. I'm the sort of person who likes scavenger hunts or trying to figure things out. I had fun trying find various headstones and places of interest in the cemetery. It's probably why my hobbies are looking for abandoned places online and Facebook stalking. (Seriously, give me a name and I can probably find the information of that person your looking for.) Novodevichy Cemetery was similar to Lake View Cemetery. Anyone who is anyone in Moscow is buried here including writers, presidents, and cosmonauts. Hint: You don't need a guide to go through the cemetery unless you want a more detailed visit. At the entrance there is a map and list of all the famous people buried in the cemetery. Everything is written in Russian, so I recommended you learn the alphabet before you go. You'll be able to sound out names just knowing the alphabet. Believe me, knowing the alphabet is how I survive in Russia.

I'm really interested in history, so I was more interested in finding the tombs of former leaders of the USSR and Russia. It was fun trying to find all these tombs because they are all over the grounds, not in one place. The photo below is the tomb of Nikita Khrushchev who, if you don't know, was the leader of the USSR from 1953-1964, during events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis was that time in history where the USA came closest to a "hot" war with the USSR. The Soviets had missiles in Cuba pointed right at us. Luckily, it never escalated to anything more. Had the missiles been launched I probably wouldn't be in Russia writing this post right now. 
Another tomb I really wanted to find was Boris Yeltsin's (pictured below). Yeltsin was the first president of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He's probably best known for his drinking problem and if you haven't seen this video you definitely should take a look. He just seems like such a fun guy! To find his tomb all you need to do is walk straight up the main path until you come to the intersection of another large path. Look to the left and it's hard to miss. It's probably the most unphotogenic thing I've ever come across. My friend said you could probably take shots right off of it and now I think that is probably why it was designed like this. Just kidding!
I also really wanted to see was Anton Chekhov's tomb (pictured below). My knowledge of Russian writers and playwrights is pretty abysmal even after living here a year, but I do know Chekhov because my sister was in a play of his while she was living in Michigan. I really just wanted to find his tomb so I could send a picture to her. I also want it to make it look like I know more about Russian culture than I actually do...
At one point Anton and I lost each other so I continued to walk around looking for famous headstones. I walked past the tomb below while I was searching for Chekhov's tomb but didn't think much of it because it's written in Russian and reading Russian requires me to do a lot more thinking. I was also on a mission to find Chekhov. Later, on when I found Anton, I took him to Chekhov's headstone and we walked past this one again (because it was nearby). We stopped to take a closer look because he was telling me about it, and I was more interested in it because I had the time. It's the burial place of Nikolai Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the brother of the famous composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
I really wish I hadn't lost Anton because he knew a lot about the famous people in the cemetery. For example, I was drawn to the tomb below because I thought it was cute. I like dogs and it had a dog, but apparently it's the burial place of a famous Russian performer. I would have never known that if it wasn't for Anton. It's really cool seeing the cemetery through a Russian's perspective. In this case a tour would have been helpful, but I suggest just making a Russian friend instead. The other problem I had with us splitting up was that I spent more time looking for him and less time enjoying the scenery. My phone had negative rubles which is why I couldn't call him or he couldn't call me. Make sure you have enough money on your phone when your in Moscow. Learn from my mistakes.
Anton denies that he refused to go to the cemetery with me last time we were in Moscow. It was so funny seeing him there because he was like a kid in a candy store looking for all the famous people he recognized. I'm glad we went on our second trip and I hope I convinced you to check it out. If I go back to Moscow I'm definitely going back with more time and a fuller stomach.

What do you think of Novodevichy Cemetery? Would you go? What famous tombstone would you like to see?

Note: Lenin and Stalin, as well as a few others, are buried in the Kremlin.
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