Nazis, Gulags, and Noodles

Posted: October 9, 2016 in Uncategorized
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It’s been a super busy week and a half for me in terms of research and fun stuff. So here are some of the highlights in a massive, tome of a post.

Last Sunday, I met up with my fellow ASEEES grant recipients at the Muzeon Statue Park across from Gorky Park. This park is adjacent to the modern art wing of the Tretryakov Gallery, which had a monstrous line heading out of it for the Aivazovsky exhibition that recently opened. To our astonishment and amusement, there was a guy scalping tickets for the art exhibit. “See Aivazovsky without standing in line. I have tickets.”


You can buy scalped tickets to art exhibits in Russia. Such a fascinating cultural difference, which an emphasis on culture.

The statue park is its usual fun. There are a whole bunch statues for Lenin, some for Stalin, and even a few for Brezhnev as well as other pieces of socialist-realist fun. One of the main attractions, so to speak, is the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who was the establisher and director of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, which later evolved into the NKVD/KGB. The particular statue to “Iron Felix” used to be in a square in front of the Lubyanka building, the secret police headquarters. This building is infamous, and many who entered did not return. They were either interrogated and shipped off to the Gulag, for example, or shot right in the basement. In the place of the Dzerzhinsky statue, there is now a memorial to the victims of Soviet Repression. To our amazement, there were a lot of flowers placed at the base of this statue. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if many other statues had flowers at them. For comparison and shock factor, there was only one flower at a statue for Gandhi. Additionally, there were people gladly posing for pictures with Iron Felix.

"Iron" Felix Dzerzhinsky

“Iron Felix”

After seeing the statue park, we ambled around the banks of the river to the House on the Embankment, another noteworthy literary and historical site in Moscow. The building was built as an apartment building for Soviet elite and houses a theatre and movie theatre. The theatre in the building was advertising some showing of something called “любовь – не картошка,” which translates roughly as “Love, not potatoes.” I am very curious about this topic and more research needs to be done. After wandering around the House on the Embankment, we crossed the river and headed to the Arbat, where we got a late lunch/early dinner of khachipuri, delicious, delicious Georgian bread and cheese boats. We also got a pitcher of tarkhun, or tarragon soda, which is best when fresh made.

On Monday morning, I had a meeting with Stefan Karner, a major scholar for my research topic.  He cleared up some organizational questions I had about the sub-division of the NKVD that controlled the POWs. He was very friendly and helpful, and invited me to work with his research institute in Austria. After my meeting with Stefan, I got a surprise text from my friend Katya from Ulyanovsk, saying that she was in Moscow for a few days. She had some free time in the afternoon, so I met up with her in the center. I had no real set plans, so we met at Lubyanka and went to Biblioglobus. The bookstore didn’t really have much that I was really trying to find, but we had a good time browsing all of the books. I managed to get a copy of Superman Red Son translated into Russian. I’m not really a fan of comics, but I really like this particular one because it’s a limited series that asked what would it be like if Superman had landed in the Soviet Union and fought for Marxism-Leninism instead of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Now, in addition to having a nifty discussion topic for cultural history, I have a way to practice my Russian with documents that are not NKVD reports.

Superman Red Son

Superman Red Son

Speaking of NKVD reports, I’ve had some successful but somewhat uncomfortable days in the military archive recently. I was handling reports that had been signed by Stalin and Beria themselves. It is a little weird to handle papers that they wrote, which concerned the fates of thousands of human lives. There weren’t execution orders or anything like that, instead they were labor assignments to various economic projects, but touching documents like that still make me feel a little uneasy.

On Tuesday morning I got up and headed out to Krasnogorsk to the Memorial Museum of German Anti-Fascists, aka the POW Museum. Krasnogorsk was once its own settlement 27km outside of Moscow, but as Moscow has grown, it has been more or less incorporated into the city. After the Battle of Moscow, in which the German forces were stopped roughly ten miles outside of the city, the Soviets build POW Camp No. 27 in Krasnogorsk, upon retaking the land. Camp No. 27 was a special camp for officers, and it also served as the base for the anti-fascist, or Anti-Fa, training program in the Soviet Union.

The Memorial Museum of German Anti-Fascists in Krasnogorsk

The Memorial Museum of German Anti-Fascists in Krasnogorsk

The museum requires a bit of a jaunt to get to. I have to take the purple line to its third to last stop in the northwest of the city. From there, I have to take a bus for about thirty minutes, and then it’s about a five minute walk to the museum. I entered the museum and was able to pay the student rate to enter. I asked the nice woman at the desk if I had to show her my ID, and she said that she trusted me. She also told me that a tour had just started, and that I should hurry up and just follow the tour around the museum. I hung up my coat and dropped off my backpacks and complied with her directive. I managed to follow along a group of Russian high school students. They knew I was not with them, but the museum staff did not notice or understand that I was not part of the group. At one point on the second floor of the museum, the students were asked to sit down in a mock-up of an anti-fascist school classroom. The museum minder sat down on a different bench away from that and told me to sit down with the students, but then I told her that I wasn’t with them. She said it didn’t matter and told me to sit with her. Then, after that section of the tour was done, the teacher asked to take a photo of all of her students in the “classroom” and the tour guide moved out of the photo. She asked why I didn’t want to be in the photo with the others, and I again said that I wasn’t with the group.

Uncles Lenin and Stalin will motivate us through proper Anti-Fa training.

Uncles Lenin and Stalin will motivate us through proper Anti-Fa training.

The tour then moved to a different section, which explained the treatment of Soviet POWs in Nazi hands. As the group moved from one part of that section to the other, I lingered a little to take photos of some specific worker IDs. Another member of the museum staff noticed me doing that and pulled me off to the side to tell me about a different, special work assignment of one POW. I then rejoined the group for a film about WWII in Russia, mostly about German atrocities towards the regular Soviet population. The tour then finished and the students all left. I then thanked the two tour guides, said I was not with the group, and asked if I could remain around the exhibits longer. They said that I could, and the male guide asked if I am German. I explained who I am and what my topic is, and then said that I was very interested in the history of the museum itself. I asked if there is any documentation on it, and the woman tour guide managed to get me a book about the museum, which she said would be ready for me at the museum cashier. I went down to that office to get the book, and the woman working there gave me two other books about WWII in Germany and topics related to the museum for free. I also asked about working in the museum archive again, and if there were any documents in it about the formation of the museum. The woman there said that the archive is in the process of moving and that it should be done in a month. I was told that it would be a good idea to wait about a month and a half before calling again to see if there was something of use for me in the archive. I said that I would probably check back in two months, and I was told that was an even better idea.

I had a nice surprise while walking back to the dorm when getting back from the POW museum. I was right near RGGU when I heard someone say my name. I turned to the nearest group of people and saw some university aged students. One girl in the group had recognized me and tried calling my name to see if it was me. She was from Ulyanovsk and was surprised to see me here. She wanted to know why I wasn’t at the Politech (that makes two of us). I said that I stopped teaching English there four years ago. She then asked why I was here, and it turns out we are both students, so to speak, at RGGU. Four years ago, she used to be a student of my good friend Iriny at the private language school in Ulyanovsk where I used to volunteer. It was a very pleasant surprise, and we will hopefully hang out in the future.

I have no photos to illustrate the large chunks of text, so instead here are some delicious noodles that I ate from the Vietnamese place next to my dorm.

I have no photos to illustrate the large chunks of text, so instead here are some delicious noodles that I ate from the Vietnamese place next to my dorm.

On Thursday I headed off to my first Taekwondo practice in Moscow. The trainer, Mikhail Georgievich, is originally from Georgia (the country, not the state), and gives lessons out of a special sport school in Moscow that also trains children and young adults in boxing, gymnastics, and swimming. The school wasn’t too hard to find from the metro, and when I came in and spoke with security, a nice woman immediately allowed me in and took me to Mikhail Georgievich. Some other woman who works for the school wrote a letter for me that will allow me to get past security when I come in the future and then showed me the location of the locker room.

Practice was a super intense two hours in a well equipped but small room. The heat was turned up extra high for training, and none of the windows were opened. The room itself is covered with puzzle mats, and there is a great collection of gear including wall mounted targets, three bob targets, and enough hogus, arm, and shin guards for everyone. Mikhail Georgievich is very kind, and his students all accepted me very quickly and warmly. He told them to practice their English with me, and he would ask how to say certain things in English. I asked when it was ok for me to come to practice, and he said that it’s five days a week from 6-8. I said that I could come twice a week due to my research schedule. There was also another coach who came in towards the end of practice. She works at the school just for stretching. At one point, she folded me into a pretzel and then sat on my back to “correct the curve in my spine” when I do a butterfly stretch. It was super painful. She then also took glee in torturing some of the guys at practice, and  excitedly said, “look, I’ve made a man cry.” So this should be a fun year of practice.

Parents are forbidden to enter the gym while practice is in session.

Parents are forbidden to enter the gym while practice is in session.

On Friday I had the most pleasant research experience of my life in Russia. I went out to the second branch of the Russian State Library, or the Leninka, which is located in a suburb of Moscow called Khimki. To get there, I have to go to the last metro stop on either the green or grey line and then take a thirty or so minute bus ride. Khimki houses the periodicals division as well as the dissertation collection of the Leninka. When I arrived, I showed my ID to the guard for the dissertation wing and said that it was my first time there. I asked what I needed to do, and he politely directed me into the reading room, where I met one lady and gave the same statement. The reading room on the first floor is for paper dissertations, which she told me were for any written before 1996 or so. To look through those, I need to use a card catalog. She told me that what I probably wanted were newer dissertations, which required I go to the reading room on the second floor. Up I went, where I was immediately greeted by a nice librarian. I told her that I was new to the Leninka and asked what I needed to do to use the system. She took me to a computer, helped me log in, and showed me how to open the electronically held dissertations. In this reading room, I’m allowed to take photos of whatever I want for free. If I want to print, it’s a 5 ruble charge. I was then told not to put a flash drive in the computer and not to download the dissertations due to the intellectual property rights of the writers.

Yesterday I went to another amazing and newish museum in Moscow, the Museum of the History of the Gulag, which is conveniently located in walking distance from RGGU. I met one of my fellow ASEEES recipients and we spent three or so hours walking through the exhibits, which ranged from personal effects of prisoners to doors from notorious prisons such as Vladimir Central and Butyrka. I thought the museum was incredibly well done, and really gave a human and tangible aspect to a topic that I’ve spent over three years researching. I saw a number of things there to inspire some other avenues of research or mapping, but I also was slightly frustrated from a historian’s perspective because I saw that many of the exhibits were created around archival sources, such as a plan for a typical camp layout, but there were no direct references. Thus, one of the activities for the upcoming week is to email some of the people at the museum to see if I can work in their archive or at least figure out how to also consult some of the sources that they used to create their exhibitions.

The size of a prison cell in St. Petersburg's infamous Kresty Prison. During the Terror, there could be up to 12 people contained in this space.

The size of a prison cell in St. Petersburg’s infamous Kresty Prison. During the Terror, there could be up to 12 people contained in this space.

And with this, I’m about to read some of the books I got at the Museum of German Anti-Fascists before heading off to see a TsSKA or CSKA hockey game tonight. Stay tuned for a full report of that later.

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