From 2006 until the Russian full-scale invention of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, I travelled several times across the territory of the Russian Federation, from Solovki to Magadan. I always visited with great interest the kraevedenie museums located in different cities, villages, and settlements. Fascinated by these museums, being so different and yet so predictable in their structures and messages, I discuss in my own work how kraevedenie museums in the Komi Republic – which includes the cities of Ukhta, Inta, Vorkuta, and Pechora, emerging from the Gulag system camps – reveal the history of these centres.1 Nevertheless, only after reading Sofia Gavrilova’s book was I able to better understand the phenomenon behind this particular network of museums.
Although in the title of the book the reader finds the term Russia’s Regional Museums, Gavrilova provides a convincing argument in the introduction that kraevedenie museums are something different than regional museums that one may find in the West or Germany’s Heimat museums. For this reason, throughout the book she uses the term kraevedenie museums and demonstrates how these museums represent specific Soviet and post-Soviet knowledge and ideologies, particularly how they replicate the “common unsaids”. As Gavrilova explains, “‘common unsaids’ are the logical products of the ‘Soviet taxonomy’ exemplified by the unified exhibition policies of the Soviet governance.” (p. 7) These are not “blank spots” that completely hide certain information or historical facts; rather, they are the falsification and manipulation of these facts. To better explain how “common unsaids” work, Gavrilova refers to the concept of cultural myths. And working with Roland Barthes’s classification of mythological figures such as “inoculation”, “the privation of history, identification”, or “neither-norism”, she explains how “common unsaids” work within the exhibitions of the kraevedenie museums.
The introduced theoretical frame is very interesting; nevertheless, Gavrilova does not explain in a fully convincing manner how the “common unsaids” are the result of “the government’s ‘party line’, which uses various techniques to create its own narratives” (p. 7). Even if the second chapter of the book gives insight into the developmental history of Russian and Soviet kraevedenie and the phenomenon of kraevedenie museums, Gavrilova does not present in detail the complete process of knowledge production by these museums. She only shows how the network of the museums was planned and developed and how specific halls were imagined and what were the design recommendations. In other words, she shows Soviet ideas and some discussions between specialists standing behind the kraevedenie museums while neglecting the processes involved in exhibition creation and knowledge production. There is no information how elaborated directives were a result of the then regime politics, or how the centre controlled the museum activity through recommendations. The Soviet system developed reporting systems and procedures to monitor the acceptance of the exhibitions’ designs in order to control the activity of the museums – even those located in the most distant places. Such a system explains why the same “common unsaids” appeared at all Soviet kraevedenie museums. Nevertheless, the book does not discuss any examples of this process.
Gavrilova is not interested in the production of “common unsaids” but in the survival of Soviet “common unsaids” in the post-Soviet kraevedenie museums in Russia, as well as the ways of dealing with them. Six empirical chapters of the book discuss in detail how contemporary kraevedenie museums represent nature, as well as nature-human relations; how they construct their own history, with particular attention being paid to the way Soviet repression was depicted; and how they represent a socialist society and create “others”. Finally, Gavrilova considers who is “the other” in contemporary Russian kraevedenie. Each chapter starts with a short description of the ideological framework behind the design of a given room during the Soviet times. Next, Gavrilova describes how these representations worked in practice and how some of these Soviet “common unsaids” are still repeated in Russian exhibitions or appear through them.
Each empirical chapter is based on materials collected during field research in Russia. Gavrilova visited many kraevedenie museums in very distant locations, including, among others, Narym, Anadyr, Lavrentiya, Berezniki and Solikamsk, Tver, Tomsk, and Yakutsk. Accordingly, these kraevedenie museums can be found in the regional capital cities and in very small peripherical villages. The museums vary in size and impact on the society they serve to present their knowledge. Gavrilova looks for some similarities appearing in various kraevedenie museums and explain visible differences. In each chapter, she refers to different museums that she considers to be the most representative of kraevedenie museums or the most interesting examples of the blurring of the Soviet “common unsaids”. Although readers do not have to believe Gavrilova’s interpretation, they can traverse museum rooms with the author, stopping at individual exhibitions. Each analytical chapter is enriched by ethnographic descriptions of analysed exhibitions or parts of the expositions, together with detailed photographic documentation. These descriptions and documentation are the strongest part of the entire publication.
In the conclusion, Gavrilova tries to predict the future of kraevedenie museums. She shows that the post-Soviet time provided kraevedenie museums a margin of freedom in undertaking their own activities, and some museums used this opportunity to modernize their exhibitions according to their own interests, as was the case of the kraevedenie museums in Tomsk. Others, such as the Anadyr Kraevedenie Museum, were modernized by a museum design company from Moscow. Overall, however, the exhibitions only underwent a very cosmetic modification. They did not have the means for modernization or clear guidelines in which direction to go.
Before Gavrilova finished her book, the Russian Ministry of Culture announced that it was developing a new federal programme for “renovation” of the kraevedenie museum network across the country, with some state funds being earmarked. Gavrilova finished writing her book before the programme was announced, and thus she does not analyse its aims and the way the modernization would be implemented. Moreover, in the meantime, the war in Ukraine broke out, which may have an impact on the future of the kraevedenie museums in Russia and the state programme for modernization. Will kraevedenie museums again be transformed into ideological institutions unified in form and message? This time, would they serve not the Soviet but instead Putin’s regime and its political ideology?
Gavrilova’s publication touches upon this unpredictability surrounding the future of kraevedenie museums and thus acts an important documentary book. Gavrilova manages to describe how local museums in Russia represented or tried to work through the Soviet “common unsaids”, what these “unsaids” were, and why they were difficult to work through. Moreover, she shows how new “common unsaids” were being developed in a time when Putin’s regime had not begun to actively transform kraevedenie museums for his own political purposes. Finally, in the contemporary political situation when traveling to Russia becomes virtually impossible for Western researchers, the book is a must-read for everybody who wants to “feel as being in Russia” and understand what kind of cultural myths shape the knowledge of ordinary Russians living in the regions of Russia.
1 Zuzanna Bogumił, Gulag Memories. The Rediscovery and Commemoration of Russia’s Repressive Past, New York, 2018.