Sofia Gavrilova: Common Unsaids

Eduard Berzin
The Great Patriotic War
Varlam Shalamov

Sofia Gavrilova is a human geographer interested in and mapping post-Soviet spaces. Her detailed study of the so-called kraevedenie museums in the various regions of Russia was published by Routledge last autumn. These local museums proliferated after the Soviet revolution from 1921 onwards as an increasingly centrally-controlled cultural network of reformulated local histories. For Gavrilova they form one of the most important institutional means for spreading Sovietness in constructing a specific, state-owned form of the local while also determining what can be said and spoken – which in turn produces what remains unsaid and unspeakable. Kraevedenie museums were involved in the construction of a spatial history that continues to this day: a history that postulates new perspectives on the land and then uses them to legitimize imperial politics. Below Gavrilova offers a summary of her findings, which is published as part of V/A’s thematic focus fabulating. In her article she juxtaposes them with reportage-like reflections on a selection of Russian regions, places, their histories and the people who live there. It springs from the hope that micro-stories like this one might be able to counter the national and nationalist narrative.

Text Sofia Gavrilova
Images Provided by the Author
Former indigenous settlement Naukan, Dezhev cape, 2017. Photo by S. Gavrilova.

The Moscow–Anadyr is the longest direct in-land flight on Earth. It stretches over a wide range of places named by the geographers, cartographers, and military men of the Russian Empire and later the emerging Soviet Union. Eager to progress to the east and north of the continent, they were giving the lands their names, their descriptions, and beginnings to their new histories: places that started to exist only once after they have been «discovered» by Russians. I fly over these lands, some of them still more impassible than some of the oceans between Europe and the rest of the world in the Age of the Discovery. The flight follows the northern edge of the continent, and you clearly see the deltas of the three major Siberian rivers—the Ob, Yenisey, and Lena— and the remains of once great Soviet ports of the Northern Sea Route, Arkhangelsk, Igarka, Dudinka, Tiksi, Pevek, Provideniya.

I am a geographer, and I am driven by places, distances, and sometimes the people I met.

I am heading to my last fieldwork site in Chukotka, hoping to get to a place as far away from Moscow as possible: the Dezhnev cape, where in clear weather you can see Alaska. I am a geographer, and I am driven by places, distances, and sometimes the people I met. It has been five years since my research of the Soviet system of kraevedenie museums, the museums that imposed the net of myths and “common silences,” as I will call them in the future, trying to reveal what has created a suffocating resemblance of Sovietness in local museums that anyone from the former Soviet space knows in their guts. To study this resemblance, you need to roll over the histories of these places—and watch how they’re presented in the local museums. 

Norilsk, Krasnoyarskyi region, 2016. Photo by S. Gavrilova
Norilsk, Krasnoyarskyi region, 2016. Photo by S. Gavrilova.

I look through the plane’s window and zoom in on all the experiences that I had in the last five seasons of my field work. I wonder if I have already passed the Tomsk region and its northern areas, which are even more remote and unavailable in terms of access than one could think. I remember how I left the hired car on the sandy back of the Ob river and joined the silent queue that formed at a seemingly random point along the river, starting to grow long before the time you were told about. A small ferry boat has appeared from the mist upstream and when it comes to a halt, the waiting people crowd aboard, a jostling mass clutching crying children with toys, cardboard boxes filled with pasta and alcohol, and fishing supplies. The ferry starts to leave the bank, heading downstream, and the chaotic, self-organized parking area vanishes in the mist. In two hours, you will reach the oldest settlement of Tomsk Oblast, which has been immortalized in the Russian proverb “God created Crimea, but the Devil created Narym.” There are no hotels or guesthouses in Narym; there is one café (near the grocery shop), a primary school, and the Narym kraevedenie museum, called the Museum of Political Exiles, with the remains of a Stalin sculpture in the yard. He was the most famous political exile here. The village of Narym’ alluding to the village’s remoteness, cold winters, and hot summers with clouds of mosquitos. These conditions were considered perfect for forced political exiles. It accepted its first reluctant inhabitants as early as 1638. Since then it has been home to members of all major dissident groups, from the participants of the Streltsy Uprising of 1698 to the followers of Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev, the Decembrists, and the participants of the November Uprising of 1830–1831, before the mass exiles of the 20th century.

I pass Yakutia, the largest subnational administrative unit in the world, ranging along the Laptev Sea in the Arctic and almost reaching the border with China. The railroad to its regional capital, Yakutsk, was remains an unfulfilled promised by the central government. It ends on the other side of the Lena River because the bridge was never built. People say that the recently built bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea, constructed after the latter’s annexation, was financed with funds that had been set aside for the Yakutsk railroad bridge, but for geopolitical reasons the Russian government directed the money to Crimea. People are envious of that bridge. Yakutia remain among my favorite regions with its harsh climate, the cult of horses, the food that reminds you of the central Asian origin of the Yakuts, with the beauty and ugliness of the perennially frozen earth. 

Earlier, I fooled myself that I can distinguish Perm from the road that goes north from this plane. Almost every settlement along the way is somehow connected to the history of the forced relocation of Gulag prisoners and entire populations from large cities and central Russia to the northern and eastern parts of the region to work in the forestry industry or coal mining. I remember passing through the half-empty cities with the paving stones made by relocated Germans, or driving through the wide boulevards of Berezniki, where one of the members of the Pussy Riot collective, Maria Alekhina, served her sentence in Women’s Colony No. 28The town has a long history of mining, chemical production, and heavy industries that have left pits and holes all around the area, which frequently cause ecological catastrophes. Berezniki was built by gulag prisoners in the 1930s under the supervision of one of the most notorious gulag commanders, Eduard Berzin, who set up the SLON camp on the Solovetsky Islands and the chain of Dalstroy camps in the far east of the country. Varlam Shalamov was one of the many famous Russian writers who penned stories of his experiences here in his novel Vishera, describing transfers on the road and everyday life under Berzin’s command. One of the turns from this road takes you to Krasnovyshersk, with its factories and unnamed artificial islands in the middle of the river, which used to help navigate the logging barges from the forests upstream to the factory downstream.

You need a system, or systems, which suppress existing everyday life, routine, history, and family memory; which establish the new history of a place where you belong and make you believe in it.

This mosaic of places consists of mountains, marshy areas, fields, and deserts where different people with completely different lifestyles (which will be labeled “traditional” by Russian ethnographers in the XIX and XX centuries) and languages (which would be sacrificed by many generations for the sake of the Russian language) needed a very strong institutional system to be held together. Not only a political one. You need a system, or systems, which suppress existing everyday life, routine, history, and family memory; which establish the new history of a place where you belong and make you believe in it. Moreover these systems should incorporate you into the new state and new identities, giving you a very specific space to feel different and to keep some sense of your own uniqueness while remaining part of the homogeneous body politic. The Soviet state mastered imposing those systems over the major part of the Eurasian continent, spreading  Sovietness and narrating it as something opposite to the imperial. This Sovietness started to establish the spaces (through the master plans of the new cities and towns, the settlement policies of the nomadic communities and massive relocation) and their histories, or their spatial histories.

It is hard to imagine a city, a small village, or even a rural settlement in former Soviet space which would not have a kraevedenie museum. They are everywhere and look pretty much the same.

To be able to hold these new narratives together and to fulfill the mission of creating the overarching Sovietness not just in historical narratives but in the way people are connected to the places, in their overarching feeling of belonging to the new emerging state, the Soviet authorities created the specific network of institutions. Well, not created, but rather picked them up from the late nineteenth century and reframed them: the network of the local museums, kraevedenie museums. They aimed to create the Soviet narrative of belonging to a specific place, to create the new soviet spatial history, consisting of myths and silences, putting them into the new socialist form. And ideally: make it look as a bottom-up initiative. That is how a Soviet kraevedenie museums were created. Five years ago I was puzzled with by similarity of these museums scattered all over former Soviet space and even felt amazed how the Sovietinees is embodied in their exhibtions. It is hard to imagine a city, a small village, or even a rural settlement in former Soviet space which would not have a kraevedenie museum. They are everywhere and look pretty much the same. Various parts of a Soviet space merged in the same range of artefacts – a stuffed moose and a bear, a red flag, the portrait of Lenin in the corner, and a range of war medals as well as white and black portraits of those who sacrificed their lives in the Great Patriotic War. 

These museums, not yet called as kraevedenie museums, started to appear in the nineteenth century in Siberia, as the result of the curiosity of the political exiles in Tsarist Russia. Quite soon they became a base for a structured scientific enquiry into local lore, which in 1921 started to be called kraevedenie by the emerging Soviet authorities – study of local lore. And as controversial as it may sound, this system of what was advertised as bottom-up local initiatives became one of the most powerful institutional means for imposing local identities from the top—state approved narratives about a place and unified forms of representation, summed up in the kraevedenie format.

Kraevedenie museum in Tatarstan, 2016. Photo by S. Gavrilova.

From 1927 onward all “research of local lore” started to be aligned with the imposed guidelines from, and the museum exhibitions in the local museums also started to follow the State approved “gold triad” of kraevedenie, which consisted of Soviet ideas of what is Nature, Soviet local history, and Soviet views on society. The detailed instructions on how and what to show in these expositions issued by the Enlightened Committee of the Soviet Union faced numerous corrections. But the essence remained the same, and the detailed plans of the objects were sent to all the museums from Istra (the nearest “model” kraevedenie museum to Moscow) to Lavrentiya (Chukotka), giving birth to one of the largest cultural networks of the former Soviet space. In some of the places (mainly in Siberia) the museums appeared even before the emergence of the Soviet state, in others – as part of the Soviet colonial “educational” initiative, which (alongside teachers and doctors) was supposed to bring the light of the new regime and civilization to these allegedly dark region. 

In a certain sense kraevedenie museums can be thought of as ‘time capsules’ of the state of knowledge production in the late 1950s.

This network has distinct features and is based on principles that set it apart from Western analogues such as regional museums in Germany, 19th-century ‘cabinets of curiosities’ in Europe, and even Russian ethnographical and historical museums. Rather than exhibiting artefacts obtained (whether illicitly or not) from far-away places without a local connection, as is the tradition of Western museology, exhibitions in kraevedenie museums are based on the specific discipline of kraevedenie. This idiosyncratic mixture of Soviet history, ethnography, and Soviet ideas of human-nature relationships was influenced by the necessity to justify the Soviet planned economy and industralization, state policies on languages and enlightenment, and had the intention to create a shared feeling of belonging to the Soviet state. These principles of exhibition have created what I call a “Soviet taxonomy” – a certain way of showing things in a regional or local museum, which reinforce specifically constructed local myths and “common silences.” The Soviet project of kraevedenie had its “golden age” in 1917-1927 (when the number of museums at least doubled), followed by the period of centralization until 1955. It was gradually abandoned in the late Soviet time. From 1955 up to the present day, there has been very limited impetus for a continued transformation of kraevedenie. In a certain sense kraevedenie museums can be thought of as ‘time capsules’ of the state of knowledge production in the late 1950s. When I was doing my research, state-sponsored Putinist propaganda had not yet penetrated the museums, and the majority of the museums just reproduced this Sovietiness. Only some of them were rethinking the curation of their exhibitions, and in doing so, they were responding to a new wave of popular interest in local histories, public memory, and personal family stories. However, that has not become a general rule; such museums are an exception to the overarching pattern of continuity of exhibitions inherited from the Soviet era.

In such a history and by creating those silences the places are made absent, the connections between people and places get twisted, and a new view towards the land is imposed.

It has been exactly these years of imposed centralized governance that have formed this unified pattern and somehow managed to almost completely dismantle local spatial histories in favor of overarching Soviet national narratives. I found it helpful to study these ‘common unsaids’ as the negative form of the “cultural myths” which were introduced by Barthes and later applied to the Soviet context by Svetlana Boym. Kraevedenie museums form these myths and silences not only towards the history per se but about the spatial history of a place (not, for example, the history of ideas). This form of history is also the discursive narrative that was be used in by Vladimir Putin in 2022 in his justification of the full-scale invasion to Ukraine. In such a history and by creating those silences the places are made absent, the connections between people and places get twisted, and a new view towards the land is imposed. 

Entrance to kraevdenie museum in Cherdyn, Perm region, 2016. Photo by S. Gavrilova.

So, the key question that drove me over more than forty museums in ten regions and through pages and pages of archival documents – how did the narratives in kraevedenie museums end up being so similar? What do they tell—and what do they hide? It would be a simplification to state that the ‘common unsaids’ present in kraevedenie museums during the Soviet Union were entirely created by propaganda and also reflected the predominant trends in Soviet geography and ethnography, as well as policies such as anti-religious propaganda or the drive to ‘enlighten backward nations.’ The most consequential ‘unsaids’ mostly appeared in the society and nature departments where they were intended to justify certain strategic economic and social policy decisions. The ‘common unsaids’ are usually but not always consequences of the Soviet governance of the country on various levels. The system of gulag camps, the forced relocations of various peoples, the colonial policies enacted towards national minorities and the ‘small-numbered peoples’ of Russia’s north and far east, the Soviet policies of nature conservation and resources development: all of them are either excluded or ‘disconnected’ from the representations of the local area presented in kraevedenie museums. To do so the majority of the museums use various rhetorical techniques identified by Barthes, whereby unwanted phenomena are excluded from local history, as well as from present-day landscapes and society. These include ‘inoculation’ (as seen in the majority of museums’ approach to the history of Stalinist repression), ‘bubbling,’ ‘privations of history,’ ‘statements of fact,’ and ‘identification.’ The purpose here is to maximally whitewash ‘embarrassing’ periods of Soviet history and at the same time to support the development of national foundation myths of successive states: the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and today’s Russian Federation.

There are ‘scientific’ ‘common unsaids’ present that were formed by discourses prevalent in Soviet science at a certain moment in time. Undoubtedly, the ‘common unsaids’ in Soviet science were affected by Soviet scientific research. The discourses and theories of Soviet geography, ethnography, and history particularly influenced the exhibition policies that regulated kraevedenie museums, and they are still visible in contemporary exhibitions such as the anthropocentric focus of nature departments and the predominance of the landscape approach, as well as the theoretical importance of Marxism-Leninism in nature and history departments. These ‘common unsaids’ do not lead to a total exclusion or ‘inoculation’ in Barthian terms, as was the case with some political ‘common unsaid,’ but nevertheless do employ ‘neither-norism,’ ‘statement of the fact,’ ‘bubbling,’ and ‘identification’ concealment techniques. I do not claim that certain troublesome historical events, persons, or landscapes have been completely excluded from kraevedenie museums; rather, they are addressed in such a way as to demonstrate that the official and hegemonic myth of how the local area fits into the overarching Soviet or Russian national narrative. In this way, ‘common unsaids’ contribute to the displacement, depersonalization, and de-association of certain topics from local identities.

Providenia, Chukotka, 2017. Photo by S. Gavrilova.

Not only have kraevedenie museums somehow survived into 21st-century Russia, but in 2021 a federal program of renovation of regional museums was announced by the Ministry of Culture, introducing the new unified standard for the kraevedenie activities and museum expositions, once again using these institutions for state-sponsored myth-making. That has happened against the backdrop of other former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries that have addressed the heritage of the kraevedenie network in various ways reflecting their policies in the construction of the post-Soviet identities (by redesigning or dismantling them completely, implementing a program of de-Sovietization). The program leaves no designed spaces for narratives that are not sponsored by the government.  

Last year has shown us that apart from the battle over physical spaces, there is an ongoing battle over the spatial history narratives of these places.

Last year has shown us that apart from the battle over physical spaces, there is an ongoing battle over the spatial history narratives of these places. As we all know and imagine, the historical narrative is quite often politicized and used by various actors to manipulate the facts, to justify conflicts and invasions, and quite often it serves as a basis of imposed national, regional and place identities. However, the appeal Putin made to the nation on 21 February just before the full-scale invasion was that lands that “historically” belonged to Russia needed to be protected and therefore occupied. So this way of seeing history and historical narrative, which is quite often also used by various other right-wing politicians, is always a spatial history, its history grounded in space. There are hundreds of other ways to look at the past – like seeing the history of ideas, governance, or art. But what we are dealing with today in regards to the justification of the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the invasion of Georgia is a very specific way of seeing history: a spatial history. It’s a practice based upon the tradition of manipulating history, the Imperial and Soviet tradition of narrating places. It overrides all the possible indigenous and regional voices, not leaving any space for them. But still they do exist. 

I find myself back in Lavrentia, Chukotka, after living alongside with the indigenous wale-hunter community for two months. I am charmed by them, and I doubt whether I should come back to the “mainland.” I look at these people who have been forced to live in newly built Soviet cities and who have been relocated here in the1960s. They still do remember it. I have completed my research in a local library and in a museum, and I am now waiting for the weather to change so I’ll be able to go back to Anadyr (the capital of the region). I spent hours interviewing the local director of the kraevedenie museum. She would first show me around and tell me the Soviet history of the settlement, glorifying a Soviet boarding school. An hour later she cried when she told me the story of her own relocation from the perspective of her own family.

“But we go back, you know. We try and go back to where we live. We remember that we were forced to live like that, and so we try to change it when nobody looks at us. We go to where we used to belong and we bring our kids there.”

An interviewee of Sofia Gavrilova.

The imposed Soviet and imperial world view, the silences we were raised with concerning the wars, hunger, and privileges we might have, is imposed on other regions and ethnicities, specific landscapes, and relations to the environment. They stick to us as second skin, which must be peeled away. As a geographer I do hope that the new era of sub-national narratives, of the small histories of a settlement or a village, will be louder and more convincing then this overarching state-sponsored glue. 

Text Sofia Gavrilova
Images Provided by the Author
Eduard Berzin
The Great Patriotic War
Varlam Shalamov