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Moscow exhibition of banned NGO focuses on women

Anastassia Boutsko
December 30, 2021

The final exhibition of the human rights organization that was just ordered to close by a Moscow court looks at the lives of women imprisoned under Stalin. 

A letter next to a drawing of two small children.
An exhibit at "Material. The female memory of the Gulag"Image: Anatassia Boutsko/DW

"I request permission to send a telegram. At the time of my arrest, two children, two and four years old, were in my apartment!" The lines of the request are written in beautiful, curved handwriting. The prison warden's reply is short and to the point: "Denied!"

This telegram is just one of over a hundred thousand documents collected by one of Russia's oldest human rights organizations, International Memorial . The current exhibition, "Material. The female memory of the Gulag" held at the organization's headquarters in Moscow features around 200 items such as this telegram, unsent letters and notes, and items made by prisoners, like a nail file made from a ceramic shard, or a needle made from a fish bone.

For 33 years, Memorial, whose co-founder was Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, has been keeping the memory of the victims of the Stalin era alive, and attempting to come to terms with this period of oppression. From the late 1920s until Stalin's death in 1953, over 12 million people were persecuted as "enemies of the people." Often a Western-sounding name or a higher level of education was all it took to get someone arrested, sent for years to labor camps known as Gulags — or even executed.

Irina Scherbakowa stands next to a wall of items in the exhibition.
The exhibition's curator, Irina Scherbakowa, is one of Memorial's original founders Image: Kostyanov/DW

Remembering women

While the majority of Gulag prisoners were men, there were also a number of female victims. "Only a few were actually fighting against Soviet power," says Irina Scherbakowa, historian and curator of the exhibition. "For the most part, they were ordinary townspeople, like you and me — teachers, civil servants, housewives. Often, the women's only fault was being the wife, daughter or sister of someone deemed to be an "enemy of the people,'" Scherbakowa explains to DW.

"Thus, during the 'Great Terror' of 1937-1938, over 2000 'wives of enemies' were arrested in Moscow alone and sentenced to eight or more years in camps. Over 3000 children were sent to asylums and often never saw their parents again" says Scherbakowa. The 'Great Terror,' also called the 'Great Purge,' was a campaign of persecution in the former Soviet Union, carried out against suspected opponents of Stalin.

The fates of the children living in Gulags is another sad story, Scherbakowa continued. "Infant mortality was enormous, and the psychological trauma incurable."

A shawl and a dress and other items hang on a wall.
The exhibition features items that marked the lives of women interned in gulagsImage: Anatassia Boutsko/DW

The exhibition is titled "The female memory of the Gulag" because it was mainly women "who carefully kept the mementos of oppression and passed them on to us for further safekeeping," the historian added.

Opression continues 

Sherbakowa was one of the founding members of International Memorial in 1988. She never suspected oppression would exist to the extent it currently does in Russia. "None of us thought then that the history of our country, our society would take such a turn." According to her, the reason for today's "almost absolute lack of freedom" is because the crimes of the Stalin era were never dealt with.

A fabric toy clown with large pants
Every item in the collection tells a story about what life was like for women in GulagsImage: Boutsko/DW

"To this day, our society is marked by Stalin's terror: fear of the authorities, double standards based on the principle of 'thinking one thing, saying another, doing a third,' encapsulation in a private 'protective shell,' disinterest in everything societal — all this is the legacy of the terror," the historian says.

Repeatedly, the Russian judiciary has accused International Memorial of violating a 2012 Russian law that allows the country to classify organizations that receive payments from abroad as "foreign agents." Memorial has been a registered so-called "foreign agent" in Russia since 2016 because the organization is partially funded from abroad. On December 27, a Russian court ordered the NGO to be closed.
On December 28, a Moscow court ordered a shutdown of the organization's Human Rights Center, which helps political prisoners, saying that it had not marked all of its publications with a "foreign agent" label as required.

Victims of Soviet-era repression fight for justice

For Irina Scherbakowa, the decision did not come as a surprise. "We are the preservers of the memory of a part of history that the Russian state would prefer to forget, because it only wants to remember its achievements and victories." In any case, Scherbakowa aims to continue her work. Exactly how though, remains unclear.

This article was translated from German.