When thinking about Jewish history and culture, the first and often only things that come to mind are the holocaust (or “Shoah”) and the never ending bloodshed in Israel and Palestine. Now, try to imagine a Jewish museum that barely mentions either and has no iconography whatsoever of either (pictures, videos, historical artefacts) and in spite of this fact is actually the largest Jewish museum in the world with a 8,500-square-metre area.
This is the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, which does an outstanding job in presenting Russian Jewish history as something much more complex than *only* pogroms, holocaust, hardships and suffering, a history filled with both struggles and achievements.
The Museum is located about 15 minutes walking away from the Maryina Roshcha metro station (at the exit of which you can see the Planeta VKN Youth Center): Being rather far from the city center is not a popular tourist destination. On one hand this is a shame, because it is definitely worth visiting, but on the other hand this offers you the definite advantage of seeing such an interesting place almost devoid of other visitors, especially during the week.
The building where the museum is located has a rich history itself (and one of glory and struggle, as well!). Designed by architect Konstantin Melnikov and structural engineer Vladimir Shukhov in 1926, the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage was an example of applying avant-garde architectural methods to an industrial facility and the building went from blueprint to structure in just one year. Vaulted ceilings and clean architectural angles echo an early Soviet mantra: ever higher, comrades, toward the radiant future.
In 1990, the ageing garage was listed as an architectural memorial, but unfortunately just a few years later a fire left the garage decrepit and dysfunctional. In 2001, the bus company vacated the building and the City Hall donated it to the Moscow Hasidic Jewish Community Center for redevelopment. The following year the Jewish community initiated large-scale restoration works under the supervision of the Alexey Vorontsov Architectural Bureau. This delicate restoration proceeded slowly for the first few years, due to the cost of such an operation and some initial misunderstandings between the client and Vorontsov. Work accelerated significantly in the second half of 2007, supposedly thanks to the sponsorship of Roman Abramovich, who chairs the board of trustees for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. The garage was fully restored externally in the first half of 2008 and the interior work was completed by September of the same year. The building was reopened to the public in September as the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (now moved to a new location, about which you can read in this previous post of mine), featuring an exhibition of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.
Then in 2012, thanks to generous funding from oligarchs like Roman Abramovich and Viktor Vekselberg, from Jewish organisations like FEOR and Chabad Lubavitch, even with the support of President Vladimir Putin himself (who personally donated one month of his salary towards the construction of the museum) a site that had once strived to represent Soviet ideals became home to the world’s largest Jewish museum, that officially opened on November 11th, 2012.
As the name implies today this institution is much more than just a museum. Its many functions include, first and foremost the Tolerance Center. The Centre’s mission is to create a space for the propagation of a culture of peace and cooperation, towards a positive dialogue between people of different cultures, religions, and world views. The Tolerance Centre both forms an integral part of the Museum exposition and constitutes an independent platform for holding training activities, seminars, lectures, practical courses, round tables and much more.
This might seem a bit “off topic”, but please indulge with me.
Try this experiment with your friends and family. Tell them that the new dictator of Mandostan has ordered to confiscate all goods and to arrest all black people, all Jewish people and all people with green eyes. I bet you that 90% or more of the people you tell this story to will ask you “Why the people with green eyes?”.
This might seem like an innocent (and sensible) question at first, but the sad truth is that it also hides in itself the fact that no one asks “Why the black people? Why the Jewish people”, as if to discriminate against them, to confiscate their goods and jail them (or worse) no reason were necessary or as if the reason for that were so obvious that no one asks.
If you yourself immediately wondered “why the people with green eyes” don’t feel bad, but just realize that we’ve been exposed to such an endless series of examples of discrimination (and worse) against black people and Jewish people that we have somehow, collectively, stopped “noticing it” or being shocked and outraged by it. And that is, among many, a reason why we do need tolerance centers in today’s world!
The museum also comprises a children’s center, an education center, a research center a gift shop and a café restaurant where to try traditional Jewish cuisine.
Since 2013 it also contains about five hundred books as part of the Schneersohn-Library confiscated by the Soviet Union in the 1920s. The Schneerson collection at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center includes significant and once inaccessible portion of the famous library of the Lubavitcher Rebbes – leaders of the Habad movement. In 1915, the Lubavitscher Rebbes fleeing from the approaching German troops moved their private library from their residence in Lubavitch to a safe storage in Moscow. After the 1917 Russian revolution, the Bolshevik regime nationalized the Schneerson Library. Thus, it became a state property and was deposited to the Lenin State Library (today’s Russian State Library). Most books from the Schneerson collection are fully digitized and available through the Russian State Library website: http://aleph.rsl.ru
In order to experience the Schneerson books first-hand you need a library card of Russian State Library, it’s free (ID required) and done instantly on the premises. You don’t need to buy a museum ticket to visit the library or book exhibitions.
The visit of the museum begins with a visit of the so called 5D cinema. It is a 3D projection replicated on the screens along the walls of the circular room and in the center of the room itself, where the images appear like holograms. The “other 2 Ds” in the name refer to the “special effects” (the seats move and shake and some water gets sprayed on the spectators). A short animated movie of about 15 minutes summarises the “first few thousand years” of Jewish history, from ancient Egypt to their arrival in todays Russia. The movie is a bit simplistic in nature, which makes it easily understandable by children and anyone who’s not familiar with history at all, but it is fast paced enough not to really ever get boring. The “special effects” are definitely great fun for the youngest visitors, but they might appear a bit gimmicky to a more mature audience.
The actual museum space is a huge open space. While you are free to wander around and explore, it is wise to follow the numerical order of the various “rooms” the space is divided into, as they progress in a temporal fashion, giving you a better sense of what was happening throughout a few centuries of history.
The first part of the permanent exhibition is about Jewish people life in Tzar’s Russia and in Eastern Europe in general. Here you can see many historical photograph, printed so big that you can really immerse yourself into them. The whole museum is also rich with many interactive displays where you can dive in and get more info regarding the themes that are of major interest to you. A series of life-size statues (like the one pictured above), completely white, depict the people in various activities and in the typical clothing of the time. You see them throughout the museum, playing instruments, sitting at cafés and restaurants or, in some cases walking. I was particularly impressed by the walking one, as I feel they represent the endless series of migrations (small and large) that the Jewish people had to endure to escape from pogroms or hostile government, laws or just people surrounding them, abandoning every time their homes, the land where they were born or where they had found (temporary) refuge and basically all their belongings.
The next historical period is that of the early years of Soviet Russia (leading to WWII). The exposition comprises projections and large touch screens on “totems” and also a couple of tables you can interact with. The projection comes from the ceiling and by touching the image of notable “Jewish/Soviet” people of the time you get more informations on their lives and what part they played in that time.
One of the largest spaces, at the far end of the museum, is dedicated to the Great Patriotic War (that’s how in Russia you refer to World War Two). There is a real bomber airplane from the time, of the kind piloted by the incredibly brave Night Witches (if you don’t know their story, do follow the link: it is a pretty incredible, real piece of history!) hanging from the ceiling, over a real battle-proven tank. On the screen behind them there is continuous series of interviews of Russian Jewish people, both men and women, who bravely served during the war (as proven by their chests full of medals of all sorts!). Three big screens show footage of the war and the participation of the Jews in industry and military operations, as well as letters that the soldiers sent home from the front. You obviously see huge explosions on the screens, but the hall is shrouded in complete silence. The audio of all projections is available only through headphones, available to all.
Facing the big screen a small opening leads to a dark room where, in complete silence, the names of the people who perished during both World War II and the Holocaust are displayed. Everyone can light a candle to pay a tribute to the memory of those who have perished. In the hall you also find two monitors with an access to the database of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel‘s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead, honouring Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need, and researching the phenomenon of the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, with the aim of avoiding such events in the future.
During and after WWII the Jewish population seemed, for a time, to have found acceptance and respect in the Soviet State. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was organized by the Jewish Bund (labor union) leaders Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter, upon an initiative of Soviet authorities, in fall 1941 and it was reformed on Joseph Stalin‘s order in Kuibyshev in April 1942 with the official support of the Soviet authorities. It was designed to influence international public opinion and organize political and material support for the Soviet fight against Nazi Germany, particularly from the West.
Unfortunately only 11 years after its creation, in 1952, as part of the persecution of Jews in the last year part of Stalin’s rule (for example, the “Doctors’ plot“), most prominent members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested on trumped-up spying charges, tortured, tried in secret proceedings, and executed in the basement of Lubyanka Prison, because Stalin and elements of the KGB were worried about their influence and connections with the West. Under the pretence of leaving the USSR to go to Israel, a number of Jews were also actually escaping the Soviet regime to the USA and this was blamed on the leadership of the movement. They were officially rehabilitated only in 1988.
The last part of the permanent exhibition takes the visitor through the “stagnation years” of Breznev (in one of the videos a man significantly recalls “We all though Breznev would live to be 200 years old and nothing would ever change“), the uncertain and difficult times of Perestroika to the fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union, to the present days (which are arguably the most peaceful the Russian Jewish community, as a whole, has had in a long, long while. Let’s really hope it lasts!).
Would you like to take part in a tour or a photo tour of Moscow or any other Russian destination with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking guide/photographer (me) to discover the Russia that foreign tourists rarely get to see and make the most of your time in “the largest country on Earth”? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!