The victory in the Great Patriotic War has become the cornerstone myth of Russian politics and identity. Whether there is an international or an internal conflict, the war history is invoked in political speeches and media propaganda. Soviet repressions, on the contrary, are rarely used by the state memory politics. Many scholars claim that the two memories are opposing: one is heroic and “nationalist,” the other is tragic and “cosmopolitan.” A study of regional memory politics and activism shows, however, that the interrelation between the two is more complicated. Rarely do they come in a direct conflict. Instead, depending on the local history and politics, the conflict is either subtle and leads to the “screening” of the repressions history, or it leads to the “framing” of the repressions narratives.

In Russia, the Great Patriotic War (GPW) is commonly discussed as a fair and victorious war in which the Soviets stood against the great evil of Nazism and prevailed. This triumphant view is propagated from above—through state-sponsored rituals, political speeches, and school curricula—and is supported from below. The memory of the repressions is much less pronounced than the memory of the war. It rarely becomes a topic for the state-sponsored media content (such as movies), it is less represented in school textbooks, related rituals gather fewer people, and some of the commemorative initiatives are seen as politically risky. If the war memory creates a positive image of the nation as heirs of the victors and heroes, the repressions memory is complex and ambivalent. A recent poll shows that people are cautious about creating divisions in society between victim groups and perpetrator groups (Iudin et al., 2019).

As Tomas Sniegon noted, both events, the GPW and the repressions, have, in Piotr Sztompka’s terms, “traumatogenic potential”; that is, both brought unprecedented suffering on Russian people. Yet, it is only the war that is seen as the most influential and traumatic experience by both Russian elites and the people (Sniegon, 2018). The 2014 war in Ukraine magnified the state’s narrative about the GPW, while the repressions memory politics remains unclear and conflicting. A decade ago, there was a partial consensus among scholars studying Russian memory politics that the two memories are opposite.1 In general terms, the war memory is a nationalist myth aimed at creating solidarity and national pride. The repressions memory is, on the contrary, a cosmopolitan one: focused on the victims and aimed at learning from past mistakes and propagating human rights. The former, being more beneficial for the current state, is used to suppress the latter (Khapaeva, 2009; Merridale, 2009; Adler, 2012). Since then, with the emergence of new projects and transformations in Russian national and international memory politics, this opposition does not appear to be as clear as it once was. However, the question of the two memories’ interrelation remains. The cases discussed in this article show that the relationship between the two memories can be described using two mechanisms: “screening” and “framing.” This list obviously does not include all the possibilities. Instead, it continues the discussion of possible interrelations of memories in general and memories in Russia in particular. Existing research shows that the repressions memories can be “screened” by memories of the ’90s (Khlevnyuk, 2021). Similarly, they can be “screened,” or overshadowed by war memories. In such cases, the war memories overwhelm memory spaces (such as museums) and overshadow or “screen” repressions memories. In some cases, however, a more subtle mechanics than a simple “screening” is in place, the so-called “framing” or reinterpretation of the memory.

This article does not deal with the official state memory politics and, instead, focuses on local Russian memory politics. It is based on the analysis of local museum exhibitions dedicated to the repressions and the strategies used by curators, employees, or local officials to include the war narratives in the same spaces. In the cases discussed, the two memory narratives inevitably clash. Yet, despite the overwhelming support by the Russian federal government of the war memory, the repressions memory is not necessarily extinguished as a result. While in some cases, the repressions memory is “screened” by the war memory, in others, the repressions narrative is reinterpreted and reframed to fit with the triumphant victory memory. These differences not only show variety of local memory politics, but also point toward a general problem in the commemoration of the two events in Russia.

Current Russian memory politics heavily relies on the narrative about the Great Patriotic War victory. The triumphant narrative excludes any problematic episodes of war that can be interpreted in a different key (Soroka & Krawatzek, 2021). The war memories are usable for current political regime as they create the patriotic image of the golden past that creates positive identity for the nation (Pakhaliuk, 2020). The repressions memories follow the fate of the problematic pages in the war history—they are rarely invoked in the official narrative. There is no coherent state strategy of dealing with it. As a result, the war is prominent in many state-sponsored and funded areas of Russian life. In school curricula, the war takes on the majority of time allocated for teaching the history of the 20th century. On the other hand, the repressions take on much less space on the school texts’ pages (Nelson, 2015). Many of the movies funded by the Ministry of Culture are dedicated to war (Norris, 2007, 2021). In part, international politics is a significant factor of war memory development. As Alexei Miller shows, the claims of certain Eastern European countries about their victimhood status and portrayal of the USSR as the perpetrator push Russian authorities to double down on the “rescuer of Europe” image (Miller, 2020).

Patriotism becomes one of the main categories through which the state interprets history (Kratochvíl & Shakhanova, 2021). If in Soviet times, the victory was explained by the “advantages of socialism” and the Communist Party’s role, now it is explained by Russian patriotism and state leadership (Koposov, 2017). In other words, the war is interpreted to fit into the current ideology and highlight aspects important to today’s state leadership. Thus, patriotism is understood as military patriotism primarily. As seen through the lens of the GPW, it is described as a battle against “the fascist threat.” During the first decade of the Putin regime, this fascist threat was allegedly coming from the imperialist United States (and pro-USA internal opposition). Later, during and after the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Russian state media portrayed Western Ukraine and the Ukrainian leadership as the new fascists (while Eastern Ukraine was compared to the Red Army) (Cottiero et al., 2015). “The media addressed all of the timeline events, conflating them with various elements of the GPW myth. By reminding audiences of historical equivalents and analogies, the media blurred the temporal distance between events in 2014 and events from 1941–1945” (McGlynn, 2020, p. 1064). The war’s memory provided Russian propaganda agents with a simple, known to the audience, and powerful language to frame the events.

The “patriotic” interpretation of history affects the repressions memories as well. Russian authorities’ treatment of repressions memory sites indicates that the state sees the victims as “victims of modernization” or “martyrs of Russian uniqueness and superiority” (Sniegon, 2018, p. 135). Similarly, the historical park “Russia – My History” shows victims of repressions as patriotic martyrs who gave their lives for the greater good, specifically, for the victory in the Second World War (Klimenko, 2021). In part, this “martyrological” turn in the repressions’ interpretation may be inspired by the approach taken by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The “orthodox” reading is focused primarily on the “new martyrs,” the orthodox clerics and believers persecuted for their faith (Christensen, 2017). The ROC’s memory work relies on familiar orthodox narratives and symbols, including material ones, such as crosses or churches and chapels (Bogumil, Moran & Harrowell, 2015). These symbols mark the sites of repressions (including Butovo’s mass shooting site or Solovetsky Islands) as religious mourning sites, thus “appropriating” it for the ROC (Dorman, 2012).

Otherwise, the state’s approach toward the repressions over the last 20 years was inconsistent. In 2007, for instance, Vladimir Putin visited the Butovo range and took part in the commemorative event. In 2009, Dmitry Medvedev talked about the necessity to commemorate victims and the importance of the tragic memory (Adler, 2012). In 2017, 30 years after the Memorial Society founding, a national memorial to the repressions victims was finally erected and Vladimir Putin visited its unveiling. The site and the form of the monument raise some questions. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a big step in the state’s memory politics (Smith, 2019; Cingerová & Dulebová, 2020). On the other hand, the state-imposed new limitations on archival access, persecuted activists working on the topic (though often on unrelated grounds), liquidated the Memorial Society, and skewed the representation of Stalin’s period toward the commemoration of the victory (Adler, 2012).

The war memory is not a solely top-down narrative imposed on society. Russian society is very invested in the memory of the Great Patriotic War. The number of people lost during the war and the devastating episodes of the war, such as the Leningrad siege, make it the most significant event of the 20th century. Numerous surveys show that for Russians the Victory Day is one of the most important holidays and the main reason for national pride (Mendelson & Gerber, 2005, 2006; Levada, 2020), a third of the Russian population knows their family’s history regarding the war (FOM, 2020), and a third took an active part in the last offline Victory Day celebrations (in 2019) (FOM, 2019). The public’s attitudes toward the repression memories are less univocal and thus reflect the lack of the state’s history politics. The majority of Russians know at least something about the repressions (Levada, 2017) and believe that the memories of the repressions should not be silenced (Iudin et al., 2019; Gerber & Laruelle, 2021) and that there should be a day commemorating repressions victims in the national calendar (FOM, 2014). Yet, the repressions are not part of the people’s day-to-day lives and discussions (FOM, 2014), fewer Russians each year feel that repressions are unjustifiable (Levada, 2017), and when faced with “dealing with the difficult past” in their everyday lives, even hypothetically, they prefer not to “stir up the past” (Iudin et al., 2019).

Certain civil initiatives dealing with both memories follow a different approach; specifically, they promote a tragic narrative about both histories. This statement is especially true, of course, for the initiatives dealing with the repression memories. The Memorial Society is, of course, the oldest and most influential NGO working on victims’ commemoration. It used to have numerous branches throughout Russia (White, 1995), but, unfortunately, many of those were dissolved. A much newer initiative, “The Last Address,” modeled after the Stolpersteine project, has been growing (Frenkel, 2021). Similarly, some “poiskoviks” voice their disinterest in the general triumphant framework of the war memories. This movement unifies people who look for the remains of soldiers. The narrative they create is a more nuanced, sad one about soldiers as heroes and, more importantly, victims of the war (Brown, 2020).

Historically, museums were at the forefront of the repression victims’ commemoration. As Irina Flige, head of the St. Petersburg Memorial, notes, during the Perestroika, “many museums, especially in Russia’s regions, became strongholds of the ‘Memorial’ movement; sometimes an entire museum became involved, but more often it was individual enthusiasts working in a museum who championed Memorial” (Flige, 2021, p. 2). Museum exhibitions, temporary or permanent, were some of the first forms of the victims’ commemoration and the search for the repressions’ interpretation (Bogumil, 2018; Flige, 2021). The museums continue to be one of the main forms of commemoration and objects of memory scholars’ study. Some museums gain more attention than others. For instance, Perm-36, a reconstructed Stalin’s camp, is known even internationally. Its history of creation and tragic story of appropriation by the local authorities became material for a number of studies (Wites, 2008; Ševčenko, 2011; Williams, 2012; Giesen, 2015; Goode, 2020). Museums become arenas of memory wars (Shtorn & Buteiko, 2016), sites where local communities decide whether to include or exclude repressions from their common past (Gavrilova, 2021). Museum curators were (and still are) looking for a language to describe repressions, for instance, valorizing the labor (Gnedovskii & Okhotin, 2011), “othering” the Gulag inmates (Daniel’ & Flige, 2013), and interpreting the perpetrator’s figure (Flige, 2021; Zavadski & Dubina, 2021). The present study deals with yet another aspect of the museum representation of the repressions: how memories of repressions and the war intertwine in some of the museums’ exhibitions.

The exact number of museums and museum exhibitions depicting repressions in one way or another is unknown. As of 2017, the Gulag museum’s Memory Museums Association estimated the number of such exhibitions at 107 across different Russian regions. This list includes local lore and local history museums, national museums, and school, corporate, and private museums. In most cases, repressions are just one of the permanent exhibitions in a museum.

Museums are one of the arenas where memory work takes place. There are many terms to describe collective representations of the past. In this text, I am dealing primarily with cultural memories, that is, with memories of the past distanced from current generations. Witnesses of such pasts are few, but historical and cultural accounts are plentiful. Following Jeff Olick’s (2007) approach, I see cultural memories as processes in certain arenas. These processes are often political and set in motion by memory agents—for instance, memory activists, interested in shaping a society’s memory. Apart from museums being one of the pioneers in repressions memory work in Russia, they are also one of the traditional media for memory work in general. Benedict Anderson (2006) described museums as one of the cornerstones of national identity. Museums are often used to study memory work, especially concerning the so-called difficult past, histories of oppression, state terror, genocides, and artificial or natural catastrophes. Such museums are called memory or memorial museums (Williams, 2007; Hansen-Glucklich, 2014; Sodaro, 2018).

This article stems from a larger comparative project that studied 15 Russian regional museum exhibitions about the repressions. In this article, I use data from five Russian regional museums where the topic of the war intertwines with the repressions’ depiction: in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, the Magadan region, Perm, and on the Solovetsky Islands. These museums and regions are chosen as they represent spaces where any discussion of the Soviet period and the Great Patriotic War, in particular, is almost impossible without mentioning the Soviet repressions. In other words, the clash of narratives is supposedly inevitable. In some cases, this inevitability is rooted in the entanglements of the histories; in others, in the two narratives’ shared physical space. The Northern Caucasian museums in Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria tell stories of the people’s deportations during the Great Patriotic War. The Ingush and the Balkar were among a dozen peoples accused of being traitorous and collaborating with the Nazis. As a result, they were deported from their homes to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Magadan and Perm-36 museums are focused on the repressions, though for slightly different reasons. The camp system practically colonized the Magadan region, and inmates established the region in its current state. Towns, villages, and manufacturers are primarily remnants of the regional camp system. Consequently, the local lore museum in Magadan has two permanent exhibitions on this period of history. Moreover, during the war, the region was still composed primarily of inmates and former inmates. Similarly, the Perm-36 museum, being a museum in a former camp, is focused on the history of this camp and other Gulag camps. Any discussion of the war is possible only within this relatively narrow context. The Solovetsky Islands are a different case. The islands have centuries of history, and the camps were already closed before wartime. However, the islands’ physical space is so heavily marked by the camps’ remnants that many other narratives, including the war ones, often clash with the history of repressions.

Primarily, I use data gathered during the fieldwork at the museums in 2016–18 that consists of video and photo recordings of the exhibitions and interviews with the museum curators and employees. Additionally, I use media articles, videos, public interviews, and museums’ social media posts. All the data was transcribed and coded according to the basic elements of the narratives or stories (Bal & Van Boheemen, 2009), such as the core characters (e.g., victims, perpetrators), plot components, and other topics and events mentioned. In this article, I use data from cases where “the GPW” was present in the exhibitions and the interviews with the curators. I then checked museums’ websites and social media to learn of events they organized dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the victory in the war, in May 2020. As the anniversary fell on the period when COVID-19 prevented the organizing of offline events, most of the museums in question created online exhibitions. I included this data in the analysis to show the changes museums undergo and gather a more recent data on museums’ war representations.

The inclusion of the 2020 exhibition data does not fully overcome one of the main limitations of the study: the snapshot character of the gathered data. However, as I will discuss in the conclusion, even this limited data shows that museums undergo changes, and their approaches to the depiction of war and repression may shift over time. Another limitation is the fact that I am the sole researcher, and my biases in gathering and interpreting the data cannot be checked. I attempted to overcome this limitation by recording the exhibitions thoroughly and then creating full transcripts for the exhibitions and the interviews. Finally, the sample can by no means be understood as representative of all the local museums dealing with the war and repressions histories. Instead, cases are chosen to highlight possible interrelations between the two memory narratives to facilitate understanding of such interrelations’ possible patterns. As a result, two primary patterns were discerned.

Both mechanisms discussed in the article, framing and screening, lead to downplaying of the repression narrative. However, the mechanics are different. Framing, as shown below, changes or at least challenges the tragic repression narrative. Screening is a much simpler mechanism. Consciously or not, the inclusion of the war narrative in spaces dedicated to memories of repressions partly overshadows the repression narratives without changing their contents. As Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi and Chana Teeger (2010) noted, forgetting and denial “can be achieved by silence, but they can also be achieved by much talk” (p. 1118). The war narrative becomes this “much talk,” a narrative used to covertly overbear the repressions narrative. The war memory becomes a “screen memory.” First introduced by Freud (1962) in the context of the individual psychological traumas and mechanisms of coping with them, the concept has since been used regarding collective memory processes in a similar sense (Freeman, Nienass & Melamed, 2013). As “cacophonous” commemoration, screen memories weaken a memory narrative by switching the public’s attention toward themselves. Consequently, the war narrative becomes a part of cacophonous commemoration, a covert silencing mechanism aimed at forgetting (or at least downplaying) the repressions memories. According to Vinitzky-Seroussi and Teeger, memory agents use such mechanisms in cases where they understand that complete omission of a certain memory will be harshly criticized. As employing a “screen memory” to create a cacophony of narratives is difficult to detect, certain groups can achieve at least partial silencing of a memory without looking illegitimate and creating an overt conflict with either a broader society or a community.

The Ingush case fits perfectly into this description. The Ingush authorities would like to fit into the broader federal war cult and add this narrative to their commemorative agenda even pertaining to repressions (deportations in this case). The local community, on the contrary, is very interested in maintaining the deportation memory. The interrelation of the two histories, war and repressions, is very complex. The Ingush were deported during the war and, at least on paper, due to war: for collaboration with the enemy. In this situation, local authorities do not overtly contest the deportation memories; instead, they more or less covertly include more and more elements of the war memories into the sites and narratives on deportations. This process is especially evident at the site of the memorial dedicated to the deported Ingush. The memorial itself is a prominent building on a federal road. It is called “the nine towers”: nine traditional Ingush towers strung together by a barbed wire represent nine deported Caucasian peoples. Since 2010, local authorities have filled the space around the towers with new memorials, most of which are dedicated to Ingush loyalty to the Russian state (including the Russian Empire and the USSR). The memory of the Great Patriotic War is also present here. At the center of the new square with arcades, memorial plaques, and monuments is a statue of the last Brest Fortress’s defender,2 Umatgirei Barkhonoev, an Ingush. His figure stands in front of a wall, on the back of which copies of the authentic writings from Brest Fortress are carved. Next to it, on memorial plaques, there are names of the fortress’s defenders. The path toward the deportation’s victims’ memorial leads visitors through these war memorials. A former site dedicated strictly to the deportation memories became a new memorial space dedicated to the war and deportation memory that is not distributed equally. In fact, it seems like the number of memorials and the vastness of war commemoration are aimed at literally hiding the huge nine-tower memorial in the background.

The interrelation of the two memories is evident not only in the physical but also in the symbolical space of the deportations’ commemoration. Recent annual rallies at the memorial space on the day of the deportation (23 February, also the former day of the Red Army and, currently, the Defender of the Fatherland Day) similarly incorporate two narratives. In 2017, for instance, the region’s head gave a speech highlighting the Ingush heroism and claiming that it is important not only to mourn the victims but also to celebrate the Ingush defenders on this day. According to museum employees, such suggestions are not supported by the local community and are seen as an effort to forget about the deportations and to fit into the federal memory politics. Consequently, the museum exhibition itself, still controlled by the employees (at least at the time of the fieldwork), does not pay too much attention to the war. The only mentions of the Great Patriotic War can be found in the biographies of the veterans. The war is used to underscore the urgency to resolve the territorial conflict over the land lost after deportations. As the conflict resulted in many Ingush losing their homes, it is presented in the museum as the second deportation, and older generations are thus victims of two deportations. For instance, Shabazgirei-Huinevich Gadaborshev fought in the Soviet-Finnish, Great Patriotic, and Soviet-Japanese Wars, returned to his homeland, lived the rest of his life there, and wanted to be buried in his native village:

The last request of the former soldier was not fulfilled neither by those to whom it was addressed nor by the head of the Gadaborshevo village administration H. Tokhtyev, on whose conscience there are many Ingush hostages, innocently killed in the tragic days of autumn 1992.…And the wife of Shabazgirei often dreams of her husband’s burned medals as they used to be on his jacket. (exposition, Nazran)

Similarly, though to serve a different purpose, the war experience is a significant part of biographies in the Nalchik museum exhibition at the memorial to the Balkar deportation victims, in Kabardino-Balkaria. The Balkar museum is more spacious than the Ingush one, although the building is, admittedly, less impressive. The museum is situated on the outskirts of the city, closer to the resorts (Nalchik is a center of mineral water tourism) than to the city center, on the place where the Balkar were gathered to be deported. Balkar heroes are presented as victorious soldiers who had to suffer through the deportation’s pain and humiliation. Compared to the Ingush exhibition, the Balkar one is less focused on the current issues. Instead, Balkar’s participation in the war highlights the absurdity of the formal reason for their deportation, the collaboration with the enemy:

Out of 367 thousand people of the pre-war population of the KBASSR (as of 01.01.1941), 56 thousand people were Balkars. This indicates that the Balkars, who constituted only 15% of the population of Kabardino-Balkaria by that time, provided 27% of all conscripts sent to the front from this republic, i.e., the mobilization load on the entire non-Balkar part of the republic amounted to only 14.1%. (exposition, Nalchik)

The discussion of war is prominent in the museum and is used to underscore the absurdity of charges and the Balkar heroism. The deportation is still the main focus of the museum; however, most of the exhibition space is dedicated to the “great Balkars” from the early days of the republic to current times. The war is not only shifting the attention from victimhood to Balkar heroism, it also paints a redemption story of Balkars, on the one hand, and, on the other, a story of common victory, regardless of the heroes’ nationality. The 70th anniversary of the victory was celebrated in the Nalchik museum by a special exhibition. In an interview with journalists, the museum’s head, Farizat Temmoeva, talks about the exhibition’s logic:

Repeatedly from visiting visitors we had to hear: what, the Balkars are traitors, they were exiled for this? No, I tell them, many peoples of Russia have gone through deportation, including the Balkars. Here is the stand with documents showing that the Balkar soldiers participated and showed themselves as heroes in all the fateful battles of the Great Patriotic War, starting with the Brest Fortress’s defense.…And the last stand tells that we won because we were united. (Nalchik Memorial, 2015)

In both republics the local authorities use the museum space to covertly silence the deportation memory by including and highlighting the war memories. In Ingushetia, these efforts are faced with the museum employees’ dissent. As a result, there is a conflict of outer space (filled with war memorials) and inner space (controlled by the museum employees) of the museum. Outer space coverts the deportation memory using the war memory as a screen (quiet literally). In Kabardino-Balkaria, the war is inserted into the narrative to shift attention from the unlawfulness of the deportations in general to the redemption of the Balkar, in particular. The museum employees—specifically, the head of the museum—supports the authorities’ efforts and the notion that the deportation memory might be dangerous and inspire conflict (interview 14, Nalchik). The two cases show the limitations of the local authorities’ command of the memory spaces and different outcomes of the “screening” efforts concerning repressions memory.

That is not to say that the inclusion of the war memory into memory spaces dedicated to the repressions is necessarily a well-considered policy. In some cases, it seems to be more accidental than deliberate. Solovki, for instance, has been refocused on the religious aspect of repression memory—commemoration of clerics and faithful who perished at the Solovetsky Islands (Dorman, 2012; Bogumil, Moran & Harrowell, 2015; Shtorn & Buteiko, 2016). Thus, war memory is not the main focus of the local memory politics. The islands were not sites of war action. However, the archipelago housed a cabin boys’ school during the war. This history is becoming more and more prominent on the islands. For instance, in 2018, after an employee who worked on the camp’s history had to resign due to a conflict with the museum administration, a new employee hired in their place was assigned to work on the history of the cabin boys’ school. Consequently, the camp’s history (apart from the history of the new martyrs) was no longer narrated. While the cabin boys’ school did not exist for long, as the banner at its site and the guides tell, it “prepared many boys, adolescents, who participated in the Second World War, and a third of them died at the fronts of the Second World War” (guided tour, Solovki). It just so happened that the school’s site is also the site of one of the first Soviet political prisons. There, political activists who had political imprisonment experience before the Soviet regime stood up against the harsh rules of the Soviet prison and were shot. This story is promoted by the St. Petersburg branch of the Memorial Society. However, on the ground, it gains less traction. The site is more often used to talk about the cabin boys. For instance, in 2018, a memorial to the cabin boys was erected (Monument, 2018) and in 2019, a movie, Solovetsky Cabin Boys’ School, came out (The film, 2020). The ongoing projects seem to be stemming out of the general national memory politics: the war is gaining more support and funding than other memories. However, the growing number of projects commemorating war narrative at this site overbears the niche story of political protest and oppression. Again, the repressions narrative is not entirely extinguished from the site: the story is still told on the banners and by the tour guides. However, the repressions story moves to the background and becomes partially hidden by the war memory.

Whether meeting by chance or on purpose, the two narratives, of the repressions and the war, rarely cohabit on equal rights. The war narrative’s overall strength in the current Russian memory politics and the political context of local administrations, including financial support for the memorial projects dedicated to the war, create an uneven playfield. As a result, even in spaces where the repressions narratives are strong, they partly lose their visibility, as if the war stories partially “screen” stories of repressions.

“Framing” is a more nuanced and complex mechanism than “screening.” Invoking narratives about the war is, in some cases, used to frame the repression narrative: put it in context, give explanations, and create alternative narratives about the repression system and inmate lives. While the term “framing” has been questioned in the recent literature (D’Angelo, 2018), and scholars call for a clear definition of framing and its distinguishing from other notions (Cacciatore, Scheufele & Iyengar, 2016), I use this term the way it has been used in memory studies. Of course, the term “framing” reminds us of Erving Goffman’s (1974) groundbreaking work on frame analysis. This theory was the starting point for Barry Schwartz, who analyzed Lincoln’s representations in American public memory and the changing interpretation of Lincoln’s times in the 20th century. Schwartz refers to Goffman’s concepts of keying and framing. During certain periods of US history, memory of Lincoln became a “primary framework” in Goffman’s terms, that is, the framework of interpretation that renders meaningless aspects into a meaningful picture. Keying in this case means shaping the events interpreted so that they match the primary framework—that is the memory of Lincoln in Schwartz’s (2000) case. Similarly, in several cases I studied, the war becomes such a framework that highlights some aspects of the repression narrative and dims others.

The war affected the Magadan region as it did any other region in the USSR. Even though it was far from the main scene of the war zone, the eastern front, the day-to-day life of the region and the camp system were heavily influenced. The prisoners and recently freed people were prohibited from leaving the region—thus, the numbers of free laborers in Kolyma at the time increased. These were not newly arriving specialists; they were former prisoners whose freedom during the GPW was minimal (Shirokov, 2010). Moreover, the region, like the other regions in the USSR, struggled during the war years. Mortality rates started rising in the first months of the war (Grebeniuk, 2018). The newly “free” laborers lived and worked in the conditions close to their “prison” period. The documents show that social infrastructure was lagging behind the growing number of free people. There was not enough food, linens, clothes, footwear, water, or medical care (Shirokov, 2010). Similarly, the Perm camps also “participated” in the war by giving the country the resources it needed. This “participation” becomes the main war story in both museums discussed here.

Magadan’s input to the war efforts was, as the museum narratives and curators in the region emphasize, to provide the country with enough gold that ensured the USSR’s victory. Curiously, according to activists and curators, the gold was used to pay for the lend-lease. One of the cornerstones for this narrative is Henry Wallace’s visit to Kolyma in 1944 (in some exhibitions, this fact is illustrated with Wallace’s photo). As expected, this regional myth mixes some truth and some fiction. It is beyond this article’s scope to trace the inconsistencies and the roots of this myth, but Wallace indeed visited Kolyma, and gold was used for the trade during the war. Other details and the connection of the two facts are a different matter. However, the emergence of the story is telling in itself: it ties together well-known details of the war history (such as the lend-lease) and the less-known local stories. If Kolyma is described as primarily a gold-digging site, the Perm-36 camp specialized in wood logging. In the Perm-36 museum, the restored camp dating back to Stalin’s period became a museum; the narrative of production for the war was similar. For instance, in 2016, a banner dedicated to celebrating the war listed statistics of the camp’s outputs that benefited the war. In both cases, the economical function of the camps is reinterpreted in the heroic key and is represented as necessary for the victory. It suggests that the camps were also key to the war victory; their existence is thus justified.

The framing of the repressions narratives transforms the inmates’ stories as they need to fit into this triumphant narrative of camp effectiveness. In Perm, the prisoners are mentioned as army volunteers. The banner described above starts and ends with patriotic heroic texts: “People’s high moral qualities emerged even behind the bars of the Gulag camps, with the common slogan ‘Everything for the front, everything for the victory!’…Thankful heirs should remember about this page of our history, about these people’s [the prisoners] heroic deeds.” A local historian, who at the time consulted the museum staff, promotes the narrative of the war heroism among the inmates:

When the war began, the prisoners asked the camp administration if they can donate money to the defense fund. And the boss does not know whether to take or not take the money and asks Beria.…But Beria was not a fool, Beria was not a stupid person, he writes: we do not need your money, you probably do not have a lot of money anyway. We need you to do a good job, and we ask you to work, help the front, give what the soldiers need at war. And you know, you will see, if you look through the books, the prisoners worked, exceeding the norms by 200, 300, 400, 500, 600 percent, 700, 800 percent.…Prisoners also donated gold watches, gold chains, brooches, pendants, jewelry, even diamonds to the defense fund. (interview 1, Perm, October 2016)

In the Magadan local lore museum, housed in a grand late-Soviet-era building built specifically for the museum, the temporary exhibition dedicated to the victory’s anniversary in 2020 followed the same line of argument. The region is portrayed as the home front of the war, giving enough resources for the armies at the front. The inmates are barely mentioned. Since the exhibition had to run online, visitors could access it primarily through the museum’s social media accounts. During the online guided tour, a museum employee mentioned that the inmates received war medals during and after the war. In a different video, a short guided tour, this employee tells the audience that the percentage of manual labor in the region was very high, “including the prisoners’ labor.” He rapidly moves to discussing the statistics of free and prisoners’ labor: “At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, 62 thousand free workers and 148 thousand prisoners worked in Dal'stroi. By the end of the war, there were already more than 100 thousand free workers, and the number of prisoners dropped to 87 thousand. All the released prisoners were assigned to a facility, working hours were extended” (Dal'stroi frontu, 2020). These are the only mentions of the prisoners during the guided tours. They are presented solely as numbers. The home front heroism of mining and production is hinted to be the result of free labor—even though it is mentioned that free labor was not entirely free. The information, thus, is given but remains hidden for a lay visitor. The frame of war heroism shifts attention toward results.

Similarly, the results overshadow the perpetrators’ images—for instance, the image of Ivan Nikishov, the head of Dal'stroi during the war. Even though document and fictional evidence points out that the professional and personal qualities of Nikishov are questionable at best (Grebeniuk, 2019), the war narrative focuses on a different side of his personality. A website dedicated to the victory anniversary and the Magadan region’s role in it features his biography, prepared by one of the museum’s employees:

I. F. Nikishov was a modest and undemanding person; aspirations for luxury, hoarding, and any excesses were absolutely alien to him. The wardrobe was the most modest—the military form and some civilian attire. Few shoes—in general, only the most necessary, no striving for “fashion,” no valuables, except for a gold wristwatch. He loved books and collected them. He liked simple food. But at the same time, he was a friendly person, he would share everything, he loved to give gifts and, in turn, was grateful even for the most modest signs of attention if this was done from the heart. He did not accept valuable gifts in principle. (Glava Dal'stroia Ivan Nikishov, 2021)

This narrative creates an image of the camp system on Kolyma as brutal and yet necessary to win the war. Thus, the repressive system and the camps gain a purpose and even a higher mission. The Magadan region lacks heroic war mythology.3 The “Kolyma gold for the victory” narrative fills this lacuna but, at the same time, rearranges the story of the repressions.

The tension between the heroic narrative of war and the repressions’ tragic narrative did not go unnoticed in the region. A generally oppositional website Vesma claims that the initiatives promote heroization of the prison labor (Myth-making, 2020). However, the issue is that for Magadan, promoting the war narrative means fitting into the state memory politics. In 2020, with the anniversary and the many federal programs dedicated to the celebrations, this need became even more prominent. Specifically, as the Russian state established the “city of labor valor” title, the Magadan administration decided to pursue it. The advantages of gaining such a title are unclear; however, it certainly puts a city on the state memory map. A city can get the title if it satisfies three criteria: an industry should have been awarded any state award; an industry’s employee should have been granted awards for labor deeds (the aforementioned Ivan Nikishov is possibly evoked for this criteria); and a city’s inhabitants should have also been awarded for labor deeds. Perhaps related to the race for the title, Magadan journalists published several projects about Dal'stroi during the war, including a movie titled Dal'stroi. A Front Line (Dal'stroi. Front line, 2020) and the already cited website “Kolyma’s role in the victory” (Kolyma’s contribution, 2020).

The situation in Perm is different. While the influence of state memory politics is most likely the factor in the inclusion of the war narrative, there is no urge to put the region on the state memory map. Instead, the war is seen as an issue in their work. In 2016, the museum organized a conference, “Gulag: The War’s and the Victory’s Echoes.” Iulia Kantor, who in many instances acts as a liaison between the new museum administration and the public, described the decision to conduct such a conference in terms of heroic and martyr labor of the Gulag inmates for the greater good of the country. She emphasized that the relations between the Gulag and the war victory and the postwar reconstruction are crucial ones for the historians and curators working with this period (Rezunkov, 2016).

The two cases I discuss here illustrate two possible modes of such framing. However, cases from other regions, for instance, Iakutia, show that similar patterns occur there as well (Gavrilova, 2021). In Magadan region, the memory of war is the “explanator” of the camp system. The more focus is shifted toward war, the less the repressive system itself is discussed. The perpetrators may even become war heroes. In Perm’s case, the memory of war adds “nuance.” Such nuance also expands the explanation of the repressions. However, it rearranges the narrative itself, for instance, painting a less “dark” picture.

The interrelation of the two narratives, of repressions and the war, often leads to the former narrative’s downplaying. In the cases presented above, two mechanisms are evident: screening and framing the repressions’ narrative. In some cases, both are triggered by the same factors, such as the prevalence of the war narrative in the state history agenda and the regional administration’s urge to fit into this agenda. However, the mechanics and the results are different. “Screening” of the repression memory by the war memory leads to a simple weakening of the repression narrative—or, at least, to attempts at it. This process is particularly evident in spaces initially dedicated to the commemoration of the repressions, such as the memorial in Ingushetia. The addition of numerous large-scale monuments around it shifts a visitor’s gaze to different stories. Given that these monuments are situated in front of the “nine towers” memorial, they almost literally work as a “screen.”

The “framing” mechanism is more nuanced, and its result is more complex than the “screening.” The inclusion of the war narrative in some contexts creates a necessity to reinterpret the history of repressions so that the war commemoration’s heroic and triumphant tone could be sustained. Thus, in Magadan, for instance, the exhibition dedicated to the anniversary of the Great Patriotic War’s victory highlights the effectiveness of the regional, camp-based industry, thus downplaying the personal tragedies of inmates. The victims of the repressions are simply numbers in this narrative. The perpetrators, on the contrary, become war heroes.

The major part of the story of the two memories’ interrelation is, of course, the state politics of memory and Vladimir Putin’s approach to Russian history. Russian history becomes a source for a mix and match narrative about the united Russian people, overcoming obstacles, and fighting outer powers for the Empire status (Torbakov, 2016). As mentioned above, any efforts to problematize this narrative, from both within and outside, are not appreciated and meet harsh criticism. In this sense, local memory activists working with the repressions memory find themselves in an uncomfortable position: the topic they represent does not gain obvious support, sometimes seems even risky, yet may be seen as significant by local communities. The topic of war, on the other hand, is supported and widely discussed. It almost inevitably proliferates in memory spaces.

However, the two mechanics should not be seen as definitive approaches to the commemoration of the two events. Instead, agreeing with the liaison mentioned above for the Perm-36 museum, Iulia Kantor, we need to see them as a sign of the problematic and still unresolved memory contestation. The same Perm-36 museum that in 2016 put up a banner glorifying the efficiency and outputs of the Gulag camps created a relatively balanced online exhibition for the victory anniversary in 2020. The exhibition (or, rather, a website) was dedicated to the war industry based in the region at the time of the war, including sharashkas, special construct bureaus where imprisoned engineers worked. The outputs of the sharashkas and their input toward the victory are not the focus of the website. Instead, the focus is on the scientists who worked there, the absurdity of their imprisonment, and the real reasons behind their persecution:

The relationship between the Soviet government and the intelligentsia has always been very complex. Lenin defined the intelligentsia with unprintable expressions; the intelligentsia was often critical of the government and the regime. The Bolsheviks in power interpreted the criticism in their address as “anti-Soviet agitation,” and after the mass expulsions of the intelligentsia from the country in the early 1920s, they turned to the persecution of “specialists” and arrests of “saboteurs. (Repressions against scientists, 2020)

How these changes came to be is not clear; however, they show that the “screening” and “framing” of the repressions narrative are not an unavoidable outcome when the two narratives meet. This fact also signals that apart from the overbearing state memory politics focused on the war memory, there are other factors in play.

In part, the urge to find a different angle is not unique to the Russian memory activists and museums, in particular. As Constantin Iordachi (2021) notes, there is a schism in representations of the communist past in the Eastern European museums either as a totalitarian and repressive system or as a “lived experience.” The two paradigms so far rarely meet in the same space. However, their existence marks the overarching issue with commemorating communist pasts unambiguously. Another factor, I speculate, is the crisis of the global moral remembrance culture, as Lea David (2020) puts it, or of the pessimistic framework and “grim storytelling” in Andrea Pető’s (2020) words. David (2020) notes that the implementation of the globally supported policies of “dealing with the difficult past” that supposedly should promote human rights ideology is rarely effective and, in some cases, leads to completely different results, such as growing nationalism. Andrea Pető approaches the problem from a different standpoint, as a museum professional, and claims that a new, more optimistic framework is needed to talk about the difficult past (specifically, the Holocaust). Such a framework would allow one to discuss in the museums Europe’s future, to engage new communities, and to find a common language with new generations (Pető, 2020). I bring forward these ideas as both David and Pető discuss the crises of the already traditional depiction of the difficult past—such as the Soviet repressions. Part of the war and repressions’ interrelation’s story is the fact that some of the local memory activists, including museum curators, also feel the failure of the pessimistic framework. They talk about including more positive notes into their narratives, finding different approaches and angles to the repressions’ story. As one of the Magadan curators said: “Life was not black and white, it was complex” (interview 3, Magadan).

I would like to thank Daniel Levy for the support of this project, and Mischa Gabowitsch and the anonymous reviewers for the helpful comments.

This work was supported by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies dissertation research grant program. The article was prepared within the framework of the HSE University Basic Research Program.

Published online: August 19, 2022

1.

That is not to say that this statement went uncontested. There have been works highlighting different sides of the war memory and calls to problematize the relations between the war and the repressions memories. See, for example, (Gabowitsch 2006).

2.

The first major battle during the Nazi invasion into the USSR.

3.

Apart from a few stories of local war heroes such as the Boikos, a married couple who worked in Dal'stroi and bought a tank using their personal funds. They also learned how to operate a tank and went to the front to fight in their tank.

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Appendix.

List of the Cited Interviews

NumberLocationDate
Perm region October 2016 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Solovetsky Islands July 2017 
Solovetsky Islands July 2017 
10 Solovetsky Islands July 2017 
11 Ingushetia February 2018 
12 Ingushetia February 2018 
13 Ingushetia February 2018 
14 Kabardino-Balkaria March 2018 
NumberLocationDate
Perm region October 2016 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Magadan region June 2017 
Solovetsky Islands July 2017 
Solovetsky Islands July 2017 
10 Solovetsky Islands July 2017 
11 Ingushetia February 2018 
12 Ingushetia February 2018 
13 Ingushetia February 2018 
14 Kabardino-Balkaria March 2018