So, There Was an Occupation, But No-one Did the Occupying?
The Occupation Museum of Latvia is a reflection of the country’s historical contradictions
In the fall of 2011, the Harmony Center, a patently pro-Russian Latvian party which won in the recent snap parliamentary election by claiming 31 of the 100 seats in Saemi, has been unable to forge a majority coalition. It was very close to its goal, but after several weeks of negotiations found itself outside the government. Interestingly, during the dialog one of the Harmony Center leaders, Riga Mayor Nil Ushakov, admitted that Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. Somewhat earlier Janis Urbanovic, another leader of the same party, subscribed to the formula “there was an occupation, but no occupiers,” which is intended to secure some agreement on historical issues provided that they are kept in the past and have no influence on the present.
In the past 20 years the very word “occupation” has acquired a strong emotional charge. It marks the de facto line of an ideological front between Latvians and the Russian-speaking population: the former point to an undeniable fact, while the latter are afraid of being deported. This dualism in the perception of history was one of the reasons the Occupation Museum was opened.
IN PLACE OF ANOTHER MUSEUM
The idea of establishing something to oppose Soviet propaganda was conceived by Latvian émigrés in the late 1980s. Paulis Lazda, a University of Wisconsin professor, came up with the museum project. “Initially, we thought about publishing books that could be distributed as gifts. But you know how it happens with books – not everyone reads them,” the museum’s director, Gunta Mehele, explains. “Gradually, we came to the idea of having a book in the form of a museum that would convey information – truthful information – to people in a compact and simple form,” she emphasized. By the early 1990s, an exhibit on mid-20th-century events grew into the first exposition of the future museum collection. In 1993, the museum moved into the empty building of the Museum of Red Latvian Riflemen in downtown Old Riga, where it has been operating until now. “The location is simply ideal. We have flatly rejected all proposals to move,” Mehele says. She said that the museum receives about 100,000 visitors every year.
STALIN VS. HITLER
School students are one of the museum’s key target groups. Nearly 5,000 children are brought on tours every year. “We would like to receive more, but we are constrained by our resources,” the director explains. She has 23 people on her staff. That the museum is geared toward children and foreigners who know nothing about Soviet realities becomes clear even before you enter it. Posters by the entrance – maps, archive photos, a swastika joined with the hammer and sickle, and everything in black and red – tell the story of Soviet and Nazi occupations. No entrance fee is charged. There are boxes for charitable donations by the door. This helps attract a constant flow of casual visitors, including foreign tourists.
If you go upstairs, you will see photos of Stalin and Hitler displayed side-by-side. The rooms are semi-dark. The permanent exhibit includes around 1,000 items: documents and photos, everyday objects owned by deported Latvians and local partisans, post-war items, weapons, Soviet and Nazi propaganda, and a number of maps. An interactive map showing deportation itineraries was produced with EU assistance. All the exhibits have captions in four languages: Latvian, Russian, English and German. Brochures in 12 languages, including Georgian but not Ukrainian, are available in the main hall.
What stuns visitors most is a true-to-life model of camp barracks with two tiers of plank beds, a pole with notches that serves as a calendar and a piss can in the corner. This last item is supplied with a detailed description. “Parasha is this can with a board rather than what you usually mean by the word,” a teacher tells her school students.
CRAMMED STORAGE ROOMS
In the 18 years its has existed, the museum has accumulated 50,000 objects and documents and keeps receiving more every year. Many items are taken from family archives and donated by émigrés who left their motherland in 1944, and the descendants of Latvians who served in foreign armies and those who were deported in the mid-20th century. A tiny den occupied by Taiga Kokorevicha, the keeper of the storeroom, is crammed with cardboard boxes. She pulls out two, one with cigarette cases cut out of wood and the other one with spoons and forks. Both found their way to Latvia together with the deported people who were returning home after they were amnestied or had served their terms. The cover of one of the cigarette cases features a Latvian national ornament, while the bottom is decorated with a Soviet star. “A curious combination of the incompatible,” Kokorevicha notes.
A wardrobe in the museum's cellar contains military uniforms of nearly all the armies that have marched on this land in the past 60 years. The walls are hung with dozens of paintings made in camps or special settlements. A pair of scales from a Soviet store sits on a shelf. “We don't accept everything and sometimes we have to refuse people,” Kororevicha noted, “One collector wanted to donate a home-made violin with images of polar bears, but we had no information about where the instrument came from or who it belonged to.”
In 2013, the museum is set to be enlarged with an extension called Building for the Future. The exterior will be bright, unlike the dark, old building, but the future of the museum itself is not that bright. The economic crisis, which hit Latvia worse than probably any other European country, forced the government to cut financing. The museum has had a hard time obtaining funds, and when it does, they come at the last moment. It becomes increasingly dependent on donations, even though Latvians in foreign lands no longer feel as secure as before. In the second half of 2010, the two biggest sponsors donated €62,000 and $25,000, respectively. In January 2011, the museum received its biggest donation ever (250,000 Australian dollars) from Australian citizen Juris Graudins.
INTEREST FROM RUSSIANS
“Poor people of Latvia,” an Asian tourist wrote in the guestbook. This sentiment is shared by many other visitors, as browsing the guestbook will reveal.
“How are you going to know whether the museum is fulfilling its task? Will there be a moment when you can say: Yes, we have accomplished our mission?,” I ask Mehele. “The main thing is whether visitors need the museum. As long as they are coming, we can say that they do need it,” she replies. But then, there will be no shortage of visitors: this is one of the two free museums in Riga. (The other one, the Military Museum, also focusses a lot of attention to the issues of the country's independence.) “Of course, some of our guests come with their minds already made up about these historical events, but they are the minority. More often than not, foreign tourists tell us that they did not have the slightest idea that these atrocities ever happened in our land.” Curiously, there has been growing interest from Russians, and the museum’s millionth visitor also happened to be Russian.
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