Dr Jade McGlynn is currently a Researcher and Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford, where she completed her PhD in July 2020. She has published her research on the political uses of history in Russia as academic articles and policy reports, and is now working on her book manuscript: 'Making History Great Again. The Politics of Memory and Belonging in Contemporary Russia.’
Just as the city was quieting down after the epic Victory Day celebrations and parade, Moscow’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War opened an exhibition on the Sobibór death camp on 11th May 2018. Titled ‘Alexander Pecherksy as a Symbol of Resistance for Fascism’, this exhibition was dedicated to the leader of the Sobibór uprising, which took place on 14th October 1943. Initially due to last until 11th June 2018, the exhibition was extended to 4th December 2018, allowing me to visit on 23rd August during a research trip to Moscow. The exhibition was organised and financed by the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Alexander Pechersky Memorial Foundation, the ubiquitous Russian Military Historical Society, the Russian Historical Society and the History of the Fatherland Foundation. Many of these organisations also contributed to the funding and production of the Russian film, Sobibór, which premiered the week before the exhibition opened. The film and exhibition were closely linked from the start: the exhibition was extended to promote the film further.
The ‘Alexander Pecherksy as a Symbol of Resistance to Fascism’ exhibition featured approximately one hundred items, including photographs, letters, and books from Pechersky’s personal archives, as well as items belonging to other camp prisoners and Soviet partisans fighting nearby. Although the exhibition was centred around Pechersky and the Sobibór uprising, the exhibited items also conveyed a broader story about everyday life in the camp, through an assorted collection of items, ranging from uniforms, to hats, to spoons. Thankfully, this exhibition bucked the recent trend for Russian history exhibitions to prioritise multimedia story-telling over physical artefacts that can provide visitors with a less filtered understanding of the subject matter.
One of the central exhibits was the now-faded shirt (pictured below) gifted to Pechersky by a Dutch prisoner known as ‘Luka’. Intended as a talisman to bring him luck in the uprising, the good luck stretched to Pechersky but not to Luka who disappeared without a trace during the uprising. Other physical objects included a pair of shoes worn in the camp and a crude spoon the prisoners used for eating. The rudimentary character of both, provided with little textual accompaniment, afforded the visitor a focused insight into the grim conditions of the camp, helping them to conceptualise more relatable everyday hardships, such as the difficulty of eating with such a rudimentary spoon, or how useless the shoes would be in defending your feet from the freezing Polish winters. While very far from the worst injustices and sadism meted out to the prisoners, these objects invite and allow the modern visitor to begin to conceptualise the harsh reality of the camp, even while the cruelty and horror of Sobibór as a site of mass extermination remain inevitably impossible to grasp.
The exhibition’s strength lay in the diversity of its collected materials, which also included hand-drawn sketches of the camp and the album in which Pechersky collected materials and information relating to the camp and uprising during the post-war years. The exhibition dwelled heavily on the afterlife and memory of the camp, placing earlier artefacts alongside numerous items and artefacts produced after the camp’s closure. This aspect was most notable towards the end of the exhibition, where the visitor encountered a text entitled ‘Sobibór and Its Memory’ (pictured below). It detailed how Pecherksy dedicated his life to raising awareness of the prisoners’ suffering and bravery, albeit with little success. Dismissing or ignoring the role of the US miniseries ‘Holocaust’ (1978) and the British film ‘Escape from Sobibór (1987) in increasing awareness of Sobibór (in the West at least), the text claimed that Sobibór remained largely unknown until President Putin awarded Pechersky the Order of Courage (posthumously) in 2016. According to the text’s author, this award was the spark that lit public interest in Sobibór across various countries. As a symbol of this recognition, the final paragraph is dedicated to the 2018 film, Sobibór, noted earlier.
In contrast to the Sobibór film which depicted in gory detail the sadistic punishments meted out by the guards to the camp inmates, the exhibition texts gave little detail about Sobibór as a place of suffering. Moreover, there was very little reference to Sobibór as a place of Jewish suffering. If in Western museums, such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the uprising is remembered as a Jewish resistance, then here, according to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, it is a Soviet-led movement. This belongs to a long Soviet and post-Soviet history of amalgamating and anonymising Jewish suffering – and in this case resistance – during World War Two within a larger narrative of Soviet victimhood.
The film itself recurs throughout the exhibit and the closeness of the film release and exhibition opening dates links them further. Russian government-funded agencies have advertised the film heavily in an effort to promote its version of history abroad for soft power purposes; for example, Rossotrudnichestvo organised free screenings of Sobibór around the world, from Sao Paulo to Chennai. This included screenings in over forty countries for Victory Day 2018. Further emphasising the link between the film and exhibition, Russian embassies abroad arranged these film screenings to accompany the opening of smaller, identical, exhibitions across 91 countries (from Israel to Vietnam) based on the ‘Alexander Pecherksy as a Symbol of Resistance for Fascism’ exhibition. This initiative was organised by Rossotrudnichestvo¸ a federal agency that promotes Russian culture abroad and was part of the promotional campaign behind the release of the Sobibór film.
The need to promote the film abroad was even discussed in the Russian parliament, with senior politicians agreeing that it would support Russia’s (self-proclaimed) ongoing battle to preserve ’historical truth’. As such, the aggressive promotion of the film and its attendant mini-exhibitions abroad must be contextualised within the Russian government’s claims that there is a war on history and on the memory of World War Two in particular. Some of these more politicised attitudes to history were also present in the promotional materials about the Moscow-based exhibition. Yet, these presentist concerns did not penetrate into the small but carefully curated and poignant exhibition itself, which instead told a story of the bravery of Alexander Pechersky and his fellow prisoners in a tone that was appropriate, respectful, touching, and informative.
All photographs used in this piece are the author’s own, taken in 2018.