Close cooperation between the most important museum institutions in Central Europe, dealing with documenting and disseminating knowledge about twentieth-century totalitarianisms, will significantly expand our knowledge about the past, and most importantly – disseminate this knowledge in the world, where the turbulent past of our region is still insufficiently known. This mission is to be fulfilled by the cooperation network of museums, established on the initiative of the Sybir Memorial Museum in December 2022 in Bialystok.
The 20th century is often referred to as the century of totalitarianism. The central part of our continent became a battlefield between the greatest criminal ideologies, and later, for almost half a century, occurred to be behind the Iron Curtain as part of the dominion of the Soviet Union. Independent states, which – such as Ukraine or the Baltic states – were reborn after the collapse of the communist empire, put a lot of effort into documenting the times of repression from the very beginning. The same applies to countries that, like ours, were nominally independent, but the degree of their sovereignty was determined in Moscow. There is an increasing awareness that research of the past era should be conducted in a broad international context – this will allow not only to identify similarities, but also to identify differences in the situation of particular countries. Common initiatives are also an excellent platform for exchanging experiences, many of which have already been acquired by leading institutions dealing with these issues.
This conviction accompanied the meeting inaugurating the activities of the museum network, which took place on December 12, 2022 at the Sybir Memorial Museum.
It was attended by, apart from the director of the Bialystok facility, prof. Wojciech Śleszyński, as well as leaders and representatives of the most important exhibition and research centers from our part of Europe: Karen Jagodin – director of the Estonian Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom, PhD Gints Apals – Head of the Public History Department in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and PhD Arunas Bubnys – director of the Genocide and the Resistance of Lithuanian Residents Reasearch Centre. The meeting was also remotely attended by Lesia Hasydzhak, director of the Ukrainian National Museum of Holodomor-Genocide.The culmination of the meeting was the signing of a letter of intent, officially starting the cooperation and setting its framework.
The facility in Bialystok is particularly predestined for cooperation with partners from across the eastern border. It results from the history of the city itself. Bialystok is the only large center currently within the borders of Poland, where the Soviet occupation began in 1939. The entire Bialystok region became familiar with the specificity of power “under the first Soviet”. The experience of communist rule in the period between the outbreak of World War II and Hitler’s attack on the USSR therefore links north-eastern Poland with the former Baltic republics.
– It is worth paying attention to this situation, which is, in a way, the starting point for our common scientific debate – says prof. Wojciech Śleszyński, director of the Sybir Memorial Museum. – Such a debate could be an attempt to describe the common history, and at the same time to recognize the differences determining the specificity of communist terror in each country.
Common scientific conferences and publications by leading researchers will also be accompanied by exhibition projects. They are intended to counteract the unfortunately common practice in which the introduced issue is presented only in the context of one country or nation, excluding the international background. This kind of practice not only falsifies historical consciousness, but also makes it more difficult to notice the scale of the described phenomena, to determine their universality or uniqueness.
Common history – universal message
One of the basic aims set by the institutions co-creating the network of museums is to formulate a common message that would resonate also in countries unfamiliar with the specifics of communism from direct experience. Professor Wojciech Śleszyński draws attention to this:
– Today we have the duty to reach the countries of Western Europe, and even further, with our truth about communism. Today, when Russian imperialism is being revived before our eyes as a direct continuation of the Soviet one, we must speak loudly and with one voice, and this will not be possible if each of the institutions pursues its own, uncoordinated policy in this regard.
The war in Ukraine is therefore a natural contemporary context for the activities of institutions that not only document the extent of Soviet repression, but also tell the story of the struggle for freedom. The historical story naturally becomes a universal message addressed to the whole world.
Together for education and popularization of knowledge
A significant step on the common path of the institutions-signatories of the letter of intent will be the preparation of common exhibitions devoted to the history of mass deportations carried out during the Soviet occupation. This initiative is to enable mutual learning of the history of countries that share such painful experiences. This community of experiences is not always remembered even by people interested in history.
– We know perfectly well that June 1941 was another, the fourth mass deportation of Polish citizens – notices the director of the Sybir Memorial Museum. – However, we do not always remember that during this deportation action deep into the USSR, citizens of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were also transported.
Together, the initiatives that have proved to be an effective tool for popularizing history are also to be continued. Already in 2023, the bicycle “Peleton of Remembrance”, organized annually in Bialystok, will also start in Vilnius. It is possible that other capitals of Central European countries will join us soon.
Signatories of the letter inaugurating the activities of the Museum Network:
The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom (Okupatsioonide ja vabaduse muuseum Vabamu) has been functioning since July 1, 2003 in the capital of Estonia, Tallinn. In accordance with its statutory assumptions, it is devoted to the history of Estonia in the years 1940-1991.
According to the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Estonia, together with other Baltic states, was to be included in the Soviet sphere of influence. Already in September 1939, this country was forced to agree to the establishment of Red Army bases on its territory. The following year, the pro-Soviet puppet government of Johannes Vares is formed, and soon after Estonia is incorporated into the USSR as one of the republics. Thousands of Estonians were victims of the mass deportation in June 1941 – the same one that is described in Polish historiography as the fourth of the great deportations. Immediately after that, the German army enters the country – Hitler’s invasion of the Soviets begins. Another puppet government is formed, this time subordinated to Germany. It is headed by Hjalmar Mäe.
Three years later, the Red Army returns together with the communist power in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. It lasts until August 20, 1991, when the Republic of Estonia proclaims independence.
The museum is managed by the Estonian Kistler-Ritso Foundation, which has been collecting materials and conducting research on the country’s twentieth-century history since the 1990s. The institution works closely with the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, as well as the Russian Association “Memorial”.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Latvijas Okupācijas muzejs) is located in Riga. It was established in 1993 to collect and study exhibits related to the period of occupation of Latvia. Its headquarters is a building near Riga’s Old Town, which was as a museum dedicated to the Latvian Red Riflemen during the communist era. In addition to the exhibitions in the main location, one of them is located in the former headquarters of the Riga NKVD and KGB – an secessionist tenement house called “House on the corner”.
Like the rest of the Baltic states, Latvia was part of the Soviet Union from 1940 – with a short break in 1941-44, when the country was occupied by German army. Latvia declared its independence on August 21, 1991.
The museum began its activity with an exhibition devoted to the first Soviet occupation in 1940-41, but over time it constantly expanded its activities. The new permanent exhibition, after ten years of work related to, among others, with a thorough renovation of the main office, was opened to the public on June 1, 2022.
The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (Lietuvos gyventojų genocido ir rezistencijos tyrimo centras) in Vilnius has been functioning since 1992.
Lithuania declared its independence on March 11, 1990, as the first of the former republics of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s reaction to this act was initially an economic blockade, and finally sending army to pacify the reborn independent state. In the famous defense of the television tower in Vilnius in January 1991, 14 people died and several hundred were injured.
The Centre was established shortly after the first free parliamentary elections in Lithuania – mainly to deal with the documentation left by the Lithuanian KGB, as well as its scientific development and publishing publications based on these studies.
A part of the Centre is the Museum of Occupations and Fights for Freedom (Okupacijų ir laisvės kovų muziejus) which contains collections related to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, including documents concerning the Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans or victims of communist repressions. The museum collection is constantly growing through donations from private individuals.
The museum is located in the former headquarters of the NKVD/KGB near Łukiski Square.
The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide (Національний музей Голодомору-геноциду) in Kiev is a center of international importance dedicated to the study of the Soviet crime of 1932-33 – the Great Famine in Ukraine with estimated at least 3,9 million victims. The museum has been functioning since 2008, two years later it obtained the status of a state institution.
The building of the Museum is also a kind of monument commemorating the victims of the Soviet genocide. The complex was created in collaboration between the architect Yuri Kovalev and the folk artist Anatoly Haidamaka. The permanent exhibition is located in the underground Hall of Remembrance, where visitors also have the opportunity to commemorate the victims of the Holodomor by lighting a candle. Part of the exhibition is the National Remembrance Book of Victims of Famine, containing the names of people who lost their lives in 1932-33. The names of 14 thousand Ukrainian villages and towns that suffered during this period were on the black boards.
The facility has been cooperating with the Canadian Museum of Human Rights for over a decade.