The Shtetl in the Museum: Depicting Jews in the Soviet Union and in Russia Today
This lecture considers two major museum exhibits devoted to Jews, one organized in the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II, and the other established in 2012 in the Russian Federation. The first, the state-funded 1939 exhibit “The Jews in Tsarist Russia and in the USSR” was organized by the Jewish Section of the State Museum of Ethnography in Leningrad, and remained on permanent display to the Soviet public until the Nazi invasion in 1941. The second, the Jewish Museum and Center for Toleration in Moscow, is reportedly the largest Jewish museum in the world. Its construction cost an estimated $50 million, with donations from Russian oligarchs and Vladimir Putin himself. Though conceived in radically different political circumstances, each of these exhibits conveys a significant message about the place of Jews in Soviet and post-Soviet society. Why did the Stalinist regime subsidize a special exhibit devoted to Jews on the eve of World War II, and why did it never reopen this exhibit after 1945? In contrast, why has a new and lavishly-funded museum devoted to the history of the Jews now opened in Putin’s Russia? What motivates a powerful state – one Soviet, one post-Soviet – to put Jews “on display”?