In 1929–1930, a network of camps started to form on the territory of the USSR where prisoners sentenced not only for domestic and criminal offenses but also political reasons served their sentences.
Having lost their freedoms, rights, and normal living conditions, exhausted prisoners had to develop remote regions, fell timber, mine coal, and gold, build railroads, power stations, and even entire cities.
During more than 20 years of the GULAG’s existence, twenty million people went through colonies, prisons, and camps. Every tenth stayed in the GULAG forever.
Over time, the term «GULAG» that initially stood for the Chief Administration of Camps, became an ominous symbol of lawlessness, life on the verge of death, hard labor, and absence of human rights.
The GULAG History Museum falls into a category of memorial museums because of its topic, mission, and origin. Each of them is based on a painful event that is hard to comprehend.
The Museum’s mission is to preserve the historical memory and redefine the past for the sake of the future. The Museum is aimed at becoming a public space for presenting, exploring, and discussing the most relevant aspects of the history of the mass repression, forced labor, and the lack of political freedom in the USSR.
The Museum was established in 2001 by Anton V. Antonov-Ovseyenko, a prominent historian, publicist, and public figure who endured imprisonment in Stalin’s camps as a son of an “enemy of the people.” The founder of the Museum is the Moscow Department of Culture. In 2004, the first exposition was presented in the building on Petrovka Street.
In 2012, Roman Vladimirovich Romanov was appointed the director of the Museum.
In 2015, the Museum moved into the new building on the 1st Samotyochny lane. This building was constructed in 1906 by the architect Nikolay Ivanovich Zherikhov. For more than a hundred years, this building provided apartments for rent, then it had communal flats, a dormitory and a car repair shop in it. Its windows witnessed bombardments, the construction of the metro, and the growth of several generations of Moscow families.
In the 1990s, the building happened to be deserted. In 2012–2014, the large-scale reconstruction and re-equipment for the Museum needs were conducted in the abandoned building. The restoration of the main façade facing the 1st Samotyochny lane recovered its former historical appearance. The other three facades are lined with copper which darkens slowly due to oxidizing and patinating affected by precipitation.
The opening ceremony of the GULAG History Museum in the new building took place on 30 October 2015.
The collection of the GULAG History Museum includes an archive of documents, letters, memoirs of former prisoners of the GULAG, their personal things related to their story of imprisonment, works of art created both by artists who went through the GULAG and contemporary creators who offer their own view on this subject. The Museum’s collection is regularly replenished by new exhibits, photographs, paintings, documents, and camp life artifacts.
The Museum’s exposition is dedicated to the history of origination, development, and decline of the system of corrective-labor camps that served as the main part of the state policy in the 1930s – 1950s. It is also dedicated to its administrative and economic role. The Museum halls also show the lives of the people who were imprisoned falling victim to the repressive policy. One of the main aims of the Museum’s permanent exposition is highlighting the topic of historical memory preservation as well as bringing attention to both redefining the past and understanding tasks of the future.
The Museum organizes stationary and mobile exhibitions based on the main collections and in collaboration with other museums, archives, institutes, publishing houses, monasteries, public organizations, cultural and educational centers, centers of modern art as well as collectors, artists, and photographers.
Sessions, meetings, and presentations take place in the Museum regularly. They are devoted to new research works on the history of the GULAG.
The Museum holds lectures, performances, concerts, film screenings, artistic meetings, and performances offering an image-based interpretation of the repression. The Museum also has its Documentation Center, Library and Volunteers’ Social Center. A memorial garden will be created on the territory adjacent to the Museum.