Why Moscow will never get a museum of migration

Russian museums tend to avoid the subject of migration at all costs. For curators, it seems the people and history embodied in migration processes are invisible. RU

Ivan Grinko
21 July 2017

Russian museums, much like Russian society in general, perceives migrants as mere “gastarbeiters” whose stories are not worthy of their curiosity. Photo (c): Maxim Blinov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Three years ago Izvestiya trumpeted the news that Moscow was scrapping its “Museums for Migrants” project. “Gastarbeiters,” apparently, just didn’t want free visits to the capital’s museums. The article didn’t, of course, mention that the scheme had never got off the ground in the first place. Meanwhile, exhibitions and entire museums devoted to migration are springing up across the world. This year has not only seen new developments in museums across America, but a greater civic role. The American Alliance of Museums released this strong statement in response to Donald Trump’s executive order on restricting immigration to the USA:

“History, art, science, and culture don’t stop at our borders, nor should the people who dedicate their lives to sharing and explaining these foundational elements of our society. By helping us to understand this broader world, they help us to understand each other. We are gravely concerned that this executive order runs counter to these objectives.”

Russia has had the largest rate of net migration alongside Germany and the USA, but not a single museum has appeared here to reflect that fact. If you search for the words “migrant” or “migration” on Russia’s largest museum website, you will not find a single hit. 

The migration that wasn't

Even if we ignore migrants from outside Russia, this silence looks more than strange. The latest figures from the Internal Ministry’s Main Directorate for Migration reveal that 88% of migrants in fact resettle within the Russian Federation, and only 12% come from other states. But from the legendary invitation of the Varangians to rule Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century to the mass waves of emigration throughout the 20th century, migration has played an immense role in Russian history.

To say that the subject is entirely ignored woul be a gross generalisation. There are private and public museums that do deal with migration, as it's an integral part of their story: one example is Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Recently, museum projects connected with local identity have started to focus on migration, as the history of many towns and cities can’t be understood without it. The regional history museum in Tomsk, for example, ran a project on “Siberians Free and Unfree”, while Izhevsk’s award winning Gallery exhibition centre is working on a project entitled “The Izhevsk Decalogue.” These initiatives are, however, the exception.

If you search for the words “migrant” or “migration” on Russia’s largest museum website, you will not get a single hit

So, where all the other other migration stories? 

We can look at the question from three different angles: migrants’ narratives about museums; historical narratives connected with museums and migration and finally, museum narratives about migration.

Let’s start with the abstract concept of migrants, since it’s evidently all their fault. All over the world, people who have left their homes and moved to pastures new enjoy visiting museums – except in Russia, where they supposedly have no desire to visit museums or recognise their worth. Here’s an example of their mentality, as seen by a show on the Ekho Moskvy radio station: “You suggest that migrants should find out about our country by going to museums. But there are a lot of young people coming here; why not take them to football matches or discos instead – wouldn’t that make it easier for them to assimilate in our country? Will they really want to go to museums?” Or, “Viktor is on the line with another question for us: ‘If a migrant doesn’t speak even two words of Russian, what can a museum do for him?’”

I would like to ask Viktor a question: how do Russian tourists manage in the Louvre, if they don’t speak two words of French? But in the end, museums’ interest in the subject of migration is hardly surprising: they work with artefacts and works of art, which speak to us in a universal language that everyone can understand (so long as the museum is doing its job). And a focus on migration doesn’t necessarily mean a focus on migrants themselves: it can sometimes be more important to bring the locals’ attention to the concept itself. Although, not necessarily Viktor’s.

Invisible visitors

But we have got distracted from the main question – do migrants in Russia go to museums?

A field study carried out in 2014-2017 revealed that fewer than 20% of migrants had never been to a museum. The researchers had individual conversations with migrants (both citizens of other countries and stateless people) as part of a formal procedure where the Moscow committee of the Internal Ministry’s Main Directorate for Migration determined whether individuals in these categories could be categorised as Russian speakers. The committee meets twice a month and has so far assessed 358 people, 11.4% of the total number of aspirants.

But what was much more interesting were the answers given by respondents to the question, “What Russian museums have you been in?”

Some answers fitted standard stereotypes:

“The Central House of Artists (more than 10 times – we were fixing the window panes), the Paleontology Museum, the Darwin Museum, the Biological Museum – also for work, you get to see everything (on the sly) at one go; it’s very interesting”.

Others shattered expectations:

“The museum-flat of the ballerina Galina Ulanova, the Gulag museum…Why those? I just worship the great dancer’s art. I also love Stalinist imperial architecture, especially the high rise buildings – I dream of visiting them all. I haven’t managed to visit Moscow University’s main building – isn’t there a museum there too? But I don’t know when it’s open. I also visited the Gulag museum with a friend: it was very interesting. You need to know your history, so as not to repeat it”.

And a few reminded Russia’s museums of the meaning of the word “competition” and their place in the world:

“The Italian courtyard in the Pushkin Museum. I’ve been to Venice and seen the frescoes there. What is there to see here?”

In all, these migrants, who “don’t go to museums”, in fact mentioned 137 Russian and world museums they had collectively visited. We would probably not have had a better response from “indigenous” Muscovites, 70% of whom, according to the Moscow Institute For Social and Cultural Programmes, never go to museums. Admittedly “migrant”, and indeed “Muscovite” are rather abstract definitions that encompass dozens of social strata and population groups. The museum world shows no interest in recognising and studying either category – just look at the description of “target groups” in most projects and schemes run by Russian museums.

Nonetheless, if some of these “generic migrants” go to museums, then the passivity shown by the museums can’t be explained by a lack of demand for their services.

Catherine the Great: gastarbeiter

Perhaps this ignorance on the subject of migration has more prosaic roots – that museums just have nothing to work with. They’d love to tackle the topic, but their collections don’t allow it. 

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but in Europe, museums of more or less every kind – from Italian palaces and Barcelona’s Maritime Museum to Athens’ Byzantine Museum – run projects on migration. Even Tenerife’s unique underwater Atlantico museum has tackled the subject.

Russia’s museums perhaps believe that their collections are so homogeneous as to exclude any reference to migration. But the facts show otherwise. The luxurious palace and grounds of Tsarytsino are in the Top Ten of migrants’ favourite Moscow museum complexes.


Visitors to the Tsarytsino park and museum complex in suburban Moscow. Photo CC-by-2.0: Alex1 / Flickr. Some rights reserved.You might wonder how should an 18th century palace address “migration”. But you need to remember whom it was built for — not Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s former mayor, but his favourite heroine Catherine the Great.

And Catherine, a minor German princess, started off in her own way as an immigrant worker, brought to Russia as a diplomatic pawn with concrete responsibilities, albeit aristocratic ones. The initial function of the palace also had nothing to with a settled existence, but, on the contrary, with the Empress’s constant shuttling between Moscow and St Petersburg. The estate later fulfilled a similar ritual-seasonal purpose in its “dacha” period in the 1870s.

While we’re about it, we can even see the palace’s architecture as a fine example of the migration of styles – the Gothic is not native to Russia. And we mustn’t forget the migration of collections: the museum holds mainly works of applied art from former Soviet republics – that’s right, the same ones that our awful “migrants” come from (we don’t mind their objets-d’art). And let’s not forget the grounds and park – the natural world is an example of regular migrations.

Tsarytsino’s collection comprises mainly works of applied art from former Soviet republics – that’s right, the same ones that our awful “migrants” come from

Indeed, we have to recognise that it is only the theme of migration that allows us to conceptually and consistently weave Tsarytsino’s numerous strands into a single narrative.

It is the same with the State Literary Museum, which was intended as one of the main elements in the Moscow government’s “Museum for Migrants” project mentioned at the start of this article.

On the one hand, what have migrants to do with great Russian literature? But migrants have provided three out of Russia’s five Nobel Prizes for literature – and the last winner, Belarusian writer Svetlana Aleksievich (who writes in Russian) is no exception. Even if we turn from national pride to more prosaic subjects, we still can’t deny that journeys (i.e.migration) are at the heart of all traditional literature, whether folk tales, myths or epics. This goes back to the Odyssey and is as true for literature today.

In this context it’s interesting to look at the museum devoted to the life and work of the brilliant poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), a descendent of Scottish immigrants who became one of Russia’s national treasures. This fact may be regarded as both a motivating force for people with an immigrant background and something to ponder for the “indigenous” population. But it is not only famous names who have left their mark on national life: there has been practically universal migration. To see all the places where Lermontov lived and worked you need to go by air. And the themes he chose for his works are full of this migrant reflex – one of his most famous lyric poems begins, “A lonely sail is flashing white/ Amidst the blue mist of the sea!”.

There is, by the way, a mass of useful themes for an anthropologist or museum educator in Lermontov’s work: take, for one, the voluntary/involuntary migrant Pechorin, who, like his creator, was exiled to the Caucasus where he tried various ways of establishing contact with the local population.

Refined racism

We have to admit here that the problem lies not in the migrants or the art collections, but in peoples’ heads.

The hosts of the Ekho Moskvy radio show began their discussion of this issue with a remark that illustrates beautifully the average Russian’s idea of migrants: “And now they’ve dreamed up a scheme called ‘Migrants in Museums’. I must say that when I read the brief for it, I thought I had stumbled on some comedy script…”

This imperial myth gets in the way of our museums not only engaging with the subject of migration, but of any interaction with real people

The museum community, supposedly among the more enlightened members of our society, should have a totally different view of this issue. But, no. This humorous take on the subject of migration is in fact one of the more harmless ones. Museum workers are not laughing - here are some of their other remarks on the issue, as posted on Facebook:

“Museum workers fear and envy migrants. What good does it do to a museum to get involved in this dangerous subject of migrants? How can we protect the museum from the migrants that, as we know, get everywhere and sneak their homies in after them?”

In closed museum workers’ groups on social media you can find such “conceptual” suggestions as: “we should have asked these ‘guests of the capital’ to augment our collections: they’re so good at smuggling illegal stuff!”

And in any case, engagement with the subject doesn’t eliminate the “refined racism” in their attitudes to people with an immigrant background.

“We had a really positive experience. We held an exhibition of Armenian artists living in St Petersburg and you know, it was a real hit! We had full galleries every day! And the migrants did come – quite a diaspora (they’re easy to recognise). They, of course, understood their own art, and we’re thinking that maybe if you begin with something familiar, then they can start getting to know…well, less accessible stuff. More contemporary, say – things they’re not familiar with. We could use projects like that to attract and educate them…”

It’s difficult to think of St Petersburg’s Armenian diaspora as migrants, since it has been in existence since 1710, just seven years after the founding of the city.

But even that’s not the point. We still feel the need to teach and educate people of other countries and ethnicities, to raise their cultural level to our own, even when a museum is working with people whose culture it is exhibiting. This imperial myth gets in the way of our museums not only engaging with the subject of migration, but of any interaction with real people. How would you like it if you were always in the role of a pupil?

The Moscow Centre of Museum Development brought out a calendar that repeated every possible stereotypical view of migrants

Even when attempts are made to draw attention to this issue, the narrative stays the same.

The Moscow Centre of Museum Development brought out a supposedly “humorous” calendar in an attempt to illustrate the subject of migration and inform the public about “the openness of our capital’s museums to every actual and potential visitor”. But it presented all migrants in the form of “Maksud”, a manual worker who speaks Russian badly and knows nothing about contemporary art. When some museum specialists called the cartoon illustrations chauvinist, other members of their professional community complained.


Moscow’s Centre of Museum Development published a calendar displaying more or less all the prejudiced views about migrants. Here, a Tajik labourer called Maksud is at the contemporary art gallery. Noticing than a conceptual installation features rubber bricks, he cries “Hey! Let me fix that for you!” Photo courtesy of the author.

The Russian state is traditionally seen as the most “European” element of our country, but in this area it is resoundingly at one with the public. Moscow’s Department of Culture analysed the failure of the “Museums for Migrants” project in the following words: “We also ran an experiment: we invited a few Tajiks to a museum, but they all said they would only come if we paid them 300-500 roubles [£4 - £6.50]”. So here we have another fine image of the migrant manual worker from Tajikistan.

It’s no surprise that even the few exhibition projects devoted to the subject of migration are incapable of rising above this level. The introduction to the “Migrant Moscow” exhibition created by the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration states that “in general, these are people from poorer countries who come to Russia on a temporary basis, to take up work not requiring high qualifications of any kind”. Once again, the subject of migration is displaced by the subject of migrants, and we end up with yet another reiteration of the same old story – that migration equals migrants, and migrants are temporary unskilled workers, criminals and terrorists.

Russian museums are afraid of the subject of migration and avoid it at all costs, even when it is obvious and natural. And despite successful projects curated by the Museum of the History of Religion, the Museum of Street Art and the Museum of Moscow, this fear stops them creating a unified narrative of migration – something that concerns every one of us.

Translated by Liz Barnes.

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