Ştefan RUSU

editor / texts

History on the Move

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The tragic events that took place in some regions of the post-socialist space (the so-called “Eastern Bloc”) during the last decades seem to contradict Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis regarding the end of history. The recursion to history – understood by many thinkers in terms of a permanent conflict between classes, races or nations – has been possible through a series of lasting conflicts: such as those that took place in the Caucasus regions, in the Balkans, or in Moldova. There is a total confusion that persists in the case of the Republic of Moldova concerning the history of this region, a confusion that is difficult to avoid specially when this (history) is represented by public institutions such as museums. By analyzing various strategies of representation employed by National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History, the National Museum of History and Archeology, and the History Museum under the Academy of Sciences in Chisinau, we can observe that each one of these institutions constructs for itself a historical scenario that does not often correspond with the official version promoted by those in power and the state. Usually considered to be a mechanism and a primary form of generating a national identity (Anderson, 1991), the museums place themselves at the origins of the country’s political and cultural discourses, promoting an identity politics that can threaten even the sovereignty of the state.

It is precisely these idiosyncrasies that have incited our interest in investigating these strategies of representation, strategies of consolidating the national identity. Within the project RO-MD/Moldova in Two Scenarios1 we invited Ilya Rabinovich to Chisinau, proposing him to deal as an outsider with this delicate subject. The curatorial approach of this project purposed to investigate through juxtaposition social “patterns” from the two regions of historical Moldova (the region of Moldova in Romania and the current independent Republic of Moldova). We aimed in particular at questioning the constructed character of the national identity project in the Republic of Moldova, a project often based on ideological schemas imposed from outside – a historical consequence of the Ribentrop-Molotov pact2. The artists and researchers invited within the scope of this project investigated various social and political mechanisms that have contributed to the consolidation of the political régime imposed upon this territory by the authorities of the Soviet Russia after World War II. In particular, they have also researched various aspects that belong to the formation in the first instance of MSSR – Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (1940-1944) and later on, after the decomposition of the USSR, to the independence and institution of the current sovereign state – the Republic of Moldova (1992).

Through his project “Museutopia,” Ilya Rabinovich has carried on an ambitious initiative to research various models/types used for the representation of history and of political and cultural identity discourses within a series of museums based in two regions of Moldova (the Moldova province in Romania and the Republic of Moldova). It is eloquent that such an investigation received more sense specially after the integration of Romania and Bulgaria in the European Union (2007). After the adherence of these two countries to the EU, the Republic of Moldova found itself in a geopolitical situation similar to the one existing before 1989. In its new position, the Republic of Moldova has very frail chances to survive as an independent entity, as it becomes a peripheral state both unto the countries of the EU and unto the countries of the former Soviet Union.

For his photographic series, the artist Rabinovich has investigated namely this aspect, as well as documented museums both in Chisinau and in Iasi. I shall refer below only to that component of his project that belongs to the museums from the Republic of Moldova. Through his project, Rabinovich has contrived to trot out the phenomenon of rewritten history and distorted aspects regarding the representation of recent history in the context of reclaiming a history fault that has been suppressed along with the formation of MSSR (1945) and the development of a socialist system across this territory (1940-1989). The method used by Rabinovich was partially based on comparing photo images made by him within the Chisinau museums with images found by the artist in the archives of these museums (some of them dissolved after 1989). Therefore, his approach has focused on the differences between the models/types used to represent the historiographical discourse exercised by the museums before `1989 and immediately after, between 1990 and 2008.

In order to present the museums in which Rabinovich project unfolded, as well as in order to describe those mechanisms used by Moldovan museum workers to construct a national identity discourse, it would be useful to make a short presentation of these institutions and their methods of making history. In the wake of the 1987-89 events, the Moldovan society went through a series of radical changes; it was the effect of the “awakening” of the national consciousness. These processes have underlayed the transition towards a democratic régime, a transition that came to shift an identity discourse that has been “invented” along succeeding periods of colonization: initially promoted by the Russian Empire in one of its guberniya (region) from 1812to 1917, and afterwards as a strategy of the “Moldavian language and nation” imposed by the Soviet régime from 1940 to 1989.   

A number of museums that have promoted the “Moldavian” identity – for example “G.I. Kotovski and S. Lazo” Republican Museum (founded in 1948), Peoples Friendship Museum (1970), the Museum of the illegal typography of the “Iskra” newspaper (1960), the History Museum of the Communist Party of Moldova (1970), The Museum of Scientific Atheism (1978) – have disappeared after 1989 without a trace. These museums were part of the ideology department of the Communist Party of the USSR, and they were, consequently a propagandistic instrument that engineered a perverse socially project within the Romanian territory of Bessarabia during the historical periods: 1940 –1941 and 1945-1989. The process of rewriting history begun after the occupation and sovietization of this region, when the Soviet ideologists engaged in a complex campaign of fundamentally altering the values and the mores of the native population. These museums were involved in substituting the “inveterate” forms of autochthonous culture with the new socialist models, actively engaging in the process of engineering of the “new man,” of the so-called “homo soveticus”. Guided by the political agenda, the Soviet propaganda has created in 1948 the “G.I. Kotovski and S. Lazo” Republican Museum, with a aim of legitimating the involvement of a number of Bessarabia natives in the revolutionary movement in Russia. In the 1960s and 1970s the Party has established the Museum of the illegal “Iskra” newspaper typography, and then of the History Museum of the Communist Party of Moldova, in order to emphasize the decisive role of the communist doctrine in the construction of the “Moldavian” identity. The subsequent eradication of these and other museums3, which have erected an “invented” version of history, has been triggered by the Popular Front movement along with the process of returning to the national discourse oppressed throughout the socialist period. The changes that took place within the society have propelled the newly elected Moldovan parliament to adopt a set of new laws, such as the return to the Latin alphabet, and to the Romanian language, as well and the adoption of the Romanian tricolour flag. Therefore, the rewriting of history took place once again along with the return to the national values and symbols that existed before the invasion. But things did not stop here.

The disassembling of the socialist system and the rewriting of history have induced a period of suspense due to the economical collapse and the military conflict (1991-92) which lead to the emergence of the secessionist region of Transnistria – a territorial formation protected by the Soviet 14th Army and logistically supported by the Parliament of the Russian Federation (State Duma). The internecine events that took in the region east of the Dniester river have repositioned the attitude of the political class vis-à-vis the national discourse, causing a general confusion and contributing to the modification of the state language from Romanian to “Moldavian” (the 1994 decision of the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova). This was a return to the situation before 1989 and, implicitly, a revival of the “Moldavian” Soviet project. Afterwards, other state symbols such as the flag (the tricolour) was to be modified in order to be differentiated from the flag of the neighboring state (Romania).  

After the defective political processes of the 1990s, which had resulted in a repositioning of the Moldovan officials vis-à-vis the identity discourse, the process of history rewriting came back again in 2001, when the CPRM (the Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova) won the general elections. As a consequence of this fact, CPRM leaders have imposed through known ideological instruments a new phase of the “Moldavian” identity project. In the following period, the “Moldavian” identity has been intensely promoted once again, only that this time it was also overturned in a spectrum included between two political extremes: the left one, represented by CPRM, and the right one, represented by CDPP (Christian and Democratic Popular Party). Guided by the political agendas from inside and outside the country, the communist political leaders have used the subject of identity as a political weapon against the so-called menace of “Romanianization” and that of the integration into the European Union promoted by the right political wing (CDPP).    

From the research carried out by Ilya Rabinovich, it turns out that the identity discourse, as it can be observed today in the museums from the Republic of Moldova – from the perspective of changes that took place after 1989 – contradict not only the discourse promoted by the politicians who governed in the `90s, but also the agenda promoted by the communist governance in the first decade of the twenty first century (2001-2009). The fluctuating attitude of the political class in relation to the identity matter could not have modified the logic of representation promoted by public institutions, given that these were trying to build an independent and politically neutral opinion. The museums analyzed by the artist have functioned as catalyzers of the processes mentioned above; they represent various strategies of constructing the local identity discourse which in many aspects differed from the official one. Another important aspect of this research is that these museums have been successful in promoting a “schizophrenic” discourse, that is to say they have created “new” models transposed in “old” raiment, with a view to represent the changes subsequent to 1989. The paradox is that the society did not have other means of representation other than those inherited from the Soviet period. In his project Rabinovich has identified those museums that have resorted to such outdated and controversial strategies of historical representation, for instance: The National Museum of History and Archaeology of Moldova (NMHAM), The National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History (NMENH), and The National Museum of Fine Arts.

One of the museums in which Ilya Rabinovich has conducted research is The National Museum of History and Archaeology of Moldova (NMHAM)4. This museum appeared in the 1980s after the restoration of the building which was devastated after the 1977 Chisinau earthquake. According to one of the founders and the first Director of the Museum – Nicolae Răileanu5 – the NMHAM was founded in 1983 by virtue of the available historic collection from the State Museum of the Province and those of The Museum of Military Glory. According to the initial scenario, the building was rebuilt after the earthquake in order to shelter a mammoth-museum devoted to the Soviet Army. This however did not happen. One of the possible reasons for this failure may have been the political crisis that began after the decease of a series of USSR state chiefs (Brejnev, Chernenco, Andropov), a crisis that allowed Gorbachev’s ascent and the starter of Perestroika and Glasnost as a form of democratization of Soviet society. Another reason for postponing of this the museum project was the result of a profound economic stagnation that caught Soviet Union in its last decades, a crisis that made impossible the allocation of long term investments into the public space.   

From the juxtaposition of images proposed by Rabinovich (See Figures 3 and 4), it turns out that the type of discourse promoted by the NMHAM has not been significantly different from the discourse promoted by a typical Soviet military museum during the Soviet period. For instance, one of the major points of attraction for the present day visitors is the “Operation Iasi-Chisinau” (1944),6 a large scale diorama which has been conceived as a militarist-patriotic theme for the former museum as it was initially intended to be a museum of the Soviet Army. The heroic and triumphal aura indicates in essence a discourse that has been promoted by the Soviet propaganda and which replaced the scientific spirit with the mythologization of history. The design elements (the racks, cases, salon settings, etc.) inherited from the military museum continues to be a contribution to the discourse of the national identity, which is promoted by the NMHAM in the same vein, despite radical changes that took place after 1989.

The series of photographs (see image 3 & 4) made by Rabinovich in the NMHAM, as well as those found by him in the museum’s archive gives rise to the following conclusion: the collections presented to the public in the current phase setting of the National Museum of History are undoubtedly some clear examples of an incoherent historiographical discourse. The museum presents its collections of ancient, medieval, and modern history in a fragmented and truncated manner. Another shortcoming in this museum’s manner of presentation of the Moldovan history is the lack of reference to its socialist period, references to those processes in which the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova (1940-1989) formed and developed.

Another problem is the restricted access to the archives of the NMHAM, a problem that Rabinovich had to confront at multiple occasions due to the lack of transparency from the museum officials. One may also mention restrictions imposed on the historical material coming from the archives of those museums that have been dissolved after 19898. Today when all that material was given to the National Museum of History – this mega-history museum of the Republic of Moldova – they became inaccessible to the researchers and those interested in history.

Another example of history rewriting – a process disclosed by project Museutopia – is also The National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History (NMENH)9. At first, this museum was called “The Zoology, Agricultural and Handicraft Museum of the District (zemstva) of Bessarabia” and it initially presented a collection of agricultural techniques, of various deleterious insects (parasites) and soils. Later the museum expanded to incorporate more zoology related collections. Throughout the 1980s, this museum has been closed down when it entered the capital renovation. It reopened again in 1994 – long after the most acute social and political processes took place in the Moldovan society. The mode of representation and systematization of its collections (geological, paleontological, zoological, entomological, archaeological, ethnographic and numismatic) is set somewhat in opposition to the overall ideological climate, and to the type of political discourse employed by the official political régime. In the museum’s archive Rabinovich found photographs made in the 1950s, (see images 5 and 6), photographs that suggest that the mode of display during that period was constructed in very close conformity with the ideological and scientific discourses promoted by the Soviet régime. But this was at the time when Josef Stalin’s statue was dominating the main hall of the Museum.

By comparison, the concept on the whole and the typology used to exhibit the collections after 1989 has been vastly altered and reorganized after the changes brought by the Popular Front (which later became the Christian and Democratic Popular Party). The museum has re-focused and re-arranged its collection in conformity with those radical changes that took place after the collapse of USSR, namely the return to the Latin alphabet (Romanian language) and the adoption of the Romanian tricolour (images 5-6). According to the Director of this museum Mihai Ursu10, the concept of the new museum has been thought out by a team of museographers and designers, of painters and illustrators who worked under his guidance. Unfortunately, this team has remained on the position of representation used largely in the socialist period. For instance, the team of designers, which was invited from Lvov(Ukraine) reused structures but also visual and technical means of representation from the 1980s (design elements, photo images, paintings, fresco). As a consequence, this museum, which re-opened its doors in 1994, abound in quotations and representational elements in the style of the agitprop, a style that contradicts, on the whole, the logics of representing history and society that would be expected after the collapse of Soviet Union. But although the language of representation is from the Soviet times the USSR experience is being repressed by the museum. The Museum of Ethnography is also an example of forced attributions, of some valences that are meant to reclaim and censor history at the same time, because it tends to present the period subsequent to the 1990s exclusively, without mentioning the period of its socialist modernization.

Another museum investigated by Rabinovich is The National Museum of Fine Arts11. This museum, which may also be criticized for practicing distorted models of historical representation, was established in the building of the former girls’ gymnasium that operated until 1940 – an institution established by the princess Natalia Dadiani.  Before the changes that took place in 1989, and during a short period under the Soviet occupation, the edifice also sheltered the headquarters of the Communist Party of Moldova (1945-1970). Between 1970-1989, the building housed the History Museum of the Communist Party of Moldova, whose archive (we later discovered), migrated to the depositories of the Museum of History and Archaeology, remaining locked and inaccessible to researchers. Such a situation points to the defective manner in which the administration of the Museum of History and Archeology operates, being encouraged by the state authorities.

In the curatorial strategies and the management of the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, we can observe that although it promotes the values of the “open society,” this museum still preserves a sort of “socialist realist” forms of operation. The museum‘s exhibitions of art collections and present-day curatorial strategies preserve to this day the ideological clichés established in the communist era. Working in this museum Rabinovich attempted to reach a balance between the archive images found in the Museum of Communist Party of Soviet Moldova – images that represented the art and culture of Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic – with images from an exhibition housed by The National Museum of Fine Arts (see images 7 and 8). It is symptomatic that one of the main exhibition rooms of this museum (the same room, by the way which was used earlier by the communists to organize their congresses) shelters today the temporary exhibitions of modern art – painting of sculptures produced today but which keeps to be surrounded by an aura that is profoundly Soviet and due to the rich history of this building. By visiting the art museum today, one cannot lose the feeling that this is just an extension of the former party museum (see images 9 and 10).

One of the most sensible aspects, which were revealed by Rabinovich’s project Museutopia, is the principle of history rewriting during the period when the MSSR – as part of the USSR – went through the socialist modernization. It is worth noting that in spite of the radical changes, which took place during the last decades, the local major museums did no learn, or try to develop a more critical attitude vis-à-vis the socialist period. Therefore, we decided to include the project Museutopia within the seminar and the final exhibition of project RO-MD/Moldova in Two Scenarios, which was held in the Museum of Romanian Literature. In the seminar we proposed to share the results of Rabinovich’s research carried out in the collections of the museum founded by the local Writers’ Union — a union which played a decisive role in the creation of the Popular Front and the changes that took place within the society after 1989 (image 7). It is necessary to say that the movement for national renewal, vehemently supported by the writers, only came to fruition recently, in 2009, when young students went out to protest in the street against an authoritarian régime and the identity discourse promoted by the CPRM between 2001-2009.

At this stage, and one year after the project “RO-MD/Moldova in Two Scenarios”, it is difficult to evaluate the consequences of those events that took place around the presidential and parliament houses. These events, which reached the point of culmination on the 7th of April 2009 after the elections, triggered a change towards a democratic society and a more transparent mode of government after 8 years of of defective governing by the Communist Party of Moldova. The new elections held in the fall of 2009 have radically changed the political régime replacing the communist government that drawing on the nostalgia for the USSR, promoted private family interests and businesses. The new political alliance called the Democratic Alliance for European Integration, and which consists of many liberal parties (LDPM – the Liberal Democratic Party, LP – the Liberal Party, AOM – the Alliance Our Moldova, and DP – the Democratic Party) have worked towards bringing some change in the political orientation of Moldovan society.  

One clear sign of change and political re-orientation was the decision of the newly elected authorities to return to the Romanian language – as the state official language of this country. Following the logic of transition, developing a new series of re-positioning and re-articulation, working towards modifying attitudes and believes would finally contribute to the way in which the identity discourse is constructed in this land. These changes shall hopefully be also adopted by the major museums from the Republic of Moldova, for within a week state which goes through perpetual democratic transformations, the museums are sensitive markers of how these complex processes are unfolding. 

Stefan Rusu
Chisinau, 2010

1 The project RO-MD/Moldova in Two Scenarios has been organized by [KSA:K] – The Centre for Contemporary Art, Chisinau, in collaboration with VECTOR Association, Iasi, and has been held in Iasi/Romania and Chisinau/Republic of Moldova in 2008. Details regarding this project: http://www.art.md/2008/ro_md_en.html
2 The Ribentrop-Molotov pact lead to the division of Europe in spheres of influence between Nazi Germany and USSR, after whom, in 1940, the Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia), the Eastern regions of Poland and the province of Bessarabia (the current Republic of Moldova) become part of USSR.
3 The museums which have been dissolved in the period subsequent to 1989 are: the “G.I. Kotovski and S. Lazo” Republican Museum (founded in 1948), the Peoples Friendship Museum (from 1970), the Museum of the illegal typography of “Iskra” newspaper (founded in 1960), the History Museum of the Communist Party of Moldova (1970), the Museum of Scientific Atheism (1978).
4 The building of the National Museum of History and Archaeology of Moldova (NMHAM) is established starting with the year 1837, when, freshly built by the chapman Bogaciov, it is proposed as headquarters of the municipal Duma, and starting with the year 1842 it is rented for the Regional Boys Gymnasium No. 1 (founded in 1833).
5 Interview with N. Răileanu – former Director of the National History Museum (1983-2007).
6 The “Operation Iași-Chișinău” Diorama was inaugurated in 1990 and was created by the painters of the military studio from Moscow, Nicolai Prisekin and Alexei Semionov. http://www.nationalmuseum.md/ro/exhibitions
8 According to the sources, the Museum accepted after 1991 in its funds the historical collections of the museums dissolved by the wave of the national movement: those of the “G.I. Kotovski and S. Lazo” Republican Museum7 (founded in 1948), the Peoples Friendship Museum (from 1970), The Museum of the illegal typography of “Iskra” newspaper (founded in 1960), The History Museum of the Communist Party of Moldova (1970), The Museum of Scientific Atheism (1978).
9 The museum (NMENH) was founded based on the exhibits of the agricultural exhibition from October 1889 by baron A. Stuard, magister in zoology. Throughout the XXth century, it became the creation laboratory for many known personalities in the scientific environment: F. Osterman, S. Miler, F. Porucic, I. Suhov, B. Tarabuchin, M. Pocoara, etc. The museum preserved throughout its history the two specific directions: the study of Moldova’s nature and culture, wherefore it was named in tours The National Museum of Natural History (1905-1917), The Regional Museum of Bessarabia (1918-1940), and The Republican Museum for the Study of the Native Land (1945-1984). http://www.muzeu.md/
10 Interview with Mihai Ursu – current Director of The National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History (NMENH)
11 The National Museum of Fine Arts from Moldova, founded in November 1939 by Alexandru Plămădeală and Auguste Baillayre. http://mnam.md/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16&Itemid=25&lang=ro