Eternal Memory.
Photographs of Russia by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg

by Sergey Fofanov

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

First Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, I, 13:12


In his famous work “1984”, written in 1948, George Orwell tells of life in a fictitious totalitarian society. The real Soviet Union no doubt served the author as a model for his depiction. The publication of this anti-utopia was itself a sign of the beginning Cold War. But contrary to this gloomy prophecy, by 1984 the USSR had not become the “Oceania” described by the English writer and journalist, but was, on the contrary, apparently on the threshold of comprehensive liberal reforms. The programme of renewal announced by the new leader of the country, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985 finally meant the end of the communist project.

All the world was abuzz with “glasnost” and “perestroika”. In the West, politicians, the media and the public registered with open satisfaction and relief how the “evil empire” fell into agony. After half a century, the era of confrontation between the two world powers was at an end, and since the end of the Cold War meant also the end of Second World War, it seemed as if all contradictions had now been overcome. The world could now look to the future and a life in peace. In West and East alike, the thought of experiencing the end of history and the promise of general prosperity sent people into a state of euphoria. Triggered by the general enthusiasm and optimistic expectations, Soviet kitsch spread far and wide: symbols of Soviet rule and Soviet mass culture appeared everywhere, in music and in the visual arts, symbols that had now lost their threatening aura, had been defused, so to speak. Red stars, hammers and sickles, Red Army uniforms became popular souvenirs for foreign tourists who now flocked to the cities of the former Soviet Union. Such trips were experienced primarily as exotic adventures and thrills, as amusing safaris in the Disneyland of anti-utopia. To the citizens of the former USSR, on the other hand, the curious tourists seemed like the first harbingers of the great wide world they did not know. Without realising it, they had become comical creatures gawked at by foreigners and voluntarily participated in this strange game. But fashions change with the seasons, and so the popular enthusiasm for Soviet exoticism soon waned as other phenomena, events and countries attracted the world’s attention.

If the dissolution of the Soviet Union was, on the whole, only a short episode of world history, it nevertheless shaped the personal biographies of its former citizens. The ecstatic enthusiasm over perestroika and glasnost, the joyful expectation of a bright future and the belief that everyone would soon live like in the West turned into abysmal disappointment. The failure of the economic reforms plunged the country into poverty and hunger. After the streams of tourists came the convoys of international aid organisations. The Soviet Union perished and its collapse was celebrated with great rejoicing, but the new life people had long been waiting for was still not forthcoming. The only thing they could cling to were their memories and their past.

On the photographs of the series from 1994 and 2000/01

In 1994, the development of Russia and the former Soviet republics that had become independent changed its trajectory. One of the most important events of the year was the signing of the Budapest Memorandum, a trilateral declaration by the presidents of the USA, Russia and Ukraine. It regulated the handover of the Soviet nuclear warheads stored on Ukrainian territory to Russia and also gave security guarantees for Ukraine. In the same year, Moscow launched the "Operation to Restore Constitutional Order in Chechnya", which went down in history as the First Chechen War. A year after the shelling of the Moscow White House ("House of Government"), the State Duma of the first convocation began its work there. Finally, the country’s most famous political émigré, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, returned to his homeland in 1994. Many thought our country had begun a new chapter in its history. 

And 1994, of all years, was also when Ursula Schulz-Dornburg chose to travel to Russia for the first time. As it would turn out, this put her in exactly the right place at the right time.

Vavilov Institute, Eternal Wheat (1994)

The formal reason for her journey to Russia in 1994 was the permission granted Ursula Schulz-Dornburg to take photos at the All-Russian Research Institute of Plant Industry, named after the Russian-Soviet botanist Nikolai I. Vavilov (1887-1943). This scientific institution houses one of the world’s largest seed archives. During the blockade of Leningrad in the Second World War, when the population was starving, the staff of the institute held out in the city and saved the valuable collection. The dried stalks and seeds of cereal plants that will never sprout and bear fruit themselves, were considered more important than human lives. The black and white photographs created by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg offer memorable portraits of the plants. Each of them appears crammed into the narrow frame of its archival box, reminiscent of both a matchbox and a grave. Quietly, what at first appears almost like a harvest festival and a celebration of nature’s fertility transforms into a bleak mass for the dead, with still life becoming Nature morte. If anything, the dead plants seem useful only for baking bread for the dead, bread that is not fit to be eaten and leaves one hungry and hollow. For it is a Russian custom at a wake to set out a glas of Vodka for the dead, topped with a slice of black bread.

Ursula would visit Russia twice more, in 2000 and 2002. The photographs taken in Moscow and St Petersburg at the time formed the basis for the cycles "Uprising Square" (2000), "Kronstadt" (2002) and "Memoryscapes" (2000/2001). Her photography project on Murmansk and the naval base for Russian nuclear submarines located there was never realised.

II. Memory, remembrance,  commemoration

Remembrance (Russian: pamjat') describes an attitude somewhere between life and death. "Večnaja pamjat'!" (Eng: memory eternal!) – so ends the prayer read by the priest at the Russian Orthodox Christian funeral service. The idea of "eternity" is unsettling in this context. Can remembrance last forever and, more importantly, is such eternity desirable? For we also have another way of expressing our mourning for the deceased: as bright or friendly memory (Russian: svetlaja pamjat'). The difference between infinite, faceless eternity and a friendly memory is hardly a small one! Unfortunately, Russia insisted on the former and thus got caught up in the terrible maelstrom that is its own past.

An ideological construction of history, created by the Russian state, robbed people of their own personal memories. In exchange, they received a substitute for history, established as myth and cult. In this way, the country’s leaders created a model that suited them: a model of collective, faceless memory that served to manipulate social consciousness.

The unfulfilled hopes for a bright future after the October Revolution of 1917 and the total disappointment of the perestroika in the 1980s inevitably made Russian society turn to the past. In other words, all bets were now placed on the death-bringing business of war, not on the modernist utopia of social modernity and universal equality.

The victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War became the only positive and gratifying event in Russian 20th century history. At the time, people had fought and sacrificed themselves to ensure a better life in the future, not for medals, heroism or bloodthirst. And now that the future is here and the war is a thing of the distant past, the world has proven incapable of doing anything with it.

Modern Russia is the perfect illustration of an abnormal distortion of the natural course of events and the systematic suppression of any development towards the future. Once again, the country is indulging the cult of war and going all-in on victory, while forgetting what war is in the first place: the history of countless human tragedies. Time itself is now being aborted in Russia, so to speak: looking only backwards, the country has lost its future and become a symbol of death. Venerating the ghosts of the past and unleashing an archaic cult of victory has stirred resentment and led to a horrific catastrophe – Russia's mad war against Ukraine, a war between the acolytes of the past and the world of modernity. In this confrontation, the past seeks to destroy the future, and death seeks to defeat life eternal.

III. "Memoryscapes", 2000 / 2001

This series by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg is an extraordinarily original document that helps us understand the mechanisms of memory. For many years, the negatives containing the photographs that make up this series slumbered in the artist's personal archive. Only now, more than twenty years later, has she chosen to return to these photographs and make her memories public.


Some of the photographs from the "Memoryscapes" series were taken in Moscow museums, as could be determined from the exhibits depicted on them. Some of the exhibitions exist in their original form to this day, while others have been substantially altered.

During the Second World War, Moscow acquired a special sacral significance as the capital of Stalin's empire. The defeat of the German armies in the Battle of Moscow in 1942, the first great success of the Soviet Union, set the course for the war. On the anniversary of the October Revolution, a military parade was held in Moscow's Red Square on 7 November 1941, from where units were sent directly to the front. In 1945, the grandiose victory parade took place on the same square. For a long time, Moscow was associated with victory and many locales in the city bear telling names: we find a square, a prospectus, a park of victory, etc. On the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, a Museum of Victory opened in Moscow. And in 2014, when a huge recreational park called "Patriot" was opened to the public, the latest Russian cult of war and victory achieved its true apotheosis.

Central Museum of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Moscow

The Museum of Armed Forces can hardly be described as a temple to Mars, god of war. A rather modest and elegant building in the Soviet Brutalist style of the 1970s, it is located off the beaten track in the green districts of Moscow. The furnishings of its exhibition halls, which Ursula Schulz-Dornburg captured in numerous photographs many years ago, have remained unchanged. The majority of the exhibits on display are, by their very nature, at odds with the spirit of militarism and parade marches. The museum tells of the fallen heroes of war, presenting panels with hundreds of names whose individuality is lost in endless enumeration. By chance, the photographer’s lens has captured a few of the names of these Soviet war dead: the "Politruk" (Russian abbreviation for političeskij rukovoditel', i.e. political leader) Danilow, Tatjana Kuzenko, Maksim Grabtschuk, Aleksandr Chudobekow. Each of these names holds a tragic fate. One fell at the front, another was taken prisoner and then exiled to a Soviet camp because of it. Hundreds of artefacts – personal possessions, photos and notebooks – tell us the stories of those who have disappeared.

The headscarf of Olga Rschewska, Moscow

One of the exhibits Ursula Schulz-Dornburg intuitively captured with her camera is obviously part of this museum’s collection: a piece of cloth, a headscarf bearing a final message from the partisan Olga Rschewska, who had fallen into German captivity and was awaiting execution. In this letter to her mother, Olga bids her relatives goodbye:

"Rschewskaja Olga Dmitrijewa, 20 years old. ... Died on 27.2.1943, because of her connection with partisans. Whoever finds this, notify the relatives. Mum, I wrote these lines while still in Spas-Demensk. I was wearing the headscarf and thought it was suitable for a letter to you. Farewell, dear relatives!

Hello, dear mother. Greetings from your daughter Olga. Mum, my beloved, today, it is the 6th of March, I have been without a chance of freedom for two months, but all that is meaningless. Mum, dear, you may have heard that we were sent from Elni to Spas-Demensk on 11 January. The interrogation ended on 14 January, all investigations and the processing of my case were completed on 23 January. After the interrogation we stayed in Spas-Demensk the whole time until 27 February. On 27 February I was taken to Roslawl prison, where I remain to this day. I don't know what awaits me, but I suspect that I will not see you, dear mother, again and that there is no hope of that. Just think, Mum, of the difficult day of our separation and the farewell. It was 10 January 1943, a Sunday, when I had to leave my home village and you, dear Mum..."

Central Museum of the Ministry of the Interior, Moscow

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg also found time to visit another remarkable museum: the Museum of the Ministry of the Interior, or more precisely the Police Museum. The majority of Muscovites are probably unaware of the existence of this museum, which has been located right in the centre of the capital since 1981, but leads a shadowy existence, even lacking a website. From the looks of it, its rooms are inconspicuous, but house an extraordinary collection. There is, for example, a camera with the initials "FED" from the working commune for neglected children in Kharkov. The abbreviation stands for Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka secret police and also responsible, as a member of the Soviet government, for the care of parentless children. The museum contains various exhibits related to the activities of law enforcement agencies. There are also showcases dedicated to various categories of crimes: Machines used to counterfeit coins, tools and picks for opening locks, etc. We even see information panels about the invention of dactyloscopy.

A special feature of the collection held by this relatively modest museum are the possessions left behind by prisoners of the GULag system: handmade wooden shoes, notebooks and albums, handmade crockery. These dreadful testimonies of the Great Terror probably entered the exhibition as a result of perestroika, when it first became possible to talk about this subject in public.

Among the most impressive exhibits the German photographer captured on film are the dog tags of two members of the OMON troop, a special unit of the Russian Ministry of the Interior, who fell in Grozny in 1995, at the beginning of the First Chechen War.

© Picture: Ursula Schulz-Dornburg
© Picture: Ursula Schulz-Dornburg
© Picture: Ursula Schulz-Dornburg
© Picture: Ursula Schulz-Dornburg
© Picture: Ursula Schulz-Dornburg
© Picture: Ursula Schulz-Dornburg


Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, the city of three revolutions, is very different from Moscow. The main difference between the two metropolises is probably their relationship to war and how they remember it. While Moscow stands for triumphant victory, Petersburg continues to preserve the memory of the terrible days of the Leningrad blockade to this day.

Saint Petersburg is a land between two rivers (Mesopotamia), a city situated between the Neva and the Styx, the river of oblivion. From the moment of its foundation, the city was understood as a metaphor of death, a city "built on bones". The impression of gloom and emptiness gained by gazing at its vast squares creates a depressing sense of cosmic loneliness and eternal mourning for the past. It was here, in the foul-smelling, pale-lit streets of this sickly city where Rodion Raskolnikov conceived and committed his crimes – surely not without reason.

During the blockade (1941-1944), Leningrad was a city where death was a daily occurrence and people lived as if they had died already. Even today, tourists visiting this beautiful and sad city for the first time may feel as if Petersburg is not living, but merely imitating life. It is precisely this sense of sadness and hopelessness that is conveyed by the photographs Ursula Schulz-Dornburg took in exhibitions in Petersburg museums.

Icebreaker "Krasin",
Museum of Arctic and Antarctic, Saint-Petersburg 

The ship museum on the icebreaker "Krasin" (formerly "Svyatogor") is one of the most unusual museums the German photographer was able to visit. Built in 1915-1917 at English shipyards for the Russian Tsar's fleet, the ship was the most powerful icebreaker in the world at the time. Its completion coincided with revolutionary events in Russia; the ship played an active role in the Civil War (1919-1922) and even fell into the hands of the British Intervention Corps for a time. In 1922, the Soviet government agreed to hand over the icebreaker to the Bolsheviks, and it remained part of the Soviet fleet’s arsenal, serving there in one way or another, until 1989. Chronologically speaking, the ship’s fate was thus closely connected with the history of the Soviet Union. The most important event in the history of the "Krasin" (renamed in 1927 in honour of the Soviet diplomat) was the mission to rescue the crew of the airship "Italia", which had crashed near the North Pole in 1928. The ship was declared a protected cultural monument in 1991 and since 1995 has been permanently moored in St Petersburg on the banks of the Neva opposite the Mining Institute (Russian: Gornyj institut), now as a museum ship. The year 2000, when Ursula Schulz-Dornburg visited the "Krasin", also saw the tragedy of the nuclear submarine "Kursk", which sank with its crew in the Barents Sea. Taken together, the icebreaker, a symbol of hope, and the submarine disaster, a metaphor for the slowly fading hope for salvation, condense history in a truly symbolic fashion.

Permafrost, endless, snow-covered expanses and deathly cold – these are the usual clichés we primarily associate with Russia. They apply not only to the country’s exceptional climate, but also to the political style and despotism of its rulers. Out of ancient habit, those in power wage a "cold war" against their own people, aiming to exorcise all true human feeling. To justify oppression and extensive censorship, Konstantin Pobedonossev, Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod and one of the most evil officials in the Tsarist Empire, characterised Russia as an "endless desert of ice where the evil man walks". And he was undoubtedly right, since life in reactionary Russia is comparable to the extreme living conditions on a polar station: complete isolation, limited resources, hunger and a constant struggle for survival.

In this context, the photographs taken by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg in the Museum of Arctic and Antarctic become particularly meaningful. The museum is located in the building of the former Nikolsky Church, which before the revolution belonged to the Edinovertsy, a congregation of the Old Ritualists. Significantly, the museum was opened in 1937, when the Great Terror was in full swing. On these prints we see display cases showing replica cabins on ships and submarines with mannequins replacing living people, and models of polar stations with tiny figurines of faceless people stuck in this endless frozen expanse.

The Military Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineers and Signal Corps, Saint-Petersburg 

On her forays through Saint Petersburg, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg kept unlocking new secrets of Soviet history. As is evident from the photographs she took in this exhibition, she managed to visit yet another unusual museum, this one dedicated to the business of artillery troops and pioneers. The collection is housed in one of the city's oldest fortifications, built under Tsar Peter I. Again we see only war, and nothing but war: cannons, bombs and grenades, mines, reconstructed trenches, dugouts and bunkers. In short, a complete selection of the means needed to kill people and destroy cities alongside everything needed to protect against them. What could be more absurd and grotesque than the replica of a mine set into a French book entitled “Philosophie de L'Art” (sic!) and the stuffed dog, marked for death, with an anti-tank mine strapped to its back?! Both exhibits could be mistaken for modernist works of art. A book mine as an embodiment of the explosive force of the Enlightenment – the irony is palpable! But as for the dog, this messenger of death, we see no Cerberus, the terrible guardian watching the entrance to the realm of the dead, but an unfortunate street dog, condemned to suffer the torments of hell because of a terrible, human stupidity called war.

Museum of the Defence of Leningrad.
Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg.
Exhibition "Leningrad in the Years of the Great Patriotic War"

The most important series of pictures in the "Memoryscapes" series is certainly that comprising the photographs taken in the unique exhibition on "Leningrad in the Years of the Great Patriotic War" from the Museum of the History of the City (Russian: Muzej istorij goroda). The exhibition brings together objects transferred from the former Leningrad Defence Museum, which was torn apart and closed in 1952 in a type of campaign of repression common under Stalin. The story of the legendary museum's creation and closure, as well as the fate of its founding director Lev Rakov, accurately reflect Russia's tragic history in the second half of the 20th century. This exhibition in particular found its way into Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's "Memoryscapes" series.

The talented museum director, historian and playwright Lev Rakov was born in Yakutsk in 1904, the son of a lawyer and a medical student who were living in exile because of revolutionary activities. Released after a year, the family moved to Petersburg. Shortly before the revolution in 1917, Lev Rakov went to secondary school; afterwards, from 1922, he studied at Petrograd University at the Faculty of History and Archaeology. Alongside his studies, he worked at the Russian State Museum, where he helped prepare the exhibition "War and Art". Rakov moved to the State Hermitage in 1931, immersed himself in the history of the art of war and prepared large thematic exhibitions; at the same time he gave lectures on the history of the ancient world at the Leningrad Pedagogical Institute. After gaining employment as scientific secretary at the Hermitage in 1937, Rakov was arrested the following year, at the height of the Terror, on false charges of counter-revolutionary activity and terrorism. While in solitary confinement, he wrote a cycle of poems; a suicide attempt failed. When the wave of purges in 1939 affected even the top echelons of the NKVD, the Ministry of the Interior, and its head Nikolai Yeshov was executed, Rakov, like many others, was released. And when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, he volunteered for the Leningrad auxiliary units. During the war he always stayed in the city, surviving the terrible blockade of the city of millions that lasted from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944. He took part in several attempts to break the blockade in 1942 and 1943. The scholar's greatest deed was unquestionably the exhibition he organised on "The Heroic Defence of Leningrad", which opened in the besieged city in the winter of 1943. The exhibits of this temporary show were fragments of destroyed weapons captured from the enemy and brought in from the front, as well as terrifying testimonies of the everyday life of people of Leningrad suffering under the conditions of the blockade. In August 1945, Marshal Zhukov and General Eisenhower visited the exhibition. After the war, the city’s leaders decided to turn the exhibition into a museum, of which Rakov became the director. The ceremonial opening of the new museum took place on 17 May 1946. Thanks to his extraordinary organisational talent, Lev Rakov not only managed to gather a large number of different objects in a very short time (many were brought in by residents, such as Tanya Savicheva’s famous diary), but he also put together a remarkable team. The museum’s lead artist, who devised the project to design all 37 sections of the exhibition, was Nikolai Suetin - a student of Kazimir Malevich and collaborator of El Lissitzky in putting together many international exhibitions (including the famous Pressa, Cologne 1928). Like Rakov and all the other museum staff, Suetin had remained in the city during the blockade. In its first four years, the museum had over a million visitors.

In recognition of his services, the city administration appointed Lev Rakov director of the Publichnaya, the Leningrad State Library, in 1947. He held this post alongside his function as museum director until 1949, when a new wave of Stalinist repression broke out and a special commission arrived from Moscow with the task of persecuting leading figures of Leningrad. In the course of the so-called "Leningrad Affair", many members of the city's elite were arrested and shot.

After reviewing the materials and testimonies on the museum's work, the Moscow Commission sharp criticised how the events of the war had been presented. In sum, the museum was thought to have "belittled the role of Comrade Stalin in the war and in the battle for Leningrad", and even to have attempted to "create a myth about the blockade" and "to give Leningrad a special role". The commission’s verdict led to the museum's activities being temporarily suspended in 1949. When the Defence Museum was finally completely dissolved in 1952, some of the exhibits were destroyed, while the remaining holdings were transferred to the collections of other municipal museums. The museum's staff was then absurdly accused of having prepared a terrorist attack "in the event of a visit by Comrade Stalin".

The commission also launched an investigation into the Publichnaya headed by Rakov. In the course of the investigation, it became clear that the "content of the work" of the most important departments of the library did not meet “the demands of the party in the area of ideological activity".

Lev Rakov was arrested once again, deprived of his civic rights and his property confiscated. He was sentenced to death in 1950, but shortly before his execution the sentence was reduced to 25 years in the camps. In 1951, his wife was arrested. In 1954, a year after the dictator's death, Rakov was rehabilitated and released. He returned to his wife, who had been released in 1953, and continued living in Leningrad, where he died in 1970.

The lost Museum of the Defence of Leningrad experienced its rebirth in 1989, during perestroika. The re-foundation took place on the initiative of the populace at the old location, initially in a single room of the building that was otherwise being used for military purposes. On the fiftieth anniversary of the victory in the Second World War, in 1995, the new permanent exhibition was presented - now in several rooms. After the army moved out, the historic building was restored to its former glory by 2013. On the anniversary of the lifting of the blockade, the President of the Russian Federation visited the restored museum in 2023, while the war in Ukraine was in full swing.

But despite all these efforts, the museum that Rakov and his comrades-in-arms created and that was so cynically destroyed at the whim of the bloody dictator will never return. Suetin's interior design will not be resurrected, nor will the murals by the artist Vyacheslav Pakulin; many exhibits of inestimable value, the testimonies to the terrible time of the blockade that were destroyed when the museum was devasted or ended up in other collections, will not return. Above all, however, the spirit Rakov’s unique museum had possessed cannot be reconstructed: a spirit born of the real historical tragedy of the enclosed city and the firmness of heart and spirit shown by its people. The name "Museum of Defence" was not idly chosen. For the city and its inhabitants were not defending themselves against the armies of the enemy alone, but against death itself. The city held out, regardless of hunger and extreme cold in the winter of 1941 and 1942, when temperatures dropped below 30 degrees below zero and thousands died every day. Even under these conditions, people continued to live in the city, enduring without heating, electricity or running water. It was those people who survived, those whom death appeared already to have claimed, but did not give up.

125 grams, Saint-Petersburg 

In all cultures of the world, bread has an almost sacred meaning. Often, it is even used as a metaphor for eternal life and the soul. Because the Leningrad bakeries could not produce enough during the blockade, ration cards were introduced that allocated the city's inhabitants their daily ration. The amount depended on the category the citizen was assigned to: soldiers and workers received more bread than others, with the jobless, unemployed pensioners and children receiving the smallest rations. Between 20 November and 25 December 1941, the amount of bread available for distribution was particularly small. The ration for workers was thus a mere 250 grams. Those without this special classification received only half that: 125 grams of bread. Every day, long queues of hungry people formed outside the distribution points, watching with eager eyes as the distributors cut off and weighed out those 125 grams that meant more to them than just their daily bread. By the by, this “bread” contained more flour substitutes than actual flour, stretched as it was by adding oil fruits, bran, cellulose, bone meal, etc. The meagre amount of calories it supplied was not enough to provide the body with the energy it needed. All this together led to a sharp increase in mortality in the winter of 1941, with about fifty thousand Leningraders dying of starvation in December alone. They died for lack of bread, but spiritual nourishment was also in short supply.

Children's toys, Saint-Petersburg 

Among the exhibits on display in this museum are a great many children's things: dolls, toys, carts, sledges. Some of them have remained toys, like the stuffed bear of a nameless toddler whose fate escapes us. Some toys were forced into adulthood, much like their little owners. In the everyday life of the Leningrad blockade, children's sledges were not used for happy tobogganing, for they were the most important means of transport in winter. They were used to move the tin cans of water drawn from ice holes on the Leningrad waterways, and those who still had the necessary strength used sledges to take the bodies of their relatives to the cemetery. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's photographs render the children's sledges like artefacts excavated from ancient kurgans.

The Diary of Tanya Savicheva, Saint-Petersburg 

One of the most important objects shown in the museum is the diary of the Leningrad schoolgirl Tanya Savicheva, which contains entries from December 1941 to May 1942. There are only nine of them; each inscribed on the blank pages of a notebook for telephone numbers. The last three are written next to the Cyrillic register letters for "S", "U" and "O", letters that match the contents of her notes: here they stand for "Sawitschews", "died" (Russian: umerli) and "remaining" (Russian: ostalas') respectively.

Zhenya died on 28 December at 12 a.m. 1941.
Grandma died on 25 January, 3 p.m. 1942.
Ljocka died on 17 March at 5 a.m. 1942.
Uncle Vasya died on 13 April at 2 o'clock past midnight in 1942.
Uncle Lyosha on 10 May at 4 p.m. 1942.
Mother on 13 May at 7.30 a.m. 1942. 
The Savichevs are dead.
Everyone is dead.

Only Tanja is left.

At first she was taken in by relatives, who later brought Tanja to a children's asylum run by the NKVD; eventually she managed to evacuate from the besieged city. This did not save her. At the age of 14, the girl died in 1944 from tuberculosis and the consequences of hunger, which had weakened her body.

At the beginning of the 21st century, a vacancy advertisement for a flat hung right next to the memorial plaque on the house where the Savichevs lived. A small private kindergarten moved in there recently.


The halls are arranged like a labyrinth that draws the visitor deeper and deeper into the museum. At some point, the viewer loses all sense of direction, becoming completely absorbed by this imitation of living through the terrible days of the blockade. The cold makes itself felt – the museum is not heated in the winter season – and reinforces the authenticity of th experience. One’s soul rises from the body and begins its journey into the world beyond. At the end of this journey, at the last stop by the exit, there is a sign that reads "End of the Viewing". It says "viewing", not "tour", "route" or "exhibition". For this journey can hardly be called anything else. One has to come here oneself and see it with one’s own eyes. Below the sign, right next to the door, stands an abandoned chair – for the story is not yet over. Its eerie emptiness could well be a silent warning: All this can happen again.


Translated from Russian into German by Christian Hufen
Translated from German into English by Henry Heitmann-Gordon