Wooden chests, old photos, scraps, snips, and forgotten figures: which stories do we choose to tell, why, and to whom?


Wooden chests, old photos, scraps, snips, and forgotten figures: which stories do we choose to tell, why, and to whom?

—There are few things I really do well, but telling stories is definitely one of them. As far as I know, it is a valuable skill for a museum today. This is what I would like to focus on, and the form it takes — curating, moderating teenager book projects, or guiding tours, is immaterial. I can easily imagine myself as an independent storyteller: a stable institutional job has its perks, and it is nice to be able to realise some ideas with the institution’s facilities, but resources are finite, and municipal museums in today’s Russia are very limited in their means.

We are going to sell our stories. Stories that have to do with our city. They have to be studied, reflected upon, understood, visualised, and objectified. This key visual solution shall provide references for souvenirs and educational products.
—Whenever I watch the world around me: the sky, people, the history of Irkutsk, I feel it flowing through me. We peel off old timber planks, and they give way to plants and trees… Likewise, when digging through a layer, you end up in a place that seems to have been waiting for its moment forever, and it starts telling its story, as if it were the discovery of Troy or the manuscript of The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. It is a very weird feeling: I know for sure that as I turn the corner I shall make a discovery. Enter an old building, longing for its past to be told, and find a photo of a person that is longing to be remembered. There is no plan or method, just a keen sense of the world that is waiting to be narrated.
So we thought, why don’t we link an old wooden house in Irkutsk to the oral history of a family, making up parts of it as we go? We are now at the phase of collecting these stories. Mostly we do face to face interviews that require a modicum of trust. We have a little questionnaire, and we get together these patchwork biographies through books. Each interviewee speaks about the poems of Agniya Barto. This way, we are able to bring family history to light. We mostly speak to people living next door, because our neighbourhood is the oldest surviving part of Irkutsk that was not harmed by the great fire. They share their memories of downhill sled slides, step streets, torn down buildings, and the circus. First we only recorded their voices, but as we gradually become aware of the depth we are delving into, we are starting to make videos, discovering the everyday realities of the local past.
So far the people talking to us have not reached either reflection, denial, or acceptance. We are at the very first steps: opening the memory chests, going over the stuff inside, trying to find the right place for every bit. Many people respond to our requests on Facebook. One of the respondents was an ethnic German: her grandmother had been deported to Siberia, and there had been no mention of the past in the family: the children would grow up reading Russian fairy tales, and all the surnames had eventually been russified. But even that family was willing to answer our questions. People tend to open up, sharing both tragic and comic events.
The project we are working on at the moment is titled Gateway to History. We are going to narrate the history of Irkutsk and Siberia in general from the perspectives of three generations. The selected families come from very different backgrounds, with different interests: Cossacks, pilots, people involved in the industrial reclamation of the northern areas of the region. We are not going into details on the figures exiled for participating in the Decembrist conspiracy. For that, there is the local history museum and many other worthy places. We are not going to become a picture gallery or a concert venue. We are just a small entrance point.
Kazimir Mital is a fascinating figure. Exiled from Poland, he would go on to become the city architect of Irkutsk and design the headquarters of the East Siberian Railroad Company, but his Polish descent was never forgotten. Eventually, it was decided that a person with that kind of name had no right for the position of city architect. He was arrested and starved to death. I have recently got a call from his great-granddaughter who still lives in Irkutsk. Slowly, slowly, a story appears and takes shape. We are also travelling out of town, because the lifestyle of a typical merchant in Irkutsk unfolded between several locations. One of our recent discoveries is Pyotr Shchelkunov, an established entrepreneur who owned stores in six or seven towns in the region. We would like to make an intermunicipal project embracing them all, visit every remaining store, find someone to write its history, and finally meet in a conference and make a publication about an Irkutsk merchant who advanced deeper and deeper into the region, opening branches and stores everywhere he stopped, sold shoes or groceries, but would invariably end up becoming a social and cultural figure. In Cheremkhovo, he would be instrumental in setting up a hospital and paying the salary of the very first doctor to take residence in the mining city. In some towns he would become a developer and rent out buildings to fellow entrepreneurs.
—One of the key figures of the Constructivism for Children exhibition (2016) was Yakov Meksin, the founder of the amazing Museum of Books for Children in Moscow, who would go on to be repressed and eventually forgotten. Aleksei Gastev is another figure that needs to be rescaled. Meyer Eisenstadt was an amazingly talented and sadly wronged person kicked to death by his colleagues and Vuchetich. The entire exhibition was largely a story of witch hunts and persecutions. Most of our projects endeavour to expose forgotten figures, as social justice is the same as the historical one. These efforts are taking place right here and now, regardless of limitation periods, and are as urgent as the Last Address memorial plaques. Highlighting a figure destroyed by the professional community seventy years ago is a way to send a message to the professional community of today. The rest of our practices have to do with urban activism, heritage preservation, and related narratives. What we are trying to say is that everyone must learn to look around, cherish what they see, and collect materials. Just like in the case of Herbatim. Everything we do has a social, political component. Most of our exhibitions deal with the same issues: they are examining suppressed episodes, folds in the conventional narrative of histories and art studies. It is an important part of the framework: whenever we deal with art history or history as such, we examine it through the lens of individual people and specific contexts. The 20th century must be reviewed from the individual perspective. Throughout the last era, the discourse tended to be abstract and formal, limited to aesthetic dissection. The approach in itself was evidence of a terrible trauma inflicted upon the entire society, and only very recently people have unfrozen enough to talk about private, personal issues and establish connections between art history and economy or politics. Ignoring the system of distribution that existed for art commissions would stop us from figuring out Soviet art history as such. These aspects change our perception of the entire period.
—We deal with Soviet history, but history is not an end to itself: what we are really talking about is human rights as the values behind a new society that we want to build and a new consensus that we would like to establish.

What do you think? We would like to engage in further dialogue. Please feel free to add your comments here.

The Tale of Igor’s Campaign is a mediaeval Slavic epic. The only known manuscript of what is now a textbook classic was discovered in 1795 in a monastery and sold to a local art-loving landlord.
Agniya Barto, 1901−1981, was a Soviet poet and children’s writer whose texts were read and learned by heart in every nursery school from Murmansk to Vladivostok.
The Great Fire of 22−24 June, 1879 destroyed most of the historical centre of Irkutsk.
The original Irkutsk circus was built in wood, and it burned down in 1958. The existing one was finished in 1964. At the moment, the city has no circus company of its own, but there is a circus orchestra.
The Decembrist revolt of 1825 was an uprising during the interregnum after the sudden death of Emperor Alexander I. The rebels tried a military coup and failed; in the aftermath, many were sentenced to prison and exile in Siberia; five of the leaders were hanged.
Kazimir Mital (1877−1938) was an architect, сity counsellor, and social revolutionary who designed many of Irkutsk’s iconic buildings.
The exhibition showcased the free spirit of early Soviet children’s books.
Yakov Meksin, 1886−1943, was a children’s writer and publisher persecuted for counterespionage during Stalinist purges.
Aleksei Gastev, 1882−1939, was a revolutionary, an avant-garde writer, and a pioneering theorist of scientific labour management who would found the Central Institute of Labour in 1920.
Meyer Eisenstadt (1895−1961) was a sculptor, a student of Vera Mukhina, the artist behind the Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman iconic figures created for the World Fair of 1937. Image: avantgarde.center.
Yevgeny Vuchetich, 1908−1974, was an acclaimed Soviet sculptor, the author of the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park and other epic monuments, a champion of Socialist Realism.
The Last Address is a civic initiative launched in 2014 to commemorate the victims of Stalinist repressions. By 2020, the number of these plaques, designed by the acclaimed architect Alexander Brodsky, exceeded a thousand. However, in many cases the individual plaques met with tough resistance: people claim they do not like their buildings' walls turned into cemeteries.
The 2018/2019 travelling exhibition Herbatim narrated the history of the Solovki prison camp through herbarium leaves. It was a co-production of the International Memorial (by then already listed as foreign agent by the Russian authorities) and the Timiryazev Natural History Museum. In December, 2021 Memorial was liquidated by decree of the Supreme Court.