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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Memorial to a Collapsed Empire

Just 10 years ago, the Soviet Union was a superpower, with enormous military might, great achievements in nuclear science, space exploration and sports, and a repressive ideology. Its collapse - an event comparable to the fall of the Roman Empire - closed an entire chapter in world history. Now , less than a decade later, it is so well forgotten that it is difficult to imagine today what life really was like back in the U.S.S.R.

But some people feel a moral obligation to keep this memory alive. Yury Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center, has proposed creating a museum dedicated to the "dreams and delusions, enthusiasm and conformism, fears, crimes and sacrifices" of the Soviet people and "the high price they paid for their pursuit of Communism."

"The thought that my generation hasn't completed a certain mission has been tormenting me," says the soft-spoken, bespectacled Samodurov, one of the founders of the longstanding human rights group Memorial, sitting in a former garage converted into exhibition space.

The result of his efforts is an exhibit called "Project of the U.S.S.R Museum," which opened on May 21. The opening was timed to commemorate what would have been the 78th birthday of Sakharov, the late human rights activist. It offers an assorted collection of art from the 1920s to 1990s, representing three dominant styles of Soviet life - Leninist, Stalinist and Brezhnevite - and is interspersed with photographs and documents illustrating key events and ideas of the time.

The organizers say the project represents only a small part of the museum they hope will follow.

The exhibit itself is a study in contrasts. A Socialist Realism work of the 1960s picturing welders and construction sites diverges 180 degrees from the postmodernist irony of Alexander Sokolov's stone hammer and sickle with the inscription, "We are always right." A gulag camp director's family, painted by a prisoner artist in 1946, and photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Maxim Gorky face shots of two other leading lights of Russian culture, Osip Mandelstam and Vsevolod Meyerhold. The satire of the perestroika era is placed alongside a contemporary drawing of the Palace of the Soviets, the ultimate prize of Soviet architecture that was never built. Meanwhile, Dziga Vertov's 1927 film, "Cradle," a talented piece of propaganda for the Soviet way of life, plays on a television screen in the background.

"This is a unifying project. The motherland is one for all of us," Samodurov says.

He calculated that at least 500 million people lived in the Soviet Union over its 74-year existence, and intends the Sakharov museum to show what they experienced and to preserve the elements of the Soviet past that descendants of that era will care about.

Samodurov first came up with the idea more than 10 years ago. Last winter, it occurred to him that memories of political repression could produce a stronger impact if shown in the broader context of the epoch, showing its great achievements and genuine enthusiasm along with its atrocities. The picture should neither be all black or all white, he said.

Museum organizers may consider the project unfinished, but the initial response from visitors already shows there is great interest in the idea.

"Evil deeds and great achievements [in the U.S.S.R] were equally grandiose - and only 10 years later there is but dust and ruins," said pensioner Ilya Safonov on a recent visit to the museum. "I feel only exultation that this monster fell apart, but it has to be remembered and understood how this empire of lies and evil happened to emerge on Russian territory."

The exhibit runs at 57 Zemlyanoi Val, Bldg. 6 (next to the Sakharov museum) through June 24, daily from 11 am to 7pm. Walk along the Garden Ring from Kursk Station toward the Taganskaya metro and look for the piece of the Berlin Wall. Tel. 923-4401, 7480.