From shtetl to spectacle at the Russian Jewish Museum and Centre of Tolerance

Constructivist-style bus garage transformed into high-tech Jewish museum in Moscow



After six years of planning, the Russian Jewish Museum and Centre of Tolerance opened in Moscow’s Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage in November. The city’s municipal government and the mayor of the Russian capital, Yury Luzhkov, handed over the garage, which was designed in 1927 by Konstantin Melnikov, to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia in 2001. In the meantime, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture has attracted a new audience to the building, which is in a Moscow suburb.

Similar museums of Jewish history and culture are scattered around the world, each narrating the history of the local Jewish community. The museum in Moscow is no exception to this rule: the history of the long-suffering Russian Jews unfolds before the visitor’s eyes. The layout was designed with the help of the New York-based museum consultant Ralph Appelbaum and his agency, which has worked on projects including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The permanent exhibition begins in a cinema, where visitors can watch “The Origins”, a ten-minute film that gives an overview of the sacred history from the creation of the world to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

Synagogue on site

The show covers 8,500 sq. m and is divided into 12 pavilions, some of which are modelled on the market square of the 19th century and the rooms of the café Fankoni in Odessa, frequented by local Yiddish speakers. There is even a synagogue. The exhibition also includes sections dedicated to the world wars. The space dedicated to the Second World War is the largest in the museum, and a model of the Soviet T-34 tank is on display (the director of the tank factory, Isaak Moiseevich Zaltsman, was of Jewish descent).

Right above the tank is a wooden aeroplane, a PO-2. A similar machine was navigated by Polina Gelman, the only Jewish woman who became a Hero of the Soviet Union and was decorated with the corresponding order. The exhibition concludes with another film, revealing what it was—and is—like to be a Jew in Russia.

Much less attention is given to the pogroms and repressions that continued throughout the Stalinist years. The whole issue is dealt with in a rather cursory manner, to avoid opening up old wounds.

The Centre of Tolerance is in a special part of the museum with a section kitted out with iPads. It is designed to teach children and teenagers about the importance of respect, tolerance and mutual understanding. The museum also has space for temporary exhibitions, a library, a research centre and an educational centre for children—and you can see the Garage from above, from a recently installed viewing platform on the top floor. The museum is due to hold a series of lectures on the Russian Avant-Garde and its key Jewish representatives, such as the artists Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky.

Marble panels bear the names of the benefactors, including Alexander Smuzikov, who donated $10m towards establishing the museum and helped to find partners for it. Vladimir Putin’s name appears next, because he donated a month’s salary to the museum; in 2006, this was Rb150,000 (around $4,900). They are followed by Alexey Miller, the deputy chairman of Gazprom’s board, Vladimir Evtushenkov, the president and chairman of the board of Systema, Vladimir Bogdanov, the general director of Surgutneftegas, and Anatoly Chubais, the chief executive of Rusnano. In total, $50m was raised to create the museum.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'From shtetl to spectacle'