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‘Ordinary Nazism’ Bizarre exhibition at Moscow’s Victory Museum attempts to draw comparisons between Nazi Germany and modern-day Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Artem Geodakian / TASS

When announcing the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin justified the “special military operation” by invoking World War II. Russian officials and propagandists on state television have been echoing Putin’s claims about the need to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine” ever since. In a similar vein, since mid-April, Moscow’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War (also known as the Victory Museum) has been running an exhibition that supposedly traces the development of a “Ukrainian version of Nazism” from World War II to the present day. Upon visiting the exhibition, Meduza found a bizarre mishmash of information ripped from the Internet, memorabilia from Nazi Germany, and decontextualized TikTok videos from the ongoing war.

Moscow’s Victory Museum, renamed “The Victory MuZeum” (with the Latin letter “Z”) in March 2022, is in great demand on the weekend. There’s a bustle near the cloakroom in the main building, as tourist groups look for their tour guides. Most of the visitors are children: from first graders running up the stairs in a crowd, to graduates lackadaisically contemplating the hot dogs in the cafe. On the menu, hot dogs are listed next to a section named “Field Kitchen,” which features a single dish: buckwheat porridge with meat.

In the souvenir shop, merchandise with the letters “Z” and “V” has been added to the usual offerings. Here, supporters of Russia’s “special military operation” can purchase a beer mug inscribed “For ours” (Za nashikh, in Russian), or a “My PreZident Putin V. V.” pin. A mother and her adult daughter survey the souvenirs, arguing over which notebook to select: the one with a star and the word “Victory,” or the one with Putin on the cover. They end up taking both.

On April 19, the museum opened the temporary exhibition “Ordinary Nazism.” Within a month, more than 150,000 people had visited it, per the museum’s own data. According to the description of the exhibition on the museum’s website:

“More than 200 exhibits tell about the atrocities of Ukrainian nationalists during the Second World War, as well as about the mass crimes and terror of modern neo-Nazis against the inhabitants of Ukraine in 2014–2022. The exhibition materials will show the inextricable link between the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which participated in the extermination of civilians during the war, and modern nationalist organizations in Ukraine that revived the ideology of Nazi Germany.”

“It’s difficult to accept that these destructive ideas have once again found ardent followers. I’m confident that the 200+ exhibits and documentary materials won’t leave anyone indifferent,” said Alexander Shkolnik, Director of Victory Museum and Deputy Secretary of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation.

Two weeks after the exhibition’s opening, Shkolnik was put on the UK’s sanctions list for “[using] his position as the head of a significant national cultural institution to spread disinformation.” Shkolnik, according to the UK, “[supported] and [promoted] the Government of Russia’s false narrative that the invasion of Ukraine is an exercise of ‘de-Nazification’.”

Later, the museum director was also added to Australia’s sanctions list. “I consider this a mark of our work. It means we are doing everything right,” Shkolnik commented on the sanctions.

Maria Koroleva

To get to the exhibition, you need to pass through the museum’s permanent exhibit dedicated to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). The hall opens with a semicircular structure adorned with an array of words: “Grief,” “Strike,” “Aggression,” “Protest,” “Crime,” “Tragedy,” “Torture,” “Genocide,” “Occupation,” “Shooting,” “Ruins,” and dozens of others.

The structure also features a quote from a speech given by Telford Taylor, U.S. Counsel for the Prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials: “The atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht and other agencies of the Third Reich in the East were of such staggering enormity that they rather tax the power of comprehension…These atrocities occurred as the result of carefully calculated orders and directives, issued prior to or at the time of the attack on the Soviet Union, which form a coherent, logical pattern.”

Behind this display there is an antiwar poster with the slogan “Ah, if only there had been no war,” along with the 1938–1942 plan for the growth of the economy and living standards in the USSR (a five-year plan interrupted by World War II).

Following the walk through Faces of Victory Hall and the Hall of Remembrance and Mourning, there are exhibits that show the key battles and stages of World War II. One of the exhibits is interactive. A soldier in a military uniform and cap, rifle in hand, stands with his back to the viewer. If you move closer to him, he begins to talk about the war. Losing sight of the person before him, he says the beginning of his speech over and over again: “In ’41 we were put on alert, and for a long time I couldn’t believe that the war had really begun.”

A girl in a Red Army military cap climbs up the stairs to the Hall of Commanders. She moves towards the wall on the left side of the hall, where large letters read “Ordinary Nazism.” Before the entrance to this small hall, museum staff keep watch; on the way in, there’s a placard that reads “18+”. Children run around this placard and throughout the “Ordinary Nazism” exhibition.

Artem Geodakian / TASS

A man wearing glasses rapidly moves past a staff member, leading a 6-year-old boy by the hand to the center of the hall — toward a Ukrainian flag and memorabilia decorated with swastikas. The museum employee reproaches the man, saying “It’s not a matter of what children should know or not know, it’s a matter of the psyche, it’s not just 18+.” Nevertheless, she does not stop him and his child from entering the hall. A red-haired woman follows them at a slower pace.

“This is today’s Ukraine and what’s happening to it,” the father says clearly and evenly, holding the child’s hand. “Ukraine has reclaimed the swastika, which my grandfather and great-grandfather fought against.”

The family quickly makes its way around the exhibition and stops at one of the panels dedicated to contemporary Ukraine. Nearby, there is a photograph of children’s bodies lying in a row. “Lyosh,” says the red-haired woman, scolding her husband. “It’s nothing he hasn’t seen before,” he responds sharply, but nevertheless leads the boy away from the “Atrocities of Nazism” panel.

The exhibition is made up of a small rectangular space with standing panels. Its curators are not named. As advertised, the exhibition’s central installation is a large, rusted children’s swing with brand-new stuffed animals scattered around it, along with a single child-sized shoe. Hanging from the ceiling above are figures of angels with the names and ages of children written on them: “Valentina Litovchenko, 2 years old,” “Anastasia Konapleva, 13 years old,” “Daniil Belykh, 14 years old.”

There isn’t a single sign in the exhibition explaining the meaning of this swing, why children’s things are scattered around it, or what the names on the angels signify. Meduza learned that these names, together with information regarding 73 other children, first surfaced online in 2015, on pro-Russian websites connected to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Allegedly, the list catalogues the names of children killed during the military conflict in the Donbas. The deceased children on the list were commemorated as “angels.” The information on the list has not been officially confirmed by either Ukraine or Russia.

Maria Koroleva

In the middle of the hall there is also a Ukrainian flag that has phrases in Ukrainian written on it with a marker: “Unified Ukraine,” “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes,” and “Ukraine, we love you! You’re the best! Mariupol, you’re with us!” Next to this flag, on a shelf behind glass, there is a contemporary mug bearing a swastika. It’s unclear how or why this mug wound up in the exhibition, or what relation it has to Ukraine.

The clicking of a metronome sounds throughout the hall. The exhibition is divided into two parts: the right side is dedicated to events of the twentieth century, whereas the left side is focused on contemporary Ukraine.

On the right side of the hall, there’s a description of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. The phrase “OUN–UPA — Nazi Collaborators,” is emphasized in bold text on the wall.

“Even before Germany’s attack on the USSR, Banderites from the OUN planned ethnic cleansings and proposed the program ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’,” visitors are informed. This phrasing appears to have been lifted from a Russian-language Wikipedia article.

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Right below the quote is a photograph of young women in national costume marching in formation, one has her arm raised in a Nazi salute. The flag of Nazi Germany hangs behind them. From the photo’s caption says, “Governor-General Hans Frank takes in a parade of Ukrainian youth.” A woman looking at this panel shakes her head knowingly. Meduza was unable to reliably determine the photograph’s provenance: only Russian-language resources have shared it with this particular caption.

The next panel is inscribed with the words “Terror Against Civilians” in red. Above it there is a quote from a 1942 report by Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria: “German military authorities on occupied territories have begun forming punitive detachments of Ukrainian nationals.” This quote first appeared in a multimedia project by the Russian Defense Ministry titled, “Archives remember everything…The crimes of Ukrainian nationalists cannot be forgotten.” According to media reports, these archival documents were only unveiled in March 2022, a month into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

This and other quotes are seemingly corroborated by objects displayed in a glass showcase: a red armband, a patch, dining utensils, a lighter and match case — all bearing Nazi symbols. A sign explains that this memorabilia is from “1930s–40s Germany.” Nearby there is a “non-combatant police officer bayonet-knife of the Third Reich S98.” “The Nazis loved to gift one another massive daggers with various engravings for the holidays,” the sign says, specifying that the knife was found in Germany in 1943.

The next panel is dedicated to the Volhynia massacres. On one of the walls, there is a quote from a book titled The Great Battle of Kursk: “One night, the Banderites took an entire family from the village of Volkovyia and brought them to the forest. Upon seeing that the wife of the head of the family was pregnant, they cut open her stomach, tore out the fetus, and stuffed a live rabbit in its place.” Meduza could not verify whether the book’s authors have academic degrees in history.

The historical part of the exhibition concludes with a wall titled “Lessons from Nuremberg” featuring general information about the trials.

The left side of the exhibition is purportedly dedicated to contemporary Ukraine. The exhibition’s two parts are separated by screens, upon which soundless video recordings play without interruption. The screen on the right shows black-and-white footage from а military newsreel: people being brutally beaten, mountains of dead bodies, cities on fire. There is no explanation of what is happening in the videos, when and where they were filmed, or by whom. The footage on the second screen is in color — in one of the videos, an elderly woman shows a school photo of an 11-year-old boy. How this video relates to the exhibition remains unclear.

Maria Koroleva

Subsequent videos are made up of clips from a cemetery with children’s graves, a sign inscribed “Alley of Angels,” as well as military vehicles with the insignia “Z” and “V.” The video shows a metal road sign with the words “Ukraine” and what looks like border checkpoints, but visitors are given no explanation about what exactly is being shown.

An interactive panel separates the black-and-white and color screens. Here you can choose one of fifty videos to watch: pressing the screen, it’s impossible to guess what exactly will appear on it. The touchscreen plays through snippets of news reports from Izvestiia and RT, videos watermarked with “MVD DNR” (Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Donetsk People’s Republic), and a video from the YouTube channel “Being Smart is Cool!” about the history of Euromaidan. The channel’s subscriber count is hidden, but according to YouTube’s statistics, since 2011 “Being Smart is Cool!” has published a mere 26 videos that have collected 107,000 views. The channel’s main subject is Russian–Ukrainian relations, but it also features three videos of performances by the comedian Mikhail Zadornov.

Several of the videos made available for viewing contain especially brutal scenes of violence. Button #14 plays a vertical shot of two soldiers with white armbands lying on the road in a puddle of blood. The shot is given no context whatsoever.

A father passes by with a child who’s about four years old: the boy looks curiously at the screen. “Don’t watch this,” the man says quickly, leading his son away.

In video #22, several people in military uniforms are filmed from a distance. Next to them are huge mounds as tall as a man. The video is filmed from a car’s window. About halfway through the footage, something explodes in the very spot where the people were standing. The person filming drops their phone and the screen goes grey as someone swears in the background.

A separate category of videos on the touchscreen have been uploaded from TikTok. In one such video, soldiers with white armbands smash a concrete floor using a sledgehammer. The video’s creator has included the caption “Russian occupiers rescue civilians.” The video ends at the moment when the soldiers finally break open a small hole in the floor.

The gallery concludes with a video featuring the heroine of a Komsomolskaya Pravda report about life in Mariupol in March 2022. In this video, a frightened and lost-looking girl wearing a light-colored sweater introduces herself as Viktoria Dyachenko. “I lived in Mariupol, there was bombing there too,” she says. She then refuses the journalist’s offer to help get her to a hospital. “Wait, I’ll tell you everything. Listen to me. I’m a sane, calm person, I don’t need to be taken to the hospital,” the girl continues, she then looks over her shoulder at the people behind her, after which the video cuts off. There is no commentary accompanying this video in the exhibit. Above the touchscreen hangs a portrait of Dyachenko, painted by an artist from Rostov-on-Don. “I read this report in Komsomolskaya Pravda,” an elderly woman tells her friend as they are standing near the touchscreen. “She was walking around, looking for her relatives. It wasn’t that long ago.” (In this particular report, Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Dmitry Steshin describes the lives of Ukrainians who have fled Mariupol, as well as life in the besieged city.)

The part of the exhibition focused on contemporary Ukraine opens with a panel titled “Nazism Today” that features a quote from Fakhrudin Sharafmal, a TV host from Ukraine’s Channel 24. “Since you call us Nazis, I will adhere to the doctrine of Adolf Eichmann, and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that neither you nor your children can live in the world. If we must slaughter all your families, then I’ll be one of the first [to do this]. Glory to the nation!”

What exactly did Fakhrudin Sharafmal say?

“Since in Russia we are called Nazis, fascists, and so on, I’ll allow myself to quote Adolf Eichmann, who said that to destroy a nation you must first destroy its children. Because if you kill their parents, later the children will grow up and take revenge. Murdered children will never grow up, and the nation will perish. The Armed Forces of Ukraine can’t kill Russian children […] But I’m not in the Armed Forces, and when I get the chance to wipe out Russians, I will definitely do so. I will adhere to the doctrine of Adolf Eichmann and do everything in my power so that you and your children will never live on this earth, so that you will feel what it’s like when civilians die who are guilty of nothing, so that you feel all pain and suffering. […] We need victory, and if we must slaughter all your families to get this, I’ll be one of the first to do this. Glory to the nation. And let’s hope there will never again be a nation like Russia on this earth, because they are monsters who spoil this land.”

Sharafmal later apologized for this statement.

Artem Geodakian / TASS

The next panel quotes Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Marches and torchlit processions in honor of remaining war criminals from the SS units take place under the protection of the official authorities.” This is from Putin’s article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published on Russia Day during the summer of 2021. By all appearances, this quote was later cribbed by speechwriters for Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov: he spoke these words during a memorial rally at the Khatyn Memorial Complex in Belarus in March 2022.

A panel with the heading “Memory Loss” reflects on the resurgence of the “cult of Stepan Bandera” and the growth of “active Russophobic attitudes” in Ukrainian society. Under the title “The Return of Evil,” it reads: “In February 2014, as a result of a coup d’état in Ukraine, Nazis came into power and began to pursue an actively Russophobic policy.” According to the authors of this panel, this was supposedly followed by the widespread formation of Nazi battalions,” which became Kyiv’s “main strike force in the civil war that started on the territory of southeastern Ukraine.”

The exhibition concludes with words about the “forced measure” (Kremlin parlance for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine): “On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin explained that the goal [of this operation] was to ‘defend people who have endured abuse and genocide perpetrated by Kyiv’s regime for eight years’.”

This quote is accompanied by a photograph that shows “a Russian soldier taking a selfie with children.” A soldier wearing sunglasses, a cap, and a khaki-colored mask is in the foreground, while in the background there’s a crowd of smiling children, some making the “V” sign with their fingers.

All of the museum’s visitors Meduza’s correspondent approached declined to answer questions about their opinions on the exhibition. One man in his forties said he had come “just to look”; his friend, when asked for his impressions, shook his head “no” in response. Several other people responded in the same way.

Elena, who had just earlier taken a photo of a panel titled “Genocide,” said that she didn’t really learn anything new from the exhibition: “I watch our TV channels and I’m familiar with what’s presented here. It’s probably a good thing that all this is here. It will be news to someone, and not [nothing new], as it is for me. Someone will be introduced to this and discover what’s happening now.”

To exit to the cloakroom, you need to go through the same semicircular structure bearing words associated with war. Yet on this structure’s opposite side, the words are different: “Mercy,” “Reconciliation,” “Valor,” “Courage,” and “Peace.”

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Story by Maria Koroleva

Translation by Meghan Vicks

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