LOS ANGELES — Not long after the Cold War concluded, Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history,” and that Western liberal democracy would inevitably consume all of humanity. The quarter century since has demonstrated this idea laughably wrong, with neoliberalism currently flailing about worse than ever. The West was perhaps too hasty to declare victory over the Soviet Union — with popular culture having never understood its “enemy” outside of terms set by decades of propaganda. Even today, our understanding of Russia is poor. Witness things like Time mistaking St. Basil’s Cathedral for the Kremlin, or how a documentary about doping among Russian athletes confusingly placed the communist hammer and sickle on its poster.
Amid continued misconceptions about the Cold War and Russia, the mission of the Wende Museum is vital. “Die Wende” (“The Turn” or “The Turnaround”) is the native term for Germany’s transition from communist to capitalist rule between 1989 and 1990. The rush to leave the past behind led to the destruction or neglect of many documents, artworks, and other objects that should have been preserved, not just in Germany but in many Soviet countries. Since its founding in 2002 by historian Justinian Jampol, the Wende has accumulated over 100,000 artifacts of culture, politics, work, and other signifiers of daily life in the USSR.
But for many years, the Wende’s ambitions and the breadth of its collection far outstretched its capabilities to showcase them. Between 2004 and 2017, it was crammed into an office at the back of a business park. Visitors were able to view a handful of small-room exhibits and little else. But now the Wende has moved into a much more spacious berth. In a beautiful piece of irony, a former National Guard armory in Culver City which had originally been built in 1949 as a ward against World War II has become the museum’s new home. The contrast is striking. The new museum, which opened in November 2017, subverts the martial overtones of its domain. Rather than confining Soviet citizens to their historical designation as unknowable or fearsome others, it presents artifacts that speak to their humanity.
Two large erected walls divide the hangar-like space into three sections. The central floor is for the temporary exhibits — currently Cold War Spaces, which examines the Soviet experience through the lens of different aspects of public and private life, and The Russians, a series of photos of ordinary people taken by Nathan Farb on a trip to Russia in 1977.
On either side of the main thoroughfare, thousands of Soviet-era books are stacked on shelves lining the outermost walls. (They are not yet sorted, a testament to some ongoing growing pains.) Opposite them, the museum’s storage boxes can be seen behind glass dividers, along with examples of the collection on display: Soviet-style furniture, toys, and radios. One case contains various busts of Lenin, a small sampling of the more than 100 the Wende has. The curators plan to bring in algorithmic experts to ascertain whether subtleties in the ways different artists rendered Lenin’s expression can help determine which country each bust was made in.
The Wende has big plans to match its new digs. Chief curator Joes Segal explains: “The museum offers almost three times as much floor space as our former venue, and it includes a one-acre sculpture garden. With expanded open hours, our presence as a cultural institution has grown considerably. We can present two exhibitions at a time, which we will rotate three times a year. We expect the new location also to work significantly to our advantage with regard to our programming, with the opportunity to not only organize public lectures and discussions, but also monthly film screenings, theatrical productions, and music performances related to the Cold War.” Upcoming programs include a conference on “Utopian thought in times of political rupture” and exhibitions featuring Hungarian Cold War art and Soviet hippie culture (yes, Soviet hippies were a thing).
And the museum’s physical makeover isn’t finished yet. Its eleven original pieces of the Berlin Wall — the longest segment of the wall outside Germany — will eventually be relocated to the new location’s sculpture garden (one section remains at the museum’s old office housing, while the other 10 have stood several miles away on Wilshire Boulevard since 2009). They also anticipate installing an East German guard house on the campus for use as an art space.
Segal is optimistic about the Wende’s future. “We are currently witnessing a period in which basic assumptions about political values and even basic truths are being challenged. The museum, by pointing to historical parallels and differences and engaging in creative ways to interpret past and present, can offer a broader perspective. … [The Berlin Wall], this powerful symbol of the Cold War division and its ultimate collapse, can be the perfect starting point of so many much-needed conversations today.”