Kysla (Iuliia), A private museum of communism, crime and terror (2009)

I am happy I got permission of the author and the editor to publish the following translation into english of an article about the Museum of Totalitarism in the Ukrainian city of Kherson. This museum is a personal creation by the psychiatrist dr Vitaly Trybushnyy, whom I talked about in my weblog. This museum can be seen as very special art environment.

Iuiila Kysla's article was published in polish cultural magazine Kultura Enter, nr 9, april 2009. The following text is translated from the polish and the translation has been reviewed by the author.

When she wrote this article, Iuliia Kysla was a PhD candidate in History at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” (Ukraine). She is especially interested in the study of Soviet history, memory studies, the history of the WWII, Soviet ideology and literature. Currently she is teaching assistant at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Iuliia Kysla, A private museum of communism, crime and terror

For already nearly twenty years there is a private museum of totalitarianism in Kherson. It is located in the courtyard of the house of its creator, Vitaliy Oleksandrovych Trybushnyy [i] (a psychiatrist by profession, but at a second look a hippie by belief and an artist in life), and it is particularly interesting for historians and connoisseurs of art

A way to take revenge on a regime

Provided with the same name, the Kherson Museum of Totalitarianism could be put in the ranks of such institutions as the Museum of Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi, the Museum of Soviet Occupation in Kyiv, the Museum of Occupation of Latvia, the House of Terror in Budapest, etc. The main objective of all of them is to provide information about the totalitarian regime. They want to participate in the education of their nations, and so they have a concrete political task. However, in contrast to the public museums, which typically represent the interest of the state or of certain social groups, their Kherson equivalent has been a purely private initiative. The museum of Vitaliy Trybushnyy is a completely different phenomenon.

Yes, the Kherson museum nowadays has an informative function - its creator wants to open the eyes of the public on the crimes and the nature of the regime of Bolsheviks. It is a product of this era, a phenomenon that is inextricably linked with a historical context. However, the museum is not necessarily created by using scientific methods, but it is rather an artistic enterprise. It is a personal revenge of Vitaliy Trybushnyy with the Soviet regime, a simple human response to the blows directed on him by the regime. To paraphrase Sharon MacDonald [ii], it is clear that he simply made it "a medium through which the author expresses himself."

Our hero's distaste for the regime was born at the time he was a student, when in the 60's "we did not have the right to be different from the crowd”. However, at that time, the echoes of the Beatles and their music had reached the territory of the Soviet Union, inviting revolt. And in 1968, after reading an article of Hendrik Borovik[iii], Vitaly very quickly took up the philosophy of hippies.

His appearance (long hair, jeans and a habit of walking barefoot) would not resemble that of a typical young citizen of the USSR. Understandably, the government wanted to normalise Vitaliy Trybushnyy’s way of life, and our hero had a very complicated relationship with the authorities. Nevertheless, the eternal problems with the KGB (eavesdropping of telephone conversations, reviewing letters, constant supervision of someone’s whereabouts), only reinforced the attitude of Vitaliy, which was "whatever they do, do not give up”

The idea of the museum, its creator explains, appeared in the late 80's, shortly before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The direct impulse has become the April incident in Tbilisi, especially as reported in the Easter issue of Vzgljad. [iv], which shows how the Soviet army, using sapper digging tools, attacked the crowd of pilgrims. "When I saw how obedient the soldiers acted in this brutal way”, says Vitaly, “I remembered that my father brought back from the war his sapper tool. I went to the shed, I found it, and framed it and hung it on the wall. Then a phrase from a famous song came to my mind, “The Party orders, Komsomol’s answer is yes”. At once I made a caption, understanding how this sentence gave an ambiguous meaning to this object".

Exhibits from garbage and text

For the last twenty years, the collection of the museum has not stopped growing. The technique of selecting the museum exhibits is simple: everything will do, if it produces the appropriate association. However, finding the item is only half the job, even more important for him is to choose its quote. Thus, for example, a flattened bucket, mounted in a frame, hang in the shed, untill Vitaliy Trybushnyy stumbled upon a text in the newspaper Arguments and Facts [v]: "Socialism has enormous resources, it can not be improved by capitalism."

Henceforth “the creation had got content”, it had become a gentle mockery on the "resources" of the communist regime. Although sometimes, the other way round, it is necessary to find the material that can be the "body" for the phrases and ideas.

Quotes play a special role in the work of Vitaliy, who cheerfully collects them, reading books on the history of Bolshevism, including all the works of Vladimir Lenin. In this passion for collecting quotations, Mr. Vitaliy sometimes recalls the famous German Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, who also was a passionate collector. For Benjamin a quote is an invaluable resource for the confirmation of his thoughts, and the text itself is of secondary importance. Characteristic of quotes is for him: “their power is not the strength to preserve, but to cleanse, to tear out of context, to destroy.....” The destructive power of quotations is “the only one which still contains the hope that something from this period, will survive for no other reason than that it was torn out of it”[vi]

A similar strength, in our opinion, have the quotes of Vitaliy, taken out of their historical context in the same way. I must admit that, unlike Benjamin, they are not on themselves. Only in a context, together with a visual complement (the material objects), they acquire a new (and sometimes quite unexpected) meaning.

Currently, the exposition has more than one hundred and fifty items, among which are cult symbols, even the relics of past time (the bust of Lenin, propaganda posters, badges of the Komsomol) as well as items found on the street (the already mentioned flattened bucket, a light bulb without its casing). Each object has a different meaning. And for the unity of style, most of the exhibits of the museum have been laid upon a red cloth ( "because the theme is Bolshevist"), and they have black borders ("to make it clear what kind of system it was”).

Cabinet of irony

The Museum of totalitarianism is remarkable in every respect - from the very idea of "a museum in a private house", the artistic form of the exposure, up to the creator, who is an integral part of it, one could say "a walking exhibit." The Museum is a bit like the so-called “curiosity cabinets" (in German "Wunderkammer"), that appeared in Europe during the Renaissance. They are to some extent the precursors of museums. These private collections of "wonders", microcosms of the universe, appearing stored in one or a small number of rooms. However, such comparisons are only possible at the level of relative similarity. The purpose and the content of the collection in the museum we are dealing with, is different: it is not simply a collection of interesting things, but it is above all a game of ideas, thoughts and quotes, in relation with material objects.

The concept of the Kherson museum could be defined as an “ironic museum”, as formulated by Stephen Bann [vii], a museum that does not provide for a dogmatic interpretation of the exhibits. Irony itself plays a fully prominent role in the presentation. Even more, irony and laughter, according to the author, form the main tool to debunk the soviet myths. Not surprisingly, a favorite quote of Mr. Vitaliy is the well-known phrase "Laughter - the most effective weapon." Thus, the childrens image of Little Red Riding Hood meeting the Wolf, is glued in the corner of Lenin's words "The bearer of this mandate, has the right to exploit women and girls who represent extraneous classes"

Museum or gallery?

In the way he works with his sources, the founder of the museum is more like an artist than a historian-researcher. Vitaliy himself notes that he is not interested in the credibility of the facts or their interpretation ("let the historians worry about this, that is their job"), most important is for him that "they are arranged in a single typological order". And in this way the story takes a prominent place in the thinking and the work of Vitaliy Trybushnyy.

In our case, it seems, from a certain point of view, one can talk about "the naïve history" or "naïve historian." However, Mr. Vitaliy not only prints the most interesting quotes from the books, but he also tries to convert them to create a general image of Soviet reality. He even confessed that he is working on a book that would complement the well-known "Black Book of Communism: crimes, terror, persecution" [viii], that is based primarily on archival documents, and public records, laws of the CPSU, and biopsies of the ordinary newspapers.

The artist himself is inclined to identify himself as a conceptualist artist. The mainstream of contemporary art, that eventually came into being in the late 60's of the former century, although its sources should be sought in the vanguards of the beginning of that century. Thus, in our case, it will be good to mention Marcel Duchamp's well-known practice, making creations by means of "ready-mades" or "found objects”. As with Duchamp, the majority of exhibits in the Museum of Totalitarianism are things found, separated from their normal environment, that moved into a differently created context, thus transforming banal objects into art.

Principal in this case is not object or its form, but the idea that fills this form.

As the conceptualist artists said, any craftsman can make the form, but only an artist can combine it with reflection. "We must destroy the physical layer" , Joseph Kosuth wrote, "because art is the power of ideas, not of the material."

The creator of the museum (or gallery) never tried in any way to advertise it. But he readily admits all concerned. The reaction of people is varied (some quit the Communist Party, others have to overcome fear), but no one remains indifferent. "At the same time”, says Vitaliy, “nobody complains that I ruin ideals of Soviet power, or blacken them. On the contrary, people go away completely transformed, thank to my openness and state that their visit to the museum in some way changed their outlook".

pictures courtesy of Oleksiy Kachmar

(added to OEE-texts febr 2010)


[i] original: Віталія Олександровича Трибушного

[ii] Sharon Macdonald, "Introduction to Theorising Museums", [in:] "Theorising Museums" ed. Macdonald and Fyfe, 7-8.

[iii] Боровик Генрих, Ходение в страну Хипляндию / Вокруг Света (The Moscow Magazine “Around The World”), № 9, August, 1968 - p. 25-31.

[iv] original: "Взгляд"

[v] original: "Аргументы и факты"

vi] Анна Арендт, Вальтер Беньямин (translated from the English language: Борис Дубин), "Иностранная литература» 1997, № 12 / /

[vii] Stephen Bann, The Clothing of Clio: A Study of History in representation of Nighteenth-Century Britain and France, Cambridge, 1984.

[viii] "Чорна книга комунізму" ( "Le livre noir du Communism") which was published in France in 1997, is a kind of encyclopaedia of the communist regime's crimes, as well as its victims. Its release provoked numerous discussions in scientific circles and the public. However, most professional historians are quite skeptical about this book, calling into question the credibility of the arguments and reasoning contained in it. It is worth noting that the Ukrainian translation of "Чорна книга комунізму: злочини, терор і репресії" appeared in a small print of 1000 copies, in 2008.