Now You Can See 100 Busts of Lenin at a Museum of the Cold War
The relocated Wende Museum is a Californian treasure trove of art and artifacts from the Soviet Bloc, including several chunks of the Berlin Wall.
On a rain-spattered day last November, as the election’s poison cloud settled over a wasted country, a small group ventured out into the smog for hors-d’oeuvres, champagne, and conversational German at a mansion in Beverly Hills. The building had been recast, for a day, into the embassy of another vanquished nation, the German Democratic Republic; the black, red, and gold tricolour hung in the foyer, the lunch table was set with gold-rimmed china, and state portraits of Stalin, Lenin, and Honecker watched over the living room. Scattered throughout the house was vintage surveillance gear once used by the Stasi. It was a place stuck in time—suspended, as it were, in another collapse—and, in culture as in politics, a reminder of how quickly fortunes change.
The event, called “The People’s Mansion,” was a pop-up historical exhibition staged by the Wende Museum of the Cold War, incorporated in 2002 for the preservation of the rapidly vanishing “material culture” of the Soviet Bloc. “Wende,” in German, means “transformation”; the museum focuses on the last years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, up to and including several chunks of the Wall itself. (Trump’s wall, if it’s ever built, should be so lucky.) Fifteen years on, its collection includes over 100,000 objects; when it comes to the Cold War, no other museum outside Europe can match its depth.
After a decade in an office park, the Wende has at last found a larger and eerily appropriate home: a Cold War-era National Guard armory in Culver City. It’s not hard to imagine the main exhibit hall, gray and concrete and divided by plywood barriers, stacked to the clerestory with munitions. Its present contents are more peaceable: 25,000 books in Russian, German, and other languages; 100-plus busts of Lenin, from bronze and marble to other materials in turquoise, pink, and iridescent purple; dozens of painted portraits of widows reading and workers grinning at their tasks. Poised on a historical precipice, the collection is new and old at once. The vases, chairs, and radios, although Communist-made, are twee enough for a Melrose vintage shop. There is Sputnik kitsch and space dog flatware, but also a palpable film of paranoia that feels all too contemporary.
For the new location’s inaugural show, chief curator Joes Segal selected objects to match ten “spaces”—a psychic soviet mapped across floors poured by the Army Corps of Engineers. Space can means the (outer) space race, of course, and the battle for the skies extended even to cartoons; It is disarming to see, where the United States deployed a Claymation Rudolph, the GDR’s version: a bumbling Santa Claus dispatched to investigate a sparkling new star (aka Sputnik) by the Director of Heaven. There are darker spaces, too: the “border space” fascinates with actual exam cards for border guards, who had to determine if pairs of similar portraits in fact depicted the same individual. It's harder than it sounds.
Small differences, under such pressure, could have huge significance. Consider the difference charted here between “private” and “secret” spaces: the one docile, domestic, and intimate; the other state-owned and sequestered. Color photos of the rusty control room at Chernobyl hint at the utter suppression that could keep such a disaster hidden from its own victims. Where state power was total, defiance was incremental. One painted portrait shows a woman in dutiful contemplation, her hands around a book; the wall label wonders if the picture is meant to be subversive, since the book is blue, not red.
In two corals at the back of the space are black-and-white portraits by American photographer Nathan Farb. Titled, simply, “The Russians,” the series documents visitors to a 1977 exhibition in Siberia called Photography USA that was pitched as a Carter-era cultural exchange. Forty years later, in Southern California, the portraits of somber teenage girls and “party chiefs” in polyester suits say that, yes, we are not so different after all. Then there is the Russian Woman Laughing with Steel Teeth, an almost prototypical stereotype, and an emblem of the USSR’s hearty comrades savoring each state-issued breath. Propaganda or no, there is still much to learn from enemies past and present, fake and fantastic; and the Wende has made openness its mission. In addition to their exhibition hall and library, the campus includes a public garden; students, scholars, and history buffs are encouraged to explore the collection in depth.
At the recent preview for the Wende’s reopening, the hall still echoed with the sound of power drills and hammers. It was a minor idealism, but a telling one, that in his welcoming remarks the museum's director still took the time to thank the workers.