Three years ago Izvestiya trumpeted the news that Moscow was scrapping its “Museums for Migrants” project. “Gastarbeiters,” apparently, just didn’t want free visits to the capital’s museums. The article didn’t, of course, mention that the scheme had never got off the ground in the first place. Meanwhile, exhibitions and entire museums devoted to migration are springing up across the world. This year has not only seen new developments in museums across America, but a greater civic role. The American Alliance of Museums released this strong statement in response to Donald Trump’s executive order on restricting immigration to the USA:

“History, art, science, and culture don’t stop at our borders, nor should the people who dedicate their lives to sharing and explaining these foundational elements of our society. By helping us to understand this broader world, they help us to understand each other. We are gravely concerned that this executive order runs counter to these objectives.”

Russia has had the largest rate of net migration alongside Germany and the USA, but not a single museum has appeared here to reflect that fact. If you search for the words “migrant” or “migration” on Russia’s largest museum website, you will not find a single hit.

The migration that wasn’t

Even if we ignore migrants from outside Russia, this silence looks more than strange. The latest figures from the Internal Ministry’s Main Directorate for Migration reveal that 88% of migrants in fact resettle within the Russian Federation, and only 12% come from other states. But from the legendary invitation of the Varangians to rule Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century to the mass waves of emigration throughout the 20th century, migration has played an immense role in Russian history.

To say that the subject is entirely ignored woul be a gross generalisation. There are private and public museums that do deal with migration, as it’s an integral part of their story: one example is Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Recently, museum projects connected with local identity have started to focus on migration, as the history of many towns and cities can’t be understood without it. The regional history museum in Tomsk, for example, ran a project on “Siberians Free and Unfree”, while Izhevsk’s award winning Gallery exhibition centre is working on a project entitled “The Izhevsk Decalogue.” These initiatives are, however, the exception.

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