Roger Epp in St. Petersburg, Russia

By Machno’s Wagon: A Meditation on Public Museums by Roger Epp

St. Petersburg is a city founded on Russian imperial ambition and filled with the museums to prove it: the Hermitage, with its throne rooms and art treasures; Peterhof, the summer palace on the Baltic, with its fountains and gardens; St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its malachite columns and pure-gold dome. Built for tsars with all the money and labour that could be squeezed out of a peasant society, they were each meant to make an architectural impression of unchallengeable, magisterial authority.

When guides present them now, they do so with a hint of nostalgia. This is, after all, the time for making countries great again.

There have always been reasons to go to St. Petersburg. In September 1798 my direct ancestor David Epp was one of two delegates sent to the capital by the first German-speaking Mennonite colonists who had moved, by invitation, to conquered lands in the “new Russia.” His purpose was to negotiate the terms for further settlement in the south. I do not know where he lived or how he, a modest man, responded to the opulence around him. For two years he negotiated with imperial authorities – and got an audience with Paul I – before returning to his community on the Dnieper River with a much-cherished Charter and an unshakeable faith, passed down through generations, in the protective power of tsars.

My own reason for being in St. Petersburg in September 2016 was more mundane: an academic conference, whose organizers had built the city’s best-known attractions into the program. On my last day, on my own, I crossed the Neva in search of the State Museum of Russian Political History, which warranted only a single line in the guidebook.

Public history in public museums is always fraught, as visitors to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, say, can attest. There is nothing simple about Russian history in particular, certainly not now. But here was a small museum whose main exhibit threaded its way bravely between what it called the “utopia and reality” of the Soviet era, including collectivization, hunger, mass executions and the gulags. While the Russian text was not always translated into English, the meaning of objects – family photographs, letters home, a pair of thin winter boots – was unmistakable and powerful.

The real emotional sucker-punch, however, was waiting in a corner of the lobby: a tachanka, a wagon with heavy springs and a machine-gun mount that was captured from forces commanded by Nestor Machno, the anarchist scourge of the Mennonite villages in the south during the civil war. Machno is a complex figure, the subject of conflicting historical assessments. The panel’s description was matter-of-fact. But the name was enough to evoke all of the stories still told in the families of those, like my wife’s, who came to Canada as refugees in the 1920s: summary executions, rapes, terror-filled nights spent hiding in the fields. And so by Machno’s wagon, to paraphrase a book title, I sat down and wept.

Of course, I think, as I descend deep into the Metro to return across the river, surprised at myself, I am not the first person to experience so viscerally how the artifacts and trophies of nation-building can also be the artifacts of displacement and suffering. All those who remember in their bones what it means to have lived at the periphery of the nation-building project – or simply in its way – will have learned to approach public museums warily, expecting a narrative other than their own; and, even so, they can be caught completely off-guard by an object or photograph that brings a painful history home.

My point is not to argue for trigger warnings (as if it could be possible to anticipate where to put all of them) or anodyne exhibits (as if risk-free and truthful can be remotely the same). On the contrary, it is to affirm museums, the right kind, not showcases for wealth and power, but places that make possible the kind of honest, unexpected encounter I had in St. Petersburg – for which I remain thankful.