This Culver City Museum's Collection of Cold War–Era Soviet Artifacts Has Never Felt More Relevant
Xirico 2010 radio from West Berlin, 1989-90
The fifth season of 1980s drama The Americans premieres tonight on FX, and fans are desperate to know what scrapes undercover Russian man-and-wife spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) are going to get themselves into.
Back when the series began in 2013, the producers could never have imagined that allegations of corruption and interference by Russia would turn that nation back into a bogeyman, despite the U.S. president being a confessed fan of the Russian president.
The election of Donald Trump also promised the building of a wall, something that Joes Segal, chief curator at the Wende Museum in Culver City, understands people might relate to the Berlin Wall. But there’s a difference from the days of the Cold War: “Then, the U.S. was more or less united against the Russian superpower, but now there’s a split amongst people across the U.S. itself. The wall that separated Germany was also to keep people in, not keep people out.”
Joes Segal The Wende Museum, which is open on Fridays or by appointment, deals specifically with the Eastern Bloc countries — the former Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary, Romania and a number of other Communist nations — and exists to look behind that literal wall and show that, despite what little the West knew in those pre–social media days, people gave "meaning to their lives, and they tried to make it pleasant despite what was happening.”
The museum’s many artifacts and exhibits include the intricate drawings and photos of an analog facial-recognition program that was started by border guards at the famous Checkpoint Charlie crossing point on the wall between East and West Germany.
An early facial-recognition manual from Checkpoint Charlie
There are also more than 200 painted posters by artists from the glasnost/perestroika era. “They’re very critical and satirical,” Segal says, “even for a time when the country was seemingly opening up to the world.”
The current exhibit, “Questionable History,” highlights this, and Segal says that visitors — especially tourists from eastern Germany — often argue among themselves. “One person will become nostalgic for the past, another will feel it should be destroyed and forgotten, let alone put in a museum," Segal says. "It all depends on their personal experiences.”
There’s also counterculture artwork, 100-plus retro radios and countless everyday items from the lives of people who were living in these countries, as well as the more Instagram-friendly busts of Lenin.
A vandalized Lenin bust, 1965/1989
Segal, a history professor who taught at UCLA on an exchange scheme from his Dutch university several years ago, accepted a yearlong guest curatorship after visiting the museum but now has a permanent position. “I had no plans to stay in America,” he says, “and yet here I am, another of the many immigrants!”
As for the future, Segal reasons that what Trump admires is Putin’s authoritarian streak: how he gets things done. “The macho images of Putin seem to appeal to Trump as well,” he notes, adding that it’s too early to say how close the former superpower enemies are now (or indeed became in recent months).
This month, a monthly lecture series called “Art Past Present” begins, in which contemporary artists look at the meaning of history in their work, a subject that relates to two of Segal’s favorite paintings here.
Aleksei Pavlovich Solodovnikov's The Divorce (1955)
“One is a Russian piece by Aleksei Pavlovich Solodovnikov called The Divorce from 1955. That was just two years after Stalin’s death, but the subject matter is ambiguous, and shows modern life versus tradition as a couple undergo a divorce," Segal says. "Almost next to it is Hungarian painting Automation by György Kádár from 1962, a cubist, experimental piece.”
Cubist experimental painting Automation
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During the decades of the Cold War, the West saw Eastern Bloc countries as repressive and utilitarian, a place where imagination and innovation was discouraged, but these paintings alone show the opposite, he says. He then refers to current unrest within the United States, noting, “There is so much division in civil life nowadays that it is vitally important to exchange ideas and views.”
5741 Buckingham Pkwy., Suite E, Culver City. (310) 216 1600, wendemuseum.org
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