The Wende Museum

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

CULVER CITY, CA -- A hammer and sickle transformed into a swastika, Stalin depicted as a meat grinder--these were just a few of the twenty-four political posters by Russian artists which were recently on display at the Wende Museum. Part of an exhibition entitled Deconstructing Perestroika--Soviet Ideology and Its Discontents, the striking satirical images were created as visual responses to Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika--openness and restructuring--during the late 1980s and early 1990s, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


Although this particular exhibition has been mothballed (after a five-month run) there is lots more to see at the Wende--German for "turning point." Tucked into two floors of a Culver City office building, the museum is a 10-year-old organization dedicated to "acquiring, preserving and enabling access to cultural and political objects, personal histories and documentary materials from Cold War-era Eastern Europe."

The brainchild of Justinian Jampol, who began collecting Cold War artifacts when he was a student at Oxford University and writing a thesis dealing with that unique historical period, the Wende is a non-profit, independent museum which makes available its collection of more than 100,000 items to the general public, plus scholars, students, artists, educators and journalists from around the world.


Many of the items on display are outside the scope of official archives and traditional museum collections, such as household consumer products, identity cards and photos, folk art, diaries and scrapbooks, photographs, gift plates, sports awards and certificates, even children's toys. The museum's library contains 8,000 volumes in Russian and German, the complete run of the East German official daily newspaper, Neues Deutschland--and even menus from the now-demolished Palast der Republik in East Berlin!

Major Peter Bochmann, former commander of the East German border guards, recently donated his files to the museum. Included is the handbook he wrote on how to spot phony passport pictures by matching them against generic facial features. No doubt Herr Bochmann put many a would-be defector in jail.


Another unique display called "Facing the Wall" reproduces "Checkpoint Charlie," the infamous transit station between East and West Berlin. The Wall, with its hulking presence, barbed wire and crude signs--Halt Hier, Durchgang Verboten--is very much on the museum's mind. In 2009, to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the Wende erected a 40-foot-long remnant at 5900 Wilshire Boulevard and invited artists from both East and West Berlin to decorate it with graffiti. A slice of The Wall also stands outside the museum itself, with colorful artwork by Thierry Noir.

But it's the quirky, offbeat displays that give the Wende its special charm--the Schalmei, a six-horned military bugle, made for a Communist politician; the Lenin Bust carved by an east German sculptor in 1965 and gleefully vandalized with pink and green paint in 1989. Although most of the museum's paintings are on the kitschy side, there are splendid and worthy examples of socialist realism, such as A.P. Solodovnikov's A Divorce Proceeding and Bela Kontuly's Building the Subway. Not every communist artist was a propagandist.


Many of the museum's artifacts and artworks will be highlighted in an 800-page, profusely illustrated book which is scheduled to be published later this year by Taschen, with text by Jampol and various scholars.

Wende Museum is located at 5741 Buckingham Parkway, Suite E, Culver City, CA. 90230. Call 310-216-1600 or visit The museum is open to the public--and free--on Fridays, from 10am-5pm. Mon.-Thurs. by appointment only.