“The Wende Museum: Valuing the Valueless“ Artillery Magazine May/June 2021 


In the midst of the Revolution of 1917, fiery Bolshevik Leon Trotsky warned members of the Menshevik party that their moderate methods in the revolutionary world would relegate them to history’s “dustbin.” In an ironic appropriation six decades later, Ronald Reagan declared that Marxism and Leninism were destined for the “ash heap” of history. These two historical figures were, of course, speaking metaphorically about what happens to outdated ideology; they weren’t necessarily referencing the physical junk that collects with time. But ideology isn’t far removed from the everyday stuff it creates, the things it leaves behind. It’s in the places where these things are disposed of, neglected and hidden away, that history rests most authentically. And if you make the hour drive from The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley to The Wende Museum of The Cold War in Culver City, you can see that while The Gipper was correct about the end of 20th-century Marxist Leninism as he knew it, there’s a lot of inspirational potential in history’s dustbin waiting to upset rigid systems of belief that linger with us today.


Courtesy of the Wende Museum, photo by Daniel Dilanian.


The seeds of The Wende Museum began in the 1990s, when its founder Justinian Jampol began scouring basements and flea markets in Eastern Europe, seeking Soviet-era relics, particularly from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), essentially rescuing material culture from landfills. As people east of the Iron Curtain prepared for an uncertain future, many were quick to dispose of the state-sanctioned art, party memorabilia, outdated appliances and recorded remembrances that made up their previous lives. Everyone had their own reasons for the purge. Most simply wanted to make room, supercharged by promises of freedom, democracy and worldwide commerce. For oligarchs-in-the-making, the documented past was potential kompromat, evidence of the socialist safety nets that free-market crony capitalism wouldn’t supply. As the shiny hope of a ration-free future dissolved into authoritarian kleptocracy in countries like Russia and Hungary, proofs of the not-too-distant past threatened to become resonant reminders of what state-sponsored repression could—and often would—come to look like in the 21st century.

Courtesy of the Wende Museum, photo by Daniel Dilanian.

The seeds of The Wende Museum began in the 1990s, when its founder Justinian Jampol began scouring basements and flea markets in Eastern Europe, seeking Soviet-era relics, particularly from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), essentially rescuing material culture from landfills. As people east of the Iron Curtain prepared for an uncertain future, many were quick to dispose of the state-sanctioned art, party memorabilia, outdated appliances and recorded remembrances that made up their previous lives. Everyone had their own reasons for the purge. Most simply wanted to make room, supercharged by promises of freedom, democracy and worldwide commerce. For oligarchs-in-the-making, the documented past was potential kompromat, evidence of the socialist safety nets that free-market crony capitalism wouldn’t supply. As the shiny hope of a ration-free future dissolved into authoritarian kleptocracy in countries like Russia and Hungary, proofs of the not-too-distant past threatened to become resonant reminders of what state-sponsored repression could—and often would—come to look like in the 21st century.

Now The Wende Museum houses the most extensive collection of Soviet-era art and artifacts outside of Europe. With over 100,000 objects in its collection, this unique institution, whose name derives from a German term referring to the change that occurred up to and following the fall of the Berlin Wall, stands as an invaluable resource for historians around the world, and an innovative educational destination for younger visitors who only know a post–Cold War life. As an art venue, The Wende hosts rotating exhibitions from its collections and works made by artists inspired by its archive. It’s a uniquely confounding and informative place, empowered by contrasts and contradictions that would probably piss off Ronald Reagan and his Evil Empire label-making progeny.
Tucker Neel