The Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam is home to many fine upscale art galleries and high-end restaurants. Its one of the most expensive places to live in the Netherlands, prestigious enough that Rembrandt lived out the last few years of his life here. But amidst the luxury boutiques and galleries, lies a small antique shop on the corner of Singel and Lijnbaanssteeg, overlooking the old Singel canal, the original moat which surrounded the old city.
Inside the shop is a fairly eclectic collection of antiques, which veer towards the somewhat peculiar; Victorian anatomical models, vintage optometry equipment and taxidermy. In one of the cases is a small statue of Lenin and under it a small printed card: “Visit the Totalitarian Museum in the Basement”.
Stepping through the swinging wooden doors separating the shop from the office at the back, and turning the corner, there is a narrow staircase leading to the basement. There you will find, lurking underneath the streets of Amsterdam, one of the largest private collections of artifacts collected from countries with the darkest of pasts: the secret Totalitarian Art Gallery.
Largely collected from the former Soviet Union, the low-ceilinged basement is filled with original propaganda paintings, toys, signs, flags, and medals. The Soviet propaganda program was one of the most widespread, brutal, and uncompromising of the 20th century. Strictly enforcing the Marxist-Leninist party line, it dwelt equally on the cult of personality of its leaders, the promotion of the heroic idealism of Communist workers, the suppression of the Western class system, and most chillingly, the manipulation of the young. The party line was omnipresent through posters, newspapers, the media, and the arts. Bludgeoned into the minds of the Soviet children through songs, marches and meetings, the ideal was to “make the young into a generation of Communists. Children, like soft wax, are very malleable and they should be moulded into good Communists.”
Other brutal regimes are also on display, from la Republic de Cuba to the most Orwellian of totalitarian societies, the Deutsche Demokratic Republik. From unopened packets of KOCKMOC cigarettes, named for the Soviet Kosmos satellites; to the RAKETA line of watches, named in honor of Yuri Gagarin; prestigious medals such as the Medal Materinstva I Stepini, awarded to all mothers bearing and raising six children; and the Za osvoenie nedr i razvitie neftegazovogo kompleksa Zapadnoj Sibiri medal, awarded to three years outstanding service to the Petrochemical Complex of Western Siberia.
The totalitarian regimes documented in the collection may have long gone, but the chilling message they propagandized, lives on in a tiny basement in Amsterdam.
Update: The Totalitarian Art Gallery has closed.
Know Before You Go
Contrary to earlier reports it is not closed. It moved from the basement onto the ground floor, or rather it spread from the basement and now includes the ground floor, and is still going strong. They do have limited opening hours so mind their listing on the website.