The enormity, and variety, of the tragedies of recent Russian history are so vast that they are all but impossible for us to take in without taking refuge in clich?. Some of us comfort ourselves with fantasies of how these tragedies have endowed Russians with extraordinary depth; others dismiss the Russians as a brutalised race who for some reason-history, geography, genes-attach little value to human lives. Both views can be adopted with equal tenacity by Russians and foreigners alike. And, like all clich?s, both views have some plausibility. I myself find it difficult to visit Russian friends without slipping into the first view; I find it still more difficult to read accounts of Stalin’s camps without adopting the second view.
Catherine Merridale’s thoughtful book aims not so much to help us take in the horrors of recent Russian history-how can we?-as to demonstrate how little of their history even the Russians themselves have been able to take in. The 1.6 to 2m Russian dead of the first world war, for example, have been almost entirely forgotten. There was not one Soviet monument to them. The reason for this is twofold: first, these dead had no role to play in the founding Soviet myth and so the state had no interest in commemorating them; second, this war was immediately followed by the still greater trauma of the revolution and civil war.
The dead of the first world war were at least mentionable in the Soviet Union. The memory of other dead-the millions who died in southern Russia and the Ukraine during the 1932-33 famine, the millions who were executed or died in camps under Lenin and Stalin-was buried still more completely. Although 1.5m Jews were killed on Soviet soil during the second world war, even the Shoah was largely unmentionable until perestroika. The only dead, in fact, that it was permissible to mourn were those of the civil war and-as long as the question of Jewish deaths was avoided-of the second world war.
The most striking insights are those that emerge from interviews conducted by the author in the late 1990s. Merridale found it difficult, however, to conduct group discussions with survivors of the camps. Usually these discussions degenerated into competitive monologues. Merridale came to understand this as a testimony to the isolation brought about by decades of enforced silence; even those who could talk about their memories were unable…