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 to share them in any true sense of the word.
The only time during the last 80 years when large numbers of Russians have tried to remember the past, and speak openly about it, was during perestroika. For a period of three or four years, books by such writers as Platonov, Grossman and Shalamov, many of whose finest works had never before been published, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Memorial, an organization dedicated to commemorating Stalin’s victims, irrespective of their political views, religion or nationality, enjoyed huge support. The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, put an end to all this; the new world of capitalism was so exciting-or traumatic-that people no longer wanted to think about the past.
Nevertheless, this past refuses to go away. Throughout Russia, near the suburbs of large cities and in the depths of Siberia, people continue to discover mass graves from the Stalin era. Numerous problems then have to be negotiated. Should the bones be dug up and counted in the interests of historical truth? Or is it kinder to leave the dead in peace? Should the ceremony be secular, or should it be conducted by the Orthodox Church? What should be done if many of the dead were clearly Jews or Muslims?
In some places the past is, somehow, being negotiated. The book begins with a heartening account of a ceremony Merridale attended in 1997 to mark the opening of a mass grave at Sandomorkh, in Russian Karelia. The authorities’ main contribution to commemorating these dead was remarkably simple: a random arrangement of wooden posts, each surmounted by a pitched roof. “By the end of that freezing day, every post had been decorated, usually with flowers and a candle. Nearly all of them displayed a photograph. The woods were full of images of young Party men whose idealism remains undimmed, though all they ever valued lies in ruins. Some people had pinned photocopies of trial transcripts or penal sentences to the posts… Since it has always been traditional in Russia to share food with the dead, too, the woods were strewn with cakes, bread and apples. Some of the memorial posts had boiled sweets tied to them, one or two now sheltered pots of jam.”