Russia after Stalin
Do and die
The pervasive pain of Russia’s past
Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied. By Alexander Etkind. Stanford University Press; 328 pages; $85 and £77.50 (hardback); $25.95 (paperback) . Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
GHOSTS of the unburied dead are not only a supernatural phenomenon. As Alexander Etkind’s superb study of Russian cultural memory makes all too clear, they affect literature, art, public life and mental health too.
Mr Etkind—shortly to leave Cambridge University for a post in Italy—won acclaim for his previous book, “Internal Colonisation: Russia’s Imperial Experience” (2011), which showed how the country’s rulers in past centuries treated their own people as badly as other empires have treated their colonies. His new book, “Warped Mourning”, looks at the memory of the Stalinist terror: different from the Holocaust, he argues, because of its suicidal and random nature. Those persecuted by Adolf Hitler typically knew the reason, however hateful and twisted, for their suffering. Most of Josef Stalin’s victims had no idea. They included the hapless victims of the authorities’ requirement for quotas of subversives, those named in random denunciations, and loyal communists; even those who until recently had been implementing the purges.
The result, Mr Etkind argues, is a double mourning: for lost lives and years on the one hand, and, for many, lost ideals too. Uncertainty compounds suffering. Many loved ones simply disappeared. Their relatives did not know why they had been taken, whether they would return, who would follow them, and who might be taken next.
Mr Etkind ranges expertly through cultural theory, finding in film, literary criticism, linguistics, art and philosophy the effect of the Stalinist trauma on later Soviet and now Russian generations. He sees a taste for grotesque magical realism as one of the consequences: vampires and walking beef steaks, or, to take an example from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a giant frozen salamander discovered in the tundra, roasted and devoured by starving prisoners. Another strand is absurd pseudo-historical encounters—magical historicism—epitomised by Alexei German’s 1998 film “Khrustalyov, My Car!”, where a doctor, the victim of gang-rape in one of the gulag prisons, is summoned to attend to a dying Stalin.
Excursions into high theory (readers who know the work of Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish critic, will feel quite at home here), are punctuated with searing personal testimonies, some from Mr Etkind’s own family. When his grandfather returned from the gulag, his own son pushed past him, not recognising the shabby old man sitting on the stairs.
The author highlights some extraordinary attempts by gulag inmates to make psychological and moral sense of their fate. Yulian Oksman, for example, was a prominent historian (a risky profession in the Stalin era) who spent nine years in some of the harshest camps. After he was released he devoted himself to the detailed textual analysis of an obscure document: a letter from a 19th-century critic, Vissarion Belinsky, to the novelist, Nikolai Gogol, criticising his “sermons” in a country where serfdom was tantamount to slavery. What Russia needed, said Belinsky, was “the awakening in the people of a sense of their human dignity lost for so many centuries amid dirt and unfreedom.”
Mr Etkind describes it as an “astonishing letter…one of the strongest appeals for freedom that has been written in Russian.” After surmounting multiple obstacles over many years, Oksman’s monograph proving the letter’s authenticity (and sharpening its meaning) was published in the Soviet Union: a small victory, but a heroic one.
But the lingering impression of Mr Etkind’s book is absence. Germans pick over their Nazi past remorsefully and remorselessly. Nothing like this happens in Russia. The “work” of mourning started in the Khrushchev years, and again in the late Soviet era, but then fizzled out. Little effort is made now, within what Mr Etkind calls Vladimir Putin’s “oily grip”. Memorials to the victims of Stalinism are rare and typically low-key and cryptic. It is hard to make sense of something so painful and pervasive, and all the harder when so few want to talk about it.