What is to be done?

Dan Jacobson

  • Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia by Catherine Merridale
    Granta, 506 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 1 86207 374 0

In her introduction to Night of Stone Catherine Merridale tells us that she began the book with the intention of writing about ‘the disruption and reinvention of ritual’:

I had been intrigued by the idea that a modern revolution could try to create an entirely new kind of person. As I began to collect material about the Bolsheviks’ first efforts, about the League of the Militant Godless and the Society for the Dissemination of Scientific Cremation, the history I thought I was writing was a study of ideology, propaganda and mentalities. Death, or rather the rituals and beliefs that surrounded it, played the part of a test case. I could measure the impact of Bolshevik power by looking at the ways people chose to bury and grieve for each other. Rites of death, after all, are notoriously resistant to change.

The catastrophic weight of Russian history in the 20th century, however, forced a change of direction on the author. ‘While I started with an idea about revolutionary culture, I have ended up with an investigation into mass mortality and survival.’ The term ‘survival’ here should not be taken to mean that Merridale examines the circumstances that enabled particular groups or individuals to live through the wars, famines and purges that destroyed so many others. Rather, it refers to people’s ways of thinking about what they have been through and how they remember the bereavements they suffered during these vast convulsions: the loss of parents, grandparents, children, siblings, friends, fellow soldiers, fellow prisoners, neighbours, anonymous persons whose lives crossed their own. The book depends heavily on extracts from more than a hundred formal and informal interviews conducted by the author, as well as various impromptu conversations she overheard or in which she took part. These, together with her own reflections, are interspersed with the fruit of her researches into the written, photographic, archaeological and architectural materials relating to her subject.

Thus, by way of illustration and warning, the book begins with an account of a journey made by the author to Medvezhegorsk, a town somewhere between St Petersburg and Murmansk. Outside Medvezhegorsk is the village of Sandormokh; near it, in turn, is a wood where some 1100 people were shot, in pairs, over a period of seven days, by an execution squad under the command of a secret police officer named Matveyev. This was at the height of the Great Purge, in 1937. At that time Matveyev was also preoccupied with the execution of many hundreds or thousands of others at sites nearer Leningrad. (In due course his superiors laid against him the bizarre charge of showing ‘an excess of zeal’ and he himself was done away with – as, no doubt, were some of those superiors too.) Sixty years later Merridale accompanies to the site of the Sandormokh murders a bus-load of about eighty of the victims’ relations. Officials from the memorial associations which have organised the ceremony and some political and Orthodox dignitaries make up the party. What distinguishes this unmarked site from innumerable others like it all over the former Soviet Union is that its exact location and the names of the victims slain and buried here happen to have been formally documented. (Perhaps as a result of Matveyev’s ‘excess of zeal’.) Many of the visitors are bearing wreaths of plastic flowers and planks of wood on which they have stuck the photographs of their murdered kin, or copies of trial transcripts, penal sentences and death notices sent to them after the lapse of many decades. Of the posts they carry with them, Merridale remarks that none of them even suggested that these would mark real graves, ‘but people seemed to need a plot of earth’. The politicians are just about to begin their speeches when something unscheduled takes place:

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