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:

A woman in a black woollen shawl began to wail and wring her hands in the snow a few yards away from the tribune. As she threw herself on the frozen ground, another joined her, and then more. The sound they were making was the unearthly poetry of lament. A hundred years ago, this wailing would have accompanied every death and have continued for days . . . They wept for their lost husbands, they described the lifelong search that was about to end, the bitter years through which they longed to find the grave that they hoped soon to share . . .

Though any grief is a personal affair, the losses borne by Stalin’s victims are exceptionally private, even secret. For fifty years, until the fall of Communism, families had kept bereavement of this kind to themselves. Some hid their pain from everyone, including their own children, for fear of the damage it might cause. It was dangerous, after all, to mourn the passing of an enemy of the people, and compromising even to be related to one.

The mourners’ tears, Merridale goes on to say, were ‘overwhelmingly actuated by relief’; and much of her book may be thought of as an examination of this poignant and forbidding paradox. From the ceremony in Sandormokh she takes us back in time to consider the rituals of interment and grief characteristic of the tsarist era, in which Orthodox dogma was inextricably mingled with peasant superstition, and where notions of a transcendental hierarchy in this world and the next consorted with a profound belief in the soul’s unbreakable relationship to both the soil of Russia as a whole and the individual grave within it. We are then led through the successive cataclysms of 20th-century Russian history. There is the 1905 Revolution, the famine which followed it, the First World War, the Civil War, the ‘dekulakisation’ and famines of the early and late 1920s, the gulag, Stalin’s purges, the Second World War (also known as the Great Patriotic War), the famine of 1946 immediately after it (about which I had known nothing previously), and the revolution which was heralded by Gorbachev’s glasnost and then made irreversible by Yeltsin’s abandonment of Communism and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Each of these great upheavals, with the exception of the revolutions of 1905 and 1990, produced millions of fatalities: fifty million in all, Merridale estimates, about half of whom fell in the war against the Nazis. Each upheaval also produced not only even larger numbers of bereaved, but also a strange dialectic between accusation and acclamation, pride and shame, mourning and silence. Some of the dead were glorified either individually or en masse with all the pomp the state could muster: by parades and solemn ceremonies of remembrance, monuments of grotesque size and defiant posture outside every major city, mummification, mass-produced statues and busts distributed all over the country. Countless other victims were buried hugger-mugger, in silence and secrecy, amid a cruelly bland refusal to acknowledge that such people had ever lived and suffered before going under. (The victims of the famines, for instance.) Others met their fate after undergoing frenzied campaigns of denunciation and public obloquy, followed by protracted torture in prison cells or labour camps. Then there were the millions of living dead in the camps who managed to outlast Stalin and were slowly permitted to return to families which for decades had had no idea of their whereabouts and in many cases had given up hope of ever seeing them again.

And that is not all. To form even the faintest notion of how agonising and morally stupefying these processes were, one has to accommodate the fact that any turn of history’s wheel could invert the officially enforced status or valuation of the categories of the dead I have just tried to outline. In a moment, historically speaking, obloquy could become praise (and vice versa), silence could turn into stunned or fervid speech (and vice versa), demi-gods could be revealed to have been monsters and criminals (and vice versa). The Tsar, appointed by God and worshipped as the transcendent embodiment of his people, is shot along with the members of his family, and their bodies are thrown down a well – this at the behest of a ‘godless terrorist’ whose own body, after his death, is embalmed and buried in a shrine next to the Kremlin walls, to which devout, worshipping crowds flock day and night. The dead of the First World War are left unmemorialised; so, too, except as figures of pantomime villainy, are all the fighters who died on the ‘wrong’ side in the Civil War, as well as those who fought on neither side but were simply massacred by whatever army or band of brigands happened to come along. Unremembered, too, are the victims of the 1921-22 and 1929-33 famines. Trotsky, the commander of the victorious Revolutionary armies, is belatedly revealed to have been plotting against the Revolution even before it was over, and so are thousands and thousands of others of whom he had never heard and to whom he had never spoken, but who are killed for having been his secret ‘followers’ throughout. And so on and so on, through all the horrors that followed – the war against Hitler, Stalin’s erstwhile ally, being by far the greatest of them – until we arrive where we are today, with some of the most imposing monuments to Lenin and many of the monuments to Stalin dishonoured and dismantled, and the entire pharaonic system they erected at such unimaginable cost now dismissed (in effect) as a mistake, a deadend, the embodied consequence of reckless philosophical, political and human error.

And next? Merridale is a historian and (I suppose) a kind of anthropologist; her gaze is fixed on the past and on what Russians today are trying to make of it, and she refrains from speculating about the future. The incorporation into the text of scores of short, verbatim passages from her respondents leads to some repetitiveness of effect; some of her comments tend, implicitly, to ‘psychologise’ Russian history, seeming to suggest that it might best be understood not by way of an examination of institutional and ideological conflict, but through the prism of what, in off-hand, Foucauldian fashion, she calls ‘mentalities’. (Which in this context comes across as an even more rubbery concept than usual.) However, through it all she succeeds in keeping vividly in her readers’ minds the fact that death is always singular for the person dying and for those closest to him or her; that for the victims there is no aggregation; that to themselves they are never a statistic. Given the numbing nature of the material Merridale is working with, this is a considerable achievement.

The same can be said of the resistance she offers to many other temptations that might have been lying in wait for her: that of moralising too freely, say, or of being wise after the event, or wise for other people. She repeatedly warns us against the pitying but complacent assumption that people who have been through experiences as terrible as those she describes must emerge as members of what is virtually a different species. She accepts throughout that whatever helps her interviewees to make sense of their lives, helps them; and it is not for her or for any other outsider to suggest that they may be self-deceived, or ill-informed politically, or psychologically naive. She keeps to herself her scepticism when her interviewees themselves proudly invoke the tradition of an immemorial Russian stoicism to explain their own or others’ capacity to live through unimaginable disaster and then to take up what is left of their broken lives once circumstances permit them to do so. She is as respectful towards bemedalled veterans of the Great Patriotic War, who look back longingly on the Stalin period and grieve over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as she is towards survivors of the gulag and members of their families. Nor does she bring with her a kitbag of ideas currently fashionable in the West about how the traumas of the past should be dealt with. Is it always psychologically desirable for victims to ‘confront’ the traumatic episodes they have been through, to ‘talk through’ them, to ‘relive’ them, and so forth? Is there nothing to be said for silence, evasion, a willed forgetfulness? On issues like these she remains firmly agnostic; and the book is the better for it.

Many of Merridale’s respondents appear to have chosen the path of what can be called internal repression: not because they now have reason to fear the political consequences of doing otherwise, but because they are responsive to their own training and instincts. She is understanding of those who can only tell their stories ‘by rote’, as she puts it; and of the others, ‘empoisoned’ by their past and incapable of looking into it for ‘larger schemes of explanation’, who in their own terms have made the best deal they can with the shape assumed by their lives. There are many poignant passages in the book that could be quoted here by way of illustration, but perhaps the following can stand for the rest, both for what it reveals of the moral complexities of the material Merridale has gathered and the sympathy she shows in her handling of it:

It seems absurd, but some of Stalinism’s survivors still work hard to demonstrate their innocence, and what they need is proof, not of the madness of the system as a whole, but of the error that was made in their one individual case. They prepare their files of documents before we meet, they point to articles of the law, they tap pages with their fingers, check that they are understood.

Night of Stone is an unrelievedly grim book. But there are moments when something remotely like a smile crosses its pages, the most striking of these perhaps being the account given of the embalming of Lenin’s body and its interment in the hideously lumpish monument which still stands on Red Square. ‘The stroke which killed him on 21 January 1924,’ Merridale writes, ‘was not . . . unexpected . . . But . . . it would have taken a particularly dark imagination to have foreseen that for half a year a group of the Soviet empire’s most powerful men would have spent hours of their precious time monitoring the condition of a gently decomposing corpse.’ Lenin himself had never been among those Bolshevik crazies who had imagined that the triumph of their cause – the beginning of their long-heralded march from the ‘realm of necessity’, as Engels had put it, to the ‘realm of freedom’ – would mean the abolition of death itself. But knowing that much about their master was of little help to the wretches who had to decide what was to be done with his body. They agreed that his brain, heart and part of his neck should be removed for scientific research at an Institute for the Study of Lenin’s Brain later set up for this purpose (and still in business seventy years later). But what then? They agreed on the date of the funeral and the exact list of participants and their order of precedence, as well as the music to be played, the army units to be deployed and a host of other details of the sort which always have to be settled at such times. But what then? The lying in state and the ceremony itself left the corpse with damaged fingers and livid spots on its face, yet they agreed that a temporary, fiercely refrigerated crypt be erected outside the Kremlin walls, to enable yet more mourners to come from all over Russia to pay their respects. But refrigeration did not really do the trick and by early March ‘there were alarming signs that the face was losing its tone, the nose deteriorating, the lips becoming blotched and the eyes beginning to sink in their sockets.’ So what then? Well, we know the answer.

Soviet power, which sought in so many ways to deny the power of death, turned the heart of its capital, the ceremonial core of its government, into a grave. The rebels who had forced open the graves of the Orthodox saints now jealously preserved a relic of their own . . . The empire was built on the bones of a saint, and it had used its greatest mystery – technology – to ensure that the body would not corrupt.

Two years earlier this same Lenin (who still has his admirers today) had written a letter to one of his confederates in which he declared that he had ‘reached the firm conclusion that we must now undertake a decisive and merciless battle against the clergy. We must suppress their opposition with so much cruelty that they will not forget it for several decades. The more . . . we succeed in shooting for this reason, the better.’

The only ‘moral’ I can draw from Merridale’s remarkable book is yet another piece of non-Marxist dialectic. It is precisely because humans can never overcome death that some of them appear to get so much satisfaction out of inflicting it on others.