Of famine, genocide and slicing up brains

January 5, 2001

A century of lost lives has changed a nation, writes Adam Hochschild.

When my family and I were living in Moscow some ten years ago, the only foreigners in a sombre, fortress-like apartment block, a curious episode took place in the building's courtyard. First came the mournful sound of a solitary French horn. Then some men carried an open coffin out of a cramped, garbage-strewn stairwell and placed it on the snowy ground. Another horn-player joined the first in a sweet, sad melody. A group of mourners restrained a woman who tried to throw herself on the body. Then everyone climbed into two battered school buses and headed off into the city traffic, presumably for the cemetery.

Any traveller soon notices that Russia's dead seem more present than our own. Just as this funeral took place in an apartment courtyard and not a church or a state funeral home, in other ways, too, the borders between living and dead are more porous. When a Russian couple marries, they often go straight from the ceremony, still in wedding dress, to lay a bouquet on the local memorial to those who died in the second world war. Some cemeteries seem built as much for the living as for the dead: often graves have fences around them, and, inside, a little bench where a visitor can rest or picnic. The cemetery at Moscow's Novodevichy monastery is part whimsical museum, with elaborate sculptures or bas-reliefs of rocket ships or stage sets to mark the graves of rocket designers or theatre directors. And of course, as Catherine Merridale points out in her intriguing but sometimes frustrating new book, the Soviet Union was the only empire ever to have an embalmed body on public view at its symbolic heart. Poor Lenin still lies, unhappily one imagines, beside the Kremlin wall.

It is no wonder that death is different in Russia, because almost every generation of Russians has experienced some sort of mass killing. Terrible famines carried off waves of peasants under the last two tsars. Then came the first world war, when some Russian soldiers had to march to the front without boots to be mowed down by machine-gun fire, while special trains still carried fresh flowers from the Crimea to the tsarina. Following this were the huge massacres of the Russian civil war, with more starvation on their heels. During Stalin's rule, somewhere around 20 million Soviets died in execution cellars, the far-flung camps of the Gulag, or in the man-made famine brought on by the collectivisation of agriculture. Another 25 to million died in the second world war. Since then have come the Afghan and Chechnya wars - small by comparison, but accompanied by the usual official concealing or understating of casualties.

Merridale looks at Russian attitudes and rituals to do with death. She examines, for instance, the role of funerals, first as occasions for symbolic reaffirmation of the hierarchy when a tsar died (palace guard first in the parade, representatives of voluntary societies far behind), then as elaborate protests against tsarist rule, then as legitimating ceremonies for the new regime. Funerals of high Soviet officials hinted at the new hierarchy: from seeing who the pallbearers were or were not, you could often tell who was destined for the levers of power or for Siberia.

She explores many other fascinating byways, from the 1894 demise of Tsar Alexander III, whose ineptly embalmed corpse was paraded solemnly around the nation for so long that it began to rot, to early Soviet plans for industrial-sized crematoria to dispose of the vast numbers of bodies (the one in Petrograd malfunctioned, overheated and burned down), to Russian Mafia funerals today. Particularly interesting is the way she shows how much the Communists borrowed from Russian Orthodoxy. Early on, the Bolsheviks created their own equivalent of saints' days by picking dates to remember one or another set of political martyrs. The most important Orthodox holy day is not Christmas, but Easter, when Russians greet each other with "Christ is risen!"; according to Merridale, Lenin was so carefully preserved because at least one member of his Immortalisation Commission hoped that Soviet science might someday enable him, too, to rise. When that turned out to not be so easy, this curious Orthodox/Communist/scientific faith found expression in the bizarre research of the Moscow Brain Institute, where some 31,000 cross-section slices of Lenin's brain, thinner than prosciutto, could still be found in the early 1990s. God only knows what has become of them in the anarchic, everything-has-its-price Russia of today.

Night of Stone works best as history told from an unusual angle. Unlike too many academic historians, Merridale draws not only from a rich array of printed sources, from ancient funeral laments to modern newspapers, but also from interviews with Russians today. The result is livelier and better written than many standard political histories of the Soviet Union, and would serve well in an introductory university course on 20th-century Russian history.

Merridale does not really have a central thesis, but circles somewhat ramblingly around several themes. One is that the state has done much additional violence to survivors of all these mass murders by commemorating some of the Soviet dead with vast amounts of kitsch - the monuments, parades, books and films celebrating those who died in the second world war, for instance - while ignoring millions of others. We have heard much in recent years about how the victims of Stalin's madness are being remembered at last. But Merridale also points out the remarkable fact that the Soviets built not a single national memorial commemorating the dead of the first world war, when Russia saw 1.7 million citizens killed and another 4.9 million wounded. And there was no official remembering of that part of the Holocaust that took place in the German-occupied USSR.

On top of this, many survivors were even denied the certainty of knowing that their loved ones had died. Families of Stalin's execution victims were usually told only that the prisoner had been sentenced to "ten years without right of correspondence". Heart-breaking numbers of people later realised that they had been not only bereaved but deceived. It is no wonder Russians' distrust of their government still runs so deep.

Unfortunately, Merridale is a better historian than interviewer. Few of the Russians she talks to come fully alive on the page. She tells us that she decided to interview some of her subjects in groups of war veterans, gulag survivors, and so on, so she could listen to them talk to others who had similarly encountered death, rather than talk to her, who had not. An interesting technique, although a wiser interviewer, like a good group therapist, would know that you have to carefully steer such conversations. The essence of being a good oral historian is to encourage people to tell their own stories, to keep them on track and to listen sensitively to where they go. Merridale too often seems frustrated that her Russians do not go where she wants them to. She seems to think that to make sense of death in Russia, she has to get Russians to talk directly about it. She ends up annoyed: "The level of debate, and even of exchange, was... disappointing." She sounds almost petulant that people seldom talk about death: "Aside from one or two intrusive memories, no one had thought about it much. Even those who were writing memoirs for the archives of the Memorial Society had not spent time considering death. Others avoided the whole subject."

This is listening with a tin ear. Anyone who has had fellow prisoners, famine victims or soldiers dropping dead on all sides has had to consider death a great deal. But there are good practical reasons not to become obsessed by it. Those who managed to survive the multiple horrors of Russia's 20th century, like survivors elsewhere, often did so because they were focusing above all on survival. Those are the stories they want to tell, the stories that can so move and awe us, and the stories in which a careful listener can sometimes find even more than the teller knows he or she is saying.

It might have been interesting also to pursue another angle, by probing for one connection Russian interviewees would not be likely to draw on their own: namely, that of how their experience of death has affected their attitude to the outside world. In much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, early death and mass death are all too familiar. What is different for Russians is that they have felt themselves Europeans for so long. Yet their experience of catastrophe is so much greater than that of other Europeans, even today, when life expectancy is well over a decade shorter than in Western Europe. This is something that has long fuelled a complex mixture of feelings of inferiority, envy and xenophobia.

One final point. In citing a figure of only half a million Soviets executed in the 1930s, Merridale seems to accept the statistics of a small, muddle-headed group of revisionist historians, who claim that the number of deaths in this period have been far overstated. Numerous other scholars, including the late General Dmitri Volkogonov, who had the best access of anyone to the Stalin-period archives, have set the figure for executions at some 7 million. Merridale should know better. And, indeed, she does know better, as she shows by saying that there are probably bodies of 100,000 victims of Stalin's purges in one particular Moscow mass grave alone, and by citing estimates of 200,000 in another such grave in Ukraine. To say that there were only 500,000 such victims in the entire Soviet Union is ludicrous. In writing about history already riddled with so much denial, it is important to be careful about the numbers.

Adam Hochschild is the author of The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin . He lectures at the graduate school of journalism, University of California, Berkeley, United States.

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