Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia


During the twentieth century, Russia, Ukraine, and the other territories of the former Soviet Union experienced more bloodshed and violent death than anywhere else on earth: fifty million dead in an epic of destruction that encompassed war, revolution, famine, epidemic, and political purges. In Night of Stone, Catherine Merridale asks Russians difficult questions about how their country's volatile past has affected their everyday lives, aspirations, dreams, and nightmares. Drawing upon evidence from rare Imperial...

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During the twentieth century, Russia, Ukraine, and the other territories of the former Soviet Union experienced more bloodshed and violent death than anywhere else on earth: fifty million dead in an epic of destruction that encompassed war, revolution, famine, epidemic, and political purges. In Night of Stone, Catherine Merridale asks Russians difficult questions about how their country's volatile past has affected their everyday lives, aspirations, dreams, and nightmares. Drawing upon evidence from rare Imperial archives, Soviet propaganda, memoirs, letters, newspapers, literature, psychiatric studies, and interviews, Night of Stone provides a highly original and revealing history of modern Russia.

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Editorial Reviews

The Economist
....Ms Merridale...knows that in Russia, if you really want to understand, you have to listen also to the silences.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Russia's story of death has been obscured so often," explains Merridale (Perestroika: The Historical Perspective; Moscow Politics and the Rise of Stalin). The extraordinary scale of the violence and loss in modern Russian history has been shrouded in secrecy; indeed, the government has only recently acknowledged the hundreds of thousands killed under Stalin. "For 50 years," Merridale writes, "until the fall of Communism, families had kept bereavement of this kind to themselves.... It was dangerous, after all, to mourn the passing of an enemy of the people." Paying particular attention to the ways that Orthodox religion and Soviet atheism have affected Russian bereavement, Merridale explores Russian perceptions of death and afterlife from before the Bolshevik Revolution, through both world wars and the great famines of the 1930s and into the present. Her fascinating study is based on intimate conversations with bereaved Russians, as well as interviews with gravediggers, funeral directors, social workers, doctors and priests, and meticulous readings of imperial archives, Soviet propaganda, letters, memoirs, literature and government documents. (As Merridale points out, much of this research would have been impossible 20 years ago.) Merridale scrupulously avoids imposing her own ideological or cultural prejudices on her subject. By turns solemn and grisly, empathetic and scholarly, this inspired work provides a unique window on Soviet history through the brutality, ceremony and silences of death. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Merridale (history, Univ. of Bristol), the author of Moscow Politics and the Rise of Stalin: The Communist Party in the Capital, 1925-32 (1990) and Perestroika: The Historical Perspective (1991), offers a history of the Soviet Union from the perspective of the Russian view of death. The plodding beginning (a 30-page foreword) gives way to insightful historical perspective. This work is in line with recent histories by Gregory Freeze (Russia: A History, LJ 5/1/98), Martin Malia (Russia Under Western Eyes, LJ 2/1/99), and Robert Service (A History of Twentieth-Century Russia, LJ 3/1/98)) but adds new information about the purges of the Thirties and Forties, the liquidation of the Kulaks, and more contemporary pogroms and ethnic cleansings of Chechnia. Chapter 4, "Transforming Fire," begins to set this book apart from earlier works of Sovietologists; its treatment of the USSR funeral industry during the Twenties and Thirties is, in my reading, unique. Merridale's reason for writing is to help comprehend the feelings and actions of the present day. "Confusions about loyalty help to explain why it is that some people still remain within the grip of memories that torment them. They were not happy in the past, but they cannot approve of the present either." Recommended for academic libraries. Harry Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A wrenchingly poignant examination of how the Russian people have coped with a century of tragedy and loss. Because Merridale (History/Univ. of Bristol) believes that the truth resides more in stories than statistics, she spent two years in Russia interviewing a wide variety of people, reviewing personal and archival documents (many just recently available), and visiting the sites associated with the revolutions, wars, and atrocities that characterized the Soviet period. She does not ignore statistics, but she folds them seamlessly into her mesmerizing narrative. Beginning with a 1997 visit to a mass grave for Stalinist victims at Sandormokh, she segues smoothly into an examination of sanguinary historical events and their psychological impact, which many Russians still deny. One of the questions that drives her narrative is: How do people's memories accommodate the unthinkable? After all the arrests, tortures, mass murders, deportations, bloody battles, famines and starvation, even cannibalism (all reported here), how do the survivors carry on? As the author proceeds through the century in riveting and occasionally nauseating detail, she uncovers some astonishing data. The census of 1937, for example, stunned Soviet officials with its revelation that the famine of 1932-33 had claimed as many as seven million lives. She reveals with devastating clarity the "success" of Soviet propaganda among its own citizens. During the two-year siege of Leningrad, for example, more than ten times as many people died as at Hiroshima, yet survivors tend to reject the suggestion that its horrors had lingering psychological consequences. Silence and dissociation become the operativestrategies.Merridale examines, as well, more recent events, such as the war in Afghanistan, the disaster at Chernobyl, the fall of Communism and the dismantling of the USSR; through it all she sees many Russians embracing what she calls "the stoicism myth." Despite what they have suffered through a most savage century, Merridale concludes, they are only now beginning to realize-and acknowledge-the effects. Written with consummate skill and enormous compassion.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670894741
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 3/14/2001
  • Edition description: 1 AMER ED
  • Pages: 402
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Catherine Merridale, a graduate of Cambridge, is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Bristol. She is the author of two previous books about Russia.

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Chapter One


"We are the people without tears," Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1922. "Straighter than you, more proud." Generations of Russians have described their courage in the same way, as something that is shared, unique to their culture, a virtue born of suffering and nurtured by some deep, collective inspiration. Some writers have imagined its source in the landscape, the forests, the steppe, the snow, the boundless northern sky. Others have connected it with the earth, with clay or loam, "the Russian soil on which I was born." For many it has been hardship itself that forges spiritual toughness. But almost every reference to the mysterious quality of Russianness, to the Slav soul, locates it within the mass, among the simplest people, a spark of the consuming Russian flame within each person's heart. "Darya Vlasyevna," wrote Ol'ga Berggol'ts in 1941, addressing an imaginary neighbor, an ordinary woman, in the depths of the hardest winter of the Leningrad blockade. "The whole land will be renewed by your strength. The name of this strength of yours is 'Russia.' Like Russia, stand and take heart!"

    The idea of a mystic Russian nationhood has flourished through centuries of violent history—through wars, invasions, famines, and natural disasters. Soviet Russia's isolation helped reinforce it in the twentieth century, into a time when other societies were beginning to talk of global culture. To an outsider, the idea of a spiritual nation may seem absurd and even pernicious. The territory of Russia, after all, is home to many different ethnicgroups.The Russian population itself is a hybrid shaped by trade, conquest, migration, and intermarriage across the largest continental landmass on earth. It makes no difference. The idea of a mystical toughness persists in many people's minds, and the Russian soul itself is often described, even now, as a genetic characteristic, like fair skin. Its quality, the literature agrees, is paradoxical, contradictory. Foreigners have been raising liberal eyebrows at Russian chauvinism for centuries, but a paradox must always have another side, and here it is the stoicism and the poetry, the real evidence of endurance, the exceptional familiarity with death. "Russia is a sphinx," wrote Alexander Blok in 1918. "Exulting, grieving, and sweating blood."

    Blok's powerful image suggests some kind of continuity—his poem invokes the Scythians, the ancient warriors of the southern steppe—but the elements that formed the Russian people's attitudes to suffering and death have not been constant over time. Even to go back to the years of his childhood in the late nineteenth century is to revisit a society that was on the brink of dissolution. It is a strange, almost unrecognizable world. Most educated Russians of that time would have had no problem in identifying its main characteristics. Religion—Orthodox Christianity—was one, and autocracy, the absolute rule of the czar, another. In both cases, these pillars of the old world helped to support a sense of unity, of collectivity (the Russian word is the untranslatable sobornost', which is linked to ideas of the Trinity, of the One that subsumes the many). Nineteenth-century peasants referred to themselves as "the Orthodox" as readily as they called themselves Russians, laborers, or residents of a specific region, and before the revolution, Orthodoxy was the official faith of about 94 percent of all ethnic Russians. The czar ruled by divine right, and the distance that separated him from God was scarcely wider than the gulf that divided ordinary people from their monarch.

    A century later, when Soviet communism collapsed, millions of Russian people strove to recover something of this world. They were looking for a lost unity, for certainty and an imagined honor. They turned to the Orthodox Church again in their tens of thousands, and some even talked of reconstructing czarism. They resurrected the discredited symbols of autocracy—the eagle, the tricolor flag, some of the patriotic saints, the ones who slay their demons from the backs of prancing horses—and they flocked to the churches. The yearning for an end to conflict, for an indelible identity, for a reunion with imagined versions of the past, was overwhelming. It was as if the thread of history could be cut, and two of the broken ends, the prerevolutionary fin de siècle and the postcommunist renaissance, spliced and bound across a century of Soviet socialism.

    It was a vanished world, however, that filled the people's dreams as they stood amid the darkness with their lighted candles, watching the congregation bow in unison, lost amid the richness of the chant. Like any other refuge from the present, the prerevolutionary Russia that its great-grandchildren imagined was a fantasy. The nineteenth century was neither a golden age of national unity nor merely the soil from which, despite the revolution and its aim of reinventing culture, the story of the twentieth century, of Soviet Russia, would emerge. It was a time of rapid change, of anxiety, and of multiple, conflicting, possibilities. Its future was not sealed.

    There is no living memory of that time. Even the written sources that we have are thin—memoirs and letters, government statistics, the careful notes of antiquarians and ethnographers, occasional travelers' tales. The preoccupations that inspired these writings were not usually our own, and it is easy to miss the themes that run between the lines, the things that were so obvious to people at the time that they did not even leave a visible trace. Death was yet to be the colony of medicine that it would become, the processes of mourning and of burial played real parts in a soul's passage to the other world, and the fires of hell were still alight. We can salvage some relics from this world, but it takes a real effort to imagine its whole landscape, the way that people thought about themselves, the mentalities, the assumptions, values, and taboos. Even the idea of a self, in fact, of an individual with rights of choice and private feelings, might well have puzzled many people from that other generation.

    The written sources offer a series of separate images. Handbooks from the late nineteenth century, for instance, describe the official Orthodox view of life and death in literal detail. They give a picture of heaven and hell; they tell us what believers thought would happen to their souls; and they remind their modern readers about sin, about blasphemy, and about the role of sacraments and prayer. To understand what they meant, however, we have to go beyond the text, to imagine a world in which the religious mind was neither exceptional nor eccentric, and where the church's principal worries were less about shrinking congregations than about the persistence of the things it saw as heresies, mistakes, and superstitions. There were passive believers everywhere, and many who doubted aspects of the catechism they had learned, but for most Russians of the late nineteenth century, belief was so deeply embedded that it had become a reflex, independent of formal dogma, a set of metaphors and images that described the processes of dying, death, and afterlife as if there were no other reasonable cosmology.

    Because these metaphors are not my own, I have to start, like a recent convert, with a basic primer. One of the clearest is the Monk Mitrofan's comprehensive Life After Death: How the Dying Live, and How We Too Shall Live through Death, published in St. Petersburg in 1897. As Mitrofan explains, Russian Orthodoxy is a religion that has always based itself on hope. The festival that forms its core was, and remains, not Christmas, but Easter. It is Christ in Majesty, the resurrected Lord, who presides at the great ceremonies, and not a broken figure on a cross, or even the fragile infant Jesus. The conquest of death remains eternal, and human souls, as fragments of the godhead, will share in it if they escape damnation. Hell is the only alternative to salvation and eternal life in heaven. The Orthodox do not imagine a purgatory any more than they can countenance the idea of different kinds of truth, different shades of meaning, or bargaining along the path that leads to spiritual revelation. Their liturgy is beautiful, but it is calculatedly mysterious, inaccessible, designed to be accepted without question.

    Death, in this scheme, is not the end of life but a transition, almost a rebirth. "With the saints let the soul of thy servant go in peace, O Christ," runs the Orthodox prayer for the dead, "where there is neither pain nor sorrow nor lamentation but life eternal." Those comforting words echo beside the other aspect of the faith, which is its sense of awe. Death and judgment have not been domesticated in this religion, and though the faithful know that death is the threshold to eternal life, even they may doubt that it is peaceful. The prospect of the soul's journey—for death is often explained as the beginning of a voyage, of a journey undertaken by boat, or by a sledge drawn by three wild horses—is a dreadful one, a reckoning and a test.

    Mitrofan was careful to set out the stages of this odyssey, describing them with geographical literalness and giving them a schedule in real time. The soul remains on earth, his book explains, for three days and nights, and in that time it visits the places where it spent most of its mortal hours. It is not alone, for its guardian angel accompanies it, but the companionship is not necessarily consoling. The angel is not simply benign, a good fairy by another name. Its task is to reveal to the astonished soul the true meaning of its lifetime's deeds and choices, however terrible they may now appear. The prayers that the mourners offer for the soul's peace at this time ought to be earnest, for very few can contemplate this kind of truth, unmediated, without fear. The Orthodox funeral service, as another authority explains, is "not a ritual, but spiritual sustenance for the living human soul which has departed from the mortal body, a spiritual act which affirms the immortality of the soul in Christ and a manifestation of the people's solicitude for the soul at the moment when it enters another realm."

    Three days after the person's death, on the day that had been used for the funeral for more than a century by Mitrofan's time, the soul ascends to heaven to meet its God. What follows, in the textbook version, is more revelation; a six-day glimpse of heaven and a longer view of hell. By the time Mitrofan wrote he was already having to counteract a certain amount of skepticism about damnation, a feeling that the skewers and the pitchforks in the demons' hands might well be allegorical ones. So his description here resounds with notes of ancient terror. The Orthodox believer does not contemplate the afterlife with blissful calm, and the most fearful event of all awaits each mortal just forty days after his death. This is the moment of individual judgment, when everything the soul has learned on its journey becomes real, when it begins to face the consequences of actions that it might have chosen to forget, and when it faces the genuine prospect of torment stretching onward to the end of time.

    There are some consolations, and even the old books will list them all. The faithful, of course, like saints and martyrs, will be saved. For the rest, every judgment that is passed while the world is still in being will be provisional. The final judgment, the universal reckoning, when the dead will rise up in their flesh, will be the only unalterable one. Even in the depths of hell, therefore, the wretched souls of sinners can begin the process of their own redemption. The saints and martyrs can pray for them, but so can living human beings, which is why it is the duty of the living to pray for the dead, to observe the regular festivals that remember them, and also to follow the fates of individual souls, gathering not just for the funeral itself but also for the commemorative prayers that take place on the ninth and fortieth days after a death and each year on its anniversary.

    The demarcation between formal doctrine and custom wears very thin at this point, even in Mitrofan's book. The soul of an Orthodox may not belong to the world, but it certainly returns to earth, damned or saved, and it retains a material relationship with the soil, and especially with its own grave. Some say the souls come back on specific days, including the night of Easter Sunday; radunitsa (the second Tuesday after Easter); Trinity Sunday; and All Souls. Others will add that the soul takes material form when it makes these visits (it is essential that a body should be buried whole, and that it should not be cremated, for this will violate the process of material resurrection), that it washes, eats, and drinks, and that its family and friends can talk to it, send messages with it to others who are longer dead, or simply use its presence as an opportunity for prayer. In the nineteenth century, returning souls walked in the footsteps of far older spirits, among the demons that inhabited woods, marshes, and streams, for instance, or in the company of ghosts. Mitrofan drew the line at ghosts—there were no demons lurking in the birchwoods near his church—but those who read his book might well have believed several things at once, as people often do, professing canonical faith at the funeral in the church after they had put their kopecks in the coffin back in the hut to pay the ferryman his fare.

    Religious belief was so much a part of life that many of the documents assume it, preferring to focus on the difficulties of raising funds, fighting immortality, or reconciling local feuds. By contrast, the philosophy and pretensions of the other pillar of nineteenth-century Russian culture, the autocracy, are disproportionately represented in the printed texts, in newspapers, official documents, and memoirs. It may be difficult, now, to imagine that the power of a czar was divinely ordained, especially when you reflect upon the human personalities involved, but this is an instance when the sources help, especially those that deal with death and funerals. The notion of a god-given hierarchy was one that the czar's ministers were eager to reinforce, especially in the anxious months of transition that followed any monarch's death. They made their message crystal-clear. The czar was not an ordinary mortal, or even a mundane king; the nation was united through blood and the sacred Russian soil, but also in its grief, and God would protect the next czar as he assumed the heavy burden of autocracy on behalf of his stricken people.

    The last czar to die before the revolution was Alexander III. The accounts of the nation's grief, and of the ritual that the court thought fitting for an autocrat, offer a political view of nineteenth-century Russia, a view that supplements the spirituality of Mitrofan and his fellow monks. Here the emphasis is upon power, on inequality, deference, and the mystery of a sovereign who dies but still remains to watch over his people. The church's role is little more than that of a tragic chorus. It is the body of the czar itself, the incarnation of mystical nationhood and divine rule, that holds the center of the stage.

    Alexander III died at 2:15 in the afternoon on 20 October 1894. He had been staying at the royal palace in Livadiya, in the Crimea, where doctors had been attending him for weeks, struggling to mitigate the effects of the kidney disease that would kill him at the relatively young age—for a czar—of forty-nine. St. Petersburg heard of his death five hours later, when a black-bordered announcement was posted on the walls of the public library on Nevsky Prospekt. The massive bells in every church across the capital began to toll, and the sound continued through the night, a solemn, unrelenting beat. People crushed toward the library to catch a glimpse of the official notice, and within minutes a line had also formed outside the Kazan' Cathedral, where the first ceremony of requiem, sung by the choir of the Mariinsky Theater, was to be held. All the cathedrals were packed that night, as somber figures, some weeping, bowed their heads in a haze of incense and candle smoke. The whole city, the entire country, went into mourning, donning the regulation black clothes, ordering commemorative wreaths, and canceling its theater and concerts in favor of church services and prayer. Full public mourning continued for three months.

    The czar's body itself became the focus of the nation's attention. The Orthodox preoccupation with matter, the bond that unites the soul with mortal flesh, accorded an almost sacred importance to human tissue, bone, hair, and muscle. Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because the fact of death had to be made as clear as possible at a time of political succession, the details of the czar's last illness were published almost immediately, along with the autopsy report, on the front pages of the best newspapers. Readers of the St. Petersburg Gazette were treated to a description of each of Alexander III's vital organs over their breakfast on 29 October, and the curious who read on were spared neither fatty deposits nor stomach gas.

    The autocrat was embalmed (somewhat unsuccessfully; each of these procedures would later be followed by the Bolsheviks in the cases of Lenin and Stalin), and his body was laid out for a long series of social engagements. His journey from Livadiya, on the shoulders of his guardsmen and then on swags of velvet in the carriage of a special train, would take two weeks. The cortege paused for last visits to provincial towns such as Simferopol', Kharkov, Kursk, Orel, and Tula, and paid an extended visit to Moscow, where a requiem was sung in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. By the time he reached St. Petersburg, the czar was visibly rotting.

    The description of physical illness and death (though not of decomposition; this remained a secret) was customary, and its purpose was not to portray the czar as an ordinary human being. Nicholas II, who proclaimed his own intention of ruling by the grace of God (and without reference to anyone else) two days after his father's death, described the late ruler as "the Lord [gosudar']," who had passed on "to the Infinite" but whose concern for "His native soil, which He loved with all the strength of His Russian soul" would continue to protect the nation. The new czar, a weaker and less confident man than his father, at least shared with him a commitment to the institution of divinely ordained autocracy. "The truth is absolute," wrote his mentor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, "and only the absolute may be the foundation of human life. Things not absolute are unstable." The czar was not bound by politics. Instead, he was a semidivine ruler, and his connection with the people, they were supposed to believe, was mystical, spiritual, and beyond challenge.

    Among the thousands who could read a newspaper like the St. Petersburg Gazette, a serious broadsheet that made no concession to gossip or to what it would have seen as the more vulgar tastes, the preservation of the autocracy was as much a matter of instinct, loyalty, and habit as it was an article of religious faith. Many of the paper's wealthy urban readership were as interested in the civic competition over wreaths and commemorative silverware as they were in the mysteries of Russian nationhood. Large metal wreaths entwined with jeweled flowers were especially fashionable in 1894, and their cost and weight were listed in the better newspapers, together with the names of some of the more generous subscribers. The czar's death was an opportunity for business, especially if yours was selling the mourning dress that would be worn for a whole year, each detail of which, compulsory at court, was carefully prescribed. Advertisements for tailors and cloth merchants appeared overnight in the press, while shop windows in every town had pictures of the late czar on display by the morning of 21 October, each one of which was carefully draped with black crape.

    By the morning of Alexander III's entombment, 1 November, the whole of St. Petersburg seemed to have taken to the streets. The monarchy was not the only institution whose status was about to be affirmed. The procession that followed the coffin from the Nikolaevskii station to the Peter Paul Cathedral contained nearly two hundred individual sections, each with its designated place. The palace guard came first, of course; but it was followed by standard-bearers carrying the insignia of each of the empire's major cities, of its towns, its political institutions, its official classes (peasants, traders, merchants), and of its foreign allies. Even the voluntary associations were there, each in rank order. There were representatives of the Russian Music Society, the Russian Association of Gardeners, the Numerological Society, the Association of Enthusiasts for Old Manuscripts, the Historical Association—dozens of individual groups, each with its charter, each carrying a banner, marching slowly between the black-draped buildings, keeping to a schedule agreed by the court, confirming, without even thinking much about it, that the empire was a place of hierarchy, Orthodoxy, and autocratic power. The crowd that watched them had been waiting since the previous night, camping out along the route, grateful that the weather stayed unseasonably mild. "Nothing like it has ever been seen in the capital," agreed the papers the next day.

    While the procession marched and the bells tolled, however, there were others in the capital, a minority, who regarded the whole ceremony, like the autocracy itself, as a charade, an insult to human decency, an anachronism to be uprooted and destroyed. These were the revolutionaries whose writings were assiduously censored by officials in the Third Department of the Czarist Interior Ministry, whose movements were regularly followed and logged, whose thoughts, however serious or trivial, have become important in retrospect because their heirs, a generation later, would take control of the empire in the name of all its people. But there were other kinds of beliefs, too, and many of these were never written down, or not, at least, by those who actually held them.

    Very little can be said about the way that the majority of Russia's people mourned its czar. The newspapers did not ignore them entirely, but they made no effort to collect their comments or record their ceremonies of farewell. Nearly 80 percent of the people in the Russian empire were classed as peasants, which meant that in the 1890S their numbers exceeded 96 million. They had almost no political influence under czarism, however, and the Bolsheviks, after 1917, would also come to regard them as backward, dark, and potentially treacherous. They left few records for themselves—it was unusual for peasants to write at all before the 1920s—and so the evidence that we have comes almost entirely from outside their ranks. Nonetheless, their views, their beliefs, and their mentalities formed the bedrock of the Russian popular view of death, and when it came to revolutionary change, to the introduction of new ideas, new rituals, and scientific values, the peasants' faith would prove the most resilient. Parts of it would survive, in fact—some fragments, splinters reassembled in a different context—to shape the universe of death for their great-grandchildren a century later.

    The peasants' religious universe was difficult to challenge from outside because it did not depend on priests, on formal structures, or on written texts. For this reason, too, many writers of the nineteenth century, discovering village culture for the first time, saw peasant beliefs as timeless, primal, and characteristically Russian. The idea that the nation's spirit burned most brightly in the common people was an attractive one for the kinds of romantics who found technological and social change confusing. People of that cast of mind collected peasant sayings as if they held the keys to a secret world, a disappearing wisdom that literate men and women, deprived of daily contact with the earth, could only enviously glimpse.

    The yearning for peasant wisdom was not merely a matter of nostalgia, and the Victorian idea of folklore does not capture it either. Writers like Tolstoy looked to the peasants as the source of all that was purest and most admirable in Russian spirituality; they wanted to renew their failing world by searching for its true, authentic soul. One of the themes that this brought up, inevitably, was death. As usual, the corruption and complexity of the city were contrasted with the simplicity of the village. Intellectuals might suffer "a severance, a spiritual wound" in the face of bereavement, and their own deaths might be agonizing, baffling, a philosophical burden, but the common man, the Russian muzhik, confronted death directly. Like a drop of water, Tolstoy wrote in 1869, their lives "simply overflowed and vanished."

    Tolstoy would use the theme of peasant simplicity, counterposing it to a futile rationalism, in many of his later writings. It was a peasant, for instance, who helped the tormented Levin, one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel Anna Karenina, first published in 1877, to find a way out of his suicidal despair. The peasants' secret was to live rightly, in a godly way, "to live for your soul and remember God." The philosophy was typically simple, and offered casually, but it produced in the sophisticated intellectual "the effect of an electric spark." Life and death, expressed that plainly, suddenly became tolerable again for Levin, and, by implication, for Tolstoy. "The peasants took death calmly," agreed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. "They did not bluster, fight back, or boast that they would never die. Far from postponing the final reckoning, they got ready, little by little, and in good time decided who was to get the mare and the foal, who the homespun coat and who the boots, then they passed on peaceably, as if simply moving to another cottage."

    The folklorists of the nineteenth century discovered that the peasant simplicity for which they yearned could coexist with peasant poetry, with the weird rhythm of lament, for instance, or the charm of fable and epic legend. The 1870s and 1880s were the founding years of Russian ethnography. Society was changing rapidly everywhere, and there were growing anxieties about loss, about the dilution of authentic Russian values and ideas. Some wealthy scholars began to make expeditions to the deep country as soon as the roads became passable each year. Others sent their servants or recruited local agents. One of these, Prince Tenishev, had teams of lowlier correspondents—priests, doctors, and the occasional local clerk—reporting to him from across the provinces. His papers, which are stacked in hundreds of dark blue files and occupy an entire archive in St. Petersburg, reflect all aspects of religious life, from weddings and well-cursings to funerals and ghosts. Other enthusiasts for the old culture, such as E. V. Barsov, originally trained as priests, and collected folktales and poetry in their spare time. Barsov himself spent long summer afternoons in 1867 in a hut in the northern district of Petrozavodsk, scribbling down the laments that were dictated by the peasant poet Irina Andreyevna Fedosova. He published them in Moscow to wide acclaim in 1872.

    The problem with all this anxious collecting, and even with the sermons of Tolstoy and his followers, was that, like any other writing of its time, it concentrated on selected aspects of the whole. The ethnographers were mainly interested in practice and custom. They had no way of writing adequately of mentality. Most of their work described rustic virtue, poetry, quaintness, and, at the very worst, mere fecklessness or greed. The impulse of most folklorists was conservative in the literal sense; they wanted to preserve something that they had learned to value.

    Reformers of the same period, by contrast, would find little to praise in the peasants' world. Maxim Gorky, for instance, who toured Russia in the early twentieth century, wrote less admiringly of village life. "By nature the peasant is not stupid and knows it well," he declared in 1922. "He has composed a multitude of wistful songs and rough, cruel stories, created thousands of proverbs embodying the experience of his difficult life." Gorky also cited a folklorist of his own: "A historian of Russian culture, characterising the peasantry, said of it: a host of superstitions, and no ideas whatsoever. This judgement is backed up by all the Russian folklore." Alexander Pasternak, the architect, agreed. He found that a single summer spent in Safontyevo, a village about forty miles from Moscow, was acquaintance enough with "the decayed Russian peasantry in all its ugly destitution." Pasternak could discern no secret wisdom within the "smoky, soot-encrusted huts ... awash with wet muck that no-one bothered to clear away." On the contrary, "the villagers' passive submissiveness, their total indifference to filth and poverty, seemed to me a denial of their humanity."

    The peasants' lives, then, could exasperate a visitor as readily as they could evoke nostalgia. To make matters more complicated still, there was not one peasant mentality but thousands, for the distances between settlements, and the varied climates, landscapes, and histories of Russia's different regions, favored the evolution of separate stories, different styles of speech, and even different views of violence, punishment, death, and afterlife. These are the things that it is easy to forget under the mesmerizing influence of certain kinds of Russian poetry, the qualifications and alternatives that lie in wait for anyone who visits the peasants' world in search of the origins of an imagined Russian nationhood, a Russian soul. Variety is also the strongest evidence against that bleaker view of continuity, the one that seeks to blame the terrible bloodshed of Russia's twentieth century upon some cultural flaw, some legacy of barbarism. A more imaginative view of this lost world would turn the question around, and weigh the value that a rural people placed on ritual, on faith, on common languages of grief. It would ask what price these men and women, bound by custom and geography, reliant as they were on family and soil, were about to pay for the upheavals of the twentieth century. To acquire the authority to answer this, or any other question about Russia's peasant culture at this time, however, you have to make a journey of your own.

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Table of Contents

Against the Darkness: An Introduction 1
1 Another Light 21
2 A Culture of Death 47
3 The Palace of Freedom 73
4 Transforming Fire 101
5 Common and Uncommon Graves 125
6 The Great Silence 154
7 Nights of Stone 184
8 Russia at War 211
9 The Pantheon 241
10 Death in the Age of "Developed Socialism" 270
11 A Tide of Bones 297
12 Listening for the Dead 324
Notes and Sources 349
Bibliography 381
Index 393
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