Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied
By Alexander Etkind
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter One Mimetic and Subversive
Both Russian citizens and foreign visitors know this image well: the 500-ruble banknote, which has been in use for the past two decades. It shows the Solovetsky monastery, a magnificent edifice on an arctic island, one of the most cherished sanctuaries of the Orthodox Church. But look closer and you will spot an odd detail: instead of onion-shaped cupolas, the cathedral is topped with wooden pyramids.
There was a period in the long history of this monastery when awkward planks roofed the cathedral towers. In the 1920s and 1930s, the cathedral was used as a gigantic barracks for a prison camp that was deployed on this island. Its convicts destroyed the leaking cupolas and built the pyramidal roofs, which survived until the 1980s, when the reconstruction started. The Solovetsky camp was the earliest and "exemplary" camp in the gulag system that defined twentieth-century Russia. In cultural memory, this camp functions as a metonym for all Soviet campsa part that stands for the whole and embraces all the horror and suffering of the Soviet victims. The title of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great book The Gulag Archipelago alludes among other things to the Solovetsky Archipelago. The memorial stones that mourn the victims of Stalinism on the central squares of Moscow and St. Petersburg were both brought from these islands.
In the twenty-first century, the monastery has fully restored its onion-shaped cupolas and other features of its ancient past. The monastery houses a historical museum that tells the story, albeit incompletely, of the murderous camp that once functioned within its walls. However, after many years of struggle between the monastery and the museum, in 2011 the Russian government decided that the museum should move from the island to the mainland. The Solovetsky story was to be streamlined. One part of its past would become the whole; another part would be excised and sent elsewhere. Simultaneously, Russia's Central Bank decided to revise the image on its note; on September 6, 2011, the bank announced the issuing of a new version of the note, which now features the onion-shaped domes of the Solovetsky monastery. Though the bank did not comment on these changes, their meaning is clear: there is no place for the memory of state terror on the state currency.
The post-Soviet series of banknotes showcase noncontroversial sites of national glory, from the Monument to the Millennium of Russia to the Bolshoi Theater. It is all but impossible to imagine that a concentration camp would be deliberately included among these images. But as I write, the 500-ruble banknote with pyramidal towers is still in circulation. This version of the notea memorial to the Solovetsky camp, not the Solovetsky monasterywas continuously printed and reprinted from 1995 to 2011. The image survived several modifications of the note, including its redenomination in 1997, when the banknote of 500,000 rubles was exchanged for 500 rubles, with the same image of the concentration camp.
Whether millions of Russians are aware of this or not, it is the mournful images of the Soviet gulag that they carry in their wallets, touch, handle, glance at, and exchange daily. But this site of memory is as warped as it is common. Perhaps the 500-ruble banknote carries a double message, representing the Solovetsky monastery for pedestrians and the Solovetsky camp for connoisseurs. With its layers and contradictions, this double image exemplifies the typical complexity of mourning for the Soviet victims. Sometimes the proverbial Russian censorship plays a role in these mourning games, but sometimes we know that censorship is not an issue. It would be brash to suspect the officials of the Central Bank of a subversive conspiracy, nor would I dare to speculate about their unconscious motivations. Probably the most realistic, down-to-earth way to understand this amazing banknote is to see it as a ghostly apparition. Whatever the actual design- and decision-making process that shaped the note may have been, the note's cultural role is very close to that of a ghost. It is unknown who brought the banknote image into being, and how; the same is true for ghosts. The picture on the banknote reminds those who are in the know about a hidden secret of the pasta specialty of ghosts. This is probably how ghosts come to us these days, to haunt the public sphere and marketplace rather than aristocratic manors and deserted graveyards.
Though I do not know who created the 500-ruble banknote, I know who uncovered its meaning. A local scholar of the Solovetsky Archipelago, Yury Brodsky, noticed the unusual towers on the bill, identified the image as belonging to the gulag period, and published his revisionist story. As a result of this interpretative act, the meaning of a routine artifact changed from one of self-celebration to mourning.
Too Much Memory?
In contrast to the Nazi terror that featured a crystal-clear boundary between the victims and perpetrators, the Soviet terror targeted many ethnic, professional, and territorial groups. Though in some waves of terror the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Chechens, or the Jews suffered more than others, there were other waves when the terror chose Russians. Some of these operations focused on the peasants, and others targeted the intelligentsia, but some periods extracted a particularly heavy toll from the state and party apparatus. It was a rule rather than an exception that the perpetrators of one wave of terror became victims of the next. Though in every singular act of torture or murder the victim and the executioner were separated by an enormous distance, the fact was that a little later, in several months or years, the executioner would likely become a victim of the same treatment. This rotation makes it very difficult to reach any historical, philosophical, or theologicalin fact, any rational-understanding of these events. Nikolai Shivarov, an investigator who forced Osip Mandelstam and several other poets and writers to acknowledge their "criminal" enmity toward the Soviet system, committed suicide as a convict of the gulag in 1940. After hundreds of thousands perished on the construction site of the Belomor Canal, the head of this construction project, Semen Firin, was sentenced and shot in 1937. After millions died in the gulag, its organizer and chief administrator, Matvei Berman, was sentenced and shot in 1939. Thousands of perpetrators were purged, arrested, tortured, and executed in the waves of repressions that decimated the bureaucratic bodies responsible for repressions, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) and related bodies of the Communist Party, in Moscow and the provinces. Victims and perpetrators were mixed together in the same families, ethnic groups, and lines of descent. Sometimes they also found themselves mixed together in the same cells and barracks. Unlike their peers in the colonial domains of the socialist empire such as Ukraine or the Baltic states, who felt oppressed by a foreign power and were eager to resist it, and unlike even the peasants in Russian villages who perceived collectivization as the ruthless imposition of an urban and therefore foreign order, the victims from the Russian intelligentsia perceived the terror as senseless and monstrous precisely because it was self-inflicted. Indeed, at the Moscow trial of 1992 that failed to ban the Communist Party as a criminal organization, its attorneys produced a bizarre argument: since Communists suffered from "repressions" more than others, their organization could not be blamed for these crimes, even though it had organized them. Since their peers have already punished some perpetrators, this argument goes, there is no need to punish these people again.
If the Nazi Holocaust exterminated the Other, the Soviet terror was suicidal. The self-inflicted nature of the Soviet terror has complicated the circulation of three energies that structure the postcatastrophic world: a cognitive striving to learn about the catastrophe; an emotional desire to mourn for its victims; and an active drive to find justice and take revenge on the perpetrators. As in Shakespeare's Hamlet, these three impulsesto learn, to mourn, and to avengecompete for the limited resources of the melancholic mind. The suicidal nature of the Soviet atrocities made revenge all but impossible, and even learning very difficult. To learn about oneself is the toughest among the challenges of learning. Mourning, however, has had no limits.
There is no umbrella concept to embrace all the branches and institutions of the Soviet terror. In cultural memory, the Solovetsky camp represents the system of the gulag, and the gulag represents the Soviet terror. However, victims of the Soviet regime also suffered in many other institutions of the criminal state: during the arrest when the state came into their homes, searched their belongings, and separated them from their families; in investigative prisons, where the state applied the most inhuman (and illegal, under that state's own laws) methods of torture; in various forms of "administrative exile" and "special resettlement" that broke up families and dictated where people must live, often forcing them to move to isolated and remote locations where conditions were so harsh as to be life-threatening; in grand-scale social experiments such as collectivization and forced industrialization, with famine and urban poverty as their results; and also in other institutions of disciplinary power such as psychiatric hospitals, orphanages, and, last but not least, the Soviet army, with its universal draft and endemic brutality.
The popular word that renders the horror of the Soviet penitentiary system is "zona," the fenced zone of a prison or a camp. "The zone" means everything that is the opposite of "freedom" (svoboda), which, in this usage, embraces all that is the life beyond the fence. "The zone" is, essentially, the gulag from the prisoner's point of view. The institutional framework of the gulag is much broader, and I follow the tradition of using this concept, "gulag," as an imprecise but convenient term for the whole variety of Soviet-era penitentiary institutions. Historically, the word "gulag" is the bureaucratic acronym of the Stalin-era's State Administration of Camps, which was closed down in 1960. But the potential for meaningful generalization of this concept is huge. Veniamin Iofe, probably the most impressive intellectual of the Memorial Society, has defined the gulag as a kind of shorthand for Soviet oppression in all its forms. "Our compatriots still have the gulag within," wrote Iofe in 2001. With this range of definitions, it is not surprising that the number of gulag victims is uncertain; the available estimates range between 5 and 30 million. Even the number of their official "rehabilitations" is unknown; it ranges, by different accounts, from 1.2 to 4.5 million. Indeed, the only certainty about the Soviet catastrophe, apart from its massive scale, is its very uncertainty. We do not have anything like a full list of victims; we do not have anything like a full list of executioners; and we do not have adequate memorials, museums, and monuments, which could stabilize the understanding of these events for generations to come.
Unlike the treatment of former Nazi officials in Germany, no professional ban was ever instated for former leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, let alone its rank-and-file members. Only negligible compensation has been provided to those victims who have been officially "rehabilitated." Many more of those who were robbed by the Soviet Communists, such as the millions of collective farmers, for example, will never see any form of compensation whatsoever. This unfinished business is one of the reasons for the obsessive return of history in contemporary Russian culture and politics.
There was no external authority, such as occupying forces or an international court, to dispense justice; and there has been no serious philosophical debate in Russia, secular or religious, over problems of collective guilt, memory, and identity. Despite an attempt made in the early 1990s to initiate such a debate by the historian and gulag survivor Dmitry Likhachev (see chapter 4), Russian intellectuals have not produced anything comparable to the great book by Karl Jaspers, The Problem of Guilt. In Germany or France, denial of the Holocaust is a crime, but in Russia a politician or professor can disseminate propaganda for the Soviet past and ignore or deny its crimes without subjecting himself or herself to the slightest risk. While Europeans are talking about the "mnemonic age," a "memory fest," and a growing obsession with the past "around the globe," some Russian authors complain about the "historical amnesia" in their country.
In fact, "nostalgia," rather than "amnesia," has become a fashionable word and an important element of post-Soviet culture. Allusions to the past make up an important part of the political present. Political opponents in Russia differ most dramatically not in their understanding of economic reforms or international relations, but in their interpretations of history. Discussions of current policy issues rarely go without reference to historical experience. Concepts and labels like "Stalinism," "the cult of personality," and "political repressions" are rhetorically employed as often as modern legal or economic terms. The events of the mid-twentieth century still make up a living, contentious experience that threatens to return again and therefore feels frightening and uncanny (see chapters 10 and 11).
In 2011, one of the most popular Russian journalists, Oleg Kashin, who had just recovered from injuries inflicted in a beating reminiscent of the manner in which the Soviet state treated its dissidents, said that Stalin was "the third person sleeping in every one of our beds.... Napoleon has long become a brand of cognac, and Stalin should have become the name of a kebab or a sort of tobacco, but we constantly drag him out of the grave." Post-Soviet memory operates as a living combination of various symbols, periods, and judgments, which are experienced simultaneously. The present is oversaturated with the past, and this solution refuses to produce any sediment. As Tony Judt put it, in western Europe, the problem is a shortage of memory, but in eastern Europe and Russia, "there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw."
Too much or too little, one thing is clear: the very nature of the Soviet terror makes it difficult to comprehend, remember, and memorialize. To the scholars of Stalinism, there is nothing more foreign than the German-Jewish idea of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and the reason for this is not only the desire to receive the proper recognition for the victims of Stalinism on a par with the victims of Nazism but also the intuitive understanding of the multitude of "repressions"genocides and democidesthat constitute Stalinism. There were many waves of "repressions," and most of them were repetitive, chaotic, confusing, and overwhelming. Even though their total numbers can be set forth in the homogenous language of demographic losses, in other respects they defy standardization, spread out as they were over a good part of the twentieth century and across the gigantic space of Eurasia. The descendants of these repressions' survivors do not share the concepts that were crucial for the perpetrators and fatal for the victims. The "kulaks," the "saboteurs," the "bourgeoisie," the "social parasites," the "anti-Soviet elements," and other "class enemies" were exterminated for belonging to these categories, which have no meaning for us.
Remembering the Soviet terror often entails disbelief that such things could have happened. This is a productive feeling, but the least appropriate response to it would be a redemptive narrative that demonstrates the functionality of terror. The victims' suffering and the perpetrators' intentions are both unbelievable in man-made catastrophes, and "suspension of disbelief," a popular literary convention, cannot help us to learn their lessons. The Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander writes about disbelief as a deep and common response to the Nazi terror. He states that though a common goal of historical writing is "to domesticate disbelief, to explain it away," the research on the Holocaust should resist this temptation. Scholars of the Soviet period should aspire to do the same. Writing history does not imply resolving its warped contradictions in a smooth, functional narrative. Making sense of the memory of the past does not require sharing its weird presumptions. We do not need to comprehend the murderer's motives in order to mourn his victim, though many mourners do know the desire to understand what happened, and why, and what it meant.
Excerpted from WARPED MOURNING by Alexander Etkind Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.