Culture of death

A historian's view of 20th century Russia shows the traumatic legacy of totalitarian terror.

By Charles Taylor

Published May 7, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

The British historian Catherine Merridale set out to write the story of 20th century Russia, a society that saw two revolutions -- the Soviet, in 1917, and the overthrow of Communism, in 1991. She wanted to write about "the idea that a modern revolution could try to create an entirely new kind of person." What she found was more coherence than disjunction, and most of this coherence had to do with death.

It could hardly be otherwise in a society that, from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to Stalin's death in 1953, lost more than 50 million citizens to war, to political violence, to the famines that swept the country in the early '30s and late '40s, and to the epidemics that followed each of those catastrophes, often because the sheer numbers of dead meant corpses were stacked at cemeteries or tossed into the street. The spring was a particularly dangerous time: The snow that had kept bodies from decomposing through the winter melted, and infected water flowed through the streets.

Were Merridale not such a fine writer the stories she is telling here might well be unendurable. It's not that she has hoarded atrocities to recount with relish. The worst she has to tell she delivers calmly, without fuss, with a sensibility that blends reason and emotion in a way you associate more with literature or music than with the writing of history. But what she has to tell is horrible enough -- the cannibalism that accompanied the famines, the people who were told their loved ones were about to be released from Stalin's prisons when they had in fact been shot years before, the horror bordering on black comedy. In 1937 Stalin held a much-trumpeted census. The information that was gathered, which suggested the catastrophic scale of the famine that ravaged the country in 1932-33, was deemed so potentially disastrous to Soviet rule that the results were declared top secret. All the national officials who worked on the census were arrested, and some were shot.

Some of Merridale's observations -- how the Communists paradoxically determined to create a society of scientific atheism with religious fervor; the lavishness of Russian Orthodox funerary finding an unlikely echo in the lavishness of Soviet state funerals and the fetishization that has attended the preserved body of Lenin -- make such sense that it's as if it were all in your brain all along, just waiting to be articulated.

Much of what she writes here is startling, nothing more so than the strange combination of denial and unassuagable grief that results when a culture of death is also a culture of enforced silence. Think about it: Because of the nature of the violence that defined Stalin's reign, mourning someone who had been declared an antirevolutionary or an enemy of the people was the easiest way to get branded an enemy as well. In a weird way, the people left to mourn Stalin's victims began to do the dictator's work for him. In a state of totalitarian terror, Russians learned to repress their emotions, learned not to even voice grievances or doubts about the government in private conversation for fear of being overheard or reported. When your life depends on the manner you adopt, that manner ceases to become an act; you play the part fully so no one ever has cause to doubt your sincerity.

Merridale describes a society of people who have suffered violence unimaginable to most of us, many of whom are now experiencing psychological trauma because the lies of the regime that oppressed them are being exposed. It's not just things like the discoveries of Stalin's mass graves but, perhaps most traumatic, the explosion of the myth built around the Great Patriotic War (World War II). More than half of those 50 million dead died in Russia's military during the War, many due to a combination of incompetence and arrogance, a willing sacrifice of soldiers to make a point about Soviet bravery. Confronting those truths has proved to be devastating for the remaining generations. Merridale reports that some of the elderly who have recorded testimonies for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation have suffered depression and even heart attacks after reliving what has been so long buried.

The best historical and political writing is often the sort that brings no comfort. Merridale's searching sensibility, her refusal to be satisfied with easy answers will likely please neither the left nor the right. There can be no self-delusions about the nature of communism after reading this book (and certainly no retreat to the comforting myth that "true" communism has never really been attempted). Nor can there be any possibility of using the deaths recounted here as "icons for freedom." That, Merridale writes, "is the most complacent kind of moral tourism," another gross appropriation of murder for political ideology. This book is an example of moral and emotional bravery. Merridale has contemplated the worst without invective. That she has done so while maintaining her steady, pained, questioning and restless voice pays honor to the dead and sets an example for everyone left pondering their fates.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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