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The long life of Stalinism: reflections on the aftermath of totalitarianism and social memory.

If there are some relatively stable tropes of memory-work, some patterns and idioms of collective working-through of the past we have come to expect, Russia defies them all. Two decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but if you so much as scratch the surface of most family histories, you are likely to discover first-hand experiences of Gulags and deportations, dekulakisation and State terror. Yet there have been no legal processes put into place by which the atrocities of Stalinism would be officially recognised and condemned as crimes against humanity. (1) Unlike, say, South Africa or Argentina, Russia has had no Truth Commission, no 'Never Again' report, no mechanisms to enable and legitimate the nation-wide work of testimony, witnessing and mourning. Russia has had nothing like the whole-scale memorialisation of its traumatic history that we have seen in Germany or the USA. Over fifty years since the death of Stalin, there is still no central monument to the victims of terror. The location of most mass graves remains unknown and streets across the nation carry the names of henchmen. (2) The thought that the victims of Stalinism and their families might receive an official 'Apology' like the one delivered by the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to indigenous Australians, makes one laugh with incredulity. Even more alarmingly, in 2008 'The Name of Russia'--a project under the umbrella of the Russian Academy of Sciences broadcast by the State-owned TV channel--instituted a nation-wide search for a historical figure that best represented Russia of today. (3) Modeled after BBC's '100 Greatest Britons', 'The Name of Russia' had Stalin finish third in a contest, which commenced with five hundred potential candidates for the title. The persistent rumours spread on many Internet forums suggested that the organisers of the program had to tamper with the votes to prevent the scandal of Stalin coming first.

On the surface, this looks like an almost clinical picture of the collective amnesia or, in the psychoanalytic terms, of the 'mass repression' of mass repressions, only this is not quite the case. In today's Russia, we can observe not a black-out on memories of totalitarianism and Stalinism but on the contrary a profound surplus of such memories at least as far as testimonial and historical texts are concerned. "Since the late 1980's," writes historian Irina Paperno, "there has been an overwhelming outpouring of memoirs, diaries, and other personal accounts of life under the Soviet regime." (4) Outpouring is no euphemism. There is so much material out there you could spend a lifetime reading. Much of it is freely available on the Internet. (5) In other words, despite the current government's push towards the rehabilitation of the Soviet regime (or, rather, its version of it), there is an incredibly rich, voluminous and constantly growing body of the highly credible literature that painstakingly chronicles both the specific experiences and the broader historical narratives underpinning the fate of millions of Soviet citizens killed, imprisoned, deported, sent to Gulag or forced to live in constant terror. It is clear that the processes and cultures of remembering and forgetting Stalinism effectively co-exist in the contemporary Russia in complex and confronting ways. What is more, the vectors of memory are moving forward and backwards at the same time--it is simply inconceivable, for instance, that so many people would have voted for Stalin in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Inevitably we are left with the question of how to account for this convergence of a uniquely powerful testimonial culture and the wide-scale rehabilitation of the Soviet regime--a predicament that simply could not have been possible without some kind of deep forgetting or systematic mis-remembering of the Soviet past. Paul Connerton has recently set out "to disentangle the different types of acts that cluster together under the single term 'to forget.'" (6) He has come up with at least seven different types of forgetting--from repressive erasure, a notion we have come to associate with the totalitarian regimes, to non-coercive and deliberate "long-term forgetting as a process of cultural discarding in the interests of forming a new identity" (7) from forgetting as a structural amnesia--a way of dealing with the burden of too much memory to forgetting as an expression of shame and 'humiliated silence'. (8) Any exploration of memory in Russia makes it clear that an equal level of complexity and differentiation should be ascribed not just to forgetting but also to types of remembering and to the interactions between remembering and forgetting in various cultural fields.

The Million-Dollar Question

All kinds of theories have been advanced to explain why and how the historical legacy of Soviet terror has been painstakingly remembered and just as painstakingly forgotten, all at the same time. In both independent local and international media, the rehabilitation of the seven decades of Soviet rule is rarely explained without a reference to some kind grotesque caricature--it may be the masochistic craving for an iron fist deeply ingrained in Russian psyche or a case of the nation-wide uber-forgetting of mythic proportions, or the powers of mass hypnosis attributed to the neo-totalitarian government of Putin-Medvedev. There is no denying that the current government is engaged in a concerted campaign of re-inscribing nothing short of greatness to all things Soviet--its leaders, its achievements and its legacy--minus of course, the regrettable 'excesses' of purges and forced collectivisation that are conceptualised not as events intrinsic or foundational to the regime but precisely as aberrations. After all, Prime Minister Putin, when he was still the country's President, famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth-century. (9) We can see this campaign of rehabilitation manifest in the government rhetoric and in messages laundered through government-controlled media outlets, in the shutting down of archives, culling of history textbook and in the unlawful raids on the offices of the 'Memorial' human rights and historical preservation society--the most important voice for preserving the historical memory of Stalinism in Russia today. (10)

But a campaign like this cannot be successful unless a significant proportion of population accepts the basic premises enunciated, explicitly or obliquely, by institutions of the State and by those parties, like various media or religious groupings, dependent on the State patronage. Russian sociologist Boris Dubin suggests that contemporary Russia is "a society lacking in depth, characterised by flatness."(11) Quick to tire of anything complex or burdensome, it has been unable to hold on to a historical awareness of the crimes committed by Soviet leadership, which emerged under Gorbachev. Dubin believes that the outpouring and wide public circulation of memory of Stalinism in the late 1980s and 1990s was used as a tool of political confrontation with the old regime. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, this confrontation was essentially exhausted and with it the urge to remember and to bear witness seemed to have lost its cultural and social imperative. The idea that a strong and self-aware civic society is dependent on the active historical consciousness of its members has, he says, become an abstraction in today's Russia. (12)

Arseniy Roginskiy, the Chairman of 'Memorial', argues persuasively that the rehabilitation of Stalin was not the objective of the current government as such. Rather, it was a by-product of the rehabilitation of the idea of Russia as a 'great nation' and of the concerted campaign to legitimate the authority of the State, which began in the early 1990s in response to the crisis of legitimacy experienced by the State authorities following the collapse of the Soviet Union. (13) The vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet regime was filled by certain heavily mythologised moments taken from the Soviet history, with the Soviet victory in the WWII emerging as foremost amongst them. Sociologist Lev Gudkov points out that the victory of 1945 is not simply "the central semantic knot of Soviet history," spanning from the 1917 October Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but, in fact, is "the only positive reference point for the national consciousness of the post-Soviet society." (14) Surveys indicate that the identification of the war and the Soviet victory as the most important historical event of the twentieth-century has only grown (and grown significantly) in the last decade or so. (15)

The emphasis on the victory in the war works to legitimate "the Soviet totalitarian regime as a whole as well as the principle of 'uncontrollable power' that defined it." (16) The war is so inextricably linked with the figure of Stalin that any growth in its symbolic power is bound to increase Stalin's legitimacy. The triumphant narrative of the war acts as a smokescreen for other kind of memories of the regime as well as wrapping a protective shield around the figure of Stalin. In fact, the more the figure of Stalin is associated with the war, the weaker its links appear to be with the history of political terror and mass repressions. In a sense, the accepted story of the war does not just work to re-legitimate Stalin but also to push to the margins of people's minds and social discourses the history of Stalin's repressions. In 1989, Dubin tells us, thirty nine percent of people polled thought that Stalinism was one of the main events of the 20th-Century. Ten years later, this figure had shrunk to only eleven percent. Of the young people between ages eighty to twenty-four questioned, only two percent today claimed to know 'a significant amount' about Stalinism. (17)

Another reason frequently cited to explain the way in which memories of Stalinism could be pushed to the periphery of public debates is the scarcity of what Alexander Etkind calls the 'hard memory' of the repressions. (18) Etkind distinguishes between 'soft memory'--testimonial texts of all kinds and 'hard memory'--stable material markers anchored in the physical world such as memorials and monuments. While acknowledging that a number of mnemonic genres occupy a complex continuum between hard and soft memories, Etkind diagnoses the state of the post-Soviet Russian culture of memory as disproportionately dominated by 'soft' memories, which, demonstrably, have not been able to provide sufficient resistance to the cycles of refutations and denial. In trying to explain the ease with which history of Stalin's crimes could be re-written, Roginskiy notes, "it seems that both the State and the society did not do enough to preserve the memory, to comprehend the catastrophe endured. First and foremost, memory needs to be secured in tangible things." (19) These tangible things include the naming of (all) the victims, identification and marking of burial sites and other physical places associated with purges and repressions--material remains of Gulags, prisons, mines and other types of industrial projects built on the slave labour of the camp inmates and special deportees. Just as importantly, sites of memory cannot be contained within the boundaries of city outskirts, cemeteries and special designated sites. They need to become part of the urban fabric of Russian cities.

Historian Irina Flige, the director of the St Petersburg branch of 'The Memorial' argues that "the material memory is different to the verbal one, it is more concrete and more persuasive. It cannot be drowned in empty talk, it is easily readable." (20) When it comes to remembering Soviet totalitarianism, the need to counter the persistent immateriality of its memory emerges as one of the most important historical battles of the present day. "The arrests and the executions of 1937," writes Flige,
  were accompanied by the blind uncertainty and the muteness of
  buildings--no signs and no addresses, cars without any identifying
  inscriptions, the absence of written evidence about people's fate.
  Arrest as disappearance, as death, but death which was unknowable and
  immaterial, without a body, a funeral, a grave site. (21)

The cars Flige is talking about are the so-called 'Black Crows'--the closed vehicles used for the transportation of the arrested. The buildings are the ones in every city and town where people were imprisoned, interrogated and shot (frequently in special basements). And this immateriality continued with the deportations and exiles, with the arrests of other members of the family, with the all-pervasive fear that made people throw into fire their priceless and irreplaceable personal archives. For Flige and many other historians dealing daily with the fabrications and sanitisation of the history of Stalinism, the need for memories to take on tangible, material forms is both urgent and dire.

It must be said that when it comes to the legacy of seven decades of the Soviet regime the situation in Russia is markedly different from that in many other post-Soviet nations (and in countries of the former Eastern bloc more broadly). In Ukraine and Baltic States, for instance, we can observe a process of what Ukrainian historian Gregoriy Kasyanov calls the 'nationalisation' and 'privatisation' of history. (22) This kind of oppositional national history is used as the cornerstone for the revival of national consciousness and identity, an argument first for sovereignty and then for an unbroken tradition of national consciousness invariably imagined as unified and democratic. And with historical narratives so firmly ensconced in the 'politics' corner (however noble we may judge all aspirations of sovereignty and self-determination to be), what people choose to remember in some kind of public or semi-public forums becomes very quickly the question of allegiances and loyalty. In other words, when the past is so heavily politicised and instrumentalised, remembering it, whatever the context, becomes a process of negotiating existing social scripts concerned not simply with installing particular interpretations of key historical moments, but also with locking in a very specific view of the functions of social or historical memory itself. (23) This is not to say that the frames of remembrance pre-determine practices and processes of social remembering, but that they certainly influence profoundly what Jeffrey Olick calls figurations of memory--"developing relations between past and present." (24)

In present-day Russia, which is seen by many inside and outside the country as the heir to the Soviet Union, the picture is significantly more complex. While claims about the past are an integral part of political debates, the vast body of testimonial and historical documents related to the Soviet regime and specifically to the history and legacy of Stalinism has not been able to counter the wide-spread forgetting or mis-remembering of the Soviet past. The attempts to mobilise this massive and constantly growing repository of private memories, public documents and historical work to act as an effective antidote to the falsification of historical accounts have failed to a significant extent. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it looked like social memory was precisely the force that was going to put an end to the deployment of history as pure ideology and to effect the large-scale de-Sovietisation of the public discourses (which is what largely happened in, say, Ukraine or the Baltic States). But something went awry. In trying to identify that 'something', I believe it is neither accurate nor the least bit illuminating to speak about marginalisation, silencing or exclusion of certain kinds of memories and certain forms of remembering from the public sphere of a particular society at a particular historical moment. The point is, as Michael Rothberg argues, that "neither the space nor the subject of public discourse is given in advance." (25) In fact, Rothberg writes, "testimony and memory do not simply move from private to public at a particular historical moment... rather, their public articulation and address help redefine what counts as public and therefore what terrain exists for political struggle." (26) This is then precisely the critical point- the outbound traffic of private testimonies in the post-Soviet Russia, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has not been able to reconfigure the public sphere in any profound or lasting sense. And similarly, the spaces of the nation, particularly in its cities, have not been transformed by the emergence of memory sites and markers. Together, these failures effectively laid the foundations for the return of 'business as usual'.

There is Something about (Soviet) Totalitarianism

There are other issues at stake, however, beyond the nature of the post-Soviet public spaces and institutions and the predominantly text-based media of memory. In other words, it is essential that we turn our attention not only to how and where the Soviet totalitarianism is remembered but also to what precisely is in need of being remembered. By what I do not mean debates over policies or body-counts but features intrinsic to the totalitarian project in the Soviet Union. In a recent talk at the international conference on the history of Stalinism, Arseniy Roginsky argued,
  In the memory of the terror, we are unable to assign the main roles,
  unable to put in their rightful place the pronouns 'we' and 'they'.
  This impossibility of disassociation from evil is effectively the
  main obstacle for the development of the fully-fledged social memory
  of the terror. (27)

Historian Irina Sherbakova, based at 'Memorial' in Moscow, began recording recollections of Stalinist camps from the 1970s when most people were rendered silent at the sight of her tape-recorder because they knew all too well that the regimes could change at the drop of a hat and that the smallest throw-away phrase was enough to destroy an entire family. Sherbakova worked slowly, starting only with people she knew, mainly women, yet one by one the interviews started to amass and the stories, ominously, began to repeat each other. One of the recurring threads that Sherbakova came across repeatedly concerned the blurring of the boundaries between victims and perpetrators. "In general," she wrote, "the problem of who were victims and who were executioners in the Soviet context is extraordinarily complex." (28) After all, there was nothing that truly separated one from the other. In many cases Sherbakova notes that there was no ideological divide separating victims and perpetrators. Many of those sentenced to death, exile or imprisonment for anti-Soviet conspiracies were the true believers, whole-heartedly committed to the communist ideals and to their embodiment in Stalin. They identified themselves with the regime that was terrorising them and their families. Some believed that a mistake was made in their case and that their innocence would one day be reaffirmed. Others thought that NKVD was infiltrated by fascists--the true enemies of the Soviet people. In general, it was not uncommon for acquaintances to meet each other side on the other side of the NKVD's tables. Neither was it uncommon for a hard-working representative of the authorities to (eventually) end up in the same camp as his victim. Time and time again yesterday's interrogators would become today's prisoners. (29) In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, for instance, tens of thousands of the NKVD workers who were actively involved in the first wave of purges themselves became victims of the next wave of the repressions. (30)

The totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union produced whole clans of people, who were neither victims nor victimisers or, rather who were both. It also produced whole clans of informers who were often coerced into offering their services and, as such, again occupied that infamous 'gray zone' between victims and victimisers. In fact, during the reign of Stalin, informers were everywhere. (31) "Working people took their honey to the management," wrote Nadezhda Mandelstam in her memoirs Hope Abandoned, "to the party secretaries and human resources department." (32) Teachers with the help of student leaders "could squeeze butter out of every student. Tertiary students were made to inform on lecturers." (33) The omnipresence of informers was a constitutive element of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union. (34) "Apart from the continuous gathering of information," Mandelstam noted, "they achieved the weakening of the connection between people, the disaggregation of the civic society". (35) Pulling more and more people into their circle, so that those who are allowed to survive have blood on their hands in one way or another, is the very principle that sustains totalitarian regimes. These always growing circles of complicity and implication also explain, at least partially, why under Stalin the atmosphere of total lawlessness co-existed with the obsessive pursuit of confessions from those arrested. In a totalitarian society, argues Sherbakova, "in the period of total terror, the general guilt needed to be shared by all--by both victims and executioners." (36) And not just the guilt, but also feelings of terror and powerlessness. "Anybody who breathes the air of terror," wrote Mandelstam, "is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life." (37)

The all-pervasive and insidious nature of totalitarianism is a powerful obstacle to the development of historical consciousness in no small measure because it complicates enormously the possibility of shared and articulated mourning. This is critical because as Judith Butler argues,
  Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a
  solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing. But I think
  it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and
  it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties
  that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and
  ethical responsibility. (38)


The deliberate and wide-scale creation and maintenance of particular affective states, such as terror, paranoia and guilt were fundamental to the Soviet totalitarianism. In a direct response to those, who, during the Khrushchev's thaw of the 1960s (39), wondered whether there had to be, in fact, a limit, a measure of some kind to how many times the stories of Stalin's purges and repressions could be told, Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote,
  And I state emphatically that there is no measure to be taken: we
  must talk about the same things until every tragedy is exposed and
  every tear comes to the surface, until the causes of what happened
  then and what is happening now become clear. (40)

I take Mandelstam's insistence on remembering without measure to mean that all these things too should be accounted for--all the threats that did not materialise, all the waiting, the coming together of a hyper-vigilance and an increasing numbness, in other words, states of consciousness as well as the long-term affective states purposefully and masterfully engendered by totalitarianism in its particular historical forms. "Sometimes it felt," Mandelstam wrote at the height of Stalin's purges in the 1930s, "as if the whole country was suffering from the persecution mania." (41) These states of terror and paralysis, this persecution mania from which millions suffered are what happened in the 1930s in the Soviet Union just as much as the purges and the camps.

The very nature of totalitarianism forces us to reach well beyond the standard narratives of repressions and terror towards the histories of affect. Could it be that these little-understood histories of affect persist till the present day and make it possible, just as much as the government's agenda or the media's cynical cultivation of the pro-Soviet demographics, for the once wide-spread condemnation of Stalin's legacy to be gradually reversed? In his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus Brian Massumi defines affect as "an ability to affect and be affected. It is a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body's capacity to act." (42) Eric Shouse does a good job of clarifying Massumi's definition. Feelings, Shouse argues, are personal and biographical, emotions are social (projections and displays of feelings) and affects are prepersonal. (43) For Shouse an affect "is a non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential." (44) This is why affect "cannot be fully realized in language," for it precedes consciousness and will. (45) Affect plays an important role in determining the relationship between our bodies, our environment, and others. (46) Its importance rests "upon the fact that in many cases the message consciously received may be of less import to the receiver of that message than his or her non-conscious affective resonance with the source of the message." (47)

But how do we historicise affect? One possible way is to follow Jeff Olick's argument that, "remembering is an ongoing process of mediation rather than storage and retrieval," (48) so we can break open our ideas of what kinds of things remembering might actually produce. In allowing the notion of affect to inform our ideas about what it means to remember Soviet totalitarianism, about 'what' precisely is being or is in need of being remembered, we inevitably move away from the total reliance on representational or declarational forms of memory towards other kinds of memories not reducible to a narrative or representation. Yet to my mind, the implicit opposition between representational and non-representational forms of memory is, at least partially, a product of early thinking on memory and trauma, in which affect and representation were opposed to each other and the notion of non-representational memory was subsumed in the idea of the traumatic. (49) I believe that this opposition is misleading and unhelpful, particularly when it comes to the Soviet experience. And while it is undoubtedly hard to historicise affect and to locate its traces in the present, this kind of work is already being done by a number of historians.

In her exploration of memory and the Gulag, historian Jehanne M. Gheith uses the notion of 'non-narrative' memory in part to free herself from the burden of assumptions centered around notions of trauma and representation. (50) Non-narrative memory is not the same as traumatic memory. "Many people who survived the Gulag," Gheith argues,
  remember in ways that do not involve repetition compulsion,
  flashbacks, or direct narration. Rather, they find ways to remember
  that involve caring in some daily way for the very things that they
  associate with the original hurt. (51)

Memories are not extinguished when they cannot be turned into narratives. They survive in all kinds of unexpected and powerful ways. Yet it is because of our tendency to reduce the absence of a coherent and articulated narrative to a manifestation of trauma that, in the words of Gheith, "we have had a hard time interpreting the Soviet and post-Soviet experience, a hard time seeing the non-narrative as powerful." (52)

The very functions, meanings and cultures of both individual and group memory were transformed in the course of the totalitarian project. Because of this, it is essential that we ask what totalitarianism did to "the production and circulation of experience across cultural pathways of meaning?" (53) In Stalin's Soviet Union with informers literally everywhere, committing things to memory, rather than to paper, became an essential tool of survival. At the same time, how and to what ends people remembered were necessarily affected by living in a constant state of terror and by being unable to share the bulk of their memories even with the closest friends or family members. The human ability and compulsion to keep things alive and safe in their memory was, in other words, both brought to the forefront under the totalitarian regime while, at the same time, in the absence of any safe mechanisms of transmissions, a great deal of remembering was displaced onto the non-verbal, non-representational planes of body, behaviour, habits, dreams and, more broadly, ways of being in the world.

Orlando Figes's The Whisperers. Private Life in Stalin's Russia is driven not by the question of "what happened" but by the question of "what did it feel to be there." Based on over five hundred remarkable oral history interviews conducted by members of 'Memorial' historical and human rights organisation, the project is a enquiry into "the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens living under Stalin's tyranny." (54) Figes is particularly interested in "the moral sphere of the family," (55) in people's responses to the sudden arrests of their loved ones on fabricated charges and in the inter-generational transmission of family's traditions and beliefs especially if they happened to be in conflict with the values imposed by the Soviet regime. He has a myriad of questions about the relationship between public and private lives and selves during Stalin's regime,
  How did living in a system ruled by terror affect intimate
  relationships? ... How could human feelings and emotions retain any
  force in the moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime? What were the
  strategies for survival, the silences, the lies, the friendships and
  betrayals, the moral compromises and accommodations that shaped
  millions of lives? (56)

The focus on private life and on family is particularly significant because in the 1930s the notion of family, attacked only a decade earlier within the official discourse of communality, was appropriated by the Soviet State and subsequently presented "as a new family, with Stalin in the roles of lover, husband, and grandfather of the people." (57) "In this larger-than-life Soviet patriarchy," writes Svetlana Boym, "Stalin was the patriarch." (58) Historical work that reclaims the domain of family under Stalinism does, therefore, a triple job of examining closely a largely neglected and profoundly important historical 'canvas', reconstituting the notion of 'family' itself and, at the same time, foregrounding affect as a constitutive element of any history of totalitarianism. "The real power and lasting legacy of the Stalinist system," writes Figes, "were neither in the structures of the state, nor in the cult of the leader, but, as the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter once remarked, 'in the Stalinism that entered into all of us.'" (59) The power of Stalinism to 'enter' into people's hearts and minds is not explicable simply with reference to an ideological brainwashing or people's internalisation of certain values and beliefs. More often than not, the 'entry' points of Stalinism were the affective states it had purposefully engendered in its subjects, most notably the all-pervasive and inescapable fear.

The recognition that we need to find ways of incorporating affective states in our accounts of life under terror is reflected in historian Irina Paperno's claim that dreams from Stalinist Russia should be seen as a highly valuable resource for historians of the Soviet totalitarianism. (60) Paperno follows Reinhart Koselleck's argument that dreams can tell us things about repressive regimes that other narratives cannot and that dreams themselves can be seen as instruments or modalities of "performance of the terror". (61) In other words, dreams can be paths into histories of affect which are otherwise inaccessible or resistant to direct articulation and are themselves the embodiments and conduits of affective states--fear, terror, powerlessness, persecution mania and guilt. Importantly, Paperno sees dreams as more than just the entry points into the fiercely guarded private domains of terrorised subjects. In her view, "since repressive regimes mobilize our ability for self-alienation, self-deception, and ambivalence, dreams can be taken as a structural analogy of self-knowledge under terror." "Moreover", she continues, "because the dream is the main medium of fear, it can be used as a model of feeling in the subjects of terror regimes." (62) More broadly, Paperno argues that in their frequently politicised manifestations, dreams people had under Stalin signified "the irresistible penetration of the terror into the inner and most intimate domains of people's lives" and can therefore, tell us a great deal about how people responded to the experience of the daily and seemingly unending terror. (63)

Survivor accounts and memoirs are filled with stories and histories of affect. Fear, Nadezhda Mandelstam tells us, was the hardest to bear. For herself, Mandelstam has resolved not to look for meaning in the way that the system of State Terror chose its victims, deciding, as if in a giant and phantasmagoric lottery, who would survive and who would perish.
  We never asked, having heard of the latest arrest, 'Why was he
  taken?' But we were in the minority. Paralysed by fear, people kept
  asking each other purely for consolation... (64)

After all, if there was a reason, if there was at least some kind of logic, then there was hope, a possibility that they and their family might be spared. Fear bred self-delusion. Self-delusion fed more fear as well as people's compulsive need to distance themselves from those arrested. The obscene artificiality of 'Us' and 'Them' became internalised. For Mandelstam and her inner circle, which included poet Anna Akhmatova, the question "Why was he taken?" became forbidden. (65) There was no reason. No sense. No logic. Just the unstoppable spread of all-pervasive terror.

Any exploration of affective dimensions of a particular historical experience comes back to the question of body. "The body," writes Judith Butler,
  implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh
  expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence,
  and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of
  all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own
  bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only
  our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. (66)

It is impossible to dispute the invariably public dimension of the human body in a totalitarian culture. The human body, after all, is a site of the breaking of human spirit through fear, torture, hunger, cold, forced labour, humiliation and deprivation. In an essay consisting of forty-six simple, brief, plainly-worded bullet points, entitled "What I saw and understood in Gulag," writer and Gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov put the following realisation at number one. I saw and understood, he wrote, "the extraordinary fragility of human culture, civilization. A human being becomes an animal in three weeks--with the hard work, cold, hunger and beatings." (67) The transformation of human beings into animals was one of the key objectives of Gulags and Shalamov, an exceptional writer, rips apart the fantasy, to which most of those not directly affected have tended to cling on at one point or another, that somehow human spirit could not be fully reached and conquered by way of tortured and humiliated flesh. With a few exceptions, he tells us, when they have your body, spirit is there for the taking.

"A human being has much more in common with an animal than we think," Shalamov writes in an autobiographical sketch entitled "Memory",
  He is far more primitive than we imagine. In a situation, when a
  thousand-old civilization falls off like chaff and the savage
  biological essence is laid naked, the left-overs of civilization are
  used for the real and brute struggle for life in its immediate,
  primitive form. (68)

Shalamov regarded his autobiographical sketches and short stories as a 'new prose'--"not the prose of the document but the prose of the ordeal borne out as a document." (69) As a survivor and a writer, writes Leona Toker, he saw his role in "the preservation of evidence despite the psychological and social pressures to forgive and forget: instead of trying to travel light, the survivor carries, 'bears', his or her 'document' out of the ordeal." (70) Shalamov's 'new prose', its detailed evocation of Gulag's daily life and its refusal to offer any redemptive narrative of human triumph against adversity or untarnished human dignity, was bound to elicit affective responses in his readers--not through identification, but through condensed, embodied horror. In a story entitled "Dry Rations" in his Kolyma Tales, Shalamov writes,
  We'd all learned weakness and had forgotten how to be surprised. We
  had no pride, vanity, or ambition, and jealousy and passion seemed as
  alien to us as Mars, and as trivial in addition. It was much more
  important to learn how to button your pants in the frost. Grown men
  cried if they weren't able to do that. We understood that death was
  no worse than life, and we feared neither. We were overwhelmed by
  indifference. (71)

This is an anatomy of human disintegration, rendered in the language that refuses to psychologise and to imbue with any meaning the animal state, to which most people were driven into the camps.


In her memoir, Nadezhda Mandelstam diagnosed three main memory sicknesses under totalitarianism--"self-justification, embellishment and forgetting of the superfluous." (72) All around her people were asked to renounce "their sense of the real." (73) After all, she writes, the "loss of memory is tantamount to the loss of reality." (74) Yet memory, she writes, is precisely "what makes us human." (75) American political scientist Alison Brysk has called the Latin American transitional governments not "emerging democracies" but "recovering authoritarians." (76) She has deployed this analogy with "recovering alcoholics" "to highlight the on-going legacy of decades of abusive and pathological behavior, which cannot be overcome until it is confronted, and restructured on a daily basis." (77) This legacy of pathological behavior Brysk identifies pervades every institution, every interaction and every family history of most, if not all, post-totalitarian nations. In the case of Russia it can account, to a significant degree, for the startling co-existence of remembering and forgetting that marks the country's on-going relationship with the legacy of Stalinism.

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(1.) On 1 March 2009, 'Yabloko', one of Russia's remaining liberal parties, has called for the denial of Stalin's crimes against his people to be deemed a criminal offence, in spirit of the Holocaust-denial legislations. At the same time, one of Russia's remaining independent newspapers Novaya Gazeta has commenced collecting signatures for the proposal to put Joseph Stalin on trial.

(2.) See a great deal of information available online on 'Memorial'; Most of the information is in Russian. Memorial is an international historical-enlightment, human rights and humanitarian society and one of the most respected and active advocates of the preservation of the social memory of Stalinism.

(3.) See the official website of the project "Name of Russia" - The website is in Russian only.

(4.) Irina Paperno, "Personal Accounts of the Soviet Experience," Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 4, (2002): 577.

(5.) Both 'Memorial' and Andrey Sakharov Museum and Public Centre have posted a great deal of testimonial and archival literature on their website plus very many useful links--see and

(6.) Paul Connerton, "Seven Types of Forgetting," Memory Studies 1 (2008): 59.

(7.) Paul Connerton, "Seven Types of Forgetting," 64.

(8.) Paul Connerton, "Seven Types of Forgetting," 59.

(9.) This statement by Putin made in his speech in 2005 has been widely covered in the Russian and Western media. See, for instance, Arnold Beichman, "Putin's Russia--Stalin lite," Reason, August 01,2005.

(10.) For information on one of the latest raids, see, for instance, Orlando Figes, "A Victory for Russian History," Index on Censorship, 14 May 2009, Available online in English at

(11.) Boris Dubin, "Only a diverse and deep society can effectively preserve memory" (paper presented at the Round Table "1937-2007: Memory and Responsibility," Gorbachev Foundation, Moscow, Russia, September 26, 2007). Translated from Russian by the author.

(12.) Boris Dubin, "Only a diverse and deep society."

(13.) Arseniy Roginsky, "The Memory of Stalinism" (paper presented at the international conference "Studying the History of Stalinism: Achievements and Current Problems," Moscow, Russia, 5-7 December 2008). Translated from Russian by the author.

(14.) Lev Gudkov, "The memory of the war and Russian mass identity," Neprifeosnovenrvy Zapas (Reserve Stock. Debates about Politics and Culture), 2-3 (2005). Translated by the author.

(15.) Aleksey Levinson, "War, Wars, about the War" ("Voyna, voyny, o voyne'"), Neprikosnovenny Zapas (Reserve Stock. Debates about Politics and Culture), 2-3 (2005). Translated by the author.

(16.) Lev Gudkov, "The memory of the war."

(17.) Boris Dubin, "Only a diverse and deep society."

(18.) Alexander Etkind, "Hard and Soft in Cultural Memory: Political Mourning in Russia and Germany," Grey Room, 16 (2004): 36-59.

(19.) Arseniy Roginsky, "Current tendency is to push the memory of mass terror to the margins of our consciousness" (paper presented at the Round Table "1937-2007: Memory and Responsibility," Gorbachev Foundation, Moscow, Russia, September 26, 2007). Translated by the author.

(20.) Irina Flige, '"Contemporary historical consciousness about the Great terror and the public memory have significantly diverged" (paper presented at the Round Table "1937-2007: Memory and Responsibility," Gorbachev Foundation, Moscow, Russia, September 26, 2007). Translated by the author.

(21.) Irina Flige, "Contemporary historical consciousness."

(22.) Gregoriy Kasyanov, "The Nationalisation of history in Ukraine", (public lecture delivered for 'Public Lectures' project by, 13 November 2008). The transcript of the lecture is available in Russian on Translated by the author.

(23.) In Ukraine, for instance, the overarching script could not be clearer--while the official history was in the hands of the enemy (the aggressive, expansionist, genocidal Soviet Empire), memory functioned as an oppositional force and it is this memory that was instrumental in eventually giving Ukraine its hard-earned independence.

(24.) Jeffrey K. Olick, The politics of regret: collective memory in the age of atrocity (New York, 2007), 91.

(25.) Michael Rothberg, "Between Auschwitz and Algeria: Multidirectional Memory and the Counter-public Witness," Critical Inquiry 33 (2006): 162-163

(26.) Michael Rothberg, "Between Auschwitz and Algeria," 162-163

(27.) Arseniy Roginsky, "The Memory of Stalinism."

(28.) Irina Sherbakova, "The Gulag in Memory" in Luisa Passerini, ed., Memory and Totalitarianism (New Brunswick, 1993): 109.

(29.) This is a common trait of many totalitarian regimes. In Chile, for instance, straight after the 1973 coup, soldiers were demonstrated in no uncertain terms that if they did not torture viciously, fanatically enough, it would be their bodies, their genitals next, wriggling and dancing under the electric currents. See Ariel Dorfman, Exorcising Terror: the incredible unending trial of general Augusto Pinochet (New York, 2002).

(30.) This blurring of boundaries between victims and perpetrators can produce some unexpected consequences and affects. One day when interviewing a Gulag survivor, Irina Sherbakova saw amongst the woman's photographs a picture taken at the Crimean health spas. One of the women on the photograph was the governor of the camp in which the woman Sherbakova was interviewing spent a number of years. To Sherbakova's question, the woman replied, "She wasn't the worst from there. There were some much worse than her." This is not some pathological example. In the 1980s and 1990s, Sherbakova tells us, some former camp administrators were known to write letters to ex-prisoners asking them to confirm for their personal records that they were decent and acted as well as they could under the circumstances. Interestingly, such requests, as a rule, did not provoke outrage. "Yes, he wasn't so bad," Gulag survivors explained, "at least he didn't steal from people, or starve them as much as the governor of the next camp." Irina Sherbakova, "The Gulag in Memory," 108-109.

(31.) Primo Levi, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, The Drowned and the Saved (New York, 1988).

(32.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vospominaniya (Memoirs), (New York, 1970), 37. Published in English in Max Hayward's translation as Hope Against Hope. Here and throughout the extracts from Mandel-stam's memoirs are given in my translation, unless otherwise noted.

(33.) Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, 37

(34.) And these mobs of people lived in perpetual fear of being exposed and just like the NKVD agents themselves they feared any change of regime. They were petrified that the archives may be opened and so were invested in keeping the status quo intact.

(35.) Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, 37-38.

(36.) Irina Sherbakova, "The Gulag in Memory," 108.

(37.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vtoraya Kniga, 37.

(38.) Judith Butler, "Violence, Mourning, Politics," in Studies in Gender and Sexuality 1 (2003): 12. Butler further elaborates, "What grief displays, is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us... Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something." (13).

(39.) This was a period of few years, when it was possible to speak publicly about the Gulag and when, for instance, Solzhenitzyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962 in a literary magazine Noviy Mir.

(40.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vtoraya Kniga (Paris, 1972), 681. Published in English in Max Hayward's translation as Hope Abandoned.

(41.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, 37.

(42.) Brian Massumi, "Notes on the Translation and Acknowledgements," in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London, 1987), xvi.

(43.) Eric Shouse, "Feeling, Emotion, Affect," M/C Journal 8.6 (2005),

(44.) Eric Shouse, "Feeling, Emotion, Affect."

(45.) Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, (Durham, 2002), 29.

(46.) Shouse, "Feeling, Emotion, Affect."

(47.) Shouse, "Feeling, Emotion, Affect."

(48.) Jeffrey K. Olick, The politics of regret: collective memory in the age of atrocity (New York, 2007), 98.

(49.) For an analysis of this opposition and for its productive uses in theorising the relationship between trauma, memory and visual arts, see Jill Bennett, "The Aesthetics of Sense-Memory. Theorising Trauma through the Visual Arts," in Susannah Radstone and Katherine Hodgkin, eds., Regimes of Memory (New York, 2003), 27-39.

(50.) Jehanne M. Gheith, "'I never talked': enforced silence, non-narrative memory, and the Gulag," Mortality 2 (2007): 159-175.

(51.) Jehanne M. Gheith, '"1 never talked,'" 166.

(52.) Jehanne M. Gheith, '"I never talked,'" 161.

(53.) Constantina Papoulias, "From the Agora to the Junkyard. Social Memory and Psychic Materialities," Susannah Radstone and Katherine Hodgkin, eds., Regimes of Memory, 114.

(54.) Orlando Figes, The Whisperers. Private Life in Stalin's Russia (New York 2007), xxix.

(55.) Orlando Figes, The Whisperers, xxx.

(56.) Orlando Figes, The Whisperers, xxx.

(57.) Svetlana Boym, "From the Russian Soul to Post-Communist Nostalgia," Representations 49 (1995): p. 146

(58.) Svetlana Boym, "From the Russian Soul," 146.

(59.) Orlando Figes, The Whisperers, xxxii.

(60.) Irina Paperno, "Dreams of Terror. Dreams from Stalinist Russia as a Historical Source," Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4 2006): 793-824.

(61.) Reinhart Koselleck, Future's Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, quoted in Irina Paperno, "Dreams of Terror," 797.

(62.) Irina Paperno, "Dreams of Terror," 796.

(63.) Irina Paperno, "Dreams of Terror," 823

(64.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, 14.

(65.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, 15.

(66.) Judith Butler, 'Violence, Mourning, Politics," 15.

(67.) Varlam Shalamov, "What I saw and Understood in Gulag," in Varlam Shalamov, Memoirs (Vospominaniya), available in Russian online at Here and throughout the extracts from Shalamov's writing are given in my translation, unless otherwise noted.

(68.) Varlam Shalamov, "Memory" ("Pamyat").

(69.) Quoted in and translated by Leona Toker, "Towards a Poetics of Documentary Prose--from the Perspective of Gulag Testimonies," Poetics Today 2 (1997), 188.

(70.) Leona Toker, "Towards a Poetics of Documentary Prose," 188.

(71.) Varlam Shalamov, "Dry Rations" in Varlam Shalamov, transl. by John Glad, Kolyma Tales, (London, 1994), 33.

(72.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vtoraya Kniga, p. 181.

(73.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vtoraya Kniga, p. 185.

(74.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vtoraya Kniga, p. 182.

(75.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vtoraya Kniga, p. 181.

(76.) Alison Brysk, "Recovering from State Terror: The Morning After in Latin America," Latin American Research Review 1 (2003): 238.

(77.) Alison Brysk, "Recovering from State Terror," 238-239.

By Maria M. Tumarkin

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Title Annotation:SOCIAL JUSTICE
Author:Tumarkin, Maria M.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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