(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Catherine Merridale’s Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia is an evocative meditation on the meaning of life in the face of atrocity and catastrophe. Merridale situates her study in a land where such musings bear especial significance. Russia in the twentieth century experienced a string of disasters, which resulted in a level of mortality not seen in a European country since the days of the Black Death in the fourteenth century. War, famine, and repression took a human toll that probably reached fifty million lives, and the figure arguably could be higher. Such numbers beggar the imagination. The magnitude of Russia’s loss threatens to stun commentators into silence. As with the Holocaust perpetrated on the Jews and other “undesirables” by the German Nazis, here one confronts the unutterable abyss of human depravity and is forced to contemplate the yawning, seemingly bottomless capacity of humanity to suffer.

Yet following the Holocaust, some measure of justice, however imperfect, was meted out to the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Those who died at their hands were widely seen as victims of a uniquely horrible criminal act. There is no such consolation for the survivors of Soviet tyranny. In Russia, victims and victimizers coexist. The former zeks of the Gulag and the executioners of the secret police, all legatees of the Soviet Union, collect their pension checks together. Even veterans of World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, honored as the vanquishers of fascism, are likewise prisoners of an official forgetfulness. They must act their parts in a preordained script. Proudly displaying their medals, they must suppress dark memories that countervail the glorious tale of throwing back the invader. Like the others, they are pensioners of a failed dream.

The Soviet Union, simultaneously an idyllic experiment, a totalitarian laboratory, and a charnel house, thrust the Russian people into the crucible of a searing modernity. The citizens of the Soviet Union found themselves principals in a horrifying drama, a Faustian attempt to reengineer humankind and society. The seventy-year Soviet interlude profoundly scarred the Russian people. Today the first halting steps are being taken to calculate the damage. Merridale’s book is an honorable contribution to this effort at historical reconstruction.

Catherine Merridale is an accomplished historian, securely ensconced at a British university. She set out to write a monograph that explored the intersection between Soviet culture and identity, evoking something of the texture of a rapidly fading “mentality.” She was intrigued by the Soviet desire to create a “new man” and hoped to uncover the working out of this ambition through a study of the Soviet way of death. Few systems of belief are more fundamental to a culture than its attitude toward death. Merridale intended to expose the ways in which the Soviets wrestled with habits of heart and mind rooted in centuries of religious practice through research in the archives of the League of the Militant Godless and the Society for the Dissemination of Scientific Cremation. Such a scholarly work would have been useful and illuminating. It would have fitted admirably into contemporary trends in historical fashion.

Merridale’s plans were betrayed by her integrity as a scholar. Her professional quest for the truth led Merridale into new directions. As her work progressed, her topic began to grow as new questions naturally emerged. Any study of the Soviet attitude toward death compelled some attention to the horrors committed in communism’s name. Continuities and innovations in burial customs paled in significance next to the graves opened by executions, starvation, and combat. It has long been a cliché that Russians are inured to suffering and death, that they are inherently violent and brutal. As Merridale notes, Russians themselves say this, attributing the cruelty manifest in their history to the rigors of the climate and the legacy of centuries of rule by the barbarous Tartars. As Merridale proceeded in her investigation, as her library of taped interviews with Russian survivors grew, such glib and all-too-easy answers seemed increasingly inadequate.

Merridale has an enormous capacity for empathy; she found herself responding with a powerful sympathy to the stories that she recorded. What began as an academic exercise became instead something of an existential journey, a quest into the heart of darkness. Brimming with more questions than answers, graced by a number of vignettes during which the author describes her encounters with men and women who defy all the easy generalizations, Night of Stone manages to consistently resist the conventions of historical prose. The result is a book that transcends genre. Epic in scope, meticulous in detail, Night of Stone is a freewheeling overview of modern Russian history. It touches on a wide variety of topics, ranging from late Czarist funerary rituals to the social consequences of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.

Merridale begins her study of death and memory in the Soviet Union by looking at the legacy bequeathed to the Soviets by the Russia of the czars. This legacy was rich but combustible, a mixture of beauty and squalor, preminiscent of Soviet forms in some ways but radically different in spirit. Dominating this Russia’s understanding of death and the departed were the teachings and the liturgies of the Russian Orthodox Church. Peasants were as likely to identify themselves as “Orthodox” as they were “Russians.” The Orthodox Church enveloped death and the afterlife in a dense field of meaning. So ingrained were Orthodox reflexes that early Russian revolutionaries had a hard time weaning themselves from Christian funerals. However, already present in Russian society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was something of the cruelty and hardness that would be compounded many times during the Soviet years. The authority of landlords weighed heavily on the peasantry. Floggings were common. In turn, peasants occasionally rose against landlords with murderous rage. The czarist government responded to unrest with callous brutality. Executions became so frequent that children made “public execution” into a schoolyard game. Toward the end of this period, Russia’s rural Jewish population suffered from violent pogroms countenanced, if not overtly sanctioned, by the government. These pogroms established an ominous precedent for the collective scapegoating and persecution of a targeted minority. Even in times of peace and quiet, life was difficult, and usually short, for Russian peasants. The diseases endemic to poverty made death ever present in peasant villages. Peasants themselves showed little mercy to people accused of a variety of transgressions. Thieves and murderers might be tortured to death. Witches were still burned alive in their huts.

A small but suggestive body of memoirs and folkloric studies gives some insights into the ways Russian peasants responded to death in the centuries prior to the Soviet Union. Merridale is quick to point out that very much remains hidden from us. Few living people remember Czarist times. Even then, if questioned, the emotional residue of threescore and ten years under the Soviets would color their reminiscences. Merridale possesses the courage to admit the essential mysteriousness of life, to acknowledge the difficulty of probing, let alone knowing, the secrets of the human heart. The full truth lies somewhere under the illusions and misunderstandings heaped up by commentators writing from the outside. This does not condemn the historian of ideas to unintelligibility, but it does demand some epistemological humility. Assertions about the manner in which a people understood death must always be qualified and tentative.

Merridale evinces the same modest and realistic spirit in her discussion of the Soviet period. Here the documentary record is rich, and many survivors can still offer their recollections of life under the Communists. Yet, as Merridale learned during the course of her research, even when graced with a wealth of material, the truth of what she sought proved elusive. The cascade of information that has flowed from various archives since the collapse of the Soviet Union has helped enormously in grasping the contours of Russian suffering in this century, but these records and statistics give only the most oblique glimpses into the attitudes of ordinary Soviet citizens. Furthermore, when recording the memories of Russians who had lived through the terrible events of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Merridale discovered that these people selectively remembered the past, their anecdotes and images fitting patterns of interpretation attuned to their own needs. Indeed, the people that she tape-recorded often fell into an almost automatic, obviously well-rehearsed monologue. Gentle prodding by Merridale might or might not break through her subject’s defensive carapace. One of the most compelling of Merridale’s interviews was with a woman born into a peasant family singled out for proscription in the 1930’s. Her father disappeared. She, her mother, and two brothers found themselves starving in a government camp. A relative showed up and took her away. Thus she lived, while her brothers died. She was trained as an entertainer and traveled with the army during World War II. She gave birth to a son and sent him to her widowed mother in the country. Some years later, her son killed himself in despair. The woman, recollecting all this in an apartment crammed with mementos of her show business career, spent most of her time with Merridale waxing nostalgic over the war years. She was appallingly oblivious to the suffering of her family. Merridale could not approve of this woman, but she could understand her. In the context of the Soviet Union, this woman was a survivor.

All human memory is self-absorbed and self-interested. Individually or collectively, it is a powerful means of coping with experience. For many, memory is a happy avenue into a cherished past. For Russians, memories of the twentieth century are much more problematic. Beginning with World War I, the overthrow of the czar, and the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia endured a series of calamities, each of which took a hideous toll of human life. The Revolution was followed by a devastating civil war. Once the Communists consolidated their power, they launched an ambitious program to build socialism. The initial Five-Year Plan and the collectivization of agriculture cost millions of lives. Millions more died in a famine deliberately engineered by the government. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin then proceeded to eliminate any potential rivals for power by unleashing a massive purge of the government and Communist Party. Countless people were executed or condemned to the gulag. World War II led to the deaths of twenty to thirty million Soviet citizens. Another famine followed the war, and more died. The wounds left by this grim history are deep and untreated. During the Soviet period, dwelling on these events and the losses they entailed was discouraged. Soviet psychologists and doctors refused to acknowledge the existence of popular trauma. Russians learned to live with a stiff upper lip. In post-Soviet Russia, memorials to the victims of Stalin’s purges are springing up, but these gestures compete with nostalgia for the good old days. It is not at all clear how Russia will come to terms with the past.

Merridale does not make any sweeping claims about death and memory in modern Russia. The dead retain their secrets. Their memory remains ambiguous. In the end, Merridale admits that she is reduced to silence before the unspeakable and unknowable. The great merits of her book are the way in which she illumines the profundity of her subject, and the extraordinary delicacy with which she traces the tortured responses of ordinary Russians to the horrors of their history.Night of Stone sheds precious light on modern darkness.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (March 15, 2001): 1337.

Commonweal 128 (September 14, 2001): 30.

The Economist 357 (October 28, 2000): 80.

Library Journal 126 (March 1, 2001): 114.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 13, 2001, p. 28.