Post-Soviet Hauntology

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  Post-Soviet Hauntology: Cultural Memoryof the Soviet Terror Alexander Etkind In Russia, where many millions were unlawfully murdered during the Soviet period, thecultural practices of memory are inadequate to these losses. While Europeans are talkingabout the “mnemonic age,” a “memory fest,” and the obsession with the past “around theglobe,” Russians complain about the historical “amnesia” in their country. 1 Sporadically,some Russians outsource their memorial concerns abroad. Sometimes they strive to protectRussian monuments in Tallinn, Vienna, and elsewhere. Sometimes they attempt to silencethe public sorrows of Russia’s neighbors in respect to a past that they happen to share withRussians. Sometimes it feels that the former Iron Curtain has become the frontline of theMemory War. But in contrast to the “amnesia” thesis, sociological polls show that Russiansremember the Soviet terror fairly well, though they vastly differ in their interpretations of this terror. In contrast to the abuse of memory for nationalist purposes, the most importantdevelopments of Russian memory are structured not by nation or ethnicity, but by solidaritybetween different communities and generations. While the state is led by former KGBofficers who avoid giving public apologies, building monuments, or opening archives, thestruggling civil society and the intrepid reading public are possessed by the unquiet ghostsof the Soviet era. Haunted by the unburied past, post-Soviet culture has produced perversememorial practices that are worthy of detailed study. While the American historian StephenKotkinperceivesa“Shakespearianquality”inthepost-Soviettransformation,itisnosurprisethat the participating observers of this process employ equally dramatic metaphors, partiallyinvented and partially imported, in their attempts to understand what has happened to theircivilization. 2 In a land where millions remain unburied, the dead return as the undead. Theydo so in novels, films, and other forms of culture which reflect, shape, and possess people’smemory. Inspired by Jacques Derrida’s “hauntology,” I have developed a theory of culturalmemory consisting of monuments (hardware), texts (software), and specters (ghostware). The Black Energy of the Remnant Close to the Belomor Canal in the northwestern corner of Russia, a large mass grave wasuncovered in July, 1997 by independent researchers from St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk.The site, called Sandarmokh after the closest village, is a pine forest which is distinguishedby small, regular depressions in the earth. About 9,000 people were shot on this spot in 1937and 1938. The victims were men and women of sixty ethnicities and nine religions, with anunusually high proportion from the political and academic elites. More than a thousand of the murdered were delivered here from many hundreds of miles away, from the Solovetskiicamp, for unknown reasons. People were brought there alive, forced to dig their own graves,and were shot on the spot. The executioners knew that it is easier to transport living peoplethan corpses.Thesitewasdiscoveredin1997byVeniaminIofeandIrinaFlige,leadersoftheMemorialSociety at St. Petersburg, and by a local enthusiast named Iurii Dmitriev from Petrozavodsk.None of these three researchers were trained as a historian, though Iofe was a political Constellations Volume 16, No 1, 2009. C  The Author. Journal compilation  C   Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.   Hauntology: Alexander Etkind   183 prisoner – good training in itself. The discovery was based on the testimony of CaptainMatveev who was sent by the NKVD to Karelia in 1937, shot thousands in Sandormokh,and was arrested and interrogated in 1939. Having survived in the archive, the evidence heprovided helped lead to the discovery of the remains of his victims. Ironically, Matveev alsosurvived; he died as an old man in 1981.The excavations at the site recovered bones and skulls, many marked by a bullet hole.Decomposing under a thin layer of soil, the corpses of the people whom Matveev executedon each of his daily missions form a recognizable depression in the ground. There is amemorial complex in Sandarmokh, which consists of wooden sharply-roofed stakes whichmark every mass grave. Dozens of these markers are scattered around the pine forest. Thememorial also includes a figurative sculpture by Grigorii Saltup, a prolific artist and writerfrom Petrozavodsk. After taking part in the excavations, Saltup applied to the ministry of cultureofKareliawithaprojectforamonument.Thegovernmentpromisedmoneybutnevergave it; Saltup believes that the ministry wanted a kickback. Having a three-meter modelin his workshop, Saltup mortgaged his apartment, reduced the project, and completed it ina local factory. 3 The monument shows an angel with spread wings and tied hands, waitingto be shot. On the top of a stone obelisk, an inscription declares, “People, do not kill eachother.”I interviewed Iurii Dmitriev, a slight man with a sailor’s mustache and unusual energy.He is obsessed with the duty of memory which he feels as his personal responsibility.His father served in the Soviet military; his own family’s connection to the Soviet terrorseems to be irrelevant. 4 Among his discoveries is the largest known burial ground in thearea of the Belomorkanal, the notorious construction site of the Gulag which connectedthe Baltic and White seas. Dmitriev knew that in 1933, the hectic race to beat the springfloods killed about ten thousand prisoners who dug the ten kilometer-long rocky, frozenterrain of the 165th canal, which connects the Northern and the Southern parts of theBelomorkanal. For many months, Dmitriev explored the nearby woods and marshes withno success. Wandering in the woods with a local hunter, Dmitriev found a deep hole madeby a raccoon that had dug up remnants from under a layer of stones. Nearby, Dmitrievidentified about a hundred depressions in the moss floor. In this marshy land, the victims haddug deep holes, in which they were shot and covered with stones so that predators wouldnot reveal them (which eventually happened anyway). There is no monument there. 5 In1997, Dmitriev found another mass grave in Krasny Bor, 20 kilometers from Petrozavodsk.After marking about 40 “shooting holes,” he started the excavations. After months of work with a shovel and a computer, Dmitriev identified the names of 1193 victims and twoexecutioners.Havingfailedtoconvincethelocalauthoritiestoallocatemoneyforamemorial,Dmitriev erected a self-made one. Two rocks stand vertically like strange teeth gazing at theskies.In2002,aftermanyyearsofassiduousresearchandbeggingformoney,Dmitrievpublishedathousand-pagevolumewhichlistsmorethan13,000biographicalentriesforthosewhoweremurdered in Karelia in 1937–1938. 6 In the initial stage of composing this book, Dmitrievwas supported by Ivan Chukhin, a police officer who became a deputy of the Russian Duma;in the 1990s, such people could open archival doors. A third member of this group was PerttiVuori.Chukhin’sfatherwasanNKVDofficerwhowasimplicatedintheterror;Vuori’sfatherwasmurderedin1936duringthe“repressions”inKarelia.Inspiteoftheiropposingrelationsto the catastrophe in the past, their work of mourning was a joint project. But working ontheir Book of Memory, Chukhin and Vuori died young men. Having survived them, Dmitrievpublicly states that his coauthors were killed by “the black energy of crimes and murders C  2009 The Author. Journal compilation  C  2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  184  Constellations Volume 16, Number 1, 2009 whichwerecommitteddecadesbefore.”Usinghisownwords,thelocalnewspaperdescribedDmitriev’s ordeal: Aftermanymonths,whichDmitrievspentinthearchivereadingthefilesofthosewhowereexiled or shot, he lost his appetite, could not sleep . . .  There is a black energy; it leaks intoeveryone who touches the yellowish pages of interrogations, denunciations, and shootingprotocols. But Dmitriev continued his work on the Book of Names. He ran out of money.His friends died. His nerves betrayed him. His relationships were destroyed. He lapsed intomonths of heavy drinking. 7 I like to compare monuments to crystals that settle in a solution of memory, provided thatthis solution is strong, stable, and not too hot. Contemporary Russian memory barely ap-proaches these minimal conditions of crystallization. An important condition in the process,analogous to the temperature of the solution, is the social consensus. High social consensusencourages the proliferation of monuments but, since there is not much to debate if everyoneagrees, it discourages public debates; we see such a situation in contemporary Germany.In contrast, low consensus suppresses public memory, but can intensify manifestations of memory among the remembering minority. The enthusiastic efforts of solitary individuals,veritable heroes of memory like Dmitriev, are vital in this situation.But many sites of the Soviet Terror still have no monuments. To give a well-knownexample, about 30,000 people lie in unmarked graves in Toksovo near St. Petersburg. A partof this area is favored by wealthy Russians for its natural beauty and proximity to the city.Another part is a shooting range which is still being used by naval artillery to test weapons.As a Moscow newspaper wrote in 2002, “They are being shot until now.” 8 Russia vs. Germany When Nikita Khrushchev initiated his de-Stalinization campaign in 1956, he chose the con-cept of “unjustified repressions” as the idiom for mass murders, arrests, and deportations.Always mentioned in the plural, this is a striking concept: a formula for senseless acts of vio-lence which do not specify agency and therefore, elude responsibility. In contrast to the Naziterror, in the Soviet Union no specific group (ethnic, territorial, professional, etc.) sufferedsignificantly more than other groups, with one exception: “A particularly heavy toll amongStalin’svictimswas,ofcourse,extractedfromthestateandpartyapparatus.” 9 Followingthisline, a bizarre argument was produced by the defense attorneys who represented the Com-munist Party at the Moscow trial of 1992. Since communists suffered from repressions morethan others, this argument goes, their organization cannot be blamed for these repressions,even though it organized them. Conflating subject and object, Soviet repressions differedfrom Nazi German exterminations, in which the victims and perpetrators were distanced bycrystal-clear constructions. “Unjustified repressions” means, exactly, self-imposed, mean-ingless social catastrophe. If the Holocaust was the construction and extermination of theOther, the Great Terror was similar to a suicide.Comparing the state of the German memory of Nazism to the Russian memory of Com-munism, a Russianist feels despair. The processes and institutions of terror in Nazi Germanyand Communist Russia featured multiple parallels and contacts; but the cultural memoriesof Russian and German terror developed in such different ways that they seem to defy com-parison. Holocaust memorials, museums, films, and novels have been studied by numerousresearchers. The memory of World War II has recently become a subject of Russo-German C  2009 The Author. Journal compilation  C  2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.   Hauntology: Alexander Etkind   185 comparative studies. 10 In contrast, the scholarship on the Russian memory of Soviet terroris negligible.Both the Russian and German catastrophes have rich and controversial historiographies.Both national traditions are familiar with attempts at particularizing their respective catas-trophes and insisting upon the methodological principle of incomparability. In the 1980s, inthe atmosphere of D´etente, the question of the (in)comparability of the Nazi crimes launcheda fierce discussion which is remembered as  Historikerstreit  . The philosopher Ernst Nolteemphasized the historical fact that the practices of state terror, such as concentration camps,weredevelopedintheSovietUnionearlierthaninGermanyandthatGermansocialistsknewof these Soviet practices well before the Nazis came to power, thus suggesting the directinfluence of the Soviets upon the Nazis. The philosopher J¨urgen Habermas found in thesearguments an unacceptable “historicization of the Holocaust” which, he argued, relieves theburden of historical guilt. 11 In 1998, Francois Furet still characterized comparisons betweenFascism and Communism as a “taboo subject.” 12 In Russia, this was not the case. A formermember of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR, Aleksandr Iakovlev charac-terized the Soviet regime in terms which alluded to the German parallel: “It was full-scalefascism of the Russian type. Our tragedy is that we have not repented.” 13 Iakovlev chairedThe Presidential Committee on the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Persecutions; ashe knew well, “rehabilitation” was far from repentance. 14 The GULAG survivor and founderof the Memorial Society, Veniamin Jofe wrote that the current “chaos of speculations”about the Soviet past works like “a smoke-screen” which masks the problem of “evaluatingthe Soviet period of Russian history in terms as clear as those used for evaluating NaziGermany.” 15 He obviously wanted the Russia of the 1990s to produce as “clear” a vision of its violent past as Germany managed to do.Comparing and contrasting the Russian and German situations of memory, several majorfactors should be taken into account. First, the socialist regime in Russia lasted much longerthan the Nazi regime in Germany. Repairing the damage probably also requires more time,but Russia is less distant from the collapse of its Soviet state than Germany is from thecollapse of its Nazi state. Second, the Soviet victims were significantly more diverse than theNazi victims; their descendants are dispersed and in some cases (e.g. Russian and Ukrainianpolitical elites), have competing interests. Third, Germany’s post-war transformation wasforced upon it by military defeat and occupation, while Russia’s post-Soviet transformationwasapoliticalchoice.Fourth,thememoryoftheNaziperiodhasdevelopedindifferentwaysin Germany’s Western and Eastern parts; it may happen that the situation in East Germany ismore similar to the Russian case than the better-known situation in the West. Finally, amongthe victims of both regimes and their descendants, the subjective experience of victimizationand mourning was significantly different. In Soviet camps, most of the political prisonersshared the principles of their perpetrators but believed that in their personal cases, they weremistakenlyidentified.InNazicamps,ontheotherhand,thetypicalvictimdidnotquestionhisidentification (e.g., as a Jew), but objected to the general reasons for his persecution. Thesearetwodeeplydifferentsentiments,whichhaddifferentconsequences:astrongandcoherentanti-Fascist and Zionist movement in one case and a chaotic mix of loyalty, escapism, andresistance to the Soviet state in the other.With few exceptions, Jewish victims of the Nazi regime perished in a way which excludedhope in their families and communities. In contrast, many prisoners of the Gulag returnedfrom it; of those many who did not return, relatives and friends often knew nothing for yearsand decades. The condition of mourning in a situation of uncertainty is unusual and under-theorized. As Jacques Derrida put it, “Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, C  2009 The Author. Journal compilation  C  2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


Jul 23, 2017


Jul 23, 2017
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