Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia

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9780142000632: Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia

During the twentieth century, Russia, Ukraine, and the other territories of the former Soviet Union experienced more bloodshed and violent death than anywhere else on earth: fifty million dead in an epic of destruction that encompassed war, revolution, famine, epidemic, and political purges. In Night of Stone, Catherine Merridale asks Russians difficult questions about how their country's volatile past has affected their everyday lives, aspirations, dreams, and nightmares. Drawing upon evidence from rare Imperial archives, Soviet propaganda, memoirs, letters, newspapers, literature, psychiatric studies, and interviews, Night of Stone provides a highly original and revealing history of modern Russia.

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About the Author:

Catherine Merridale, a graduate of Cambridge, is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Bristol. She is the author of two previous books about Russia.

Review:

"....Ms Merridale...knows that in Russia, if you really want to understand, you have to listen also to the silences. --The Economist

As someone with a keen amateur interest in Russian history and culture, I was intrigued by this book - and, I admit, daunted; the subject matter is undoubtedly heavy. As the title suggests, Merridale investigates attitudes to death and memory in Russia - but in practice, these topics inevitably mean that the book is essentially about how people have lived their lives in such a troubled country, both in the twentieth century and also before that (although the book probably does focus most of its energy on the Soviet experience). The text is always wonderfully erudite, clearly written, thoughtful and thought-provoking and works both as a sweeping work of history and as a piece of fresh research. Merridale carried out numerous personal interviews with individuals and groups in modern Russia, about their memories of what they have lived through (including the Great Patriotic War a.k.a. the Second World War, the siege of Leningrad, the prison camps, and even the terrible famines of the 1930s and 40s), and gains fascinating but painful insights into the ways in which they had dealt with the deaths of their loved ones and the generally traumatic historical century, throughout much of which life had, often, seemed to be so cheap. This is not an easy subject and to be honest, although the book is brilliantly researched and written, I can't claim that it is in any way uplifting - but it is undoubtedly a very important work and one that should be widely read - as widely, perhaps, as other fine recent works on Russian history which seem to have made it into the mainstream of reading in the UK (e.g. Beevor's Stalingrad). The experience of reading 'Night of Stone' will stay with me for some time, particularly perhaps the images of the people who, in the last decade or so, have visited mass graves outside the cities and in the far north, and improvised their own memorials to the people who disappeared, and may be buried there. Their sadness and lack of knowledge about what happened to their loved ones - grandparents, parents, spouses, friends, siblings - is still shared by millions of people in Russia, because of the way in which the Soviet authorities systematically lied, from Stalinist times onwards, to its citizens about events in the country and the fate of their relatives. In fact, Merridale writes wonderfully well too about the slow thaw of information from the 1980s onwards which has finally given many people truthful information. This rambling review probably illustrates that there is almost too much in the book for this reviewer to adequately summarise. I will say, therefore, simply that it is an essential work of cultural history and would be on my recommended short list of essential reading on Russia. --By Colin C

This is a book that is painful to read, but what it deals with is far more important than the reader's discomfort. This is a book that deals with Russia's experience of death. But of course, what it deals with is the Russian experience with terror and mass murder. Starting off with the rather depresssing and miserable Tsarist state, Russians descended first into the inferno of the first world war, then into the massacres, famine, diseases and cannibalism of the revolutionary civil war. After a bit of a breather, it would then descend into the brutality and famines of collectivization and famine, then the purges and the Gulag, into the final frozen wastelands of the second world war. The climb up Mount Purgatory has been a slow one, and there is no guarantee that anyone will reach the garden at the top where virtuous pagans can go no further. Merridale brings a number of virtues to this account. First, she has read widely and taken care to read the most recent literature (the separate totals of collectivization, famine, purge and gulag have seven digits, not eight). Moreover she has a fine eye for detail. Some are fascinating, such as the fact that Stalin's son spent his infant years in a special nursery designed to be run on Freudian principles. We read stories of the grotesque shortage of graves in 1919 Leningrad, and the pathetically unsuccessful attempts to build a crematorium to deal with the corpses. As an example of Soviet kitsch, we read of popular (and rather tasteless) suggestions for a pantheon in Stalin's memory. There are the relatively small details of Stalinist cruelty, such as the fact that postwar invalids were swept off the streets in order to encourage a fatuous optimism, or the absence of drugs and anaesthetic to ease the pain of dying cancer patients, or the general contempt for mental patients. There are tales of people living through the famine or the purges apparently unaware of its existence, people who still now believe that the myriads of political prisoners were guilty of something, relatives of prisoners denouncing or abandoning their families. More important, though, is Merridale's subtlety and intelligence. The ambiguity is noted early on ("All sides--Reds, Whites, Greens, anarchists (Blacks), and nationalists-- used terror, including the mass slaughter of vilians, as part of their political and military strategy). Early on, she notes old popular traditions which suggest a somewhat callous attitude towards the death of one's children. Yet other traditions say too much grief harms the escaping soul, that tears might bind its soul to the earth forever. Merridale seeks to challenge the idea that the Russians were simply brutalized. She seeks to suggest a more subtle idea of trauma, an idea which is resisted by much of the postSoviet psychiatric profession and indeed by many of the victims she interviews. One problem, of course, is the problem of collective memory in a society that has not allowed it to remember. She notes that there is some evidence that the victims of the Stalinist famine of 1932-33 in Khazakstan no longer remember it, because their society has changed so much. Many monologues seem to have a scripted character, "often generality, chunks of Solzhenitsyn, rumor, snatches from the Book of Revelation..." When people claim they were always religious, or nationalist or anti-communist one cannot take them at their word. One of the most depressing elements of this book is sickening and consistent sense of ambiguity and responsiblity, the way so many people were both victims and exectutioners. There are few reservations one should make about this book. Merridale does at one point confuse the coronation of Nicholas II with the 300th anniversary of the Romanovs. More important, this is very much a book about Russian suffering. --By pnotley@hotmail.com

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