A Country with No Memory: As an Anthropologist Working in Russia in the 1990s, I Believed a Culture of Memorials Would Emerge to Mark the Soviet Past. How Wrong I Was

Article excerpt

I remember St Petersburg in 1991. There were people sitting on the pavement, feet wrapped in rags, selling dismal mementoes from depleted Soviet homes, or piles of rusty nails, a few fish laid out on newspaper. It was like the aftermath of war.


It is not so long ago. No wonder that the economic growth of the Putin era has made him popular in his own country. The new Russians were really only interested in material gain; Putin gave them that, with a dose of nationalism to soften the new authoritarianism. You might say that they won, and that the intellectuals, whose position seemed so promising in 1989, lost.

The collective farm in Estonia where I did my anthropological fieldwork was a dismal place in the early 1990s. Poverty, alcoholism and unemployment were the main social themes. There was virtually no heating in the winter of 1993-94, and temperatures dropped to -33[degrees]C. Men in their fifties died of blood poisoning and alcoholism, undiagnosed and uncared for.

My book on the collective farm was published in 2004. In it I predicted that the culture of memorials would take off: prison camps would be turned into museums, books would be written, documentaries made. I also wrote about the social amnesia under communism, when memories were no longer transmitted freely between generations. In the Soviet era the pre-Soviet past was forgotten, and in the post-Soviet era, it seemed to me, the Soviet past was also in danger of being forgotten. "Thus the revolution that caused the end of the Soviet Union," I wrote, "has also brought with it a temporary amnesia about the Soviet years."

I thought of it as temporary, because I believed that civil society would soon begin to generate countless memorial initiatives. The problem was that real democracy didn't last long, at least not in Russia.

In December last year, the offices of Memorial, the most important NGO dedicated to documenting the human rights atrocities of Stalinism, were raided. Thirty hard-drives containing 20 years of interviews and archival material about the Gulag and post-Stalinist political persecution were confiscated. Irina Flige, the director of Memorial, called it a "war over memory": whitewashing Stalin in order to justify the new authoritarianism.

The Financial Times reported recently that Gleb Pavlovsky, a Putin-friendly political scientist, had written a piece attacking Memorial and claiming, ominously, that Russia was vulnerable to "foreign projections" of its history. "Russia," he wrote, "not having a memory policy, has become defenceless before defamatory projections and aggressive phobias." No memory policy indeed. No national Gulag museum, no official attempt to mark the mass graves, no open access to secret police files. The future I imagined did not happen.

This is part of the context of political violence in Russia. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that at least 49 have been killed in Russia since 1992. …