Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village

Article excerpt

Margaret Paxson. Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press & Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005. Black/White Photographs. Bibliography. Index. 355 pp. $24.95 (paper). ISBN 0-253-21801-2

It is not an easy task for an anthropologist to set out for distant places in order to describe them accurately and with objectivity. For her research on social memory, Margaret Paxson chose a tiny northern Russian village as her exotic location. Eight years of research and a full year of careful participant observation, and numerous interviews with Russian villagers have resulted in an illuminating volume about a complex culture and the memory of a place much affected by history. Paxson views social memory as a cultural act, cumulative and layered. In her volume, thick ethnographic description, thoughtful analysis, and theoretical postulates borrowed from cognitive psychology, social psychology, anthropology, folklore, and history are interwoven into a beautiful fabric so that social memory emerges in present acts and narratives about the past. The author makes her way through the symbolical and geographical landscapes of contemporary rural Russia, little known to Western readers, shifting from local to global, central to peripheral, modern to traditional, well-known to obscure.

Folk beliefs and practices, religiosity, magic, politics, identity (both group and national), power (both worldly and otherworldly) and every day village life-all these are among the topics Paxson explores while contextualizing social memory. Thus the breadth of the book is impressive. Paxson divides it into eight chapters each of which helps to understand how pathways in memory are plotted.

She begins by describing social memory as a landscape characterized by landmarks, pathways, circles, vector fields, verticality/horizontality, interdimensionality, and layers: all spatial metaphors through which the author explains the complex relationships of social memory to the production of social categories, social organization, commemorative ceremonies, and Russian grammatical constructs. Paxson utilizes historical and historiographical approaches to lay out the picture of a Russian village in general and Solovyovo in particular, its roots, and the key symbolic landmarks in its memory starting from ancient times through the present. She then portrays the social space of the village. Through the usage of grammatical categories, analysis of intra/inter-familial and intra/intervillage relations the author describes how the categories of Self and Other, Own and Strange are constructed and maintained and how they influence social powers.

Paxson argues that there are two imaginary worlds (or otherworldly powers) that are active agents or powers shaping social memory's landscape for Russian villagers. …