A wrenchingly poignant examination of how the Russian people have coped with a century of tragedy and loss.
Because Merridale (History/Univ. of Bristol) believes that the truth resides more in stories than statistics, she spent two years in Russia interviewing a wide variety of people, reviewing personal and archival documents (many just recently available), and visiting the sites associated with the revolutions, wars, and atrocities that characterized the Soviet period. She does not ignore statistics, but she folds them seamlessly into her mesmerizing narrative. Beginning with a 1997 visit to a mass grave for Stalinist victims at Sandormokh, she segues smoothly into an examination of sanguinary historical events and their psychological impact, which many Russians still deny. One of the questions that drives her narrative is: How do people’s memories accommodate the unthinkable? After all the arrests, tortures, mass murders, deportations, bloody battles, famines and starvation, even cannibalism (all reported here), how do the survivors carry on? As the author proceeds through the century in riveting and occasionally nauseating detail, she uncovers some astonishing data. The census of 1937, for example, stunned Soviet officials with its revelation that the famine of 1932–33 had claimed as many as seven million lives. She reveals with devastating clarity the “success” of Soviet propaganda among its own citizens. During the two-year siege of Leningrad, for example, more than ten times as many people died as at Hiroshima, yet survivors tend to reject the suggestion that its horrors had lingering psychological consequences. Silence and dissociation become the operative strategies. Merridale examines, as well, more recent events, such as the war in Afghanistan, the disaster at Chernobyl, the fall of Communism and the dismantling of the USSR; through it all she sees many Russians embracing what she calls “the stoicism myth.” Despite what they have suffered through a most savage century, Merridale concludes, they are only now beginning to realize—and acknowledge—the effects.
Written with consummate skill and enormous compassion.