Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia


Penguin Group

Copyright © 2000 Catherine Merridale. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-670-89474-5

Chapter One


"We are the people without tears," Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1922. "Straighterthan you, more proud." Generations of Russians have described their couragein the same way, as something that is shared, unique to their culture, a virtueborn of suffering and nurtured by some deep, collective inspiration. Somewriters have imagined its source in the landscape, the forests, the steppe, thesnow, the boundless northern sky. Others have connected it with the earth,with clay or loam, "the Russian soil on which I was born." For many it hasbeen hardship itself that forges spiritual toughness. But almost every referenceto the mysterious quality of Russianness, to the Slav soul, locates it within themass, among the simplest people, a spark of the consuming Russian flamewithin each person's heart. "Darya Vlasyevna," wrote Ol'ga Berggol'ts in 1941,addressing an imaginary neighbor, an ordinary woman, in the depths of thehardest winter of the Leningrad blockade. "The whole land will be renewed byyour strength. The name of this strength of yours is 'Russia.' Like Russia, standand take heart!"

    The idea of a mystic Russian nationhood has flourished through centuriesof violent history—through wars, invasions, famines, and natural disasters.Soviet Russia's isolation helped reinforce it in the twentieth century, into atime when other societies were beginning to talk of global culture. To an outsider,the idea of a spiritual nation may seem absurd and even pernicious. Theterritory of Russia, after all, is home to many different ethnic groups. The Russianpopulation itself is a hybrid shaped by trade, conquest, migration, and intermarriageacross the largest continental landmass on earth. It makes nodifference. The idea of a mystical toughness persists in many people's minds,and the Russian soul itself is often described, even now, as a genetic characteristic,like fair skin. Its quality, the literature agrees, is paradoxical, contradictory.Foreigners have been raising liberal eyebrows at Russian chauvinism forcenturies, but a paradox must always have another side, and here it is the stoicismand the poetry, the real evidence of endurance, the exceptional familiaritywith death. "Russia is a sphinx," wrote Alexander Blok in 1918. "Exulting,grieving, and sweating blood."

    Blok's powerful image suggests some kind of continuity—his poem invokesthe Scythians, the ancient warriors of the southern steppe—but the elementsthat formed the Russian people's attitudes to suffering and death have not beenconstant over time. Even to go back to the years of his childhood in the latenineteenth century is to revisit a society that was on the brink of dissolution.It is a strange, almost unrecognizable world. Most educated Russians of thattime would have had no problem in identifying its main characteristics. Religion—OrthodoxChristianity—was one, and autocracy, the absolute rule ofthe czar, another. In both cases, these pillars of the old world helped to supporta sense of unity, of collectivity (the Russian word is the untranslatable sobornost',which is linked to ideas of the Trinity, of the One that subsumes themany). Nineteenth-century peasants referred to themselves as "the Orthodox"as readily as they called themselves Russians, laborers, or residents of a specificregion, and before the revolution, Orthodoxy was the official faith of about 94percent of all ethnic Russians. The czar ruled by divine right, and the distancethat separated him from God was scarcely wider than the gulf that divided ordinarypeople from their monarch.

    A century later, when Soviet communism collapsed, millions of Russianpeople strove to recover something of this world. They were looking for a lostunity, for certainty and an imagined honor. They turned to the OrthodoxChurch again in their tens of thousands, and some even talked of reconstructingczarism. They resurrected the discredited symbols of autocracy—the eagle,the tricolor flag, some of the patriotic saints, the ones who slay their demonsfrom the backs of prancing horses—and they flocked to the churches. Theyearning for an end to conflict, for an indelible identity, for a reunion withimagined versions of the past, was overwhelming. It was as if the thread of historycould be cut, and two of the broken ends, the prerevolutionary fin de siècleand the postcommunist renaissance, spliced and bound across a century ofSoviet socialism.

    It was a vanished world, however, that filled the people's dreams as theystood amid the darkness with their lighted candles, watching the congregationbow in unison, lost amid the richness of the chant. Like any other refuge fromthe present, the prerevolutionary Russia that its great-grandchildren imaginedwas a fantasy. The nineteenth century was neither a golden age of nationalunity nor merely the soil from which, despite the revolution and its aim ofreinventing culture, the story of the twentieth century, of Soviet Russia, wouldemerge. It was a time of rapid change, of anxiety, and of multiple, conflicting,possibilities. Its future was not sealed.

    There is no living memory of that time. Even the written sources that wehave are thin—memoirs and letters, government statistics, the careful notes ofantiquarians and ethnographers, occasional travelers' tales. The preoccupationsthat inspired these writings were not usually our own, and it is easy to miss thethemes that run between the lines, the things that were so obvious to people atthe time that they did not even leave a visible trace. Death was yet to be thecolony of medicine that it would become, the processes of mourning and ofburial played real parts in a soul's passage to the other world, and the fires ofhell were still alight. We can salvage some relics from this world, but it takes areal effort to imagine its whole landscape, the way that people thought aboutthemselves, the mentalities, the assumptions, values, and taboos. Even the ideaof a self, in fact, of an individual with rights of choice and private feelings,might well have puzzled many people from that other generation.

    The written sources offer a series of separate images. Handbooks from thelate nineteenth century, for instance, describe the official Orthodox view of lifeand death in literal detail. They give a picture of heaven and hell; they tell uswhat believers thought would happen to their souls; and they remind theirmodern readers about sin, about blasphemy, and about the role of sacramentsand prayer. To understand what they meant, however, we have to go beyondthe text, to imagine a world in which the religious mind was neither exceptionalnor eccentric, and where the church's principal worries were less aboutshrinking congregations than about the persistence of the things it saw as heresies,mistakes, and superstitions. There were passive believers everywhere, andmany who doubted aspects of the catechism they had learned, but for mostRussians of the late nineteenth century, belief was so deeply embedded that ithad become a reflex, independent of formal dogma, a set of metaphors andimages that described the processes of dying, death, and afterlife as if therewere no other reasonable cosmology.

    Because these metaphors are not my own, I have to start, like a recent convert,with a basic primer. One of the clearest is the Monk Mitrofan's comprehensiveLife After Death: How the Dying Live, and How We Too Shall Livethrough Death, published in St. Petersburg in 1897. As Mitrofan explains, RussianOrthodoxy is a religion that has always based itself on hope. The festivalthat forms its core was, and remains, not Christmas, but Easter. It is Christ inMajesty, the resurrected Lord, who presides at the great ceremonies, and not abroken figure on a cross, or even the fragile infant Jesus. The conquest of deathremains eternal, and human souls, as fragments of the godhead, will share in itif they escape damnation. Hell is the only alternative to salvation and eternallife in heaven. The Orthodox do not imagine a purgatory any more than theycan countenance the idea of different kinds of truth, different shades of meaning,or bargaining along the path that leads to spiritual revelation. Their liturgyis beautiful, but it is calculatedly mysterious, inaccessible, designed to be acceptedwithout question.

    Death, in this scheme, is not the end of life but a transition, almost a rebirth."With the saints let the soul of thy servant go in peace, O Christ," runsthe Orthodox prayer for the dead, "where there is neither pain nor sorrow norlamentation but life eternal." Those comforting words echo beside the otheraspect of the faith, which is its sense of awe. Death and judgment have notbeen domesticated in this religion, and though the faithful know that death isthe threshold to eternal life, even they may doubt that it is peaceful. Theprospect of the soul's journey—for death is often explained as the beginning ofa voyage, of a journey undertaken by boat, or by a sledge drawn by three wildhorses—is a dreadful one, a reckoning and a test.

    Mitrofan was careful to set out the stages of this odyssey, describing themwith geographical literalness and giving them a schedule in real time. The soulremains on earth, his book explains, for three days and nights, and in that timeit visits the places where it spent most of its mortal hours. It is not alone, forits guardian angel accompanies it, but the companionship is not necessarilyconsoling. The angel is not simply benign, a good fairy by another name. Itstask is to reveal to the astonished soul the true meaning of its lifetime's deedsand choices, however terrible they may now appear. The prayers that themourners offer for the soul's peace at this time ought to be earnest, for very fewcan contemplate this kind of truth, unmediated, without fear. The Orthodoxfuneral service, as another authority explains, is "not a ritual, but spiritual sustenancefor the living human soul which has departed from the mortal body, aspiritual act which affirms the immortality of the soul in Christ and a manifestationof the people's solicitude for the soul at the moment when it entersanother realm."

    Three days after the person's death, on the day that had been used for thefuneral for more than a century by Mitrofan's time, the soul ascends to heavento meet its God. What follows, in the textbook version, is more revelation; asix-day glimpse of heaven and a longer view of hell. By the time Mitrofanwrote he was already having to counteract a certain amount of skepticismabout damnation, a feeling that the skewers and the pitchforks in the demons'hands might well be allegorical ones. So his description here resounds withnotes of ancient terror. The Orthodox believer does not contemplate the afterlifewith blissful calm, and the most fearful event of all awaits each mortal justforty days after his death. This is the moment of individual judgment, wheneverything the soul has learned on its journey becomes real, when it begins toface the consequences of actions that it might have chosen to forget, and whenit faces the genuine prospect of torment stretching onward to the end of time.

    There are some consolations, and even the old books will list them all. Thefaithful, of course, like saints and martyrs, will be saved. For the rest, everyjudgment that is passed while the world is still in being will be provisional. Thefinal judgment, the universal reckoning, when the dead will rise up in theirflesh, will be the only unalterable one. Even in the depths of hell, therefore, thewretched souls of sinners can begin the process of their own redemption. Thesaints and martyrs can pray for them, but so can living human beings, whichis why it is the duty of the living to pray for the dead, to observe the regularfestivals that remember them, and also to follow the fates of individual souls,gathering not just for the funeral itself but also for the commemorative prayersthat take place on the ninth and fortieth days after a death and each year on itsanniversary.

    The demarcation between formal doctrine and custom wears very thin atthis point, even in Mitrofan's book. The soul of an Orthodox may not belongto the world, but it certainly returns to earth, damned or saved, and it retainsa material relationship with the soil, and especially with its own grave. Somesay the souls come back on specific days, including the night of Easter Sunday;radunitsa (the second Tuesday after Easter); Trinity Sunday; and All Souls.Others will add that the soul takes material form when it makes these visits (itis essential that a body should be buried whole, and that it should not be cremated,for this will violate the process of material resurrection), that it washes,eats, and drinks, and that its family and friends can talk to it, send messageswith it to others who are longer dead, or simply use its presence as an opportunityfor prayer. In the nineteenth century, returning souls walked in the footstepsof far older spirits, among the demons that inhabited woods, marshes,and streams, for instance, or in the company of ghosts. Mitrofan drew the lineat ghosts—there were no demons lurking in the birchwoods near his church—butthose who read his book might well have believed several things at once, aspeople often do, professing canonical faith at the funeral in the church afterthey had put their kopecks in the coffin back in the hut to pay the ferrymanhis fare.

    Religious belief was so much a part of life that many of the documentsassume it, preferring to focus on the difficulties of raising funds, fighting immortality,or reconciling local feuds. By contrast, the philosophy and pretensionsof the other pillar of nineteenth-century Russian culture, the autocracy,are disproportionately represented in the printed texts, in newspapers, officialdocuments, and memoirs. It may be difficult, now, to imagine that the powerof a czar was divinely ordained, especially when you reflect upon the humanpersonalities involved, but this is an instance when the sources help, especiallythose that deal with death and funerals. The notion of a god-given hierarchywas one that the czar's ministers were eager to reinforce, especially in the anxiousmonths of transition that followed any monarch's death. They made theirmessage crystal-clear. The czar was not an ordinary mortal, or even a mundaneking; the nation was united through blood and the sacred Russian soil, but alsoin its grief, and God would protect the next czar as he assumed the heavy burdenof autocracy on behalf of his stricken people.

    The last czar to die before the revolution was Alexander III. The accountsof the nation's grief, and of the ritual that the court thought fitting for an autocrat,offer a political view of nineteenth-century Russia, a view that supplementsthe spirituality of Mitrofan and his fellow monks. Here the emphasis isupon power, on inequality, deference, and the mystery of a sovereign who diesbut still remains to watch over his people. The church's role is little more thanthat of a tragic chorus. It is the body of the czar itself, the incarnation of mysticalnationhood and divine rule, that holds the center of the stage.

    Alexander III died at 2:15 in the afternoon on 20 October 1894. He hadbeen staying at the royal palace in Livadiya, in the Crimea, where doctors hadbeen attending him for weeks, struggling to mitigate the effects of the kidneydisease that would kill him at the relatively young age—for a czar—of forty-nine.St. Petersburg heard of his death five hours later, when a black-borderedannouncement was posted on the walls of the public library on NevskyProspekt. The massive bells in every church across the capital began to toll, andthe sound continued through the night, a solemn, unrelenting beat. Peoplecrushed toward the library to catch a glimpse of the official notice, and withinminutes a line had also formed outside the Kazan' Cathedral, where the firstceremony of requiem, sung by the choir of the Mariinsky Theater, was to beheld. All the cathedrals were packed that night, as somber figures, some weeping,bowed their heads in a haze of incense and candle smoke. The whole city,the entire country, went into mourning, donning the regulation black clothes,ordering commemorative wreaths, and canceling its theater and concerts in favorof church services and prayer. Full public mourning continued for threemonths.

    The czar's body itself became the focus of the nation's attention. The Orthodoxpreoccupation with matter, the bond that unites the soul with mortalflesh, accorded an almost sacred importance to human tissue, bone, hair, andmuscle. Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because the fact of death had tobe made as clear as possible at a time of political succession, the details of theczar's last illness were published almost immediately, along with the autopsyreport, on the front pages of the best newspapers. Readers of the St. PetersburgGazette were treated to a description of each of Alexander III's vital organs overtheir breakfast on 29 October, and the curious who read on were spared neitherfatty deposits nor stomach gas.

    The autocrat was embalmed (somewhat unsuccessfully; each of these procedureswould later be followed by the Bolsheviks in the cases of Lenin andStalin), and his body was laid out for a long series of social engagements. Hisjourney from Livadiya, on the shoulders of his guardsmen and then on swagsof velvet in the carriage of a special train, would take two weeks. The cortegepaused for last visits to provincial towns such as Simferopol', Kharkov, Kursk,Orel, and Tula, and paid an extended visit to Moscow, where a requiem wassung in the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. By the time he reached St. Petersburg,the czar was visibly rotting.

    The description of physical illness and death (though not of decomposition;this remained a secret) was customary, and its purpose was not to portraythe czar as an ordinary human being. Nicholas II, who proclaimed his own intentionof ruling by the grace of God (and without reference to anyone else)two days after his father's death, described the late ruler as "the Lord [gosudar'],"who had passed on "to the Infinite" but whose concern for "His nativesoil, which He loved with all the strength of His Russian soul" would continueto protect the nation. The new czar, a weaker and less confident man than hisfather, at least shared with him a commitment to the institution of divinely ordainedautocracy. "The truth is absolute," wrote his mentor, KonstantinPobedonostsev, "and only the absolute may be the foundation of human life.Things not absolute are unstable." The czar was not bound by politics. Instead,he was a semidivine ruler, and his connection with the people, they weresupposed to believe, was mystical, spiritual, and beyond challenge.

    Among the thousands who could read a newspaper like the St. PetersburgGazette, a serious broadsheet that made no concession to gossip or to what itwould have seen as the more vulgar tastes, the preservation of the autocracywas as much a matter of instinct, loyalty, and habit as it was an article of religiousfaith. Many of the paper's wealthy urban readership were as interested inthe civic competition over wreaths and commemorative silverware as theywere in the mysteries of Russian nationhood. Large metal wreaths entwinedwith jeweled flowers were especially fashionable in 1894, and their cost andweight were listed in the better newspapers, together with the names of someof the more generous subscribers. The czar's death was an opportunity forbusiness, especially if yours was selling the mourning dress that would be wornfor a whole year, each detail of which, compulsory at court, was carefully prescribed.Advertisements for tailors and cloth merchants appeared overnightin the press, while shop windows in every town had pictures of the late czar ondisplay by the morning of 21 October, each one of which was carefully drapedwith black crape.

    By the morning of Alexander III's entombment, 1 November, the whole ofSt. Petersburg seemed to have taken to the streets. The monarchy was not theonly institution whose status was about to be affirmed. The procession thatfollowed the coffin from the Nikolaevskii station to the Peter Paul Cathedralcontained nearly two hundred individual sections, each with its designatedplace. The palace guard came first, of course; but it was followed by standard-bearerscarrying the insignia of each of the empire's major cities, of its towns,its political institutions, its official classes (peasants, traders, merchants), andof its foreign allies. Even the voluntary associations were there, each in rankorder. There were representatives of the Russian Music Society, the Russian Associationof Gardeners, the Numerological Society, the Association of Enthusiastsfor Old Manuscripts, the Historical Association—dozens of individualgroups, each with its charter, each carrying a banner, marching slowly betweenthe black-draped buildings, keeping to a schedule agreed by the court, confirming,without even thinking much about it, that the empire was a place ofhierarchy, Orthodoxy, and autocratic power. The crowd that watched themhad been waiting since the previous night, camping out along the route, gratefulthat the weather stayed unseasonably mild. "Nothing like it has ever beenseen in the capital," agreed the papers the next day.

    While the procession marched and the bells tolled, however, there were othersin the capital, a minority, who regarded the whole ceremony, like the autocracyitself, as a charade, an insult to human decency, an anachronism to beuprooted and destroyed. These were the revolutionaries whose writings wereassiduously censored by officials in the Third Department of the Czarist InteriorMinistry, whose movements were regularly followed and logged, whosethoughts, however serious or trivial, have become important in retrospect becausetheir heirs, a generation later, would take control of the empire in thename of all its people. But there were other kinds of beliefs, too, and many ofthese were never written down, or not, at least, by those who actually heldthem.

    Very little can be said about the way that the majority of Russia's peoplemourned its czar. The newspapers did not ignore them entirely, but they madeno effort to collect their comments or record their ceremonies of farewell.Nearly 80 percent of the people in the Russian empire were classed as peasants,which meant that in the 1890S their numbers exceeded 96 million. They hadalmost no political influence under czarism, however, and the Bolsheviks, after1917, would also come to regard them as backward, dark, and potentiallytreacherous. They left few records for themselves—it was unusual for peasantsto write at all before the 1920s—and so the evidence that we have comes almostentirely from outside their ranks. Nonetheless, their views, their beliefs,and their mentalities formed the bedrock of the Russian popular view of death,and when it came to revolutionary change, to the introduction of new ideas,new rituals, and scientific values, the peasants' faith would prove the most resilient.Parts of it would survive, in fact—some fragments, splinters reassembledin a different context—to shape the universe of death for theirgreat-grandchildren a century later.

    The peasants' religious universe was difficult to challenge from outside becauseit did not depend on priests, on formal structures, or on written texts.For this reason, too, many writers of the nineteenth century, discovering villageculture for the first time, saw peasant beliefs as timeless, primal, and characteristicallyRussian. The idea that the nation's spirit burned most brightly inthe common people was an attractive one for the kinds of romantics whofound technological and social change confusing. People of that cast of mindcollected peasant sayings as if they held the keys to a secret world, a disappearingwisdom that literate men and women, deprived of daily contact with theearth, could only enviously glimpse.

    The yearning for peasant wisdom was not merely a matter of nostalgia, andthe Victorian idea of folklore does not capture it either. Writers like Tolstoylooked to the peasants as the source of all that was purest and most admirablein Russian spirituality; they wanted to renew their failing world by searchingfor its true, authentic soul. One of the themes that this brought up, inevitably,was death. As usual, the corruption and complexity of the city were contrastedwith the simplicity of the village. Intellectuals might suffer "a severance, a spiritualwound" in the face of bereavement, and their own deaths might be agonizing,baffling, a philosophical burden, but the common man, the Russianmuzhik, confronted death directly. Like a drop of water, Tolstoy wrote in 1869,their lives "simply overflowed and vanished."

    Tolstoy would use the theme of peasant simplicity, counterposing it to a futilerationalism, in many of his later writings. It was a peasant, for instance,who helped the tormented Levin, one of the most sympathetic characters inthe novel Anna Karenina, first published in 1877, to find a way out of his suicidaldespair. The peasants' secret was to live rightly, in a godly way, "to live foryour soul and remember God." The philosophy was typically simple, and offeredcasually, but it produced in the sophisticated intellectual "the effect of anelectric spark." Life and death, expressed that plainly, suddenly became tolerableagain for Levin, and, by implication, for Tolstoy. "The peasants took deathcalmly," agreed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. "They did not bluster, fight back, orboast that they would never die. Far from postponing the final reckoning, theygot ready, little by little, and in good time decided who was to get the mare andthe foal, who the homespun coat and who the boots, then they passed onpeaceably, as if simply moving to another cottage."

    The folklorists of the nineteenth century discovered that the peasant simplicityfor which they yearned could coexist with peasant poetry, with theweird rhythm of lament, for instance, or the charm of fable and epic legend.The 1870s and 1880s were the founding years of Russian ethnography. Societywas changing rapidly everywhere, and there were growing anxieties aboutloss, about the dilution of authentic Russian values and ideas. Some wealthyscholars began to make expeditions to the deep country as soon as the roadsbecame passable each year. Others sent their servants or recruited local agents.One of these, Prince Tenishev, had teams of lowlier correspondents—priests,doctors, and the occasional local clerk—reporting to him from across theprovinces. His papers, which are stacked in hundreds of dark blue files and occupyan entire archive in St. Petersburg, reflect all aspects of religious life, fromweddings and well-cursings to funerals and ghosts. Other enthusiasts for theold culture, such as E. V. Barsov, originally trained as priests, and collectedfolktales and poetry in their spare time. Barsov himself spent long summer afternoonsin 1867 in a hut in the northern district of Petrozavodsk, scribblingdown the laments that were dictated by the peasant poet Irina Andreyevna Fedosova.He published them in Moscow to wide acclaim in 1872.

    The problem with all this anxious collecting, and even with the sermons ofTolstoy and his followers, was that, like any other writing of its time, it concentratedon selected aspects of the whole. The ethnographers were mainly interestedin practice and custom. They had no way of writing adequately ofmentality. Most of their work described rustic virtue, poetry, quaintness, and,at the very worst, mere fecklessness or greed. The impulse of most folkloristswas conservative in the literal sense; they wanted to preserve something thatthey had learned to value.

    Reformers of the same period, by contrast, would find little to praise in thepeasants' world. Maxim Gorky, for instance, who toured Russia in the earlytwentieth century, wrote less admiringly of village life. "By nature the peasantis not stupid and knows it well," he declared in 1922. "He has composed a multitudeof wistful songs and rough, cruel stories, created thousands of proverbsembodying the experience of his difficult life." Gorky also cited a folklorist ofhis own: "A historian of Russian culture, characterising the peasantry, said ofit: a host of superstitions, and no ideas whatsoever. This judgement is backedup by all the Russian folklore." Alexander Pasternak, the architect, agreed.He found that a single summer spent in Safontyevo, a village about forty milesfrom Moscow, was acquaintance enough with "the decayed Russian peasantryin all its ugly destitution." Pasternak could discern no secret wisdom withinthe "smoky, soot-encrusted huts ... awash with wet muck that no-one botheredto clear away." On the contrary, "the villagers' passive submissiveness,their total indifference to filth and poverty, seemed to me a denial of their humanity."

    The peasants' lives, then, could exasperate a visitor as readily as they couldevoke nostalgia. To make matters more complicated still, there was not onepeasant mentality but thousands, for the distances between settlements, andthe varied climates, landscapes, and histories of Russia's different regions, favoredthe evolution of separate stories, different styles of speech, and even differentviews of violence, punishment, death, and afterlife. These are the thingsthat it is easy to forget under the mesmerizing influence of certain kinds ofRussian poetry, the qualifications and alternatives that lie in wait for anyonewho visits the peasants' world in search of the origins of an imagined Russiannationhood, a Russian soul. Variety is also the strongest evidence against thatbleaker view of continuity, the one that seeks to blame the terrible bloodshedof Russia's twentieth century upon some cultural flaw, some legacy of barbarism.A more imaginative view of this lost world would turn the questionaround, and weigh the value that a rural people placed on ritual, on faith, oncommon languages of grief. It would ask what price these men and women,bound by custom and geography, reliant as they were on family and soil, wereabout to pay for the upheavals of the twentieth century. To acquire the authorityto answer this, or any other question about Russia's peasant culture atthis time, however, you have to make a journey of your own.