It’s no secret to anyone, even without the benefit of significant reading about it, that Russia has always been—and especially so in the 20th century—a clusterfuck of enormous proportions. Hitler is firmly enshrined as the boogieman of the 20th century, but we should always remember that Stalin presided over as many as 50 million deaths1
Catherine Merridale’s book proposes to look at the history of death in Russia. I would think that trying to tackle a subject of such width, breadth, and weight is like trying to fight a land with with Russia in the winter, but tackle it she does, and with a grace and fluency I didn’t expect.
Night of Stone strikes from many different directions. Its prologue concerns the recent (1980s) unearthing of thousands of skeletons of Solovki prisoners who were murdered in Karelia during Stalin’s reign. In doing so, it sets up the overarching themes of the book—the pain of dealing with horrors from (then) half a century ago, the conflict of the Christian tradition with the recently historical secularism, and the continued revelations which further damn Russia’s history more than we ever thought.
The first part of the book deals with pre-revolution Russia, a place certainly of abject misery: it was largely a feudal society, and it seems that misery is tied to the land in Russia, filled with poor peasants who break their backs to survive. It’s a huge landmass, most of it so cold and desolate as to be uninhabitable. But Russia was still a place of tradition—the Russian Orthodox church, for instance, had a long and influential history in the country, and the average Russian’s view of death was largely colored by a mix of Orthodoxy and folklore/paganism. Graves were decorated with vodka or eggs, wreaths, or other accoutrement, similar to the decoration of Egyptian tombs with useful tools for the afterlife.
The 20th century in Russia was a number of wars (Russo-Japanese, which was a distinct loss for Russia) and the first world war. Then there was the famous revolution in 1917, and a period of turmoil. Arguably, life under Lenin was not horrible if you were a member of the party. If you were a loyalist or a counterrevolutionary, though, you weren’t shown much mercy. During this time, also, the official church in Russia was depressed, many of its churches shut down. The official line of the Bolsheviks—believed by Lenin and Trotsky because it was believed by Marx and Engels—was the religion was a fiction and that atheism was to be propagated. Later, even, in an effort to discredit the faith, the bodies of saints—which, according to the official doctrine at the time, don’t decompose—were publicly revealed. They had decomposed.
The greatest portion of the book, understandably, is devoted to Stalin, and indeed it was under this tyrant that most of the death and horror occurred. Certainly, there were the Great Purges, when millions of Russians, including old Bolsheviks, intellectuals, ‘kulaks,’ or the somewhat richer peasants, were killed or sent to concentration camps. But something I didn’t know was that there were several really horrific famines in Russia, mostly due to Stalin’s policies of (a) selling the country’s grain to pay for its industrialization and (b) denying that a famine even existed. Millions and millions died, and Merridale spends a good deal of time going over these in graphic detail—the cannibalism, the abject misery, the piles of bodies so large that there aren’t enough coffins, graves, or gravediggers to dispose of them all. It’s disturbing, to say the least.
I won’t continue to recount every horror from the book—suffice it to say that Merridale leaves little to the imagination. Interestingly, though, merely recounting a laundry list of terrors isn’t the focus of her book. In fact, a book of such a thing might sell well—a snuff book, if you will, for the morbidly curious, but Merridale spent two years researching this book, talking to survivors of that era, and seeing how they react to the memory now.
As I read the closing paragraphs, I felt as though nothing had really been answered by Night of Stone. Maybe there aren’t any answers. Undeniably, the horrors of Stalinism2 are a stain on the Soviet Union, and things are getting better, if slowly, but the way that different generations deal with the memory obviously vary. There are still some of the old generation who pine for the days of Communism. Merridale concludes, “Human beings are resourceful, and every culture has attractive ways of imagining a world in which the dead are still alive. But whether we choose to believe in them or not, these others worlds do not belong to history. That leaves me with the silence. I cannot make it any clearer, and I do not think I have come home.”
- This figure is up for great debate. Some estimates say 20 million, some say 50 million. A quick search comes up with R.J., a professor emeritus of political science in Hawaii, who estimates about 43 million Regardless, it’s still important to realize that every other catastrophic loss of life pales in a purely quantitative comparison to the Soviet Union.[↩]
- Communism has never worked well, even under its most ideologically pure state under Lenin. But Stalin perpetuated a regime so gruesome that many historians aren’t even calling it Communism, but rather Stalinism, a branded form of dictatorship[↩]