The past. Each of us has a rich and complex personal history. The word itself denotes that which has gone, elapsed – and yet the past continues to shape us and live within us. We dwell on the past; our perception of the world is coloured by it. Sometimes we yearn to return to a bygone era – nostalgia has a powerful grip on the human mind. And at other times we long to obliterate the past. Memory can be a prison, a source of trauma. Or it can offer a wellspring of comfort, a release from the present, sustaining us in difficult times with the hope of something happier. And alongside our individual pasts, we also carry a collective past. The body of memories shared by our family, our community, the societal groups we belong to.
The adage ‘History is written by the victors’ is commonly attributed to Winston Churchill. In fact, the sentiment predates Churchill, with pronouncements closely resembling it made by various people in the nineteenth century. There can be no doubting that collective memory is of immense political importance, shaping how members of a society conceptualise the past. In totalitarian systems, the government will maintain a tight control on historical narratives, dictating the memories that are allowed in schools and universities, the press and the public domain.
The deliberate erasure of a people’s collective memory is called historicide. During the twentieth century, the USSR engaged in historicide on several fronts. Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, the Soviet authorities would designate individuals undesirable, sending them to the firing squad or the concentration-camp network known as the Gulag. They also persecuted entire social classes, professions deemed ideologically inimical, and minority ethnicities. Top members of the Party could become pariahs overnight, and this would lead not only to their arrest, but also to the erasure of their faces from the official photographs and the school textbooks. If a person was declared an ‘enemy of the people’, the consequences for the other members of their family would be devastating. There was a high chance the spouse would be sent to the Gulag and their children brought up in an orphanage. The Stalinist state followed an official policy of separating brothers and sisters with the purpose of severing family ties. These children would come under intense pressure to forget their own parentage. Their surnames were frequently changed, thus making it difficult for the parents who survived the Gulag and were released to trace their own children.
In such times, the mere writing of a diary would be fraught with danger. The acclaimed Soviet writer Yuri Nagibin, who lived from 1920–1994, buried one of his stories in a box in the forest. Over the course of thirty years, he would periodically dig up the box, take out the manuscript and retype it on fresh paper, before putting it back in the box to be reburied. Nagibin began writing a diary in 1942 and continued adding to it until 1986. It only became safe to have his diary published when the Soviet Union fell in the 1990s; by the time the diary finally came out in 1996, Nagibin was no longer alive.
My husband Alexander is Russian. He was born in the USSR. Alexander attended a Soviet school named after Pavlik Morozov, a boy who achieved fame through denouncing his own father to the secret police. As in all Soviet schools, the curriculum was taught through the prism of Marxist-Leninist ideology. In parallel with his history lessons at school, Alexander also learnt an alternative history at home from his grandmother, who had lived through the October Revolution, the Civil War, Stalin’s Purges and the German occupation of their city during World War II. As a child, she kept a diary, recording the dramatic moments her family underwent: the arrest of her father by the Bolsheviks and his later release; the execution by firing squad of one of her brothers; detailed stories of how the Bolshevik Red Terror affected their daily lives. One day, in the early 1920s, one of her brothers discovered her diary and flung it into the stove. Had it been found during a search of their home, the whole family would have been placed in grave danger. And yet the act of recording her memories on paper helped Alexander’s grandmother to recall those scenes with clarity well into old age. She would tell these stories to Alexander when he was a boy, thus keeping alive their family history. In many Soviet families, however, the generation who had survived Stalin’s repressions were so terrified of sharing anything even slightly subversive that they would maintain total silence even in the privacy of their own homes with their own children and grandchildren.
While collectivisation, the brutal persecution of the prosperous peasant class known as the kulaks and the Stalinist purges affected people across the entire Soviet Union, there were also policies aimed more narrowly at particular ethnicities. Along with other areas on the fringes of the historic Russian Empire, Ukraine had been a hotbed of resistance to Bolshevik rule. In 1876, under the decree of Tsar Alexander II, books and newspapers in the Ukrainian language had been banned. The restrictions were lifted after the Russian Revolution of 1905, and Ukrainian national consciousness began to prosper. Following the 1917 October Revolution, the new Communist masters in Moscow were facing a growing threat from Ukrainian aspirations for independent rule. In 1933–34, an artificially created famine that later became known as the Holodomor (meaning in Ukrainian ‘the extermination by hunger’) took place. Laws were brought in making it a punishable offence to store even a few ears of grain from the harvest, and soldiers would inspect people’s homes, searching for hidden food. Blacklisted villages were encircled by troops, placing the inhabitants under siege and condemning them to starvation. Cases of cannibalism began occurring, and horrific scenes unfolded, as areas of rural and urban Ukraine were slowly depopulated. Memories of the Holodomor, alternatively named the Terror Famine, were strictly taboo.
My husband’s friend Zhenya was born in Kyiv in 1980. He remembers how his maternal grandmother would cry whenever she spoke of ‘the Hunger’. She used to curse Stalin as ‘a total demon’. Due to the pervasive Soviet propaganda which in those days under Leonid Brezhnev was already softening its stance on Stalin, Zhenya’s mother refused to believe the horrors depicted by her own mother, instead thinking her stories must be heavily exaggerated. Meanwhile, Zhenya’s paternal grandmother only spoke of Communism in glowing terms, but when the Perestroika reforms were brought in, she began to recall memories from her early life that had been suppressed for decades, such as the occasion during another famine in 1947 when a Party activist requisitioning food had even confiscated a scarf she was sitting on, snatching it from right under her. The trauma of the Holodomor slowly induced in many Ukrainians a fear of speaking Ukrainian and identifying with Ukrainian culture. Over the decades, Ukrainians gradually assimilated into the dominant Russian culture, many families switching entirely to the Russian language. This process was actively encouraged by the authorities, who would pay teachers who taught in Russian a higher salary than those teaching in Ukrainian. Zhenya recalls being frightened to speak Ukrainian on the streets in the early 1990s because the other lads could attack boys for doing so. It was considered the language of the underclass. Whereas Russian was the language of the top dogs.
For a first-hand account of Ukraine in the 1930s, we may look to Vasily Grossman’s remarkable work Everything Flows. This unfinished novel contains harrowing scenes of the Terror Famine that will sear indelibly into the reader’s mind. Grossman is famed in particular for his magnum opus Life and Fate, but in the opinion of Anthony Beevor, ‘Everything Flows is as important a novel as anything written by Solzhenitsyn.’ In the story, the character Anna Sergeyevna unburdens herself from the terrible reality she not only witnessed, but was complicit in.
We all thought that no fate could be worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were. In the villages the axe fell on everyone – no one was big enough, or small enough, to be safe.
‘This time it was execution by famine.
Who signed the decree? Who ordered the mass murder? Was it really Stalin? I often ask myself. Never, I believe, in all Russian history, has there been such a decree. The decree meant the death by famine of the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don and the Kuban. It meant the death of them and their children. Even their entire seed fund was to be confiscated.
Grossman was born in Berdychiv (written as Berdichev in Russian), a city in north-western Ukraine. He witnessed the effects of the Holodomor, and while the narrative in Everything Flows is fictional, many passages throughout the novel capture the historical reality in stark, distressing detail. ‘And the children’s faces looked old and tormented – it was as if they’d been on this earth for seventy years. By the spring they no longer had faces at all. Some had the heads of birds, with a little beak; some had the heads of frogs, with thin wide lips; some looked like little gudgeons, with wide-open mouths. Nonhuman faces. And their eyes! Dear God!’ As Grossman’s translator Robert Chandler writes in his introduction to the novel, ‘Grossman is simply doing what he can to remember the lives and deaths of millions who have been too little remembered.’
Another witness account of Ukrainian history comes to us from Anatoly Kuznetsov, born in 1929, who began recording scenes from his life in a notebook at the age of fourteen. These writings would later form the basis for his book Babi Yar, which earned him worldwide renown. Kuznetsov’s mother was a teacher, and in the memoir he describes her constant fear of the nocturnal knock on the door that would signal arrest. Many of his mother’s colleagues were already arbitrarily disappearing during Stalin’s purges. ‘My mother had practically no sleep at all at night. She would go from corner to corner, listening carefully to every noise. If she heard the sound of a car outside she would jump up, turn pale and start rushing about the room.’ One of the most striking aspects of Babi Yar is the parallel he draws between the oppressive existence under Stalin and life under the Nazi occupation in Kyiv. The memoir is subtitled ‘A Document in the Form of a Novel’. When Kuznetsov attempted to get it published, he was told ‘not to show it to anybody else until I had removed all the “anti-Soviet stuff” from it.’ So he took out a quarter of the text, and then the Soviet censors expurgated a further quarter. The resulting heavily censored version was published in the USSR in 1966. As Kuznetsov writes in his introduction: ‘the manuscript became so seditious that I was afraid to keep it at home, where I was often subject to searches, so I photographed it and buried it in the ground.’ Three years later, he escaped from the Soviet Union, carrying with him the films containing the unabridged text of Babi Yar, which could finally be published as the author intended. Kuznetsov issued a plea for his readers ‘to consider this edition of Babi Yar as the only authentic text’. His memoir revealed to the world the horrors of the Nazi mass killing at the Babi Yar ravine. The slaughter of Kyiv’s entire Jewish population took place over a two-day period in 1941; it has been described by historian Wendy Morgan Lower as ‘the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust’.
The first time I personally heard an account from the Holodomor was in secondary school. Katrina Rowland, our Russian teacher, was a Ukrainian who ended up in Britain after the Second World War. Mrs Rowland was not only a gifted and inspirational teacher, but she could also hold the entire school spellbound whenever she gave an assembly. One of her stories in particular I shall never forget. She told us how during her childhood a terrible famine was taking place. A man with a horse and cart would appear each day to gather the new corpses, heaping them on to his cart. Katrina’s garden had an apricot tree. A young girl who was mere skin and bones saw a green apricot growing on the tree and offered to swap her silver ring for it. The next day, Katrina spotted the girl’s skeleton among the bodies on the cart: the apricot had proved too rich for her weakened digestive system and it had killed her. Mrs Rowland had clearly been haunted by this episode ever since.
For many years, little consideration was given to the Holodomor in the West, with Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow, published in 1986, being the prominent work dedicated to it. Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine has since appeared in 2017, and this terrible event in twentieth-century history is finally receiving due attention. Since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, not only have Ukrainian families been free to talk about it – and no longer in whispers – but also the Ukrainian state has erected monuments in memory of the victims of the Terror Famine and introduced awareness of this dark episode into Ukrainian schools and the public arena. This trend accelerated under the government of President Viktor Yushchenko, which came to power in 2005 following the Orange Revolution. It did not escape the notice of the men in the Kremlin that neighbouring Ukraine was not only enjoying a free press as well as free and democratic elections, but it also was granting its citizens freedom of memory.
The forced deportation of entire ethnicities is another harrowing and hidden chapter in Soviet history. In 1944, the Crimean peninsula was ethnically cleansed of its indigenous population, the Crimean Tatars. Similarly, in the North Caucasus the Chechen and Ingush people of Chechnya and Ingushetia were forcibly transferred, as were the Balkars and the Karachays. The Soviet authorities justified the mass displacement of these non-Slavic, ethnically Muslim peoples as collective punishment for their alleged collaboration with the invading German forces during World War II.
At first, the Bolshevik revolutionaries had been welcomed in the North Caucasus as saviours, unshackling the local peoples from Russian imperialist rule. During the 1920s, the indigenous ethnicities were allowed a degree of autonomy. Soon, however, the Soviet policies coming from Moscow began to cause tension due to their incompatibility with local traditions and religious sentiments. During collectivisation, there were attempts to introduce pig farming, much to the outrage of the pious Muslim population, and the confiscation from the local men of illegal weapons and the imposition of mandatory military service proved unpopular. Rebellion against Bolshevik rule began to emerge. By the time the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, discontent was simmering in the form of sporadic armed resistance to Soviet power. There was a higher rate of draft-dodging and desertion from the Soviet Army in the North Caucasus compared to other regions. In Chechnya, there was no collaboration with the invading German troops due to the simple fact the Wehrmacht never reached Chechen soil. Despite this, the Soviet authorities successfully propagated the myth that the Chechens were traitors who sent a white horse as a gift to Hitler.
Stalin’s mass deportations were carried out with ruthless efficiency. Entire communities were encircled by troops, rounded up and herded into cattle wagons. An extremely high proportion of the deported peoples died of hunger and disease during the journey or in the early years of their exile. At least a quarter of the deported Chechens died in transit, and it is estimated more than half the total Chechen population perished as a result of the population transfer. It was only in 1989 that the Supreme Council of the USSR finally condemned these genocidal deportations as ‘illegal and criminal’. Discussion of these mass expulsions on ethnic grounds was not tolerated under the Soviet system, and following the collapse of Communist rule, families finally became free to talk and write openly about these episodes. The publication in 1988 of Anatoly Pristavkin’s novel The Inseparable Twins, which touched on the topic of the Chechen deportation, marked a turning point. Under Putin, however, the Kremlin has begun persecuting historians and closing down historical organisations dedicated to exposing the crimes of the Stalinist state. The human rights organisation Memorial, founded in 1989, was dissolved by the Russian authorities on 5 April 2022. The Gulag historian Yury Dmitriev has been handed a fifteen-year custodial sentence in what is clearly a politically motivated case masquerading as a criminal prosecution.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Chechen nation underwent a new wave of trauma, as they fought two bloody wars for independence. The First Chechen War began in 1994, and the Chechens emerged victorious. It was an unpopular war among the Russians, and the mothers of the fallen Russian soldiers organised a large and powerful anti-war movement. This was one of the factors pushing President Boris Yeltsin to sign a peace treaty with the Chechens, ending the conflict. The Second Chechen War was begun by Vladimir Putin, although its planning preceded his taking office. Historians have been unable to establish a reliable figure for the total death toll, but upwards of a fifth of the population of Chechnya died during these wars. Both conflicts began with invasions by the Russian Army.
One of the most moving and lyrical works to be written on the First and Second Chechen Wars is the memoir of the Chechen poet and journalist Mikail Eldin. He wrote his story in exile in Norway, where he now lives. In the Russian Federation, it would be illegal for his book to be published, due to Russia’s 2013 censorship laws prohibiting the circulation of works that promote separatism. After penning his memoirs, Eldin showed the manuscript to the head of Norwegian PEN, who sent it on to English PEN, one of whose committee members was the publisher of Portobello Books. Thus the memoir The Sky Wept Fire found its way into English, despite never appearing – and having no imminent prospect of doing so – in the Russian original.
For Eldin, the trauma of two brutal wars, the genocide of his people and his horrific torture in a Russian ‘filtration camp’ profoundly changed him, creating another self. In The Sky Wept Fire, many passages are dedicated to reminiscences of the past and reflections on the power of memory. As Eldin writes in the book:
The most important thing in war is not the past, not the future, but the present moment. And if in the present something delightful is happening, even if it’s nothing exceptional, why not be happy? Teetering between life and death, you were always living in the present. Not glancing over your shoulder at the past or peering into the future. That made things easier. But the snowfall doesn’t know and doesn’t care about what is easier for you. It simply jerks you out of your diabolical present and for a brief time leads you by the hand – like when you were a child and your mother led you back home from the streets after you’d become lost in play – to a distant, joyous past. This past is an illusion. What you so bombastically refer to as your past is in fact the life of some other guy, someone you thought of as yourself. But he is not you. You and he are two different people; as unalike as a crystal and a stone.
This other persona, the pre-traumatic self, is referred to by Eldin as ‘your reflection in the unshattered mirror of the past’. So strong is the effect of this splitting into two distinct people that Mikail takes to regarding himself in second-person narration.
Eldin’s imprisonment and torture in a ‘filtration camp’ and a Russian military base takes up one third of the memoir. According to the (now banned) Russian human rights organisation Memorial, more than twenty percent of Chechnya’s population passed through the notorious Russian ‘filtration camps’, which, as Mikail writes, should more accurately be termed ‘concentration camps’. During this period, Eldin faced a terrible battle with depression, trying desperately not to succumb to its siren call. Depression becomes personified, and it attempts to ensnare Mikail in a potent net of nostalgia. ‘With a savage ferocity you rip away the cobweb of memories in which depression has entangled you and blot out all the idyllic images. In their place you paint ugly abstractionist pictures of your past.’
In a later section of Eldin’s story, we read about how memories of the past fortified the resistance fighters in dire circumstances.
In conversations among themselves, they often talk about the past. All their memories are of peaceful life before the war, when they were ordinary guys in the countryside or city, studying and working, having friends and falling in love. There are plenty of conversations about memories and just as many about future plans for a peaceful post-war life. They dream of ordinary bread as if it were the most exquisite of dishes. They name the precise addresses of cafés and restaurants and the time of day they plan to visit them, listing what they’ll order after the war. It is, of course, a very bad idea to think about food when you’re hungry. It only makes you hungrier. But then again, these dreams help them live, striving towards an objective that perhaps seems prosaic: eating. Yet was it not through mankind’s desire to eat nice food and work less hard that modern progress was born?
And in the memoir’s Epilogue, Eldin returns once again to the extraordinary importance of keeping the flame of memory alive.
I am fated to long, endless conversations with the ghosts of my memories. And these ghosts will only die when I die. Unlike the characters in so many films and books, I don’t want to forget the past. For there is nothing degrading in it, and it deserves to be remembered. This is not only my past: it is also the past of those who will never be able to talk about it or return to it in their memories. Their pains and hopes are reflected in me as in a mirror. Since it was my lot to survive, I have a duty to remember the past of those who burned in the nation’s sacrificial fire. And not just to remember, but to tell their story as best I can.
Over the course of the centuries, exile has been a key theme for the Russians and the other peoples of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union. The tsars used to send prisoners, whether political or criminal, into exile in Siberia. Stalin transferred entire ethnic populations to Central Asia and other regions far from the European-Russian heartland. Many successive waves of emigration took place, from the Whites fleeing during the Civil War to the Soviet dissidents who escaped during the decades of the Cold War. The particular pain that exile causes is separation from the places and people that feature in one’s memories of the past. Just as Palestinians continue to feel the distress of being unable to return to the places of their childhood that now fall within the Israeli state borders, Crimean Tatars are now exiled from Crimea due to ongoing persecution by the occupying Russian authorities. Chechens such as Mikail Eldin cannot visit Chechyna, even when a parent dies. They cannot set eyes on the landscapes and communities that formed their sense of self. They cannot breathe in the smells that act as such a powerful trigger for nostalgia and are so individual to each place. Instead, they are fated to long, endless conversations with ‘the ghosts of their memories’.
In his book La Russie en 1839, the French writer Marquis de Custine wrote the following words:
In Russia history forms part of the domain of the crown; it is the moral property of the prince, just as the people and the land are his material property; it is kept in the storeroom along with the imperial treasures, and only that part of it which the ruler wishes to make known is displayed. The memory of what happened yesterday is the property of the Czar; he alters the annals of the country according to his own good pleasures and dispenses, each day, to his people the historic truths which accord with the fiction of the moment.
Custine could have been describing Russia not in 1839 but in 2022. Let us hope that this time Russia’s war on memory will be doomed, and the many peoples living in the Russian Federation and living under Russian military occupation will soon enjoy the freedom to remember their family stories and national narratives in years to come.