Monthly Archives: November 2004

‘The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin’

The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin.
Adam Hochschild.
New York: Mariner Books,1994 / 2003.

Adam Hochschild’s book, The Unquiet Ghost, is a riveting and, at times, deeply unsettling account of the way ordinary Russians are dealing with the legacy of Stalinist policies. Particular attention is given to the extensive system of labour camps known as the gulag, as well as to the millions executed on spurious charges. Stalin’s paranoia and the various systemic flaws (e.g., scapegoating) are discussed, but Hochschild avoids trivialising the issue by offering a trite and simplistic answer to the question that hangs over nearly every page of testimony: ‘why?’ An impossible answer to an impossible question.

Hochschild visited the Soviet Union during the heady days of glasnost, less than a year before the sudden collapse and break-up of the USSR. Even so, it is frequently surprising how candid many Russians are with the strange American interviewer. Visiting ordinary people, ‘repressed’ under Stalin for imaginary offences against ‘the people’, the full range of human response to trauma is captured. Some are simply unwilling to discuss the past candidly, relying on bureaucratic evasions; others find solace in the ‘stability’ the nation had under Stalin—they seem to find civil order and political freedom mutually exclusive; others still are willing to confront the past head-on, as in the history teacher who works to self-publish materials to challenge other Russians and make them think for themselves at long last.

Tales of denial and acceptance from the ’30s and ’40s are a legacy of the pre-Bolshevik era. One former inmate recalls everyone busily writing letters off to Stalin, they were so convinced that he did not—that he could not—have known of their suffering. The images of Lenin, and his successor Stalin, replaced the Tsar as the ‘little father’ to the people of Russia. It is likely this legacy of autocracy and historic lack of freedom that allowed Russian citizens to not only tolerate such cruelty, but to thrive beneath it. What breathes through so many of these interviews is that indomitable human spirit, the will to survive.

Organisations such as Memorial, dedicated to collecting stories of the gulag and to re-uniting long-separated family and friends, offer the possibility of hope and closure. It is through such groups that one can find a sense that Russia is going to recover—that it will not remain trapped in an endless cycle of brutal repression. Just as the many Holocaust groups in the United States and Europe keep alive the memory of those awful years, so too will Memorial and its sister organisations keep the memory of Stalin and his butchery alive. Only through sharing such experiences, through remembering and never forgetting, can we hope to warn future generations and avoid a back-slide into implacable tyranny.