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Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia
By Catherine Merridale
402 pgs., US$29.95

Grief's weight

Reviewed by Steven Martinovich
web posted June 11, 2001

Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century RussiaIn his landmark work, Death by Government, historian R.J. Rummell calculated that 61 911 000 Russians had died between 1917 and 1987 as a result of democide, his term for deaths caused by government totalitarianism. That number, improbably precise and possibly too high, fails to convey the level of suffering that Russians have suffered for over a century. Since the fall of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many have wondered how tens of millions of people could simply disappear and how Russians today were coping with what must be tremendous grief over the past. Catherine Merridale's Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia doesn't completely answer the question but it does offer tremendous insight into a part of the Russian soul usually closed off to the west.

In a nation where political murders are still referred to as "repression," Merridale decided to measure the impact of Bolshevik power by investigating how Russians chose to bury and grieve for their dead. Although some would consider that to be an odd approach to take, Night of Stone makes it clear that death is an ever-present character in Russian history, as vivid and real as Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin. Mourning for Alexander III, the last czar to die in office in 1894, lasted three months. Movements in Russia and later the Soviet Union relied on martyrs to advance their causes and the ultimate symbol of the power of death - the mummified corpse of Lenin - continues to be a potent symbol in the ostensibly democratic Russia.

In a strangely, yet entirely appropriate, dispassionate tone Merridale chronicles the importance of death and mourning for Russians, beginning in the final days of czar Nicholas II when funeral rites were the sole province of the Orthodox Church. Along with death, soil is another reoccurring character in Russian history and the religious believed that the dead needed to be returned to the earth. Elaborate rituals were the expected norm and the living regularly visited the gravesites of kin with offerings of food, drink and conversation. Young women were encouraged to practice lamenting - an uncomfortably powerful practice only performed by elderly Russian women today - and given the mortality rate of the peasants it was something they were forced to do often.

The onslaught of Communism not only brought a war against the monarchy but also the traditional funeral. Before their assumption of power, Marxist leaders realized that funerals were a useful way to rally their followers given that meetings and mass gatherings were strictly controlled and monitored. Funerals allowed them to emphasize the bonds that tied Communists together and their collective suffering. After the civil war of 1917 and the resulting victory by the Marxists, suffering is all that millions would know for the next several decades.

Merridale's tone underlines the nearly unreadable horrors related to her by survivors, government records and mass graves that dot the Russian countryside. Repeated famines bore witness to cannibalism and death on a scale that can hardly even be believed. Stalin's 1937 census, which was promoted to the average Russian as a measure of their gains since Communism's assumption of power, was quickly declared top secret after it was revealed how many people had died in famine that struck between 1932-33. The unfortunate census officials who knew the scale of the disaster were killed. Death breeds death.

In some places, the story Merridale tells is such that the reader is forced to almost laugh out loud, with the tale bordering on a bizarre black comedy. Seeking to break the power of the church, the Communists attempted to secularize the funeral. To that end, they created their own elaborate funerary rituals to replace that of the Orthodox Church's. Declaring funerals to be a state industry in 1918 and promoting the alternative of cremation, violently opposed to by the church because it broke the bond of the soil, the Communists planned crematoriums for each city. Thanks to central planning, which didn't work for the production of lipstick much less the special furnaces necessary, the situation quickly deteriorated into chaos with piles of corpses stuffed anywhere they could be before the situation was alleviated with imported western furnaces.

Ukrainian peasants starved to death under Stalin
Ukrainian peasants starved to death under Stalin

From those early years Merridale takes the reader through what seems to be innumerable famines and their resulting epidemics, the wars, the gulags and work camps, the mass graves - one of which may contain 100 000 bodies - and the efforts to hide it all. All the while Russians coped with the massive scale of death with everything ranging from silence to vodka. For a society that values permanence and inviolability, the world must have been a living hell for many.

Night of Stone isn't an easy read but as Merridale points out, the lives of the millions who perished under Communism deserve more than cultural tourism. Behind the stories of famine, epidemic, cannibalism, war, torture and the torrent of resulting grief is the story of human beings, the living and the dead, who's names, faces and dreams were extinguished by an inhumane system. Though the dead may never again speak, writes Merridale at the conclusion of her effort, "these other worlds do not belong to history" and must be remembered. After years of silence, they deserve that much.

Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia at Amazon.com for only $23.96 (20% off). Other related books include The Black Book of Communism : Crimes, Terror, Repression, available at Amazon.com for $30 or R.J. Rummell's Death by Government for $29.95.

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