Myth, Memory, Trauma – The Constant Gardner

When reading Polly Jones’ stimulating book on Soviet memory of the Stalin era, I found myself thinking about two other works that helped establish the memory of collective trauma as a distinct field of humanistic inquiry: Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Saul Friedlander’s edited volume, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (1992).  Both explored the challenges of depicting liminal experiences – the First World War and the Holocaust, respectively – in a variety of fictional and non-fictional genres.  Both can help us think comparatively about what Jones calls the “memory work” undertaken by the protagonists of her book.

Seen comparatively, perhaps the most distinctive if unsurprising feature of the Soviet case is the role of the Party-State as constant gardner in the field of memory. Whatever the season – thaw or freeze – the gardner is there, planting, cultivating, pruning, weeding. The gardner has a diagnosis for all the ills that beset the garden: the cult of personality. The gardner has a device to ensure that those ills never reappear: socialist legality. And for those who tell the story of the garden’s ills, the gardner knows the correct idiom: Socialist Realism. True, weeds keep coming up, and it’s increasingly difficult to discern the garden’s layout, but no one can overlook the presence of the gardner. 

It’s not that state institutions were uninvolved in Britain’s interwar reflections on the horrors of the Great War, or in West Germany’s encounter with the Nazi past, or for that matter in the memorialization of the American Civil War. Rather, it is the depth, pervasiveness, and longevity of the Soviet government’s engagement in the work of public memory of the Stalin era that stand out. It is telling, I think, that the text Jones identifies as marking “the limit of Soviet literature’s ability to represent 1937” (pp.161-2) – Iurii Dombrovskii’s The Keeper of Antiquities – confronted the boundaries not of the human capacity to represent extreme suffering and moral chaos, but of Socialist Realism and censorship. The Soviet case, to paraphrase a more recent expression, was one of managed memory.

Much hangs on what Jones means by “Soviet literature.” Myth, Memory, Trauma does a superb job of reconstructing the literary ecosystem of editing, publishing, and reader response, allowing Jones to explore not only “official” and “public” (i.e., officially permitted and therefore publishable) memory, but the extraordinarily diverse forms of “vernacular” memory too, as revealed in readers’ letters to the Central Committee, historical and literary journals, and authors such as Konstantin Simonov and Evgenii Yevtushenko. But it seems that, for Jones, “Soviet literature” does not include works that explicitly violated the norms of Socialist Realism, probed unambiguously taboo subjects, or otherwise rendered themselves unpublishable. Dombrovskii’s sequel to The Keeper of Antiquities, according to Jones, was “beyond the boundaries of Soviet literature” (165). The same applies to samizdat (self-published texts) and tamizdat (texts published outside the USSR). I found this taxonomy surprising, given the recent scholarly move away from partitioning late Soviet culture into “official” and “dissident” currents, and instead seeing both as part of a single cultural field, or what Soviet literary critics used to call “the literary process.”

What happens to our understanding of Soviet memory of terror and war if, under “Soviet literature,” we include Andrei Siniavskii’s The Trial Begins and Iulii Daniel’s Atonement, both of which rejected not just Socialist Realism but realism per se? What happens if we include Solzhenitsyn’s long poem “Prussian Nights,” which addressed the mass rapes committed by Soviet soldiers in Germany, or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which dared to draw an analogy between Stalinism and Nazism? The chronology of these works is also significant: all were composed before the end of the 1950s, that is, relatively early in the process of “coming to terms” with the Stalinist past. They cannot, therefore, be understood as a response to the failure of de-Stalinization in “official” memory culture.

It might be argued that, precisely because they were not and could not be published inside the USSR, such works were marginal to the process of “rethinking” the Stalinist past. Jones seems to endorse this view when she approvingly quotes Steven F. Cohen’s claim that “profound and loud truth-telling could only be initiated from above” (13). I am skeptical of Cohen’s claim, if only because samizdat and tamizdat and above all radizdat (the broadcasting of dissident texts by the Voice of America, the BBC, Radio Liberty, and other Western shortwave radio stations) had the effect of exponentially amplifying certain texts vis-a-vis their Soviet audience. For this reason, too, I think it makes sense to include key works of samizdat and tamizdat in the analysis of Soviet memory culture.

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