The past and the future of Russia - in the new book by Nikolay Epple

The past and the future of Russia - in the new book by Nikolay Epple
The past and the future of Russia - in the new book by Nikolay Epple
18 September 2020, 17:05Culture
It is in the recognition of collective responsibility for the crimes of the past that the only opportunity to tackle a much more difficult task lurks: an attempt to find a common language at the national level.

Anna Bersenyova

If Russia has a future, it is described in the book by Nikolay Epple "An Inconvenient Past: Memory of the State Crimes in Russia and Other Countries" (Moscow: New Literary Review. 2020). Even in a very saturated modern literary space, in which non-fiction is taking up more and more space, because the popularity of the genre is growing, this book stands out for its brightness and significance. The author's immediate impulse to write it was one personal situation: a meeting at the family table of two elderly relatives.

At some point, we were talking about repression, and suddenly it turned out that these two people lived their lives in countries with different backgrounds. For one, repression was a myth and "slander", for another, a daily reality. The abstractly unthinkable thing turned out to be a tangible fact: the objective reality of the past does not exist. It is formed by memory, and memory is biased and easily allows itself to be deceived. The frozen and “unpredictable” history of a country with a double memory turns into a double reality in the present. It is fraught at best with the inability to move forward, and at worst with open conflict".

For Epple, it is obvious: it is impossible to rely on “it will resolve itself”. And this is not just an intuitive guess, but the result of deep, careful, scientific in method and artistic in impact of research. Such an unusual combination of scientific and artistic qualities makes the book “An Inconvenient Past” a powerful factor in modern literary life. For all its impeccable academicism, it obviously goes beyond what is usually associated with the concept of research. At least, by the power of emotional impact, which is devoid of any publicistic pretentiousness. It is clear that the author's narrative talent plays a significant role. And there are many bright stories in the book - what is the story about the Yakut village of Topolinoye, based on the construction site of the Kolyma highway, for which the bones of prisoners literally served as "filler":

Since the 1990s, local people have been reporting numerous ghost appearances. they call them "arinkel", identifying them with the evil spirits of those who died a violent death. Contact with them, according to local beliefs, is dangerous for the living.

“There are a lot of arinkel, these places are swarming with them”, - says the reindeer breeder Kolya, one of the inhabitants of the village. “Two Russian convicts are constantly seen in the club. Several ghosts of convicts also live in the school; they always walk here at night, when it's dark and no one is around. There is a barn next to my house, and in this barn lives the ghost of a boy in a quilted jacket, such horror! Then another old woman in the former boiler room, she scares people, follows them on their heels. Another ghost-convict lives in Aunt Isa's apartment, they say that she has recently gone crazy, because people hear her talking to him. " For the author, this mystical inclusion “is not just an exotic example of the implementation of the metaphor about“ ghosts of a difficult past ”haunting the living, recalling the need to symbolically and literally bury the dead, call crimes crimes, and criminals criminals. It is also an illustration of a much more mundane problem. An unworked past creates a gap in the social fabric, for which there are no ready-made healing mechanisms. Just as the ghosts of deceased convicts cannot integrate into the ways of dealing with the spirits of the dead, habitual for local residents, forcing the living to withdraw from their homes, so the memory of the mass Soviet terror on a national scale cannot be built into existing memory structures. It does not form an ordinary cultural humus, but lies in an unprocessed layer, now and then "breaking through" into the reality of today".

Both the ghost story itself and the social metaphor associated with it are very expressive. Still, the main secret of the impact of this book is the urgency of what it is about.

Epple quotes the words written in 2008 by political commentator and publicist Maxim Trudolyubov: “The Soviet legacy is not just material for historians. This is the foundation on which the country stands".

Lack of awareness of the crimes of the past disfigures the present and deprives the country of the future - this is understood by many. But what exactly should be realized and, most importantly, what to do with this awareness? But this remains unclear for the majority of even those people who do not doubt the crimes of totalitarianism and sincerely want to get rid of them. As a rule, it seems to such people that it is enough to hold "their own Nuremberg tribunal" and instill in the population the idea of collective guilt, and then they will go on. However, as Epple writes, “it is incredibly difficult to admit one's own responsibility without shifting it onto external or internal enemies, time and circumstances. It is difficult psychologically, politically and legally. " If the majority of people perceive collective guilt with irritation, then collective responsibility - with misunderstanding. However, it is the recognition of it that is "the only opportunity to approach a much more difficult task: an attempt to find a common language at the national level".

The difficulty is partly eased only by the fact that we are not the first to face all this. Nikolay Epple scrupulously examines not only domestic attempts to overcome the totalitarian past - "thaw", "perestroika", current calls for "drawing the line", masking the legitimation of power from above, or "return of names" as a real ritual of collecting a divided past from below - but also experience countries that differ from each other even in their continental affiliation. Argentina, Japan, Spain, South Africa ... And, of course, Germany.

The Russian “difficult past” is fundamentally different from the German one, if only in that after World War II Germany was forced to begin to deal with it under the strongest external pressure leaving no choice. And nevertheless, it is the German, and not even situationally more similar to us, the Spanish way that seems to be burning urgent for Russia. Maybe because "to a large extent this is a history of failures — failures in attempts to forcibly re-educate a defeated nation, separate the clean from the unclean," close the topic "again and again and get rid of it". Even “the real fruits of Nuremberg and the real attitude of contemporaries towards him were very different from the brilliant “Nuremberg myth”. Even the understanding that the Holocaust should not become a thing of the past came to the Germans only in 1980 (!). A few decades after the war, most Germans were neutral towards the Nazi regime. They did not support him or condemn him, believing that the responsibility for his crimes should be borne by the state, and not the citizens.

Germany did not free itself from the criminal regime, and that is why, when the philosopher Jaspers spoke about pleading guilty to the Germans, his words provoked outrage even in a small university audience. It took a truly titanic effort to overcome the "communicative silence", that is, an unspoken and not devoid of superficial logic, an agreement that to move forward it is worth leaving the past behind. The best minds of Germany, its leaders, its social forces have worked on the elaboration of the past year after year, and the results of this work have manifested themselves unbearably slowly.

Nikolay Epple draws attention to what the first generally obvious result was associated with:

“The decisive shift in attitudes towards the past is not facilitated by discussions in the circles of intellectuals and not even high-profile trials of war criminals, which leave a significant part of society indifferent. The ice in the hearts of the Germans, in Aleida Assman's words, breaks the product of American commercial culture. In January 1979, a four-part film by Marvin Chomsky (cousin of the famous linguist and publicist Noam Chomsky), "The Holocaust", starring Meryl Streep, was broadcast on West German television. The film tells the story of a fictional family of German Jews from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s; it mentions Kristallnacht, the Warsaw ghetto and Sobibor uprising, the euthanasia program, mass deportations of Jews, executions and extermination camps. The demonstration of each episode was accompanied by a program with the participation of historians: viewers could call the studio and ask questions about the historicity of the facts shown in the film. The film was watched by 20 million people, or 48% of the adult population".

Then there was a breakthrough in memory, after which society accepted what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas formulated: the Holocaust must be a constant starting point, it cannot be "normalized" and "left in the past".

It was only after that that the concept of collective guilt was replaced by the Germans with the understanding of collective moral responsibility.

Epple considers it important to emphasize: “The topic of working with the past is not limited to political and social mechanisms. To a great extent, this work is done by culture. Works of fine and monumental art, literature and cinema are not by-products of this work, but one of its most important tools and “languages”, without which it cannot be considered complete”.

However, the author urges not to forget that working with the past is not self-sufficient and its goal is not to create even the most highly artistic works. This work “is designed to institutionalize the transition from one political system to another, from authoritarianism (dictatorship) to democracy. This transition can occur as a result of a complete breakdown of the old system and the coming to replace it with another (as in Germany), as a result of flowing from one system to another while preserving the elements of the old structure (as in Spain, Argentina or Poland) or folding within one system items different (as in Japan). The exclusivity of the Russian case is not in the fact that our experience of terrorist terrorism has no analogues — the experience of each country is unique in its own way — but in the fact that it combines elements of different models in a unique way”.

The book says more about how, contrary to the state directive, it looks like overcoming the past in modern Russia than about how it happened in post-Nazi Germany. This story is preceded by a stunning metaphor of dead and living water:

The image of living and dead water is too familiar to all of us from childhood, so that we can fully realize its strangeness and mystery. The action of dead water - in a convex, as is typical of myth, form - demonstrates how drawing a line under the past works. Moving into the future without ending the past, when this past is marked by crimes, is to belong to two worlds. But the image of a vampire reminds us that to belong to two opposite worlds means not to truly belong to either of them. To come to life, one must first die “completely”. In order to cease to be destructive for the future, the past must be revealed in its entirety, receive an assessment, and only then is it “completed”.

The clearest example of what this means in reality is the investigation of the murder of his great-grandfather during the Great Terror, which is being led by lawyer Denis Karagodin. The materials of this investigation were read by the granddaughter of the man who participated in the shooting. Shocked by the fact that she learned about her grandfather, she wrote to Karagodin: “I am very ashamed of everything, I just physically hurt. And it’s bitter that I can’t fix anything, except that I confess to you in my and N.I. Zyryanov’s. kinship and commemorate your great-grandfather in church".

The answer was the words of Denis Karagodin: “I extend my hand of reconciliation to you, no matter how hard it is for me to do it now (remembering and knowing everything). I suggest you reset the entire situation. You did the main thing with your letter - you were sincere, and this is more than enough for everything. Live with peace of mind, and most importantly with a clear conscience. Neither I, nor any of my relatives or friends will ever blame you for anything. You are a wonderful person — know this. Thank you sincerely".

And this is the real zeroing of the situation. Not when, according to Nikolay Epple, "in political practice, the proposal to "forget", as a rule, comes not from the victim, but from the culprit, and precisely when he is not ready to take responsibility for what happened and ask for forgiveness." On the part of the murderer's granddaughter, a full-fledged inheritance took place, when "a person assumes both the privileges and obligations associated with this, inherits both the treasures accumulated by the ancestors and the debts left by them".

I don’t know if another book has been written in Russian, in which the steps towards “drawing the line” would have been so consistently and accurately indicated: “First, an attempt to forget the past in order to move on, then the discovery that the past does not let go, then the acceptance of its irrevocability and finally, its inclusion in the national narrative as a support for the future".

Will Russia go through this obvious path to the future or will it spend all its strength and overstrain, frenziedly demonstrating its "originality", but in fact moving into a dead end or into an abyss? Nobody will answer this question now. But in the book of Nikolay Epple every right step is outlined.

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