Democracy requires reflection. It is easy to fall for stories about how our group was always right and some other group was always wrong. Once these tales turn us into tribes, we follow the tribal leaders who tell them, rather than thinking for ourselves. Democracy means that people rule, but to do so, they need tools to see through the lies told by the powerful. Reflection requires facts, and getting at them is harder than it seems.
In the Soviet Union, dissidents set an ethical and practical example of how to do this. Do not engage the propaganda stories themselves, at least not at first. Take an interest in the most basic facts. Find out the names of the persecuted, record the details of their trials, their interrogations, their sentences, their time in the camps. Write it all down, and take the consequences. Treat small truths as worthy of risk. Be arrested in your turn, trusting that others will record your name.
"Samizdat" just means "published by oneself," but the Russian word has the glow of risk for truth. We Americans speak lightly of freedom of speech, contenting ourselves with the notion that giving voice to this or that impulse means that we are free. In a longer and stronger tradition, freedom of speech means speaking truth to power. If you cannot do this, if you lack the facts or the courage to do so, you are not a free person. It is this sort of freedom that allows us to stay clear of the tribe, to become individuals, to reflect.
The most important samizdat publication in the Soviet Union was "The Chronicle of Current Events." It had no grand story, no narrative. It introduced no counter-propaganda to address the post-Stalinism of the Brezhnev era. Between 1968 and 1982, its courageous activists simply recorded what they called human rights violations, and were sentenced to the camps. They did not tell their fellow Soviet citizens what to think. They did however produce some of the factuality that made thinking possible.
After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, political prisoners were freed from the camps. In accordance with his policy of Glasnost, Soviet citizens were now allowed to seek the truth about the Soviet past. To do so, former political prisoners and human rights activists constituted themselves as a social movement called Memorial. After the end of the Soviet Union, the social movement, taking various institutional forms, has followed the same dissident ethic. The activists of Memorial collected data about the Great Terror of 1937-1938, which was a mass killing operation directed chiefly against peasants and members of national minorities, as well well as about the vast concentration camp complex known as the Gulag.
For three decades, researchers associated with Memorial have been indefatigable in exploiting Russian archives, very often delivering the basic documents and analysis that have enabled people beyond Russia to write about Soviet terror as a whole. Anne Applebaum's synthetic study of the Gulag and Golfo Alexopolous's pioneering analysis of its death toll, for example, would have been impossible without Memorial. Without the efforts of Memorial, my book Bloodlands could not have been written. Poles now know that there was a Polish action in the Great Terror that took about one hundred thousand lives. This is one of the great atrocities in Polish history, and it was unknown. The original source of this knowledge was a book by the Memorial historians Arseny Roginsky and Nikita Petrov.
Memorial's labor is not only historical. Activists of Memorial risked (and sometimes lost) their lives in attempts to mediate during Russia's wars in Chechnya. As the number of political prisoners in Russia mounts under the Putin regime, Memorial has renewed its advocacy of human rights in contemporary Russia. Each year, its Human Rights Center releases a list of them.
By the logic of political tribalism, the Putin regime treats Memorial as an enemy. Putin has a hard time telling a story about Russia's future, so he resorts to myths of the past. History is troubling, so best to stick to a simple myth, in which all Soviet policies were somehow justified and all Russians were innocent. Putin has not figured out what that story is, but he does understand that facts get in the way, as do people with the courage to pursue them. So long as he has no rivals in telling the story, he can imagine that he controls the past, and thus the present.
And so the very Russians who take risks so that Russians can know Russian history are categorized as "foreign agents." Memorial's defense of a religious minority in Russia, the Jehovah's Witnesses, is now defined as an act of "extremism" and "terrorism." Persecuted in various ways for more than a decade, Memorial now faces dissolution by Russian authorities. The trial of Memorial's Human Rights Center began yesterday, and has been adjourned until November 29th, apparently to give the prosecution more time to prepare. Russian prosectors have asked the highest court to shut down International Memorial, the overall organization. That hearing begins tomorrow, November 25th.
The move against factuality should concern us all. The example set by Russian dissidents was followed beyond Soviet Russia. The idea that the numbers matter, that the names matter, that the small facts matter, was essential to dissidents in Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and throughout eastern Europe. Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the labors of Memorial have mattered not just for Russians, although they have been enormously important at home, but also as an example for the rest of us.
Putin's Russia has gone further than other governments in seeking a monopoly on the past. That shows us the general danger of legislating memory for political comfort.
We are all tempted by the simple stories, and should respect those who help us to resist them. If we cannot see ourselves, we cannot rule ourselves.
This is one of your very best essays, Professor Snyder. “We Americans speak lightly of freedom of speech, contenting ourselves with the notion that giving voice to this or that impulse means that we are free,” you write. My hairdresser of about 15 years and her husband, are U.S. naturalized citizens from Novosibirsk. About 3 years ago, when we were talking about Stalin as she was cutting my hair, she told me that her great-grandfather was killed in a hospital. I told her it sounded to me like someone was trying to meet a quota, and she said, “Yes, that’s what we think, but my great-grandmother refuses to talk about it.” She said that her family had just returned from a visit to Novosibirsk and, while there, desperate to know something—anything—about him, she decided she would broach the subject in a novel way. She would first ask her great-grandmother about her childhood, and then, working her way up chronologically, she reasoned, she would eventually get to the subject. Her great-grandmother was happy to talk about her childhood, but the moment Tatiana mentioned Stalin, the look on her face changed. Without saying a word, she stood up, walked out of the room and into her bedroom, and closed the door, where she stayed for hours, until after dark. All Tatiana knows is that he was about 30 years old, was a rich shop owner, was killed in 1937 or 1938, and for some unknown reason was in a hospital in, of all places, Odessa. She has no idea why he was so far away from home. “His name was Mihail Vnukov. Михаил Внуков,” Tatiana emailed me. When I asked her if she had heard/read about NKVD Order 00447, she told me she hadn’t, so I emailed her a scanned version of the original document in Russian, and pointed out to her the number of people to be killed in Odessa Oblast, but also explained to her that he might not have been killed under that order.
As I watched the storming of the Michigan statehouse on April 30, 2020, the first thing I thought of was not just Tatiana’s great-grandfather, but her great-grandmother who, very young and in a state of shock, had to raise her children alone. She lived with it every day, decade after decade. Only in death was she granted a reprieve from her sorrow. And then there is Tatiana, who still yearns for her great-grandfather, a man she never knew, and when her great-grandmother died, so did her hope of ever knowing and understanding.
O, America! You have no idea of what freedom means, and what it is like to lose it. You praise Putin without having any understanding of what it would mean for you to live in Russia. You cheapen the word daily with your talk of “freedom fries” and freedom from: “No one is going to tell me,” “no one is going to make me,” “no one, no one, no one!” “No one is going to tell me what to think!” you shriek—for the whole world to hear—even as you strut about as though you were living, breathing collections of talking points. And you don’t even see the inanity of such a contradiction.
There is a quotation from William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” (1954) that has been repeated quite a lot lately, much like a talking point, that is, without any real understanding of its meaning: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It is a reference to an individual, Temple Drake, who, in an earlier life (“Sanctuary,” 1931) was a prostitute, and later became a respectable, middle-class woman who strove to hide her past. For me, the central element in Faulkner’s writing is time: “The past is always present,” he wrote (I’ve forgotten which novel) and, in “Intruder in the Dust” (1948), he writes, “yesterday, today and tomorrow are Is: Indivisible: One.” And even when he is not referencing time specifically, the narrative jumps back and forth from present to past and back again, and not just in the stream of consciousness writing in Benjy’s and Quentin’s chapters in “The Sound and the Fury,” but in his non-stream of consciousness writings as well, past and present are one. Time is never linear for Faulkner; the past always weighs heavily on the present. This inability of humans to escape an unhappy past and their refusal to come to terms with it is (I think), Faulkner’s most brilliant insight. And the history about which he is most concerned is, of course, U.S. southern history. America is a tangled mass of history that whites strive mightily to forget. “We don’t want to talk about our history!” say white Americans, as they unconsciously live that history daily. Although most white Americans know very little about their own history, it is odd indeed that the past is unconsciously always present for them, even as they work endlessly to fill the void with pleasing myths and pass memory laws designed to make them forget. Are we surprised, then, that such shallowness can never lead to a proper understanding of freedom?
Thanks for this superb piece.
On another perhaps unrelated note I celebrate the English translation publication of Olga Tokarczuk’s Books of Jacob. Already out in Britain this month, will be published in the US in February. I mention it here for anyone who might be interested.