IN THE MID-1990S the Western psychoanalysts who had sporadically been traveling to post-Soviet countries launched a formal training program for their colleagues from countries where the psychoanalytic tradition had been interrupted. Arutyunyan attended a series of training sessions held in Poland. She had been working as an analyst for about a decade, give or take a flailing year or two. For years now she had enjoyed free access to psychoanalytic literature. She had also been studying psychodrama at a school started in Russia by Swedish therapists. She was a well-educated, well-rounded psychoanalyst, no longer a beginner, so she had a phrase to call what she experienced when she started at the new program: it was a narcissistic blow. She observed masters at work, and she realized that she could not work half that well—not because the instructors were innately so much more talented or intelligent but because they stood on the shoulders of their predecessors, who stood on the shoulders of their predecessors, who stood on the shoulders of giants. Arutyunyan, on the other hand, stood on emptiness, and she herself felt empty. Her ideas were archaic at best, naive at worst. What she felt was that burning, destructive jealousy: this mastery, this fluidity, this depth should have been hers.
The post-Soviet psychoanalysts lacked the central qualification of their profession: they had not themselves gone through analysis. A number of psychoanalysts in Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands began taking on the role of analyst and supervisor for the Russians, who would travel to their supervisors’ cities for a few weeks at a time to undergo analysis, while their own patients were on hold, to return and pick up their work and receive supervision over e-mail. Some of their colleagues pointed out that this was not how it was done, but the participants recalled that the early Freudians had shuttled much the same way. Arutyunyan began traveling to Germany for three-week stints of daily analysis. The language of her sessions was English, the mother tongue for neither analyst nor patient. Sometimes the work of expressing feelings in a language to which these feelings were foreign seemed impossible. Other times, Arutyunyan was grateful for the task of simplification and explication English forced upon her: it made obfuscation more difficult. As she went deeper into analysis, she observed the unconscious playing tricks with language—like when her dreams contained German phrases that she thought she could not understand—but she could remember them and, translated, they unmistakably revealed their meaning.
Shuttle analysis worked on a rigid schedule with long gaps, hardly suited to work so delicate and unpredictable. Arutyunyan often left her clients in Moscow at the least opportune moment in their own analytic processes and then compounded the problem by returning in a changed and vulnerable state. Weekly e-mail sessions with a supervisor called her to order. “Where did that come from?” he would write, challenging her interpretation of a particularly difficult moment. “Could it be that you are frustrated at being torn away from your own analysis and you are taking revenge on the person who caused the separation?” That would be her patient, who was utterly defenseless in this situation. Arutyunyan felt defenseless. All of Russia felt defenseless, it seemed. Pressing on with her own analysis, and her patients’, was a way to hang on, by the skin of her teeth, to who she was.
LYOSHA’S MOTHER ENCOURAGED HIM to enter a citywide history essay contest. It was the sort of thing she did—she was, after all, a history teacher, and she expected her only son to do much better than she had, just as she had done so much better than her own illiterate-peasant mother. The essay topic was “My Family Story in the History of the Twentieth Century.” Lyosha had a sense that this was a trendy topic—the heady days of media revelations about Stalin and the Gulag were over, long since overshadowed by economic reform and political conflict, but recently people all around Lyosha and Galina seemed to be talking about their family histories. The teachers at school had also suggested that researching one’s roots was a good pathway to winning student competitions. Except Lyosha had hardly any family and certainly no history. He did not even carry the family name anymore: when his mother married Sergei, in December 1991, she had changed Lyosha’s last name from Misharin to Gorshkov, and his patronymic from Yurievich to Sergeevich, as though Lyosha had always been his new stepfather’s son. It had been a horrible wedding, during which Lyosha was told not to get in the way of the adults while they celebrated, and he had decided then and there that he hated marriage and would never marry as long as he lived. His stepfather, who had seemed so fun before the wedding, when he would spend hours watching pop music performances on television with Lyosha, now appeared to be a quiet, lazy alcoholic who simply vegetated in front of the television. Lyosha decided that he hated everything about him, especially the way he ate—as though he would never eat again. Lyosha hated his new patronymic and surname too.
Galina said that she could tell him a bit about family history. Lyosha’s great-grandparents, she said, were part of a large German-speaking community that had settled along the Volga River in the late eighteenth century.1 By the standards of the Revolution, the family were kulaks—peasants who owned land and livestock, which made them class enemies. Lyosha’s great-grandfather was stripped of his belongings and disappeared. His great-grandmother and her children lived in abject poverty as members of a newly formed collective farm. Two years after the disappearance of the husband and father, Lyosha’s great-grandmother and her children were loaded into a cattle car, along with other ethnic Germans, and shipped off to the Urals, to a remote rural area outside Solikamsk. Here, reunited with Lyosha’s great-grandfather, they had to start from scratch at a new collective farm, on previously uncultivated land. Lyosha’s grandmother was ten years old. When the family was being herded onto the train, a soldier had taken away her only toy, a wooden doll. In the Urals, authorities changed her name from Emma to Serafima. She received no schooling after the deportation, which was why she was functionally illiterate: before the disaster, the family had spoken German exclusively, and the girl had learned to read using the German Bible.
Everyone in the new village was German. This sounded familiar to Lyosha—there was a part of Solikamsk that was called the German Settlement, though the ethnic Germans who lived there had all emigrated during perestroika. They left behind neat little village-style houses they had built themselves, and a ghost of clean and ordered living that Lyosha found seductive. When Serafima was eighteen, a young man from a neighboring village decided to make her his. In Galina’s telling, his resolve was unilateral and final. He was Russian. He moved Serafima to his village, where she was hated for being a German and a Catholic. Her new husband was an atheist and a Communist, but his own mother was Russian Orthodox, and she refused to accept Serafima as her daughter-in-law in the absence of a church wedding. There was no wedding at all, in fact—this was the early 1930s, and marriage was still a bourgeois anachronism.
Serafima’s new husband drank, had numerous affairs and relationships—at least one other woman considered herself his wife—and built a career in the Party and on the collective farm. He would eventually become chairman of the collective farm and a member of the Supreme Soviet. In 1935, a voronok—a black prisoner-transport car—pulled up to the house: someone had denounced Serafima’s husband for stealing the bricks he had used to build his house. Fortunately, it was Serafima’s habit to maintain order in all things, including receipts for the purchase of bricks, and her husband escaped being jailed.
In 1941, Serafima’s husband went off to war to fight the Germans, and Serafima herself, left alone with a small baby—her first son—went from being an outcast to being the enemy. Her own brother-in-law came around, drunk, in the middle of the night, to smash all her windows, screaming, “German!”
In the late 1940s, years after the Soviets had resanctified marriage, as Lyosha’s grandfather made his way up the Party ladder, he finally registered his marriage to Lyosha’s grandmother. Serafima took her husband’s Russian surname, Misharina. The last people to carry the German family name, Klauser—Lyosha’s great-grandparents—died long before he was born. Lyosha had seen photographs of their funerals and he had asked about their coffins, adorned with what looked to him like a very strange Christian cross, but no one had answered his questions. Now his mother explained that her grandparents had been Catholic, and her sister recalled that as children, Serafima’s two daughters and three sons would spend summers in the German-speaking village and their grandfather would ply them with candy to persuade them to agree to speak a little German or to read from his German Bible. When Serafima’s parents died, the German stopped—none of her children remembered it now—and so did the connection with family on the Klauser side, who had once written Lyosha’s great-grandfather letters, some from Kazakhstan, where they had also been exiled, and others from Germany and New York, where they had escaped during the war.
Serafima confirmed the story for Lyosha and added personal details about her five children. Two of her daughters—Lyosha’s aunts—had been left alone with their children because, like Serafima, they had married alcoholics. One of the husbands drowned while drunk, the other died of alcohol poisoning. As for Galina, said Lyosha’s grandmother, she had been lying to him when she told him that his father lived in Perm. Lyosha’s father was right there in Solikamsk—he was “Uncle Yura,” who had stopped visiting when Lyosha’s stepfather came on the scene. Unlike the stepfather, Yuri was an educated man who did well for himself in the new economy, rising to the position of director at a manufacturing company. He came from a family of Polish Jews who had also been exiled to these parts. He was married and had a daughter, about ten years Lyosha’s senior, who worked at the local children’s library. Lyosha started going to the library even more frequently. He fantasized about inserting a note to his half sister into one of the books he was returning. “You don’t know me, but we have something important in common.” Or, “I see you several times a week, and I wonder if you ever notice our likeness.” The logistics of the plan were unclear—what if someone else found the note?—and the consequences were unpredictable, so Lyosha never followed through.
When he was not thinking about being his father’s son, he thought about being German. It all made sense now: his punctuality, his obsessive neatness, his love of all things that made sense, and his inability to tolerate the sounds Sergei made when eating. Lyosha was no Alexei Sergeevich Gorshkov or even Alexei Yurievich Misharin: he was Alexei Klauser. He won the history essay contest.
Meanwhile, Galina sent a query to the state archives in Saratov, the major city in the Volga region from which she understood her family to have been exiled. You could do this now—ask for information on family who had been declared traitors, criminals, or enemies by the Stalin state. The archives confirmed that Lyosha’s great-grandfather had, in the language of the authorities, “been repressed.” As for Lyosha’s great-grandmother, her file had been misplaced and no information was available.
“TO LEARN ABOUT ONESELF is the toughest among the challenges of learning,” wrote Alexander Etkind, one of the most perceptive scholars of the post-Soviet cultural experience. He was writing about the particular horror of the Soviet legacy:
Victims and perpetrators were mixed together in the same families, ethnic groups, and lines of descent. . . . If the Nazi Holocaust exterminated the Other, the Soviet terror was suicidal. The self-inflicted nature of Soviet terror has complicated the circulation of three energies that structure the postcatastrophic world: a cognitive striving to learn about the catastrophe; an emotional desire to mourn for its victims; and an active desire to find justice and take revenge on the perpetrators. . . . The suicidal nature of the Soviet atrocities made revenge all but impossible, and even learning very difficult.2
Before perestroika, dissident historians had been trying to do the work of learning in the near-complete absence of information. Even after mass terror ended with the death of Stalin, even after Nikita Khrushchev chose to speak out about the terror, he first doctored the information and then made the redacted story secret. When Mikhail Gorbachev, as Party leader, looked at some of the secret archives for the first time in the 1980s, he felt shock, disgust, and disbelief—not only because of what had been done but because it had been done by his own Party and in its name.3
In 1989, Gorbachev made Alexander Nikolaevich chair of a newly created Rehabilitation Commission, in charge of reviewing archival documents and clearing the names of those who had been unjustly punished in the Stalin era. Alexander Nikolaevich was better prepared than Gorbachev to start learning about the terror, both because he was old enough to have heard Khrushchev deliver his secret speech to the Party Congress and because he had seen the cattle cars carrying Soviet prisoners of war to the Gulag after the Great Patriotic War. But what he saw when he studied the archives during perestroika made his stomach turn. He saw that Stalin personally had signed execution orders for forty-four thousand people, people he did not know and whose cases he had not read, if the cases even existed—he had simply signed off on long lists of names, apparently because he enjoyed the process.4 He saw evidence of secret-police competitions, formal ones—like when different departments within the NKVD (the precursor agency to the KGB) raced one another to highest number of political probes launched—and informal ones, like when three of the NKVD brass took three thousand cases with them on a train journey, got drunk, and engaged in a speed challenge: Who could go through a stack of cases fastest, marking each with the letter P. They were not reading the cases. The letter P—pronounced r in Russian—stood for rasstrel, “execution.” He saw evidence of specific days on which the fate of thousands was decided. On November 22, 1937, Stalin and two of his closest advisers, Vyacheslav Molotov and Andrei Zhdanov, approved twelve lists submitted by the NKVD, containing 1,352 people who would be executed. On December 7, they signed off on thirteen lists for a total of 2,397 people, 2,124 of whom were to be executed. On January 3, 1938, they were joined by two other top Bolsheviks, Kliment Voroshilov and Lazar Kaganovich, and together they signed off on twenty-two lists with 2,547 names, 2,270 to be executed.
June 10, 1938: twenty-nine lists, 2,750 people, 2,371 to be executed.
September 12, 1938: thirty-eight lists, 6,013 people, 4,825 to be executed.
There were too many such dates and figures to make them commemorative or otherwise meaningful. Some lists had a specific makeup. On August 20, 1938, Stalin and Molotov together signed off on a list of fifteen women who were classified as “wives of enemies of the people.” Ten of them were housewives and two were students. All were executed. Their husbands, who had been arrested earlier, were executed later.5 Other lists looked altogether random, though the mind scrambled each time to make sense of them.
Lidiya Chukovskaya, a writer whose husband, a physicist, was executed in 1938 at the age of thirty-one, raged against this habit of attempting to make sense of the absurd:
The truth was too primitive and too bloody. The regime had attacked its citizens for no imaginable reason and was beating them, torturing them, and executing them. How were we to understand the reason for such whimsy? If you let it sink in that there is no reason, that they were doing it “just because,” that killers killed just because it is their job to kill, then your heart, though no bullet has pierced it, will be torn apart, and your mind, in its intact shell of a head, will grow shaky. Looking at the truth would have been akin to staring down the barrel of a gun, so one tried to steal oneself away.6
Alexander Nikolaevich had not read these lines: Chukovskaya drafted and redrafted this book for decades, perhaps still hoping to land on a narrative. It was published by Chukovskaya’s daughter only in 2001, five years after its author’s death. The book was called The Elision.
Alexander Nikolaevich ultimately concluded that the terror could not be understood. The explanations offered by his colleagues and any number of historians—that Stalin was mentally ill, that he suffered from paranoid delusions—explained nothing. The tyrant had had any number of his relatives, and the relatives of his wives, executed. One time, Alexander Nikolaevich discovered, Stalin invited an old friend back in Georgia to Moscow for a reunion. They dined and drank—Stalin took pride in his hospitality and his menus, which he personally curated.7 Later the same night, the friend was arrested in his hotel room. He was executed before dawn. This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.8
Alexander Nikolaevich could not understand it, but he could try to describe it. The Soviet state was based on punishment. As Young Pioneers, children were taught to criticize one another and themselves in a group setting, reveling in the details of their shortcomings, the intricacies of blame, the ecstasy of repentance, and the imagined precision of the penalties. The Komsomol and the Party itself were also enforcement organizations, as was the “labor collective”—Sovietspeak for “workplace”—where meetings were regularly convened to “expose” fault and to “take measures.”9
In 1989, its first year in existence, the Rehabilitation Commission reviewed about 280,000 court cases and cleared 367,690 names.10 This was, by Alexander Nikolaevich’s estimate, about 2 percent of the job. From what he could tell now that he had full access to existing documents, casualties of mass terror numbered about twenty million. That was just Stalin’s part of it: more people had died in the collectivization campaign that preceded his rise to power, and the punishment machine had continued to work, albeit at a greatly reduced pace, after Stalin’s death.11 Even if the group continued to review cases at the same rate as in its first year, it would not complete the job in Alexander Nikolaevich’s lifetime.
The Rehabilitation Commission had been formed under the auspices of the Central Committee. This meant that Yeltsin’s 1991 decree halting all economic activity of the Communist Party turned the commission into a nongovernmental organization with no funding, and Alexander Nikolaevich into its unpaid coordinator. He decided to ensure that the documents to which he had access were at least published. He planned to put together volumes on the secret police and on Stalin’s chief henchmen, and a series on the Party’s foreign activities, including a book on the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. If everyone had access to the facts on paper, it would be harder to lie about history, he reasoned. The documents might also make it possible to tell the truth—if anyone ever did find a way to begin making sense of the past. He assembled a team of ten people, if you counted the administrative assistant, the accountant, and the typist, and began the work of sorting, verifying, and cross-referencing.12 The first volume, on a failed 1921 military rebellion against Bolshevik rule, was published in 1997. Seryozha began helping too, first with the typing, then with some of the more complicated tasks. His grandfather was in a hurry—he said that he had to publish as much as possible before he, and the country, lost access to the documents.
By law, information about mass terror had to be publicly available: Yeltsin had issued a decree to that effect in June 1992.13 Early on, even some of the dissident historians had favored a cautious approach. Some of what they had glimpsed in the archives, they argued, could not be released to the public without further analysis. Take, for example, a report submitted by a little-known writer on her much more famous friend. The report’s author wrote that the other woman had praised Stalin in superlative terms. It appeared likely that the lesser-known writer had made the claim—and, indeed, had agreed to be an informant—solely to protect her friend from suspicion and persecution. But if the document were released uncritically, it might sully a great writer’s name. Or take another case: a low-level KGB operative reports that he has met with a dissident who has been consigned to internal exile and the man has agreed to cease all anti-Soviet activity. It is known, however, that after his term in exile the man continued to be active in the dissident movement. How is the report to be interpreted? Was the KGB officer lying, was the dissident telling him what he wanted to hear just to end the conversation, or is there reason to believe that after his exile the dissident had become a mole? Something similar had happened in Poland, where the secret-police archives turned up a dossier on Lech Wałęsa, founder of the Solidarity movement, Nobel laureate, and the country’s first post-Communist president. If the dossier was to be believed, Wałęsa had been a paid secret-police informant. Wałęsa’s stature and popularity outweighed the damage the dossier could have done, but the paper trail continued to haunt him for years.14
There was a deeper reason Russia did not throw open the door to its secret-police archives. The Eastern Bloc countries that took this step—Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic among them—treated the documents as having been left behind by an occupying power. But Soviet institutions had become Russian institutions after 1991, and soon the Russian bureaucracy began to guard many Soviet secrets like its own. Following the logic of institutions rather than the law, a government commission was formed to review archival documents one by one and decide whether they could be declassified. As time went on, fewer and fewer documents made it into the open. A variety of institutions, ranging from the KGB to the foreign ministry to the Cartographic Service, all of which used to be “all-Soviet” and became “all-Russian,” stopped releasing any part of their archives to authorities that could theoretically declassify them. Soviet secrets ossified.15
Alexander Nikolaevich concentrated on publishing the documents to which he had already secured access—those would be enough for a lifetime and more. The inability to make sense of tragedy continued to plague him: not only was there no identifiable reason for what had happened, there was no clear border between the victims and the executioners. He had decided early on that he would focus on victims on a case-by-case basis, regardless of who the victims had been before. But what if a person was victimized by becoming the executioner? Take Stalin’s last wave of terror, euphemistically called “the anti-cosmopolitan campaign.” Blatantly anti-semitic in nature, it had hinged on a conspiracy ostensibly discovered among the country’s most prominent doctors—most of them Jewish—who were accused of poisoning their patients among the Party elite. When the smear campaign against the doctors kicked into gear in January 1953, the nation learned of a Russian doctor who had apparently exposed the Jewish bastards. Her name was Lidia Timashuk, and she was promptly, amid much fanfare, awarded the Order of Lenin for her vigilance. The campaign claimed thousands of victims in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc before it was halted abruptly following Stalin’s death in March 1953. The doctors were presently exonerated, and the Order of Lenin was quietly rescinded—so quietly, though, that Timashuk remained forever associated with the plot to frame the Jews.16
As late as 1966—thirteen years after Stalin’s death—Timashuk wrote to the Party leadership asking for her good name back. She had never claimed the doctors were enemies of the state, much less killers, she wrote. All she had done was, years earlier, disagree with an older colleague on the course of treatment chosen for a top member of the Politburo. It had emerged that she had been right to disagree—the older doctor had misdiagnosed a heart attack as a chronic condition—but she was remembered as the woman who had launched the hideous campaign against Soviet Jews, not as the doctor who had the right diagnosis.17 Timashuk may or may not have been telling the truth when she wrote that she never, not even when questioned by the secret police, cast aspersions on the Jewish doctors. She had certainly suffered less than the other doctors, who had been jailed and tortured and one of whom had died in pretrial detention: Timashuk complained that she had been forced to retire a decade after the Doctors’ Plot because those who had been targeted by the campaign refused to work side by side with her. Surely, as executioners went, she was not in the major leagues. Neither was she unequivocally a victim. When she wrote her letter in 1966, the post-Stalin Thaw was over and her appeal was ignored. By the time Alexander Nikolaevich read the letter, Timashuk was dead. He decided to publish the letter.
The cases of other, more obvious executioners presented legal conundrums but not moral ones. Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov. The last of the top-level killers, Lavrentiy Beria, was executed after Stalin’s death—but he was convicted not of murder, torture, and abuse of power but of having spied for fourteen different foreign countries. Other executioners had also been punished for imaginary crimes. Legally, this was grounds for rehabilitation. Morally, Alexander Nikolaevich decided that as long as he headed the Rehabilitation Commission, honor would not be restored to a single executioner. He also decided that he would run the commission as long as he lived and was able. Under Yeltsin, the commission was taken back into the fold of the state, with the heads of all federal law-enforcement agencies joining as members, though Alexander Nikolaevich continued to serve in an unpaid capacity. Clearing the names of tens of millions of Soviet citizens was his volunteer job.18
A WOMAN CAME to see Arutyunyan about her eleven-year-old daughter, an otherwise lovely girl who kept having strange accidents that her mother suspected were not entirely accidental. Once, for example, she accidentally set the curtains on fire. Another time she accidentally locked the door to the balcony when her own grandmother—the woman’s mother—was outside, stranding the older woman in the brutal cold without a coat. The family dynamics were clear enough: three generations of women were living together as an insular family unit—a fairly typical setup. The grandmother ruled the family like a tyrant. The mother carried out all the grandmother’s orders, no matter how unreasonable, and tolerated all interventions, no matter how cruel. One time, for example, the mother had the apartment renovated—an expensive and arduous task. When the job was completed, the grandmother demanded a change of wallpaper, and the mother complied. Another time the older woman showed up at her granddaughter’s school to denounce the girl for being insufficiently conscientious about homework.
Clearly, the girl’s “accidents” were outward expressions of aggression that her mother was stifling. Arutyunyan and her patient began working through it. The woman’s pain was immense: she was facing the apparent facts that she, a loving daughter, secretly wished her mother dead, and, even worse, that she, a loving mother, had saddled her own daughter with unmanageable feelings. Then the mother made a discovery: the grandmother had once worked as a guard in the Gulag.
The family was now recast as a camp, complete with dead-end make-work, the primacy of discipline, and the total abolition of personal boundaries. The balcony incident looked particularly eerie in this light: it reproduced a common torture technique, when inmates were forced to stand in the freezing cold just outside their barracks. Arutyunyan remembered reading—back when she had access to only some of Freud’s writing—that humans play out that which they cannot remember.
A man came seeking help for problems that clearly resided in his relationship with his father. The man’s life looked like an unfunny caricature of Soviet culture. He had grown up in a bedroom where the walls were entirely covered with slogans. He went to bed and woke up to “Man! The word has a proud sound!” (a quote from the writer Maxim Gorky), “Courage lies not in a lack of fear but in one’s ability to suppress one’s fear” (a quote from educator Alexei Makarenko), and the like. Not an inch of space was left vacant, and the message of all these pronouncements together was that not a fraction of the little boy’s soul or body should remain unoccupied. When he broke both of his arms, he dared not tell his father, because he was afraid to admit that he had engaged in disorderly play. Nor could he admit to feeling pain—the slogans had taught him that would be weakness—so he never cried. The boy’s father had no room for thoughts and perceptions in his mind either, so he made no notice of his son’s injuries. The man who came to Arutyunyan now had limited mobility in both of his arms because they had healed without the aid of casts.
Arutyunyan worked with the man to reconstruct a family story: whatever had hurt him so profoundly had clearly traumatized his father first. The father, as the man described him, was a man who had no inner world whatsoever. His single greatest fear seemed to be that of having a thought of his own. It eventually emerged that an earlier generation had greatly feared arrest and had devised a strategy of extreme mimicry: they would be more Soviet than the Soviets who might arrest them for not being Soviet enough. The strategy may have worked—or the man’s relatives may simply have been among the tens of millions who happened not to be arrested—but by the time Arutyunyan’s patient was born, the Soviet masks had been pulled on so tight for so long that the people behind the masks were frozen in immobility.
As extreme as the case was, the way forward was fairly clear. When the patient’s main fear is that of simply engaging in reflection, the presence of an uncritical other can help him realize that he will not destroy the world with his thoughts. The journey is extremely painful, but at the end of it lies freedom.
THROUGHOUT THE 1990S, Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist known for his work on trauma and on the traumatic effects of totalitarian ideologies, convened a group of Eastern European psychotherapists to try to understand the particular problems they and their patients faced. The essential story revolved around people discovering their histories in family secrets. “Often, parents hide facts because they don’t want to endanger their children,” wrote Fyodor Konkov, the Russian contributor to the resulting collection.
They reason that ignorance of a parent who has been purged or marginalized will protect their children from having problems with the regime. But what I understand happens in such situations from the child’s point of view is that an empty space, a void develops in their identity.19
The strategy had two protective goals, practical and psychological:
The parent thinks, if I deny that something bad has happened to us and I deny and prevent myself from showing the feelings I have about the trauma, I will save my child the pain of these feelings. But the surviving parent also prevents himself from the potential closeness with the child which comes from sharing the pain. By behaving in this manner, the parent trains the son to deny the clues he has already perceived. . . . It is not hard to understand that children raised in this way experience gaps in their emotional life which affect their ability to make and keep intimate relationships. Many layers of understanding are missing.20
“Dr. Konkov describes a specific affective state, one of inner emptiness, which children experience during arrested grief, when they feel they have been lied to about the life and death of their parents or grandparents,” Lifton and his coeditor, psychoanalyst Jacob D. Lindy, added in their comments.21 Perhaps this was the nature of the emptiness that had so struck Carl Rogers when he visited the Soviet Union—when he also observed that none of his interlocutors seemed to have been able to keep an intimate relationship going.
Lifton and Lindy also noted a particular problem these therapists faced, one that they had seen in other psychologists working with traumatized populations: a certain kind of countertransference. “In each case, this intense reaction was a clue to ways in which the patient’s wound—a legacy of the Communist era—connected with the therapist’s wound of the same traumatic history.”22
ARUTYUNYAN WAS CERTAIN that wounds formed when something was missing, willfully unremembered. Her own family had made the unusual choice to maintain its story, and this gave her an advantage. She had learned the story in stages. It must have been in fourth or fifth grade when she asked her mother why the family album contained no photographs of Arutyunyan’s grandfather. The absence was conspicuous: the life of the family was otherwise solidly visually documented, or so it seemed to Arutyunyan. There was a photograph of her mother, Maya, as a baby, in 1925. There were numerous photographs of Maya’s mother, Anna Mikhailovna, as she made her way up to the very top of the Soviet ladder, becoming a member of the Academy of Sciences and the Central Committee, collecting honors and awards along the way, looking stern yet inspired every time. And not a single photograph of Anna Mikhailovna’s husband, Maya’s father, Grigory Yakovlevich Yakovin. Arutyunyan knew that he had died long ago, before the war, and even that he had been executed. But surely there had to be pictures?
“They feared for me,” said Maya. “So they destroyed the photographs.”
“They” were Maya’s mother and grandmother, but what did this mean?
“You see, there was a time when innocent people could be condemned. And if their families did not reject them, then children could be in danger.” Maya got out a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, a tome in blue-black cloth. This was volume five, which began and ended with perfectly incomprehensible words: “Berezna” and “Botokudy.” Maya opened the book to a full-page portrait of a middle-aged, mostly bald man with a round face, perfectly thin lips, and a pince-nez with round rimless lenses. This was Lavrentiy Beria, whom the accompanying four-page article described as “one of the most outstanding leaders of the All-Soviet Communist Party of Bolsheviks and of the Soviet state, a loyal student and comrade of J. V. Stalin,” and so forth. This was not Arutyunyan’s grandfather—this was Stalin’s chief executioner. After he himself was executed, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia received a letter that Maya was now showing her:
The state scholarly publishing house of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia recommends that pages 21, 22, 23, and 24, as well as the portrait bound in between pages 22 and 23, be removed and replaced with new pages, enclosed with this letter.
Use scissors or a razor blade to remove the above-mentioned pages, taking care to retain inner margins to which new pages are to be glued.
The replacement pages contained an article on the Bering Strait.23
“You see, this is the sort of thing that would happen,” explained Maya. “And if it was a close relative, you had to be really careful.”
This was a fascinating answer. It had a tinge of adventure to it. The physical and figurative disappearance of Grigory Yakovlevich Yakovin registered as mystery rather than tragedy.
Then, in high school, Arutyunyan read A Steep Road,* a memoir by a woman, a historian and a loyal Party member, who was falsely accused of being a Trotskyist and spent a decade in the Gulag, followed by another in internal exile. The book was a clear-eyed catalog of human suffering:
When I was young, I liked to repeat the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” Now I could say, “I hurt, therefore I am.” . . .
Back in 1937, when I first admitted my share of responsibility for all that had happened, I dreamed of redemption through pain. By 1949, I knew that pain works only for a time. When it stretches for decades and becomes a part of the everyday, it is no longer redemptive. It is simply something that turns you into a block of wood.
Physical suffering drowns out the pain of inner torment.
This is a horror theater in which some of the actors have been assigned to play victims and others, the executioners. The latter have it worse.24
The book was published in the West and smuggled into the Soviet Union, and Arutyunyan had simply found it sitting on the desk of one of her parents. Now she could not put it down. She could not sleep. She could not stop crying. She summoned her closest friends from school. They spent the night—the book could not be taken out of the apartment—reading and crying.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Arutyunyan demanded of her parents.
“But we did,” they said.
“Not like this!”
She came back to them after this conversation, asking for details about her grandfather. After a few queries, Maya handed her a copy of a poem typed, in the samizdat fashion, on what was called “cigarette paper”—it was thin as rolling papers, and this allowed as many as four copies to be produced through the use of carbon paper and a manual typewriter.
“Here, read this,” Maya said. “The facts don’t match, but this is your grandmother’s story.”
It was a long piece by the émigré poet Naum Korzhavin. It was written in the second person, addressed to a woman who, if the poem was to be believed, was wholeheartedly, slavishly devoted to the Party.
You lied in the name of ideals,
but the tradition of lying
Was continued by those
better suited for purposeful lies.
We are all mortal beings.
Our passions express who we are. . . .
You rejected your love
in the name of a higher desire.
But was there love,
was there love even once in your life?
No, said the poem, the woman had never loved. Yes, it contradicted itself, once she did fall in love, with a fellow Party intellectual, a skinny bespectacled Jew. His views were to the right of the protagonist’s—which meant that they were to the right of the Party line—and they argued the issues, until he got arrested. She was asked to testify, and she did not hesitate.
The work of the Party is sacred,
no room for emotions.
Stick to the substance.
Discard everything else.
She “told them everything.” It was the right thing to do, but when she found out that he had died, she spent all night crying. By this time, according to the poem, she was in the Gulag herself. By the end of the poem it becomes clear that the heroine survived—and, in spite of all that happened to her, remained a true believer. The author despairs of reasoning with her.
You gave it all to the fight,
including that which cannot be given.
All of it:
the ability to love,
to think, and to feel.
All of you, nothing spared—
do you live without your self?25
If this was the story of her grandmother—a claim Arutyunyan instinctively doubted—then her grandfather had once again been elided. The poem described the betrayal, but not the man who was betrayed. Maya finally told her daughter what she knew. Both of her parents had been revolutionaries, underground organizers in czarist Russia, fighters during the Civil War, and scholars after. They had met as students at the Institute for Red Professors, which had been formed to create a cadre of university instructors to replace those who were being exiled or arrested. This was around the time of Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power. When Maya was a newborn, her parents were dispatched to Germany for a year to further their studies. When they returned, the Party assigned them to teach history in Leningrad. Soon after, Maya’s mother, Anna Mikhailovna, denounced her husband publicly for his Trotskyist views—Arutyunyan had no idea what that meant, and Maya explained that he was opposed to Stalin, who he feared would establish the rule of terror. Then Anna Mikhailovna left for Moscow, taking little Maya with her. Maya never saw her father again, though he lived for another dozen years. He was arrested, exiled, arrested again, and finally executed, and in all that time he never named a name, never signed a false confession, and never wavered in his beliefs.
All of this sounded, suspiciously, like the sort of story Arutyunyan would have learned in school when they studied the lives of the Bolshevik quasi-saints: all heroism and no human. Maya spoke about her mother in similarly epic terms. She was pure. She loved the Party and she loved her husband, and later, when she was a powerful woman, she always stood up for people who fell out of favor, always defended their Leninist credentials. Back in the 1920s, Maya said, her mother had been granted a visit with her jailed husband. Maya was unclear about whether the initiative had been her mother’s or the Party’s, but she knew that the goal of the visit was to tear Grigory Yakovlevich from his mistaken beliefs and return him to the fold of the Party of Stalin. He had been elated to see his wife, but the moment he realized what her true objective was, he asked her to leave.
Thus had Anna Mikhailovna lost her one true love among men. From that point on, she belonged to the Party only, body and soul. But in the mid-1930s, when Maya was about ten, Anna Mikhailovna was herself expelled from the Party, for mentoring a student whose dissertation was perceived to contain nationalist notes inconsistent with the then current post-anti-imperial line. She made a suicide pact with her best friend, who had also fallen into disfavor. She left a note: “The Party can live without me, but I cannot live without the Party.” The maid walked in on her, spoiling the suicide attempt; the best friend was already dead. After that, a senior scholar stepped in, arranging for Anna Mikhailovna to teach history at a provincial secondary school. For years after that, it was Maya’s grandmother who took care of her. After the war, however, Stalin decided that he needed a woman in the Central Committee, and Anna Mikhailovna was not only reinstated in the Party but flown right up the career ladder to the top.
Arutyunyan found this narrative unsatisfying. It sounded to her like not one but two bad plays: one about star-crossed lovers, the other about a man so heroic he could not be imagined. She had read enough by now to know that the system of torture, humiliation, and threats broke the best of the best and that the current generation was in no position to judge them.
This was the early 1970s, years before Arutyunyan became a professional psychologist, but she needed no special training to see through the family myth. It was all compensation. Maya loved her mother, and she needed a story grand enough to make up for her betrayals. Anna Mikhailovna had taken Maya’s father away—twice: first by denouncing him and again by destroying all traces of him. She had also abandoned Maya repeatedly, first as a baby: that beautiful picture from 1925 had been taken in a Berlin children’s home, where the little girl was kept while her parents were off uniting the world’s proletariat in revolt. The calligraphically perfect caption on the back of the photograph said, “Liebe Mutter, liebe Tochter,” and this broke Arutyunyan’s heart. When Anna Mikhailovna went off to teach school in a remote city, she did not even say goodbye—she simply disappeared. There were no letters, only an anonymous message that Maya’s mother was “well and living in a different city.” Wounds that large required equally large myths, which was why Maya had had to conjure a father so heroic and a mother so long-suffering that they could exist only in her imagination. This explained why Maya chose to believe, too, that Korzhavin’s tragic, romantic poem had something to do with her mother even though the plot details did not match: if the poet had such compassion for his protagonist, then she must have deserved it. Arutyunyan was a loving daughter too, so she kept her doubts to herself.
TWENTY YEARS after that conversation, in a friend’s kitchen in Munich, of all places, Arutyunyan met a historian of the samizdat, the keeper of the largest known collection of self-published Russian writing. She did not even know why she felt compelled to mention the family legend according to which Korzhavin’s poem “Tan’ka” had been written for and about her grandmother. The archivist became curious. A day later he returned to that kitchen to tell Arutyunyan that he had located an early manuscript of the poem and it contained a dedication to A. M. Pankratova, her grandmother. He suggested that the dedication had been omitted from later iterations to avoid endangering Anna Mikhailovna’s family—Arutyunyan and her parents.
Maya was not a sentimental person, but when Arutyunyan told her that she had confirmed the legend of the poem, she teared up—perhaps because her daughter had remembered what she had told her so many years earlier, or perhaps because she had finally believed her.
Maya died in 1999. In her papers, Arutyunyan found Anna Mikhailovna’s journals. Maya had quoted lines from them to her daughter but had never let her see them: she said that they were too intimate. They were.
1 November 1923 (night)
We have just parted, and I have flown back to my room like a bird, so incredibly, insanely, unconscionably happy.
“Why do I love you so?” he asked. “Why does it make me so happy to see you?”
“Is that true?” I asked. I could not yet believe it, but I could feel the fire engulfing me.
We were standing on the stairs and discussing Party business.
Anna Mikhailovna carried this love through the rest of her life, just as Maya had said. Her later notes contained a chronology of nonstarter romances. “Gr. would never do a thing like that,” she would write, damning a potential suitor with this comparison to her late husband. “No, he is no Gr.,” she would write, dismissing another.
Arutyunyan asked a close friend, a historian well-versed in Stalin-era archives, to look up her grandfather’s case files. She gave him power of attorney for the purpose—by this time, access to archives was restricted to family members.
It all checked out. Grigory Yakovlevich was every bit the hero from Maya’s stories. He never named a name, never lost his dignity, never gave an inch to his tormentors. Transcripts of his interrogations were repetitive:
“I consider it inappropriate to name people.”
“I deny that.”
“Prosecutors and investigators may be concerned with actions, not opinions and intentions. . . . I do not see a need to testify with regards to opinions.”
“I don’t recall.”
“I will not name anyone.”
“That’s a falsehood. I am aware of no such group.”
The unbelievable story of Anna Mikhailovna’s failed redemptive visit also proved true. She had been dispatched by the Party to try to lure her estranged, ideologically wayward husband back into the fold. He was released into her custody. They spent three or four nights together at a hotel before irreconcilable ideological differences separated them forever. Arutyunyan’s friend was even able to make copies of photographs—two sets of mug shots, taken at two arrests. Grigory Yakovlevich was handsome, with strong features and a full head of dark wavy hair. He looked tall, if one can look tall in a mug shot. His likeness had nothing in common with the “skinny, bespectacled Jew” from the Korzhavin poem. There had been other scant but more accurate descriptions of him, including this from the memoir of revolutionary expat Victor Serge:
Grigory Yakovlevich Yakovin, aged thirty, had returned from Germany, on which country he had just written an excellent book. A sporting enthusiast with a constantly alert intelligence, good looks, and a spontaneous charm . . .26
The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño gave Grigory Yakovlevich a three-line cameo in his epic novel 2666: “Grigory Yakovin, a great expert in contemporary Germany history.”27 Several years after Maya, the last person to have seen Grigory Yakovlevich alive, had died, Arutyunyan was finally able to see a clear picture of her grandfather—in an academic paper her historian friend wrote after researching the case.28
ARUTYUNYAN FOUND HERSELF regretting that her mother did not live to read her own father’s court documents—and then she wondered why Maya had not used the brief window of openness in the early 1990s to look for the case herself (a history professor, she would have been confident undertaking that kind of research). Had Maya harbored her own doubts? Her information had, after all, come solely from her mother, who had idolized her late husband and whose authority Maya would have feared undermining even decades after her death.
There was something extravagantly old-fashioned about the way Anna Mikhailovna and Grigory Yakovlevich’s generation had carried its beliefs. “In the disillusioned world of post-Stalinism, maintaining the values of the revolutionary years was perceived as personal vanity,” wrote Etkind, the cultural historian.29 In the post-Stalin era, scaling desires and ambitions from universal down to petit-bourgeois was seen as a virtue, a sign of humanity that was being gradually restored. That made it complicated to admire Grigory Yakovlevich and empathize with Anna Mikhailovna, and it made it difficult to mourn them. The tools of mourning are epic and profound, but after Stalin, people trusted only small emotions and soft categories. “Now, Shakespeare seemed too earnest, austere, stiff; his gravity seemed laughable,” Etkind wrote.30
The people who most clearly opposed the Soviet regime were, at least in Arutyunyan’s generation, the ones who were most suspicious of grand gestures and big pronouncements. Perhaps this was one of the reasons people stopped removing Soviet monuments within a couple of days of the August 1991 coup. The toppled Dzerzhinsky, along with a Stalin, a head of Khrushchev, and a couple of very large Old Bolsheviks, were delivered to a vast vacant lot in the back of a recently constructed House of the Artists in central Moscow. But hundreds, if not thousands, of Lenins, Bolsheviks, obscure heroic Young Pioneers, and disembodied hammer-and-sickles and five-pointed stars continued to dot Moscow parks, public squares, and building facades. Alexander Nikolaevich suggested removing the largest Lenin monument in the city, in Oktyabrskaya Square, and replacing it with a monument to all victims of Soviet terror—but retaining the name of the square “as a lesson to our descendants.”31 Instead, Lenin kept standing, roughly as tall as a three-story building, but the square was renamed.
In November 1996, on the seventy-ninth anniversary of the Great October Revolution, Yeltsin renamed the holiday that was always celebrated on November 7. From now on, it would be called the Day of Agreement and Reconciliation. The following year, the eightieth since the Revolution and the sixtieth since the year of the Great Terror—the most brutal year of Stalinism—would become an entire Year of Agreement and Reconciliation.32 The same year, post-apartheid South Africa established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which harked back to a number of “truth commissions” that had functioned in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Nepal, and others. But Yeltsin was omitting the fact-finding component of the process, focusing solely on reconciliation, or at least agreement. Indeed, Yeltsin was proposing to dispense with all three of the “energies” that Etkind has described as components of postcatastrophic recovery—knowledge, grief, and justice—and proceed directly to some imaginary future in which reckoning had been left behind.
Yeltsin no longer had the strength, or the popular support, to continue fighting against the Communist Party. If he went ahead with a planned trial of the Party, he risked losing—if not in Constitutional Court then in the court of public opinion. With resentment the dominant emotion in the land, Yeltsin could afford no public confrontation with the past. The eighty-volume case against the Communist Party, and the argument for a permanent ban on its existence, were now shelved. The organizers of the 1991 coup and the leaders of the armed uprising of 1993—three dozen people in all—were pardoned by the Russian parliament in its very first amnesty, in February 1994—not because the two conflicts had melded into one in the minds of Russian parliament members but because both conflicts had to be retired and forgotten.33 Even Alexander Nikolaevich’s quiet and plodding work on the Rehabilitation Commission came to seem too confrontational. In 1997, Alexander Nikolaevich submitted two rehabilitation decrees—one concerning children who had been incarcerated in the Gulag and the other concerning members of non-Bolshevik socialist parties who had been executed in the terror—and Yeltsin ignored them.34
Yeltsin, who had always had an infallible sense of the public mood, was increasingly distancing himself from the young radical reformers in favor of many of the old guard. He seemed willing to forget and forgive everything, including personal insults and state treason. “He is making himself a laughing stock with the Communists!” said Alexander Nikolaevich. In April 1997, in the spirit of reconciliation, Yeltsin sent greetings to the annual congress of the Russian Communist Party. The hall whistled and booed when the address was read from the stage. Then they laughed.35