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PN Review 276
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This article is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

Repair Work
translated by Sasha Dugdale
Maria Stepanova
In October 2023 Maria Stepanova won the Berman Literature Prize for In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo Editions). This is her acceptance speech, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale.

Dear Friends,

The book we are speaking of today was written only recently, and yet it was written in a different historical era – before the pandemic, when for a few years the whole world lived in a constant present tense: without the future, which had been put off indefinitely, and without the past, which seemed beyond reach. It was published before the beginning of a full-scale war of aggression in Europe, a war that was started and is still being waged by the country I was born in, and where I had spent my whole life. It is a war which has forever changed my sense of self and of my occupation. And that is why it is so hard for me to speak now. In Memory of Memory appeared in a different world and in some ways was written by a different person. The book was the product of a utopia that is still dear to me; I have always perceived Russia to be an integral part of a European cultural and historic space, a space which draws together thousands of individual fates into one, thousands of threads into a common weave. Now, when my compatriots insist that this communality does not exist and in fact never has, and the language I consider to be my native language is being used to justify violence and destruction, this vision seems a naive one.

The idea of communality, of one large conversation ranging across state borders and language barriers, has become problematic, and not just in Russia. Across the world right-wing parties and governments use similar arguments and methods – and their new form of common interest, based on fear and distrust towards all that is new or foreign, has a backward-looking, conservative quality. We are instructed to turn away from the future, with its frightening newness, and put our faith in political ideals based on the past. But not the real past – rather a fictional one, made to order and touched up and airbrushed to look more attractive. In Russia (but not just in Russia) special legislation has been passed to criminalise historical views that don’t align with the officially-approved version: laws against the ‘falsification of history’ have made any discussion of state criminality a crime in itself. Historical knowledge and understanding based on facts and documented evidence have been replaced with an invented history. We are invited to learn this invention well, memorise it, and never deviate from its path. History is being squeezed out by memory, step by step, and sometimes we aren’t even able to tell the difference between the two.

In the book we are speaking of today I wrote about all this, although it seemed to me back then that memory (or its dark, dangerous twin) had not yet flooded the known world:
Memory is handed down, history is written down; memory is concerned with justice, history with preciseness; memory moralizes, history tallies up and corrects; memory is personal, history dreams of objectivity; memory is based not on knowledge, but on experience: compassion with, sympathy for a desperate pain demanding immediate involvement. At the same time the landscape of memory is strewn with projections, fantasies and misrepresentations – the ghosts of today, with their faces turned to the past.
Today these ghosts have swum to the surface; any version of the past and present has the potential to become a dogma if someone is willing to kill in its name. Russia’s war against Ukraine is, amongst other things, a war of memory, an attempt to insist on one’s own version of history with the aid of tanks and bombs and death. It is terrifying for me to consider what versions might come next.

All my life so far has been lived in a post-war world, a world which emerged following a catastrophe, the destruction of millions of lives in the name of a future that someone felt to be better, more perfect. War back then had particular defining features: it was spoken of in a way which left us as children in no doubt that we might well not have existed – that our whole existence was contingent on those who had died in a war thirty years before, and had died that we might live. As newspapers and books explained, they had sacrificed themselves so we could be born. This placed on us, the living, obligations of a particular kind, we were to live according to particular rules: to study well, behave ourselves, to be good children. It was as if our own lives didn’t entirely belong to us – we had to earn the posthumous approval of dead strangers. The role our own country played in the dividing up of Poland, in occupying other territories and in mass killings, was not part of the public understanding, and so it was easy and natural to see ourselves as representatives of the force of good.

Another catastrophe, the destruction of the old world as it was at the turn of the century, was spoken of less, and in every family it was spoken of in a different way, because it had no limits and no common characteristics. It was a kind of secret which needed to be hidden from others, and those who knew it (and those with whom one could share it) were filled with alternating feelings of pride and shame when they found out. Scratch at the glossy daytime sheen of any family, including your own, and a weak point will soon be found – something that must never be discussed at school, and at home was only communicated in strained and hushed voices, so you intuitively knew it was a serious matter. It took years to begin to speak openly, and years more to learn how to listen and distinguish between the stories of neighbours or school friends. It became suddenly clear that a deep abyss of misfortune was secreted at the heart of every family, not just ours – every family had their own, quite unlike anyone else’s.

In our home, a secular Jewish household, in which the old religion had been replaced by the (still fairly ancient) cult of learning and culture, the black hole that one could never quite suppress or understand – and in understanding it, hold it at bay – was the catastrophe of European Jewry and what had led to it over the decades, from blood libels to pogroms. This was talked about endlessly, unsparingly, in all its terrible detail. But I needed to grow up before realising that the realm of the unspoken lay alongside what could be spoken of: here unyielding silence reigned to the end, and not all the forbidden subjects were to do with being Jewish. The history of my family was filled with torn threads, fates which I will probably never find out, and can only guess at, based on what happened in Odessa in 1919 during the Red Terror, or in 1941 when Hitler’s army took the city, or in Rzhev in 1942 when all the inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto were murdered, or in Kherson at the beginning of the 1920s when each side took it in turns to rule the town, each worse than the last. The frankness with which my mother told me about the Holocaust had a shadowy reverse side: from her I heard only about those who survived. We were the ones who had survived. As Primo Levi said: the worst survived, the best perished.

We, then, were the worst among the just-as-bad, and telling us apart from the next person in the tram carriage or in the doctor’s waiting room was only possible by the particular nature of our phantom pain. Around me in the dusty atmosphere of the late USSR were the children and grandchildren of those who hadn’t been able to save themselves: peasants (repressed and exiled, starved, shot during grain requisitioning), labourers (sent to camps, shot), those ‘people of the past’ as they were termed: merchants, petty bureaucrats, priests, the gentry, who had hidden themselves in nooks and priest-holes for decades and were doomed to gradual destruction. And then there were the descendants of those who had carried out the executions: countless secret policemen and Red Army soldiers who were prepared to kill in order to build a new world in which the previously insignificant could reign supreme. And yet even for them things almost always ended badly, as they had done for everyone else. They in turn became ‘enemies of the people’ without even knowing how, and lay themselves down in the pits of executed bodies alongside the rest.

In this way everyone became a victim, apart from those who survived. All were made equal: not in a good way, but by the common grave, the common fate. Even the idea of picking through the headstones, trying to decide who was good and who less so, seemed somehow clumsy. All this was bewildering – from afar it seemed to us that in postwar Europe there were only three simple categories to remember: victims, murderers and witnesses, and it was impossible to confuse them. Whereas every second one of us had contrived to alternate between the categories, and had settled in the end on the third: the executioner’s pit. But execution without trial or due process, extrajudicial death, seemed in some way to cancel out what had come before – so the millions of dead were just clotted together as one mass of great tragedy, without any explanation (‘that’s what it was like’ shrugged our elders) or way of differentiating. Revolution, civil war, collectivisation, the Terror, the Second World War, another period of State Terror – there is not a single family who emerged intact from this machine of death. And as there could be no retribution, nor even consolation or explanation for these deaths, all that was left to us, born a few decades later, was to study well, behave ourselves, be good children – and to carry within, like the yolk of an egg, the long memory of what can never be set right; and self-pity, because after all anything could happen to you, too.

Fear and self-pity: everything that is needed to see in oneself not an actor or subject of history, but merely its raw material. You could simply ignore your own part in this whirlpool of violence or consider yourself as having been coerced into action: not the leg kicking the ball, but the ball itself, that flies up, striking walls and human bodies. The Soviet utopia allowed the possibility of considering yourself guilt-free – or at least only partially guilty, a small screw in a huge mechanism that kept going whether you liked it or not. Inside this killing machine personal responsibility was easy to evade, either with the mimicry that was essential to survival (‘I did what everyone did’), or by adopting moral standards for exceptional circumstances (‘those were just the times we lived in’). My generation inherited not just horror at the twentieth century and its wholesale killing, but also the feeling that our family members had suffered greatly, and in a way beyond comprehension or comparison. We were the survivors and we were grateful to our close family that they had managed not to die.

This suffering, the narrow corridor of its solipsism, permits no view of the overall picture, nor of one’s place in it, nor what went on beyond the margins of the Soviet experiment – giving the illusion of a particular kind of innocence. It was something like a letter of safe passage. Millions of people felt themselves to be victims of circumstance or the results of circumstance – but never the circumstances themselves, nor the force to change them.

I say ‘we’, where two years ago I would have insisted on ‘I’, speaking from my personal experience; considering it unique, as any individual experience is. Saying ‘we’ now is not an attempt to slough off my responsibilities, to lay them on the collective ‘shoulder’ (that is, on no one’s shoulder), but my sense that a private existence, when understood as a conscious choice, is also the evasion of a problem that must be resolved. In what we call ‘troubled societies*’ the feeling that one is not to blame, a sense of one’s apartness, difference or non-participation, is essential in order to survive and stay sane. But on the other hand, these singular private existences, all believing themselves to be uninvolved and free from the general stain, when taken together, give birth to a society in which every person sees themselves as a heroic loner, outside the structures of power and the exchange of violence, and the pronoun ‘we’ is seen as an attack on personal boundaries. As a result we lose the ability to resist, as well as the ability to discern and differentiate. Events that are determined by class, gender, cultural structures, are easier to behold when one floats above them like a balloon with no one to pull on its string. This distancing effect allows strange things to happen: a person can work for a propaganda channel or shoot at other men exactly like himself, believing at the same time that these actions have no relation to his real and authentic self, and this self remains aloof and apart, a bystander. ‘I did my work’, ‘I followed orders’, ‘I didn’t know anything’, ‘I believed what the papers wrote’. It is always others who are guilty, and we direct our righteous anger at them in order to hide from ourselves the knowledge of our own similar choices. Living in a particular society, and yet believing oneself free of its imprint, is one of the features which has made it possible for Russia to become what it is today. The fact that our historical passivity has its reasons, a succession of choices and refusals to choose, the inability to become what one might provisionally call ‘a political nation’, does not remove my responsibility for not being part of a collective and functioning ‘we’.

I used to think of myself as part of a different community, one that was not defined by historical experience or state boundaries, and my work as part of this community also causes me pain in retrospect, and forces me to ask questions of myself. Towards the end of the sixties, in Europe and beyond, a new and powerful intellectual movement arose over the rubble of the old world: names, stories, caesurae, homes left empty, destroyed cities and villages, children left without even a memory of their parents. This movement was driven by the sense that there was no task more important than gathering up the pieces and recreating, remembering, committing to memory everything that could be saved. It had a spontaneous, almost elemental quality; to begin with it was barely conscious of itself and it had no attachment to a language or nation. But in the thirty or forty years that followed, it created what was in effect a new cultural movement (even the noted German Erinnerungskultur is only one of its manifestations), going well beyond the limits of museums, publishing programmes and academic discourse. Its main feature is a deep attention to and interest in any form of the past, down to every single tiny shard of porcelain or faded black-and-white photograph.

We live in a world where the past (a past the twentieth century wanted to tear itself away from) has entirely filled the public imagination, occupying the space of both present and future. Everything that relates to the past has acquired a special and disproportionately inflated value. Bookshelves groan under the weight of documentary novels bringing forgotten names and undervalued figures back into the light; the less-known the person, the more excitement there is in telling her tale. The price of objects from the past rises fast – now no one throws out grandad’s sticks of furniture, they take them to antique shops, where the concept of ‘vintage’ makes anything too young to be antique commercially viable. The volume of second-hand clothing sold goes up from year to year. Advertising and postcards draw on images from the twenties, thirties and fifties and the fashion industry does the same; for a few decades now it has been almost entirely devoted to referencing and reworking what was invented many years before. The past has long ago outgrown the period when it was simply the object of nostalgic curiosity, and it has become a powerful economic factor affecting our daily life in dozens of imperceptible ways. The political consequences are by now impossible to escape: controlling the past, attempting to harness it, monopolise it, rewrite it according to taste, have all become part of electoral and legislative processes in many countries in Europe and beyond. For those who can’t bear the thought of inevitable change or the promised new, the past is a paradise lost (one which never existed, and is therefore especially attractive), and also a weapon to use against the future.

But it doesn’t stop there. Right in front of us a sort of thinking which belongs entirely in the past has returned to the world’s discourse. This way of thinking had been considered archaic, out-of-date, gone forever – but with each passing year its presence is more evident. Once again the comparative qualities of different ethnicities are discussed (and which nations are inferior, non-existent, or just plain bad), blood and soil, the right of the strongest, the health of the nation. We are moving backwards into the twentieth century at the same speed we once ran from it. Another reason why Russian aggression against Ukraine is horrific is that it is a twentieth-century war, both in the means of warfare, and the ideas behind it.

We didn’t expect this. I didn’t think it would come. Before our eyes the era of memory, individual and collective, darkens at its heart. The attempt to preserve fragments of the lost world, perhaps even to collect them into a partial but coherent picture, seems a helpless one alongside the state projects with the single goal of selling the electorate a false memory of the past, with even the traces of recent catastrophe erased, glorified, made compatible with life. As sometimes happens with ideas that are at their outset driven by an ethical imperative, a pure and passionate desire to see justice done, and are suddenly more successful than could have been hoped to be, memorialising has become its opposite in today’s reality: a deliberately cynical effort to create oblivion. What started as a movement to unite people and rid ourselves of generational and cultural stereotypes in the service of a single moral endeavour has begun to sink into a nostalgia of a completely different and terrifying nature.

I was and remain a part of this unnamed and unbounded movement. From my very childhood and long before I began writing what would become In Memory of Memory I was captivated by the past – just as Marianne Hirsch writes in her book on ‘Postmemory’, it was infinitely more interesting than my own utterly ordinary life. My texts, from poems to essays, are, above all else, connective tissue joining fragments of the lost, the words of others, or what is left of them. In this regard my work is like the darning of socks or the mending of clothes, that historically female occupation, undemanding but essential in the past before overproduction led us to unlearn the skill of lengthening the life of objects that had served their owners rightfully and faithfully. It is a peace-filled craft that fixes and strengthens, and I feel sad when I think of memory today and how it has forgotten itself and become an instrument of violence and separatism, a dead tongue, a bringer of death. I never wanted that, we (this time the hardly-bounded, impossible-to-describe ‘we’ of people who have worked for years on the restoration of the past and of memory) never wanted that.

It reminds me in some ways of the language I write and think in, the language I am talking to you in: Russian. For many people it is now the symbol and instrument of violence and oppression. The language does not bear responsibility for what is happening; unlike us it makes no decisions and choices. Like memory, language depends entirely on us, it changes with us, and becomes the first victim of our desperation and our unwillingness to act. Memory and language have only us to place their hope in, and if we leave them to the whims of fate, or the mercy of those who would attempt to make monsters of them, then the burden of our guilt only grows heavier. Mutilated, damaged, unrecognisable, but still alive, language and memory could still be recovered and returned – and my job is to help in this.

Tikkun olam, an ancient concept from the realm of Jewish mysticism, is derived from the knowledge that the world we live in is damaged and nearly irreparably broken, and that the job of the living is the work of reconstruction, the repair work: if you see a hole then darn it as best you can. There is nothing grandiose about this, it has nothing in common with the terrifying collective projects of the twentieth century which aimed to create a new world, a new man, and in doing so nearly destroyed humanity, and the world. Once it seemed as if memory was a talisman, a security against events repeating themselves: never again. Today it too is in need of repair work.

The concept of tikkun olam seems incredibly, painfully relevant, as actual as it once seemed to Gershom Scholem, when he wrote that the doctrine ‘raised every Jew to the rank of a protagonist in the great process of restitution’. Today I too subscribe to these very words, although perhaps I would replace ‘every Jew’ with ‘every person’. That would be more precise, especially now, when the life-tissue is in shreds, and not only in Europe but throughout the known world. Every one of us, and I think of myself first of all, needs to take up needle and thread and begin the repair work.

*  Maria uses these English words in her original

This article is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

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