Perhaps the secret to understanding Russian history lies in its grammar: it lacks a pluperfect tense. In Latin, English and German the pluperfect describes actions completely completed at a definite point in the past… Early Russian had such a tense, but it was erased. This grammatical lack costs its speakers dear. Russian history never becomes history. Like a stubborn page in a new book, it refuses to turn over.
Thus wrote the Soviet dissident and writer Igor Pomerantsev, my father, during his exile in London in the 1980s. When I returned to Russia in the 2000s I had the sense that beneath the Potemkin democratic veneer, Putin’s Russia was actually a case of history repeating, and retrod my parents’ route back to England. Today, Russian dissidents are again being locked up, just as they were in my father’s youth. Russia seems stuck in an endless past imperfect.
I kept on thinking back to the plu-perfect as I wandered blissfully around Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory. The experience of the book is closer to exploring an abandoned palace than following a story. You roam through bedrooms strewn with her family’s personal letters; linger in libraries full of academic analysis on Sebald and Sontag; stroll through cemeteries and archives, past Rembrandt self-portraits and selfies.
Memoir is followed by art criticism, fiction with archival research. Stepanova is better known in Russia as a poet and literary magazine editor, and the chapters flow like a good book of poetry or well-crafted magazine. You can read the book from cover to cover, or start at the back, pause in the middle and then return to the main entrance. But on every poignant page the author returns to the question of how to give the past its due, while also putting it in perspective. How do we remember ourselves, our families, our countries? And how will we do this in a digital age, when we have ‘immortality thrust upon us’ in myriads of tagged photos and terabytes of data.
Though it doesn’t deal in straight story- lines there is at least one systemic purpose to the sprawl. Stepanova is translating the world’s experience of making sense of memory to the Russian context, to a culture where so many stories are lost or suppressed as its people pass
from one space of tragedies to the next, as if it were a suite of rooms, a suite of traumas, from war to revolution, to famine and mass persecution, and on to new wars, new persecutions.
There is something therapeutic in Stepanova’s project, to help give Russians a way to think and speak their memories. She starts with her own family. The book opens with her discovery of a diary by a dead aunt she never really liked. Throughout, she drops in letters from more dead relatives, their sometimes stiff, often heartrendingly intimate words emerging from under the rubble of Russian history.
Though In Memory of Memory is closer to poetry than current affairs, there’s a political edge to Stepanova’s endeavour. Putin’s propaganda fetishises a mythical past, seeks to Make Russia Great Again, and exploits the traumas ordinary Russian families have gone through. Every year, for example, the state organises a parade commemorating the second world war. The streets are filled with people carrying poles mounted with photos of their relatives who fought and died between 1941 and 1945.
In this ‘march of the immortal legion’, the deeply personal is forced into a funnel to glorify the state and in turn to legitimise its current wars, which are framed as eternal repeats of the second world war. In Ukraine, Kremlin propaganda claims, the war is once again against Nazi collaborators and ‘fascists’. The Kremlin is always itching away at the pain of the past, repeating and exploiting it. But the real work of memory, writes Stepanova, is
not sentimental, it is functional, it works as an accelerator. Its job is not to explain the author’s origin to him, nor to reproduce the infant’s cradle in order to rock it. Memory works on behalf of separation, it prepares for the break, without which the self cannot emerge.
The book is therapeutic in another sense too. In the way she intermingles Russian and European musings on memory, gliding seamlessly between countries and continents, Stepanova helps heal the ruptures between Russian culture and the world’s. In the 19th century, the Russian novel was an integral part of Western literature. During the USSR Russian culture gradually went into exile, eventually emigrating entirely. Life and Fate and Dr Zhivago are perhaps the last great ‘European’ Russian novels. Post-Soviet Russia has continued to bring forth astounding writers, but their references and obsessions can seem alien to anyone unfamiliar with the Soviet experience.
With Stepanova, the context can be utterly Russian but the questions are familiar. What have we stashed away from ourselves in our colonial pasts? How will we deal with a data-driven age, when ‘whether you want to or not, you are facing the strange extension of your existence, your outward form preserved for all time. All that disappears is what made you yourself.’
Stepanova marks Russian literature’s return home — that is, to Europe. A rupture is passing into the pluperfect.
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