Maria Stepanova’s story begins with the death of her aunt. Towards the end of her life, Galya retreated from the world, unplugging her phone and devoting her time to classifying, sorting and sometimes discarding the possessions that crowded the ‘cave of her tiny apartment’. Shortly after her death, Stepanova sits among her aunt’s piled-up photographs and postcards, thermal vests and leggings, books and newspapers, ivory brooches and embroidered shirts, considering this odd accumulation of objects which only really had meaning ‘within the frame of a continuing life’.
In a wooden box, she finds a stash of Galya’s diaries and notebooks. Stepanova hadn’t been close to her aunt – her parents ‘had what you might call troubled dealings’ with Galya – and she begins to read ‘in search of stories, explanations’. But the diaries offer no personal insights. Instead Stepanova finds a chronicle of the domestic routines of an old woman in early 21st-century Moscow. ‘It’s 1.45 p.m. Just put the towels, nightgown etc except dark colours in to soak. Will do the bedlinen later’; ‘Left after nine, took my time to get ready. Bus no. 3 didn’t come till 9.45. We waited an age. Should have taken the 171’; ‘Took my hypertension pills last night just after 1.45 after measuring B.P.’ A single entry, from the summer of 2005, offers a rare moment of reflection:
Sima rang this morning. I got down the photo album afterwards. Shook all the photos out and spent a long while looking at them. I didn’t want to eat, and looking at the photos gave me such a feeling of melancholy, tears, real sadness for the times passed, and for those who aren’t with us anymore. This pointless life of mine, a life lived for nothing, the emptiness in my soul … I wanted to lose myself, forget it all.
Stepanova always knew she would write a book about her family: ‘As if my life’s work was to catalogue them all. As if that is what I grew up to do.’ She made her first attempt in a school exercise book at the age of ten; her second six years later, on scraps of paper which she squirrelled away in desk drawers and later lost. Much has been written about the rise of post-Soviet nostalgia after the dislocations of the 1990s, but Stepanova’s childhood in the 1970s and 1980s was also steeped in the past. It was a special treat to spend an evening with her mother looking though their ‘domestic archive’: photographs and postcards, pebbles, a rattle, drawing instruments. Their apartment and dacha were crowded with possessions handed down through the generations – pieces of material, kid gloves, teacups, a mahjong set, ink stands, ancient nightshirts, an old leather wallet containing the photograph of a naked woman – all preserved, regardless of whether they still served any practical function.
These small acts of preservation seem to run counter to the main current of Soviet culture, with its scorn for bourgeois materialism and its relentless drive towards the future. Stepanova describes the Moscow rubbish tips of the 1960s and 1970s overflowing with discarded antique furniture: ‘Young people were voluntarily casting out the old world with its carved legs and reliable oaken gravitas.’ Despite her family’s fetishism of letters, photographs and magazine clippings, they had no qualms about leaving behind a bulky four metre-high sideboard with coloured glass when they left their communal apartment and moved to a new flat with low ceilings. Stepanova tries to explain this inconsistency or double-mindedness, the ‘longing for a disappeared world’ and the contradictory desire to show belief in a ‘new existence’:
In Russia, where violence circulated ceaselessly, society passing from one space of tragedy 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 – the territory for this hybrid memory formed earlier than in other countries: spiralling, multiplying versions of what has happened to us over the last hundred years, dimpled with inconsistencies, like a sheet of opaque paper blocking out the light of the present.
At times, the historian in me wants to tie this all down. When did this territory form in Russia – and elsewhere? In the Soviet Union, how widespread were the approaches to memory Stepanova records? Even as they navigated the many ruptures and dangers of Soviet life, crafting politically safe versions of their family history – a merchant becomes a tradesperson, a solicitor a clerk – Stepanova’s relatives worked hard to preserve texts, objects and stories and pass them on to future generations. They disrupt the cliché that in dangerous times the past is best forgotten.
Stepanova’s family history is a dazzling reflection on forms of remembering. In the Russian original, the book is subtitled ‘a novel’, but In Memory of Memory doesn’t conform to any established genre. Photographs from family albums are described, but not reproduced, inviting the reader to imagine how the characters might have posed in front of the camera. Stepanova’s first-person narrative is interrupted by transcripts of surviving letters presented in a series of interludes, each of which is headed ‘Not-a-Chapter’. Alongside the stories of her relatives, past and present, she considers those writers, artists and thinkers who have been preoccupied with the practice of memory – many of them Russian or Jewish, or both.
One of them is Osip Mandelstam, who began his career longing to shed the ‘exoticness’ ascribed to his Jewishness and become part of ‘world culture’. By the 1920s, though, he was writing his ‘strange memoirs’, part of a wave of retrospection that took hold in parts of early 20th-century Europe even as a new civilisation was being constructed. Stepanova also considers the narrator of W.G. Sebald’s documentary fiction – who, after the catastrophe of the Holocaust, inventories objects, people and places as if to save them from inevitable annihilation. There’s also a compelling commentary on Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre?, a series of 769 paintings which ‘work like the film of a family’s history, run from beginning to end as if everyone was dead and gone, including her’.
In contrast to these public lives, Stepanova’s family – though they fascinated her as a child – seem disappointingly ordinary: ‘I felt bound to notice that my ancestors had made hardly any attempt to make our family history interesting.’ She experienced a kind of shame on 9 May each year when other grandparents came into her school with their war medals and bouquets of flowers. Almost no one in Stepanova’s family was a Communist Party member, but there were also no outspoken dissidents. Instead of great artists or writers, her relatives were doctors, engineers, accountants, librarians and architects. To Stepanova, this invisibility, the hiddenness of her ancestors’ lives, seems unjust. She sees herself ‘peering out from intimate family conversations as if from under a fur cap, and addressing the railway station concourse of collective experience’.
If the book has a heroine, it is Stepanova’s great-grandmother. Sarra Ginzburg was born in 1885 in Pochinky, a small provincial town south of Nizhny Novgorod, one of fourteen (or maybe sixteen) children. Sarra’s father, Abram Ginzburg, was a wealthy merchant, though by the time Sarra had finished her education there was little money left. She studied first in a gymnasium in Nizhny Novgorod, where she joined a community of young revolutionaries. One of them was another Sarra, the sister of the future Bolshevik leader Yakov Sverdlov. Stepanova describes a photograph from 1905:
Great-grandmother Sarra, first on the left, looks older than her seventeen years. Her hat, the sort that’s fastened with pins, has slipped to the back of her head, a strand of hair has escaped and her round-cheeked face is red raw, you can see how cold she is. One of her hands is tucked into her coat’s cuffs, another is balled into a fist. Her right eye, injured on the barricades, is covered with a black bandage, like a pirate’s patch.
In 1907, Sarra spent time in prison in St Petersburg, after which she seems to have lost her zeal for revolution. A later photograph shows her in an anatomy class, one of six young women gathered around a corpse. Having abandoned radical politics, she found a different route out of Pochinky and ‘the musky, fur-clad world of Judaism’: the path of secular education. Fragments of correspondence survive from the six years she spent studying medicine in France, including postcards exchanged with her future husband, Mikhail Fridman. Their letters contain almost no Yiddish, no reference to Jewish tradition or rituals: like Mandelstam, they determinedly cast off the world of their parents.
Sarra returned to Russia in 1914, qualified as a doctor, married Mikhail (in 1915 or 1916), opened her own medical practice in Saratov – Mikhail’s home town – and had a daughter, Lyolya. Despite her early adventures in revolutionary politics, Sarra led what Stepanova saw as an ‘ordinary’ Soviet life: she worked as a doctor in Moscow, raised her daughter after Mikhail’s death and instilled in her the importance of education, a career and a sense of purpose. She avoided the fate of many of her earlier comrades on the barricades, arrested in 1937. She also escaped the anti-cosmopolitan campaigns of the Stalinist era: as a Jew educated overseas she was potentially vulnerable, but a stroke and the ‘senility’ that followed put her out of harm’s way.
Now she could ‘sort through her photographs, make little notes on them, and put her hand out and touch any beckoning memory’. One picture from the 1960s, Stepanova writes, shows her with her old revolutionary friend Sarra Sverdlova, ‘sitting on the bench outside the Home for Old Bolsheviks, two grey-haired old ladies in thick coats, warming themselves in the winter sun, pressing old-fashioned muffs to their stomachs’. In a curious twist, the visit of a Frenchman around the same time – his identity now long forgotten – triggered something in Sarra’s impaired cortex, and for the remaining years of her life she spoke only in French.
Sarra’s story is told in bursts throughout the text, reconstructed from the photographs and postcards that she – like Aunt Galya – curated in old age, and from experiences gathered during Stepanova’s travels: to Sarra’s birthplace in forsaken Pochinky, to the attic rooms of a Paris hotel in the quartier where her great-grandmother took digs.
Her other great-grandparents leave fewer traces. Except on her paternal grandfather’s side, they were all Jewish. Zalman and Sofya Akselrod, the most religious, lived in a shtetl in north-west Russia, Zalman selling soap and ice cream. Vladimir Gurevich came from Kherson, on the Black Sea coast, where his father owned a factory producing agricultural machinery before he was possibly killed in pogroms after the revolution. Vladimir died in 1920 from brain inflammation. His widow, Betya, moved to Moscow in 1922 with few possessions apart from a handful of photographs and a postcard. Now a single mother, she put her dreams of becoming a doctor to one side and worked as an accountant in various state institutions. Stepanova visited their home towns, not in pursuit of information – beyond the domestic archive, most of what she gleans comes from the internet – but in search of an emotional connection with the place.
She tells the story of her trip to Saratov, where Mikhail Fridman was born. Using an address directory from 1908, downloaded from the internet, she identifies her great-grandfather’s house on Moskvaya Ulitsa, and spends time in the yard outside, trying to commit it all to memory:
I spent a good while in the yard just running my hands over the rough Saratov brickwork. Everything was as I’d hoped, perhaps even more so than I’d hoped. I recognised my great-grandfather’s yard unhesitatingly. There was no doubt in my mind, even though I’d never seen it or had it described to me … The yard put its arms around me in an embrace – that’s what it was.
It later turns out there has been a mix-up: Mikhail did live on Moskvaya Ulitsa, but at a different number.
This anecdote sums up Stepanova’s approach to memory: she is in its thrall, but admits the absurdity of her infatuation. She interrogates her compulsive desire for a personal connection with the past – something that reflects what she calls our ‘dull fear of the unknown’. People seek out objects, images, texts and sensations which they will reframe and recontextualise: history is ‘raw material, destined for editing’. Sarra’s postcards and Mikhail’s brickwork seem to promise a tangible connection to a disappeared world. As Stepanova says, this quest to recuperate the past may be a response to trauma. Here, she draws on Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory, which deals primarily with the trauma of the Shoah and its transmission to future generations. Stepanova, though, sees a more universal legacy of 20th-century violence: ‘Most people alive can consider themselves survivors to some extent, the result of a traumatic shift, its victims and the bearers of its legacy.’
Stepanova and her acquaintances often seem more memory-obsessed than most: ‘When I meet someone new I hardly notice the moment when we begin talking about our grandparents and ancestors, comparing names and dates as happily as animals who have finally reached their watering spot and drink, shuddering with the delicious cold of the water. It usually happens about half an hour into the conversation.’ But many readers will recognise themselves in her wry send-up of our contemporary habit of capturing and conserving every passing experience. She is brilliant on the excesses of digital photography: ‘I imagine the piles of images. Huge diggers shovel at them, scooping all the waste into their buckets: the underexposed pictures, the duplicates and triplicates, the tail of an out-of-frame dog, a picture of a café ceiling taken by mistake.’ But her book also shows that the compulsive wish to remember and be remembered is in no way peculiar to the digital age. Stepanova sees our obsession with genealogy websites, with social media and selfies, as a continuation of her ancestors’ hoarding of insignificant objects, of their need to pass them on – to a loved one, to a future self, to an unknown posterity.
In old age , her grandfather Nikolai became increasingly fixated on his own memories, time and again recounting to his daughter-in-law the same painful stories of his poverty-stricken childhood. Unlike Stepanova’s other grandparents, Nikolai was one of Russia’s destitute set to benefit from the revolution: a cattle-herd turned worker, later a Red Army officer and then a worker at a car factory. One day in the mid 1970s he set off on his own memory tour. He rode two hundred miles on the pillion of a motorbike to his home town of Bezhetsk, and spent a few moments in the house his family had owned before his father’s death. During the Great Terror, Nikolai, like many Red Army officers, was suspected of being a foreign spy. At a party meeting he was openly branded ‘an enemy of the people’ and his weapons were confiscated. In the small garrison town where he was living his neighbours kept their distance. Although he was never arrested, suspicion hung over Nikolai for the rest of his life. He spent the whole of the Second World War in the Urals, serving ‘right at the back of the rearguard’ since ‘the front line was barred to him’. ‘He must have felt injured by the rejection,’ Stepanova writes, ‘this man who had prepared all his life for sacrifice.’ He was demobbed in 1944 and ‘hardly even protested when the door was slammed in his face’.
Stepanova’s other grandfather, Lyonya, was an engineer in the rearguard. One of the letters he wrote to his wife while recuperating from an emergency operation in 1942 or 1943 forms part of the family archive passed down to Stepanova. Lying in hospital, with his family evacuated to western Siberia, Lyonya experienced a kind of epiphany. He asserts a very Soviet commitment to being happy: ‘These last few weeks, I’ve felt quite different, I’ve felt sure that I have the strength to claim my proper place in life, to fight for it, to live and to be happy!’ He also reaffirms his love for his wife, couched in a rhetoric of self-criticism and self-improvement that is also very Soviet: ‘I love you now just as I loved you before, with a strong devotion. But considering the flaws in your character, your tricky personality, I want to try to understand you in all your actions, and to yield to you.’
There is no record of his wife’s reaction to this rather ambivalent declaration of love, though she kept the letter, bringing it back with her to Moscow after the war. But the most treasured correspondence in the family archive are the letters of Leonid Gimmelfarb, a cousin of Stepanova’s grandfather who died in the Second World War. From the marshes of the Leningrad hinterland where he was serving, Lyodik, as he was known, wrote to his mother, Vera, who had been evacuated to Yalutorovsk, along with Sarra and her daughter, Lyolya, now pregnant. Lyodik’s letters are heartbreaking in their reticence: in place of news about himself, there are endless questions about his mother’s health and the unborn baby. When Vera died, she passed on the small bundle of letters, photographs and death notifications to Stepanova’s mother, Natasha Gurevich, the baby born in evacuation shortly before Lyodik’s death. Stepanova is also a poet, and in ‘Spolia’ writes:
22-year-old lyodik killed in action
his father, a volunteer, bombed troop train
his mother who lived right up until death
a little girl who will remember all this
Lyodik became Natasha’s childhood hero, and it is her handwriting on the envelope the correspondence is kept in, adding a third name to the memory chain: Lyodik-Vera-Natasha. She passed on the bundle to Stepanova, another ‘little girl who will remember all this’.
If Stepanova’s family are as ordinary as she fears, their obsession with the past must make them representative. In Memory of Memory suggests that people are always, unwittingly or not, engaged ‘in the production of perfect casts and taxidermy’. Of all Stepanova’s stories and images – marvellously rendered in this English translation by Sasha Dugdale – the most striking is a description of sekretiki, a game played by Moscow schoolchildren in the 1970s. They would drop to the ground and bury a little collection of cherished things – feathers, beads, the photograph of a celebrity cut from a newspaper – then cover them with a piece of glass and hide them with soil. In classic Soviet posters, young pioneers gaze out of the frame towards the shining future. Here the children are face down in the earth, to preserve a familiar object and turn it into something that will last.