- Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied by Alexander Etkind
Atrocities extend far beyond catastrophic events and the lives of victims, survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. The postcatastrophic condition has become a focus of interest of many researchers in many disciplines over the past couple of decades.1 As most of the groundbreaking books on this topic have been devoted to the Holocaust and wars,2 memory of the Stalinist terror and the gulags have remained, on the whole, understudied. Through his book, Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied, Alexander Etkind fills this lacuna. His study is positioned at the crossroads of cultural studies and history. The author places mourning into the historical perspective by thoroughly tracing postcatastrophic memory as it is realized in art, films, literature, and the historical writings of the post-Stalin years. Illuminating, rigorous in its analysis, and stimulating, Warped Mourning draws on a wide range of theoretical models of memory expounded by Freud, Benjamin, and Derrida and presents an innovative theory of mourning grounded in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.
The book consists of eleven chapters, each of which could be read separately. Even then, there would be enough nourishment for intellectual reflection on trauma, mourning, and the postcatastrophic condition. However, taken together, the chapters present a theory of mourning from different vantage points, shedding light on the elements that make the memory of Stalinist terror different from other postcatastrophic memories. The work analyzes three distinct periods: first, the texts of the authors who were incarcerated in the 1930s and that they wrote in the 1950s; second, [End Page 249] chapters that concentrate on the mourning of those whose parents were imprisoned or killed in 1930s, some of that later generation also being imprisoned in the 1960s; and third, the final chapters focus on the works of the third generation, who, in the 1990–2000s, look back at the past terror without having experienced it directly.
Characterizing a special condition of gulag-related memory, Etkind introduces the concept of “warped mourning,” which is understood as a double mourning – for the lost lives and for the lost ideas and ideals (P. 12). The author argues that mourning is always mimetic, by which he means that it is “a recurrent response to loss that entails a symbolic reenactment of that loss” (P. 1). Etkind makes a thorough study of such symbolic reenactments of loss in literature, historical writings, paintings, films, and monuments. He emphasizes the role of sharing experience in mourning, because while loss is individual, mourning is collective. Sharing is, though, problematic in warped mourning. In Soviet times it was problematic because mourning as a subversive practice could itself become a cause for imprisonment. Sharing continues to be problematic in present-day Russia due to the condition of “multihistoricity” (P. 208), that is, the parallel existence of several historical interpretations that divide society into smaller communities of memory complicated by this sharing experience on a larger scale. As the author demonstrates through his material, mourning often takes such obscure forms that it can only be decoded as such by a very small circle of connoisseurs. For instance, Boris Sveshnikov’s surrealist drawings depicting the camps could be recognized as such only by those who knew exactly what the images were actually depicting. Such a complicated character of recognition is an integral element of warped mourning. Speaking about memory, Etkind mentions Walter Benjamin’s metaphors of memory as being the theater, and the act of remembering as being the act of digging. In his book, Etkind himself takes the role of a digger who tries to detect the acts of mourning hidden within products of cultural life, some of which indeed enjoy mass popularity, such as films Burnt by the Sun, Beware of the Car, and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, or novels by Luk’ianenko, Pelevin, and Sorokin.
Analyzing a wide range of material, Etkind distinguishes an important element common to many...