- Stalinist Crimes and the Ethics of Memory
Scholarship on the collective memory of Stalinism in contemporary Russia has been remarkably fruitful since taking off in the early 2000s. Memory studies theory, in all its diversity, has been applied to the Russian context to generate both broad assessments of cultural-political dynamics and analyses of discrete texts and artifacts. Moreover, memory of Stalinism in post-Soviet Russia has served as a fertile ground for extending and developing new concepts and theories.
Western scholarship has generated an impressive array of studies directly engaged with the problem. Nanci Adler and Nina Ferretti provided early interventions pointing to the specificities of the post-Soviet memory-scape, in which memory of the Stalin era played a crucial role. These were followed up in the late 2000s by detailed analyses of official memory policy toward Stalin by Michael Kramer, Thomas Sherlock, and others. Alongside these, Dina Khapaeva and Alexander Etkind worked in a sustained fashion on a parallel, culture-centered critique of post-Soviet memory of Stalinism (for the latter, this culminated in the publication of his magisterial Warped Mourning in 2013, the only monograph devoted entirely to this problem).1
Russian scholarship, while voluminous, has focused largely on the memory of the Great Patriotic War rather than on the memory of Stalinism proper. Notable exceptions have been the work of Boris Dubin and Lev Gudkov with opinion polls, and Nikolai Koposov's detailed studies of state memory policy. For the most part, however, scholarly discussion has lagged in comparison to a much livelier debate in the Russian press (spearheaded by journalists and pundits associated with various groups, from the Memorial nongovernmental organization [NGO] to the Communist Party). Nonetheless, in both Western and Russian scholarship, a wide range of historians, sociologists, literary critics, and others traditionally unconcerned with the "memory studies" [End Page 599] problematic have also fielded contributions to the discussion. Perhaps this wide interest testifies to the cultural and political significance that memory of Stalinism has attained in contemporary Russia.
Despite this output, to my knowledge no systematic review of the literature has been attempted to date. As the volume and diversity of the field precludes an exhaustive examination, this article attempts to fill this lacuna only in one specific dimension: the normative element that is present in at least half of the literature. Specifically, this scholarship, implicitly or explicitly, condemns the current state of Russian memory. Thus from the very outset Ferretti referred to a "memory disorder" engulfing Russia, an attitude consistently reproduced in scholarship over the next decade and a half.2 Khapaeva speaks of a "distorted" and "deformed" memory of Stalinism, Etkind of "warped" memory, Catherine Merridale of a "false memory," Maria Tumarkin of "something [gone] awry," Sergey Toymentsev of the "grotesqueness in the current state of the collective memory."3
My analysis demonstrates that such condemnations arise out of two dominant normative frameworks. One takes the victims of Stalinism as its key reference group. This framework holds that honoring the memory of the deceased is perhaps the only way toward atoning for their murder. For survivors, it emphasizes psychological and social rehabilitation. The other framework takes contemporaries as its reference point: here the goal of memory should be to heal the collective trauma of post-Soviet society and to promote an antiauthoritarian, democratic politics.
Memory of Stalinism in contemporary Russia appears to fail on all these counts. However, as this article demonstrates, the ethics of memory are not dealt with systematically in the literature. As a result, there are some internal tensions and unresolved issues. The article points to two sets of issues in scholarship's normative vision—the problem of narrative, and the problem of efficacy—and suggests some correctives. I argue that scholars' concern with the dominant discourse on Stalinism inadvertently encourages maximalist judgments, which fail to recognize the value of plural narratives and a dynamic collective memory. Furthermore, I demonstrate that the models of [End Page 600] efficacy espoused by the two normative frameworks are derived largely from other contexts: especially from Holocaust studies, and the late 20th-century democratization cases forming the bedrock of transitional justice scholarship. However, scholarship uses these models in...