"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Russia and Death

I recently went to a book warehouse in the county and bought a book about Russia for ninety-nine cents plus tax -- Night of Stone by Catherine Merridale.  For that cheap of a price I didn't care too much what it was about. It seemed interesting from my brief look at it, but I didn't realize until later that it was almost entirely about death***. You know Russians = death culture, right?

Each chapter has interesting tidbits. Like I didn't realize Russians thought animals didn't have souls. Well, I don't know that I do either, but the author mentioned BEARS being an exception.  As in they might have souls.  The first chapter deals with peasant life and I noted how important being buried on home turf was.  How some took cup fulls of dirt with them in case they died while away from home. Everyone wanted to be buried near home because Russians visit the graves of relatives - regularly. Take food (eggs, honey), picnic in cemeteries, and commune with the dead. Or they did traditionally. I'm still reading the book so I'm not sure if this is still practiced, but pre-Communism, this was the tradition.

Since this book is quite lengthy, yet has pretty neat facts, I decided to jot down a few tidbits about each chapter. I hate when I get to the end of a book and realize, while I found some interesting stuff along the way, I didn't note any of it (which translates to I will probably forget about it.) When I write stuff down such as I'm doing now, I tend to recall it better. Who knows when information about Russian deaths will come in handy.

Chapter 2 began with the low life expectancy. Such as even in the mid-1990s, it was 58 for Russian men.  Wow.  The chapter discussed the high suicide rate, public executions, and children with playground games of "death penalty" inspired by the prevailing culture. One five year old "accidentally strangled her three-year old brother after condemning him to death in a mock trial in their nursery."  (pg. 67)

The third chapter mentioned the Immortalization Committee which had the thought "preserve the mortal body using science, and one day science, too, will resurrect it."  (pg. 93).    Also the differences in "Red" and traditional funerals, and the way the Russians "neglected" their history in World War I were mentioned at some length.

Chapter 4 dealt with the trauma of civil war and how mentally ill patients were treated. Also children would play civil war: Reds vs. Whites. (One daughter of an Old Bolshevik noted that the girls always had to be the Whites.) (pg. 117)  Suicides were mentioned again.  They were deemed too individualistic for Soviet society.

E.M. Yaroslavskii, the "Communist Party's ideological spokesman" said "suicides were 'weak-willed, weak of character' and lacking in faith in 'the power and strength of the Party.' A Russian historian of the issue recently added that suicide, by the late 1920s, appeared to some to be 'a witness to the free right of an individual to choose its own fate. And that did not suit Soviet power at all.'"  (pg. 120)

I read most of chapter 5 today and who ever knew learning about the backlog of funerals could be so interesting? No really, there were so many bodies to be buried, yet the workers only did 7 burials per day so some bodies were in storage for over a month!  Some were shipped by train to other places. The Communists finally decided to cremate bodies (which was highly frowned upon in Orthodox Christianity, but who cares about them at this point). But their crematory was terrible and after many hours of building it, it burned to the ground after cremating only a small percentage of what was needed. The leaders finally decided to take over the cemeteries. They took down the monuments and made them parks.  This chapter also mentions the plundering of church icons and buildings and taking gold and silver for state use (some villagers fought this unsuccessfully).  The death and preservation of Lenin was amusing to me.  He was refrigerated, displayed, rotting so they decided finally to embalm him and then display him so the adoring masses could visit and commune with the departed leader.  An atheist approach to death mentioned: skip the coffins and rituals; my body "should be sent to a factory without any ritual, and in the factory the fat should be used for technical purposes and the rest for fertilizer," wrote M.S. Ol'minskii in July 1924.  (pg. 142)

I'm on chapter 6 now so I won't bother with any more notes, but I'll go ahead and post these in case anyone is interested in these Russian death tidbits.  What did you find most interesting?

*** (Er, I suppose the subtitled should have tipped me off: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia


jaraad said...

Very interesting! I find Russian literature to be unique. It is always sad and I can say I have never read any Russian story that has happy events, of course we know there is never happy ending in Russian stories.
Back in the 60s and 70s some Arab countries (like Iraq, Syria and Egypt) sent many students to do their Bachelor's degree in Russia. The majority of these students came back swearing by the ideology of the Communism. Therefore, they translated many of the Russian literature which I have to say is very beautiful. But again as I mentioned their stories are always sad. Last year, I read a Russian short story called "The Overcoat" -you can find it online- and it was all about the struggle of a man to buy a coat.
So no wonder if you find a Russian book that talk about death. Overall I very much like Russian short stories.

Sarah Familia said...

Sounds like an interesting book (although a bit of a downer). My husband and I just watched The Golden Compass last night. All the people in the movie had souls that walked around outside their bodies (in the shape of animals). The polar bears in the North didn't have souls, but the king of the polar bears really wanted one.

I think animals do have souls. In one of our books of scripture it says that everything on earth was created spiritually before it was created physically. To me that means that in some sense, the animals, the trees, maybe even the rocks all have souls.

Susanne said...

Jaraad, thanks for your comment. I've not read much Russian literature so it's good to read your impressions of it. I wonder what was so attractive about Communism to the Arabs studying in Russia. Well, I can guess. It does sound good on paper: everyone equal, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. I can see why Arabs would like that now that I think of many of their countries. I just read books like this and see very little that makes me desire that kind of ideology running my life. "The Overcoat" sounds like a touching story - thank you for drawing my attention to it!

Sarah, neat about the movie dealing with souls..timely! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about souls as it relates to your books of scripture. That's fascinating to consider!

sanil said...

The death penalty playground games, wow. I don't even know what to say about it, but it definitely got my attention.

The chapter 5 stuff is also very interesting and kind of horrifying. I have to say I kind of agree with the atheist approach. I do not want to be buried and take up space like that, and if there's a use for the body I think that's definitely better and more respectful than our typical approach to death today.

jaraad said...

Back then wealthy families used to send their children to UK or France to study. Smart students who can't afford to study overseas were sponsored by their government to study in Russia. Some of these students came from small villages. In Russia they were treated like high class people. I was told by one of these students how they were treated to see ballet performance in these big beautiful Russian theaters. Imagine a village boy from Arabia is treated like a master in Russia. For sure he will like this country more than his. Also, they were taught about communism in universities. And reading about an ideology is not like living it. It was very appealing to them. Not to forget to mention that many of these Arab students liked the fact that they can befriend a beautiful white Russian girl. And some of them actually married Russian women.
This comment is actually part of a draft I wrote some time ago but didn’t finish about the difference between Arabs studying in American and Russia. There is huge difference. In short, Arabs studying in Russia become communists (until 1990) and Arabs studying in USA become more Muslims.

Susanne said...

Sanil, thanks for your feedback. I'd never heard the factory-approach to death, but see why it would be an attractive option for some!

Jaraad, that is SOOOO interesting. I would love to read a post on your blog about this if you ever finish it! Thanks for what you added. I can totally understand the draw to Communism based on what you shared. Thank you!

Susanne said...

BTW, Jaraad, I saw an article not many days ago about Syrian-Russian families as it relates to this current conflict in Syria. It mentioned Syrian men who had married Russian women most of whom came to Syria to live, but not all did.