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
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)