Paul Goldberg, New York Times
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THE UNQUIET GHOST Russians Remember Stalin. By Adam Hochschild. Illustrated. 304 pp. New York: Viking. $22.95.
In 1937, the secret police of the Siberian town of Kolpashevo executed more than 1,000 people, dumping their bodies into a deep ditch by a riverbank. In 1979, erosion from the river exposed the mass grave. Preserved by permafrost, the bodies had mummified, with clothing intact. Faced with the sins of their fathers, the authorities in the Brezhnev era proceeded to hide the evidence. Powerful motorboats were used to create wakes that washed the bodies out of the steep riverbank. The employees of a river rescue station caught the corpses and sank them.
Russian slang has a word for occasions when history creates metaphors for itself. The word is syur, short for surrealism but with a Russian twist combining the intellectual playfulness of Dali with Rube Goldberg solutions for monstrous logistical problems.
In "The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin," Adam Hochschild, a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, undertakes an exploration of this universe of syur. He visits the ruins of the old prison camps of Kazakhstan and Kolyma, digs through the K.G.B. archives and spends a night at Stalin's seaside retreat. Most important, he interviews camp survivors, camp guards and the children of both.
The questions he asks are of universal significance: Why did so many people become Stalin's willing accomplices? Why was it so easy for the secret police to elicit confessions to implausible crimes? Why did victims and perpetrators alike shed tears on the day of Stalin's death? By asking these questions while traveling through today's Russia, Mr. Hochschild effectively places Stalinism in a modern context.
"Among the various types of denial, that of the victims, like the prisoners who wept at Stalin's death, may be the most puzzling," he writes. "But it is the denial of jailers and executioners, their ability to not see their victims as members of the same human family, that is the foundation of any police state." And of the Holocaust. And of apartheid. And of every war ever fought.
It helps that the characters and the dramatic situations Mr. Hochschild encounters are nothing short of magnificent. At Kolpashevo, he meets a schoolteacher whose father's body was almost certainly among those in the pit. Then he walks a few blocks to meet the teacher's friend and colleague, the daughter of the official responsible for the executions.
We learn that Stepan Marton, the man who oversaw the killings, was, of all things, a physician, who later returned to the practice of medicine. We learn also that, despite the blood on his hands, his daughter loved him.
Elsewhere in his travels, in Novosibirsk, Mr. Hochschild meets Vladimir Glebov, a philosophy professor whose father, Lev Kamenev, was one of the prominent Bolsheviks executed following the first Moscow show trial of 1936. Raised in orphanages, Mr. Glebov was arrested a year short of his university graduation. His crime: "an esthetic approach to literature." His sentence: 10 years.
"You know, I'm probably the only person in the world with a certificate, validated with an official stamp, that I'm an esthete," Mr. Glebov says. "Oscar Wilde didn't have it! Thoreau didn't have it! But I have this indictment, which reads, 'Esthetic approach to literature.' "
He believes Russia's new leaders are misguided in their rush to capitalism, for at the end of that path lies a society that is more like Dickensian England than prosperous, post-World War II America.
IN the Kazakh city of Karaganda, Mr. Hochschild meets Mikhail Volkov, a retired chief of prison industries. Mr. Volkov's prescription for Russia's problems: find a Georgian who looks like Stalin and have him restore the discipline of yesteryear. Mr. Volkov lives in a house full of books that include volumes of Shakespeare and the Russian classics. Whose books are they? Could it be that the old slave driver reads?
Mr. Hochschild is a writer with an established track record of dealing with life's surprises. In one of his books, "Half the Way Home," he examined the twists and turns of his relationship with his father. In another, "The Mirror at Midnight," he used a journey through South Africa as a basis for an exploration of apartheid.
However, in Russia, Mr. Hochschild is not always effective in dealing with the unexpected. He fails to ask Mr. Volkov about his library and admits to being bothered by this omission. Why doesn't he return to the house? Why does he leave Karaganda without getting the answer?
Similarly, we never learn why Marton's daughter chose to spend her life in Kolpashevo. How does she face classrooms full of grandchildren of the people her father had executed? The question is asked, but the answer is not satisfying. Why doesn't Mr. Hochschild ask again?
Whether they were guards, prisoners or the children of either, Mr. Hochschild's subjects are victims of abuse. To be understood, they have to be pushed beyond the point where memories cause pain. For whatever reason, Mr. Hochschild does not push them beyond that point. As a result, the witnesses stop short of offering intimate accounts of their place in one of history's most savage blood baths.
Stalin's terror is destined to be rediscovered, reinvented and reabsorbed for centuries to come. "The Unquiet Ghost," its blind spots notwithstanding, is a perceptive, intelligent book demonstrating that the significance of the gulag transcends the confines of one country and one generation.