The Trauma of the Soviet Era
Mark R. Elliott
Editor's Note: Those seeking to bear witness to God's mercy and grace in the wake of the multiple traumas inflicted on the peoples of the Soviet Bloc in the past century must come to appreciate what survivors have endured before they can express meaningful sympathy.
An Immense Tragedy
The immensity of the tragedy of twentieth century Russia almost defies description. As Catherine Merridale notes in "Death and Memory in Modern Russia" (History Workshop Journal 42 , 4), practically every family lost loved ones prematurely in World War I and its violent aftermath, with "a pattern that would be repeated several times in the next few decades." Waves of trauma engulfed every generation, without exception: World War I, revolution, civil war, famine, collectivization, political repression including purges, mass arrests, and imprisonments, World War II, and the forced incorporation of Western borderlands after the war. All spelled enormous hardship, destruction, and death. The toll in terms of lives prematurely cut short may have exceeded 60 million. What made these multiple traumas even worse, all talk of death, suffering, and personal injury--physical and mental--at the hands of the Soviet regime had to be suppressed out of fear of reprisals. As Professor Merridale has put it, "Private pain went underground" ("The Collective Mind: Trauma and Shell-Shock in Twentieth Century Russia," Journal of Contemporary History 35 [no. 1, 2000], 46-47.)
Mass political repression in the Soviet era typically involved nighttime arrest, interrogation, torture, sham trials, and imprisonment, exile, or death. Inevitably, the ripple effects engulfed family members as well. Spouses, because of "guilt by association," were also subject to arrest or, at the very least, loss of job, while children frequently grew up in orphanages. And the state did not permit public grieving for these horrific, politically induced losses. As psychiatrist Jacob Lindy has noted, "Surviving spouses, denied information or rites of mourning, in turn denied their children any remembrance of the lives of parents and grandparents caught in the purges. . . . Both grief and mourning were arrested" (Jacob Lindy and Robert Jay Lifton, eds. Beyond Invisible Walls: The Psychological Legacy of Soviet Trauma, East European Therapists and Their Patients [New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2001], 24).
Those not arrested also suffered from the pervasive Soviet climate of distrust. Fear of political informants undermined trust not only among coworkers and friends, but many times even within families. Children who reported to authorities any unorthodox behavior by parents were idolized as heroes. Consequently, the population became adept at "living a lie," to use Vaclav Havel's expression (Living in Truth [London: Faber & Faber, 1979], 52).
People came to accept as normal and predictable the contradictions between political pronouncements and the facts, between what the media said and the truth, and between one's public face and private thoughts. Hypocrisy and deception became normative and some degree of paranoia and schizophrenia was a constant companion to millions of ordinary citizens.
The "Lie" Ends--But Not Uncertainty
Then, beginning in the late 1980s, Gorbachev's glasnost exposed myth after myth, undermining the legitimacy not only of the political establishment, but of parents and grandparents who were seen as co-conspirators in the Lie. Sadly, the suffering did not end with the collapse of Communist regimes. Far from it. Now one could tell the truth, but too often with no job and with an empty belly. Also, old national passions repressed by Communism rekindled into violence and civil wars in the Caucasus and the Balkans.
Psychiatrist Jacob Lindy has taken note of the tremendous scope of the Soviet and East Bloc system's denial of the traumas inflicted upon hundreds of millions in the name of a better Communist future. It "doctored documents, withheld news, and condemned those who complained. On a more personal level, it blocked ritual, destroyed individual memory, and made the telling of stories about the deceased dangerous" (Lindy and Lifton, Beyond Invisible Walls, 32). In December 1997 British scholar Catherine Merridale arranged a gathering in Moscow of psychologists, sociologists, demographers, humanitarian aid workers, and an Orthodox bishop to explore the present-day impact of Russia's multiple, twentieth century traumas. Perhaps, as Russians widely believe, a native strength of character allowed millions upon millions to endure famine, war, purges, the gulag, and more "without giving way to despair or debilitating neurosis" (Merridale, "Collective Mind," 47). At the same time, newly-opened Soviet archives document that large numbers did despair, even if suicides and psychoses were successfully hidden from public view. As Professor Merridale notes, the Soviet system"was intolerant of invalidity and repelled by psychiatric damage. We do not know how many of the casualties this [twentieth] century has produced have died without care or justice. It is one of the many unexplored obscenities of the Stalinist catastrophe" (Ibid., 54). In response to Western questioning of Russian defenses of silence and stoicism in the face of unspeakable human suffering, the Russian bishop commented, "We have our own ways of dealing with trauma. Perhaps you [from the West] should be considering whether yours would be as effective if your people had shared our history" (Ibid., 55).
Mark Elliott is director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
Mark R. Elliott, "The Trauma of the Soviet Era," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Summer 2003), 1.
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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report