Alexander Etkind’s Warped Mourning

Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied

by Alexander Etkind

Stanford University Press, 2013; 328 pages.


Scholars of social and cultural memory in the post-Soviet space are well aware of the Memory at War project—the international collaborative effort to understand battles over memory as they were waged in postsocialist Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. This project, undertaken in 2010-2013 by an international group of researchers led by Alexander Etkind, took place contemporaneously with the writing of Warped Mourning and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a number of affinities with it. Both aim to comprehend the politics and cultural logics of memory in the aftermath of socialism’s collapse, and both approach their subject with an eye for cross-national comparison.

All the more striking, then, are the discrepancies between the two. Unlike Memory at War, the comparative effort in which Warped Mourning engages is less explicit and, surprisingly, almost completely devoid of any references to Poland, Ukraine, or any other East European country. Instead, the book sets up cultural memory of state violence in Russia in contrast to post-WWII Germany, in the sense of the memory of the Holocaust, and that of the Nazi past more broadly. The comparison operates as an analytic device, to highlight both the similarities of the two national traumas (the magnitude of the catastrophe; the state-orchestrated nature of violence; the generational dynamics) as well as the important distinctions (the longer time span of the Soviet terror; its self-inflicted, as opposed to externalizing, logic; a greater diversity and dispersal of its victims; and a number of other factors). The most significant difference, and one that bears directly on Etkind’s inquiry, is, of course, the difference in the practices of cultural memory. In contrast to the German memory of the Holocaust, which has “crystallized its ‘hardware’ in the form of monuments and museums,” the memory of terror in Russia, he points out, is hampered by the lack of national consensus regarding the crimes of the past. As a result, it remains trapped in a cycle of refutation and denial, producing “software” in the form of cultural debates and (increasingly ghoulish) literary texts, but little closure or resolution (p. 246).

In another contrast to Memory at War, then, Warped Morning is explicitly positioned as a study of “cultural,” not “collective,” memory, and as such, the book “de-emphasizes the remembering collective and focuses on the materials of which memory is made” (p. 40). As a result, Warped Mourning seems far less interested in the conflicts and disagreements over memory and pays little systematic attention to the groups and communities that advance these competing memory claims in the public space. Instead, it offers an erudite synthetic portrait of the cultural memory of state terror in Russia as it was (and continues to be) articulated in a range of literary, artistic and filmic works over the lives of several generations, from the 1930s up to the present day.

The book approaches much of Russian literature and cultural life from the 1930s onwards as a work of mourning for the traumas of political repression—mourning that, as Etkind provocatively points out, has a double nature: it is both a mourning “for the people who were murdered for the sake of ideas and for these ideas, which were also killed by this violence” (p.12). It also frequently contains an element of warning about the future.

Drawing on available published sources, the book probes the intellectual effects of the gulag experience on the scholars and authors who survived it and chronologically reviews the engagement of subsequent generations of Soviet and post-Soviet writers and artists with this experience of terror, lingering both on the affinities that marked particular periods across genres and the connections between artists of different generations.

The scope of authors the book surveys is impressively broad, from Mikhail Bakhtin, Andrei Siniavsky, and Yulian Oksman to Viktor Pelevin, Dmitrii Bykov, and even Vladislav Surkov. While Etkind specifies that he is most centrally concerned with literature, he also offers enlightening observations on the work of artists (Boris Sveshnikov, Leonid Chertkov), musicians (Dmitry Shostakovich, Bulat Okudzhava), actors (Innokentii Smoktunovsky), and film directors (Grigory Kozintsev) whose lives were touched by political repressions. Several pages of the book pertain to members of Etkind’s own family, his uncle Yefim Etkind and Yefim’s father Grigory who spent five months in the camp and returned so physically changed that his own son failed to recognize him.

This encounter and the experience of misrecognition that accompanied it provide a set of metaphors that reverberate throughout the book. Indeed, the experience of violence in the camps transforms not only the bodies of the survivors, but also their psyche and intellectual output. Etkind carefully teases out the shared intellectual preoccupations with chance, contingency, the surreal and the grotesque, the primitive and the primordial in the works of Likhachev, Bakhtin, Siniavsky and many other returnees from the camps. He also observes the generational shift in modality, in which what he calls, after Mandelstam, “the longing for world culture” among camp survivors was transformed among the subsequent generation of artists into “the cult of bare life” (p. 107).  This is a bold interpretive move which allows him to look at the creative works of those artists who did not have an identifiable biographical connection to the camps (such as the Mit’ki group, or Yevgeny Yufit and the Necrorealists) as engaging in acts of mimetic mourning.

Tracing the lineage of bare life further, Warped Mourning moves on to a discussion of the post-Soviet literary genre that Etkind calls “magical historicism,” which combines wild fantastical and ghoulish images (werewolves and vampires are some of the tamest creatures that populate such works) with references to historical figures and events, weaving together bizarre alternative histories.  This necessitates an addition of “ghostware” to the binary of “hardware” and “software” that the author draws on in his theoretical discussion of cultural memory. It is through this “third form” of memory, Etkind concludes, that the presence of the unspeakable and often unknowable past makes itself known in contemporary Russian culture. As he makes clear, the presence of ghosts and zombies on the pages of popular Russian novels “signals the failure of other, more conventional ways of understanding social reality” (p.234). Uncanny, ghostly and monstrous images, he suggests, offer an opportunity to engage in mimetic mourning, by symbolically reenacting the forms of bare life that have become associated with the camp.

It is hard to disagree with Etkind’s assessment regarding the paucity of museums and memorials commemorating the victims of Soviet political violence in Russia. If anything, the pressures currently experienced by the few organizations mentioned in the book (such as Memorial and the museum Perm-36) suggest that the little “hardware” that did exist in Russia at the time of the book’s writing may soon be sacrificed to the intensifying campaign of nationalist mobilization. All the more timely, then, is Etkind’s attention to the way in which the past, when not confronted directly, refuses to go away.

The causes and repercussions of this cyclical, melancholic rehashing of past traumas are more difficult to gauge, and the parallel with German memory is less helpful here, because it is used only selectively (we do not learn about the role of misrecognition or magical historicism in contemporary German prose), but also because it obfuscates other possible ways of dealing with a difficult past (such as the pacto de olvido, or pact of forgetting, in post-Franco Spain).

Still, this is a provocative and intriguing book, one that offers a powerful corrective to the frequent laments regarding historical amnesia in post-Soviet Russia. It prompts scholars of memory to think more broadly and creatively about the forms that remembrance may take in culture, especially in situations when a more direct engagement with the past may be obstructed or blocked. While it offers little guidance as to the causes of such blockage, or to the groups or communities that may be responsive to these forms of cultural memory, it prompts intriguing and resonant questions about cultural afterlife of traumatic events. Published when it was, this book itself constitutes a work of mourning for the crimes of the past and a warning about the future, even as it reminds us that the work of mourning is always— intrinsically—incomplete.


Olga Shevchenko is Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Williams College. She recently edited Double Exposure: Memory and Photography (2014, Transaction Publishers). Her current project is a collaborative ethnography of family photography and generational memories of socialism in Russia.

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