“You Can't Kill Yourself in A Communal Apartment”: Memory, Trauma, and the Gulag

Jehanne Gheith, Duke University

Russia’s relationship to the West has long been a central question in Russian cultural identity. The paper I present explores one aspect of this question: that of the cultural construction of “trauma.” Specifically, I am interested in how the definition of trauma has largely been built in and for western contexts. I argue that the fact that Russians lived in a world less influenced by Freud than is the West, affects the experience and expression of “trauma” after the Gulag.

Through multiple interviews (1998-2002) with fourteen survivors of the Gulag (intelligenty and workers), in the larger project from which this paper derives, I trace how people remember and recount their memories. Interviewing the same person several times has provided an important depth to the quality of what people recount.

I have found that there is little evidence of two phenomena that are often used to define “trauma”: that is, repetition of the traumatic experience and experience frozen in time. A second major definition of trauma is that the experience is repressed and later symbolized. There is evidence of such behavior among those I interviewed; in a wonderful and complicated example, one man, Mikhail, named his dog Joseph Stalin. This enabled Mikhail to assert some control (“Joseph, come here, lie down, play dead”), but also meant that he had to care for Joseph over time.

Based on interviews and memoirs, I will argue that there is less of repression and more of a genuine acceptance in the Russian way of processing their memories of the Gulag, than has been described in the case of Holocaust survivors (the most common example of trauma survivors in theoretical discussions of cultural disasters). I will argue that this difference is rooted in the fact that Russian ways of understanding individuality, control, community, and suffering are all different from those in the West, and this, I submit, is vital for a deeper understanding of the terms “trauma” and “identity.”

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