Against Impossibility

Who benefits when we decide—or accept—that the splinters of history are “beyond repair”?

Helen Betya Rubinstein
June 21, 2022

A man walks near the Solovetsky Stone memorial where supporters of the human rights group Memorial International placed flowers and candles after Russia's Supreme Court ruled that the organization must be liquidated, Saint Petersburg, Russia, December 28th, 2021.

Anton Vaganov/REUTERS

Discussed in this essay: In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale. New Directions, 2021. 432 pages.

THERE’S A SCENE in Masha Gessen’s book-length essay Never Remember that I can’t forget. Gessen is explaining the project—a collaboration with photographer Misha Friedman, subtitled Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia—to historian and activist Irina Flige, who has committed her career to precisely this search: “I told her I was writing a book about forgetting, to which remembering had ceded so easily.” But Flige, a director of the Memorial Research and Information Centre in Saint Petersburg, corrects Gessen: “It’s not that we are witnessing the process of forgetting—it’s that we had our bearings wrong in the first place . . . Historical memory can exist only when there is a clear line separating the present from the past . . . But we don’t have that break—there is no past, only a continuous present.”

The Memorial project, a network of groups devoted to the history of victims of Soviet terror, had begun as the Soviet Union was collapsing, in hopes that “de-Communization” might involve meaningful public reckoning with state crime. But that optimism was short-lived, and although the research, documentation, and memorialization never stopped, by the time Gessen and Flige spoke in 2016, the project had been branded a “foreign agent,” making it the target of state surveillance and harassment. Flige “was telling me that I was wrong to talk about forgetting,” Gessen reflects, “because forgetting presupposes remembering—and remembering had not happened, or had not happened yet.” In the face of ongoing repression, Flige was preparing “for a future in which the work of memory may finally begin.”

I had this conversation in mind when I started reading Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, whose title looks not toward a liberated future but longingly back, toward a supposed time when memory could and did take place. The book, translated into English by Sasha Dugdale, attempts to account for the Moscow-born poet’s family as they experience the effects of revolution, pogroms, wars, Stalinist purges, the Doctors’ Plot, and the daily hungers and humiliations of the Soviet regime. Stepanova is adamant about her family’s insignificance, even embarrassed by it—she calls her ancestors “mere lodgers in history’s house”—but she’s driven to record their lives nonetheless. Her first attempt to write this book, at age ten, is also the first time she quits, cowed by the “size and ambition of the task”; more than 30 years later, she remains “smitten with the idea of blindly retrieving and reliving scraps from my life, or from a collective life, rescued from the shadows of the known and accepted histories.” From the outset, she knows this task “of committing everything to memory” will prove futile: Whatever she assembles will be unsatisfactory; she will learn nothing new. And so, we’re told early in these pages, “This book about my family is not about my family at all, but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”

If “the way memory works” refers to the way it’s handled in a variety of mostly 20th-century texts, then this is an apt description of Stepanova’s first book-length prose project, which is labeled “fiction,” but navigates between memoir, criticism, and documentary modes. In the first chapter, as she sifts through the apartment of her recently deceased Aunt Galya, the narrator encounters a shelf of books “like family members”: To Kill a Mockingbird, Salinger, the Library of Poets series, Chekhov, Dickens. It’s a fitting introduction to Stepanova’s personal canon—westward-facing, classics-embracing—and to the outsize role of literary ancestry in this history of one writer’s literal ancestors. While the book’s first and final sections foreground Stepanova’s family members, and periodic interruptions labeled “Not-a-Chapters” offer up excerpts from her ancestors’ correspondence, large swaths of the middle section—which occupies about half the book—are devoted to discussions of classical and contemporary works of art and their creators: Rembrandt and George du Maurier, Francesca Woodman and Joseph Cornell, Proust and Anne Carson and Russian luminaries like Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva. “I am picking through different approaches to the past, as one might pick through dried peas,” Stepanova explains, “in the search of one that might work.”

As the book ticks toward its conclusion, this section seems to swell as if in anxiety, even panic: as though it were only via these exemplars that Stepanova might find passage to a history of her own. Many of her models speak, in one way or another, to the impossibility of remembrance, an orientation she shares and feels keenly. Repurposing a metaphor from Tsvetaeva’s essay “My Pushkin,” she makes a motif of the “frozen Charlotte,” the tiny white porcelain dolls manufactured en masse in 19th-century Germany and so common that broken ones are rumored to have been used as packing material. To Stepanova, they “embody the way no story reaches us without having its heels chipped off or its face scratched away.” When her own pocket-sized doll falls and shatters, she reflects:

What had struggled to symbolize wholeness in my own and my family’s history had, in one fell swoop, become an allegory: the impossibility of telling these histories, the impossibility of saving anything at all, and my inability to gather myself up from the splinters of someone else’s past, or even to take it on as my own convincingly . . . It was beyond repair.

This vein of fatalism will likely feel familiar to the post-postmodern reader: history can neither be recovered nor reconstructed, and so on. But it has added gravitas when it’s invoked in relation to a history of Soviet trauma or of Soviet Jews—history that was and continues to be repressed. If, in 2016, Gessen understood Flige to be saying that “the time for memory had not yet come,” In Memory of Memory seems to accept that it never will.

Despite some attention to scholar Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory,” in which stories of trauma passed down from prior generations function as “memories in their own right,” Stepanova seems to have adopted a rationalist approach to narrating the past, one that grew out of postwar Western Europe and an Enlightenment lineage that insists on logical, material, and verifiable ways of knowing. Early on, she recounts a visit to the birthplace of her great-grandfather, where she’s overcome by a sense of deep familiarity; a week later, when she finds out she was at the wrong address on the correct street, she concludes, self-mockingly, “And that is just about everything I know about memory.” This sort of anxiety—which allows a relatively minor inaccuracy to delegitimize authentic feeling—drives a fixation on objects and documents: what Stepanova terms the “silent witnesses” of a “domestic archive” like Aunt Galya’s apartment, or the letters and postcards that she reproduces verbatim. Positioned as they are outside the text’s main narrative, these “Not-a-Chapters,” in turn, highlight all that is absent not only from the historical record, but also from the book’s own pages: the writer’s imaginative and interpretive elaboration.

Other readers will surely sympathize, as I did, with Stepanova’s urge to “build a monument” to her ancestors, “making sure they didn’t simply dissipate,” even (or especially) when, as she writes, “it seemed I didn’t even remember them myself.” In this light, the paucity of the book’s final section, where at last we find sustained attention to her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives, is all the more disappointing. Perhaps Stepanova is taking cues from W.G. Sebald, the author who is most often mentioned as her forebear in English-language commentary, and another frequent touchstone in these pages. His novel The Emigrants ends with a “fragment of memoir” she recalls as “enormous,” but when she rereads it, she is “shocked to find it painfully short.” As I turned the final pages of In Memory of Memory, I felt the same pain.

BUT WHAT IF, when we sought to remember the Soviet and Soviet Jewish past, we turned away from those models of remembrance offered up by the global superpowers of the West? What if we turned instead toward the models we might find in other communities that have been historically oppressed?

In the US, scholar Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, an “intimate history” of Black life at the beginning of the 20th century, is a salient and influential example. Hartman, like Stepanova, faces a limited archive: Existing documentation of the “riotous Black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals” who are her subjects tends to be circumscribed and disfigured by white patriarchy’s institutions and its gaze. But Hartman refuses to call the writing of history impossible. Instead, she uses a technique she terms “critical fabulation” to reconstruct the past, building on the work of other Black thinkers like M. NourbeSe Philip, Sylvia Wynter, and Fred Moten to resist what she describes as an oppressive epistemic frame. As she writes in the book’s opening, her work “elaborates, augments, transposes, and breaks open archival documents” to bring history’s “minor figures” to life. The result is lush and deeply felt, without the anxious and unsatisfying—and characteristically white—attachment to the inadequacy of the historical record that marks Stepanova’s book and so many others in its genre. “The search for lost time [has] become a general obsession,” Stepanova observes, associating the trend with “those parts of the world where they use Latin alphabets.” On a recent panel about First Nations nonfiction and the “limitations of Western understanding,” poet Jeanine Leane put it this way: “Only white fellows think that the dead can’t speak.”

A “cleavage between . . . the official history and the hidden familial history, or what we call the ‘minor history (malaya istoriia)’” bifurcates Soviet and post-Soviet space, as Stepanova explains in a 2017 interview. Like Hartman, she means to devote herself to the latter. But where, in her own words, Hartman works “by throwing into crisis ‘what happened when’ and by exploiting the ‘transparency of sources’ as fictions of history,” Stepanova seems to cling to her sources as the known that determines the limits of the knowable—even when they offer her frustratingly little. Aunt Galya’s prolific diary entries record daily life “with astonishing exactness, and with astonishing opacity.” The many letters her mother’s cousin Lyodik sends home from his station near Leningrad during the siege communicate only “Alive and well.” Stepanova’s choice to limit herself to what’s on the page is especially vexing given the Soviet era’s decades of censorship, propaganda, and coded communication. Lyodik’s letters would have been checked, but “the censor would have found nothing to concern him,” she notes—and that may be exactly the point: The documents at hand are already diminished by generations of silencing at the level of both the state and the self.

Such defacements are why a historian like Irina Flige turns away from “verbal memory” in her work: because, she recently explained, during the Soviet era there was no language to name the events of terror as they were taking place, only euphemisms like the looming “they” who threatened to “take away” people like Stepanova’s grandmother and great-grandmother during Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot. (Her great-grandmother’s stroke and subsequent senility seemed both to result from those nights spent anticipating arrest and to save her from it—practically an allegory for the way that safety during Soviet times demanded erasure, a kind of oblivion.) Now, Flige argued in 2020, “linguistic catastrophe” has leveled out the history of Russian state repression in favor of an official discourse that insists on the rehabilitation of terror itself.

It’s possible that Stepanova’s survey of other texts is motivated not by a lack of language but by a desire to counter the lingering impact of cultural censorship—since, as she writes in a 2013 essay, in Russia the likes of her beloved Sebald remain “secret knowledge.” But if the state’s suppressions factor, as they must, into her hunger for models for reckoning with the Soviet and post-Soviet past, then it’s a shame that the most visible examples come from a canon that fetishizes silence and unknowing: a canon that reinforces the Soviet era’s aftereffects. In the introduction to Sebald’s Austerlitz, for instance, critic James Wood gushes that “the most beautiful act of Sebald’s withholding” is his refusal to say “Auschwitz,” instead writing merely that his subject’s mother is “sent east.” Indeed, the obliqueness and indirection for which Sebald is so often praised could just as well be called euphemism—a convenient aesthetic choice for a German writer who is personally and materially implicated in the Jewish grief he finds so fruitful and fascinating. “And of those things we could not speak of we simply said nothing,” reads one koan from The Emigrants, its circular logic a kind of stranglehold.

In a paradigm like Sebald’s, the operative logic of remembrance seems to be that those who know these unspeakable “things” will never make their knowledge known, thus leaving his narratives to luxuriate in melancholic ellipsis. The majority of his Jewish emigrants take their own lives, unable to go on in the wake of their community’s near-total destruction. Who does it please, and who does it serve, this fantasy in which the Jew just does the killing himself? And who benefits when we decide—or accept—that the splinters of history are “beyond repair”? There is a reason that cultures of domination want the past to remain opaque.

In Russia, in the last days of 2021, all branches of Memorial were ordered dissolved, underscoring Flige’s earlier claim that “there is no past, only a continuous present” for those under Putin’s regime. “As long as that’s the case,” she continued, “we are talking about legacy rather than memory: the continuing legacy of an experience we so cavalierly relegated to the past.” Though Stepanova immigrated to Berlin in 2015, In Memory of Memory is nevertheless the material of that legacy: Aunt Galya’s apartment, overstuffed but containing nothing at once; cousin Lyodik’s letters, packed with “endless questions” but resolute in their refusal to comment on the horrors in and around Leningrad during the war. “What he couldn’t quite suppress though was a strange ringing,” Stepanova writes of these dispatches. “Much as if a calm person were writing calming words, just as a tank rumbled down the street and all the china in the cupboards began to hum.”

There’s a strange ringing, too, behind Stepanova’s heady explorations, audible in the act of avoidance itself. Unlike, say, Sebald’s slim texts, In Memory of Memory is prolific in its self-conscious failure to articulate what it most longs to say. In the book’s heft, we sense the humming of a history that sought to refuse Soviet people, and perhaps especially Soviet Jews, the right to a remembrance tradition of their own. This muffled communication isn’t without its power, a dirge testifying to Stepanova’s desperation to know and name her own history. But it would be wrong to claim that it speaks. As with Lyodik’s assurances of well-being, Stepanova’s great-grandmother’s eventual senility, or the violent shattering of a fragile figurine, here the consequences of terror and the means of refusing it look disconcertingly alike.

Helen Betya Rubinstein is a contributing writer for Jewish Currents. Her book Feels Like Trouble: Transgressive Takes on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing is forthcoming. She teaches at The New School and works one-on-one with other writers as a coach.