Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village.
Author: O'Connell, Eric
Pub Date: 01/01/2009
Publication: Name: Cultural Analysis Publisher: Cultural Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Cultural Analysis ISSN: 1537-7873
Issue: Date: Annual, 2009 Source Volume: 8
Accession Number: 249607726
Full Text: Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. By Margaret Paxson. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press (Editorial). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. (Order From). 2005. Pp. 390, introduction, afterword, acknowledgements, terms and phrases, bibliography, index.

In a small village in the woods of northern Russia, memory--stretching across a broad collective landscape functions as the glue binding a culture together over time. Karl Marx wrote, "The tradition of all of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." (Quoted in Paxson 2005, 8). Margaret Paxson's Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village, spanning "seventy years of totalitarianism, and the hundreds of years of brutish exploitation," brings that weighty past into the present and shows how memory frames life in a small northern Russian village (346). Diving deeply into her research (17-1/2 pages of bibliography and 10 years of fieldwork) and into the lives and stories of her informants, she produces a text that will appeal to academics and non-academics alike. Paxson mines the memories of the small cluster of farmers that make up Solovyovo, revealing herself as an empathetic researcher. Using in-depth participant observation and interviews, and following an overarching metaphor of "the landscape of memory," she expresses how memory becomes translated and reinscribed across time.

By setting the village of Solovyovo in space and time through the memories of its inhabitants, Paxson shows how social memory is enacted in stories, religious practice, social organization, commemorization, and the symbolism of space.

"Death laced the corners of their stories," she writes (29); this landscape of memory is a view of past events (the return of a soldier, the death of Stalin, the destruction of a church) through present eyes. But also, as Paxson says, memory casts the present into the future to be rendered anew by individual choices and societal changes. Paxson's idea of memory is an act of persistence defining cultural identity.

Through Paxson's extended metaphor of "the landscape of memory," Solovyovo becomes a place of power and social memory spanning the centuries from the tsars and feudal landlords; to Bolsheviks and civil wars; to collectivization and socialism; and to perestroika and open markets. Held in memory and reified in ways of acting socially, we learn that memories are never free from their historical context, even if that context is rooted not in truth, but in a reconstruction of it. Moreover, Paxon points out, memories have agency; they are acts. Memories are ways of knowing and producing meaning. While streets can be renamed; faces and facts can fade away; photographs can be altered; and stories can die with people, memory cannot be "idealized away." Nor can it be erased by the gulag or by the "market's invisible hand."

Narratives of the past govern the behavior and belief of today, their patterns affecting social organization in vivid and accessible detail. From the "radiant past"--when revolutions were fought, wars and famine came and went, death crept in, ghosts and phantoms dwelt in the beliefs of the religious, and when marriage and birth renewed and reified a collective narrative--memory creates a bridge to the equally far off "radiant future."

Like a person in America reminiscing about those ubiquitous "way things were," when times were easier and people were nicer, the people of Solovyovo idealize their "radiant past"--when people were equal, close-knit, and cooperative, and when relationships were better (97). From this "radiant past" comes the idea of svoi. Opposed on the one hand to greed, a desire for personal wealth, svoi ("being one's own" or "belonging to") also stands in opposition to foreignness, the quality of being a social outsider. As such, the villagers, who both exist outside of and are affected by the new market economy, are mistrustful both of money and external forces. One villager, for instance, remembers the happiest time of his life as being during the great famine of 1947, because "it was as if there was some kind of inspiration in life then" (95). "Regardless of the hard life," he recalls, everyone's "mood" was better (95). Paxson's view across the landscape of memory benefits the reader at the root of village life by taking us into the village, into the villager's homes and into their lives.

A portrait of social memory in this region of the world is particularly relevant after the collapse of communism, because of widespread assumptions about the speed of change in the transition from Soviet Union to Russia. The unpredictable--but more known and more studied--world of Moscow is very far from that of rural Russia, yet the social fabric of Russia cannot be understood without including all of its social stratum.

By exploring the narrative landscape of Solovyovo, Paxson weaves an intricate ethnography of the memory of these descendants of Eastern Slavic farmers. This memory is primarily a memory of survival: survival of a people, of a way of life, of beliefs, and, above all, of memory itself. This memory of survival in the non-stop toil of a "harsh and unsuited land" for agriculture can sometimes yield some surprising results. For instance, this memory lends force to a critique of freedom. For the residents of Solovyovo, freedom is the opposite of what we think of in the West. There is no freedom (svoboda) without discipline, says one woman, indicating that "frameless" freedom is dangerous because it threatens to undermine the social order. Now, after Gorbachev, this woman states, "Anyone does whatever he wants. Anyone can steal from whomever. Anyone can kill anyone anywhere." (113). For the people of Solovyovo, this new unrestrained freedom is the companion of social disorder, a critique which draws its force from the memory of the "radiant past" before the fall of the Soviet Union, when the social order was intact and the community's freedom was not limited by the freedom of individuals.

As any scholar knows, proper and meaningful translations of words are imperative to an accurate and deep understanding of thought and action. Words and phrases, especially in Russian, almost never translate verbatim. Their meaning is hidden somewhere else; one must have a deeper knowledge of a culture to grasp its concepts and context. Paxson did her work and knows her area of research. She offers deep and accurate descriptions of the village and its people, and knows that a deep understanding of the meanings of words, phrases, and their uses--their local uses--is necessary to grasp the concepts that she's presenting.

This is a brilliant ethnography. Drawing on an immense body of theoretical literature, Paxson writes like a novelist, yet forgoes nothing to the discerning academic. The book is visually stimulating, rich in ethnographic detail, and yet is well-written and engaging.

Eric O'Connell

University of Southern California

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