Skip to content

Response to Review no. 229

I was delighted to read Professor Hosking’s generous review of Night of Stone. He praises exactly the things that are, to me, at the heart of the book, and his criticisms are mercifully brief. I have no intention of taking him to task for each of these, but I would point out that the reference to ‘starving’ peasants on p. 69 is not an estimate of mortality, but a figure for hunger, from the Russian word for ‘starved’ (golodali) as opposed to ‘starved to death.’ As to the death penalty, we will have to sit down together one day with Gernet, and I will show him what I read, complete with the reference to the untranslatable ‘smertniki’, for which I used ‘death row.’ We can all be grateful that English speakers, as opposed to Americans, have forgotten the vernacular terminology for people in this situation.

I would like to use my reply, however, to clarify something that he did not criticise but which appears to be ambiguous in his commentary. In his review, he suggests that I ‘forced’ memory and perception with ‘unexpected and grotesque results.’ Later on, he implies that I was less than tactful (that’s what he means by ‘fearless’) and that I may even have stirred some memories that would have been more healthily ignored. These kinds of remark might leave a reader wondering just what I did to the elderly and often frail women and men who kindly agreed to talk to me. In case this is in doubt, I must emphasise that no one was ever interviewed without explicit and informed consent. In fact, my problem was often the reverse: selecting a small number from the queue of volunteers that gathered when I asked to hear old people’s tales. I also took great care to make sure that respondents would not be alone after an interview with me, checking with their families, talking to social workers, and spending time with neighbours and friends as well as with the central characters themselves. Many of these people are still in touch with me, and I am in no doubt about their memories of our meetings. Professor Hosking is absolutely right to say that projects of this kind cut to the heart of oral history. No one can talk about these things without stirring emotion, and no interviewer ought to be able to listen to them without some kind of personal engagement. It was precisely because I wanted to understand, because my interest was transparent, that these extraordinary people were willing to explore their memories so deeply, however apparently haphazard the result. I tried to convey the spirit and tone of their answers, as well as what I understood to be their deeper truth. That tone is not methodical or even logical, it does not arrange things in neat orders like a catalogue or text. But that disorder, and even those silences, are what survival has been about for many Russians in the last eighty years. As I am sure that Hosking would agree, it is only by listening to the real words that people use, and to the pauses and evasions, that we can come to see how life and death have been remembered in this most abused of European societies.