There’s an old (and not particularly difficult) riddle that goes something like this:
There is a plane that is flying close to the border between Canada and the U.S.A. There is an engine failure and the plane crashes right on the border of Canada and U.S.A. Where do they bury the survivors?
The idea is that you are so fixated on the significance of the rest of in the information provided in the riddle that you miss the fact that survivors don’t get buried. Reading the following passage from David Remnick’s article about political protest in Russia under communism and “democracy”, I couldn’t help thinking there is more to this riddle. When your country’s history is as bleak as this, what does happen to the survivors?
At Memorial’s new headquarters, underwritten in part by the Ford Foundation and U.S.A.I.D., I was shown around the library and the archives, where, in the past two decades, scholars have done research for hundreds of new publications on the Soviet past. An archivist opened drawers filled with handkerchiefs, drawings, and other modest artifacts made, surreptitiously, by prisoners in the Gulag. The archivist pulled, at random, the file of one Vladimir Levitsky, who was imprisoned in 1932 for the crime of collecting stamps. Stamp collectors were suspected of trafficking in secret signs and codes. In 1937, Levitsky was shot at a labor camp called Olkhovka, near Krasnoyarsk.
Vladimir Levitsky, a victim of the Soviet Gulag, was briefly resurrected when an archivist chanced upon his file. Millions of other Russians who died do not even have a file to be pulled. Today’s Russia, with its nominally democratically-elected Putin/Medvedev government, may not be on par with Stalin’s, but it is still a nation where criticizing the government can cost you your job, your home or even your life. And while Remnick tells its story through the voices of those who have stood up to the government, it is really a story of the large majority of Russians who have remained quiet – either because they’ve been cowed into silence or they fear that change will only bring a return to something worse. They are the survivors and they are as anonymous as Vladimir Levitsky was until his name was plucked from Memorial’s files. If they do not speak up, they too will be buried.