The Russian journalist, founder of the Kommersant business daily, Vladimir Yakovlev, has written a powerful personal account of the generational legacy of Soviet totalitarianism for the Russian Facebook community, Svoi (“Our People”). Below, a slightly edited English translation of Mr Yakovlev’s story:
I was named after my grandfather.
My grandfather, Vladimir Yakovlev, was a killer, a butcher, and a Chekist. His many victims included his own parents. My grandfather shot his own father for profiteering. His mother, my great-grandmother, hanged herself after she heard about it.
My most happy childhood memories are from the old, spacious apartment on Moscow’s Novokuznetskaya Street that our family was very proud of. I learned later that the apartment was not purchased or built, but requisitioned — in other words, taken by force — from a rich Muscovite merchant family.
I remember an old carved cupboard that I used to climb onto to get my hands on some jam. And a big comfortable couch where, bundled up inside a blanket, I used to read bedtime stories with my grandmother. And two huge leather armchairs, which by family tradition were only used for the most important conversations.
As I learned later, my grandmother, whom I loved very much, spent most of her life working as a professional agent provocateur. Born as a noblewoman, she made use of her pedigree to make friends and provoke her acquaintances into talking candidly. She then reported the conversations to her superiors.
My grandfather and grandmother did not buy the couch on which I listened to the bedtime stories, neither the armchair or the cupboard, nor any of the furniture in the apartment. They just picked them at a special warehouse that stored property confiscated from the apartments of Muscovites who had been executed. Chekists furnished their apartments from this warehouse free of charge.
Under the thin layer of ignorance, my happy childhood memories were soaked in pillage, killing, violence, and betrayal. Soaked in blood.
Yet I am not alone in this.
All of us who grew up in Russia are the grandchildren of victims and butchers. Every one of us, with no exceptions. If your family did not have any victims, then you had butchers. If you had no butchers, then you had victims. If you had neither victims or butchers, then you had secrets.
Make no mistake about it!
It seems to me that we have seriously underestimated the effect of Russia’s tragic past on the psyche of our contemporary generations. On our own psyche.
When we assess the scale of Russia’s tragic past, we usually count the dead. Yet in order to assess the impact of those tragedies on the psyche of the generations to come, we need to count not the dead, but the survivors. The dead are dead. Those who survived are our parents and the parents of our parents.
Those who survived were the widows and orphans; the people who lost their loved ones, were deported, dispossessed, or exiled; those who killed to save themselves, or for the sake of their ideals and victory; those who were betrayed and those who betrayed them; the people who were desolated, lost their conscience, and turned into butchers; those who were tortured and those who tortured them; those who were raped, maimed, robbed, or forced to denounce others; the people who drowned their bitterness, their sense of guilt, or their lost faith in alcohol; those who were humiliated; and the people who went through deadly famine, captivity, occupation, and prison camps.
Those who died number in the tens of millions, and those who survived in the hundreds of millions. Hundreds of millions of people who passed on their fear, their pain, their sense of constant external danger to their children who, in turn, added their own suffering and passed on that fear to us.
Statistically speaking, there is not a single family in Russia today that would not carry, in some form or another, the severe consequences of the atrocities, unprecedented in scale, that went on in our country over a century.
Have you ever paused to think about what impact this experience of three consecutive generations of your direct-line ancestors has had on your own mindset today? That of your wife? Your children? If not, then you need to pause and think about it.
It took me many years before I understood my family history. Yet now I understand better where my constant wanton fear comes from. And my exaggerated secretiveness. And my total inability to trust people or to establish intimate relationships. And my constant sense of guilt that has followed me as long as I remember ever since childhood.
They only forgot to tell us that mankind’s most horrid genocide, unprecedented in both scale and duration, took place not in Germany, not in China, and not in Cambodia, but in our own country. And that it was not the faraway Chinese or [Cambodians] who went through this most horrendous genocide in human history, but three generations of OUR OWN families.
We often think that the best way to protect us from the past is not to ruffle it, not to dig into our family history, not to unearth the horrors that our family members lived through. We think that it is best not to know. In fact, it is worse. Much worse.
The things that we do not know continue to affect us, through childhood memories and through our relationship with our parents. Given that we do not know our past, we fail to recognise its impact and are therefore unable to resist it.
The deadliest consequence of generational trauma is the inability to recognise it. As a result, we fail to realise how deeply that trauma distorts our present perception of reality.
It is not important how the fear manifests itself in each of us today or who we regard as a threat — America, the Kremlin, Ukraine, homosexuals, Turks, the “decadent” Europe, the “fifth column,” our boss at work, or the police officer at the subway entrance.
What is important is whether we recognise that our current personal fears, our personal sense of external threat, are, in actual fact, just shadows of the past whose existence we are so afraid to acknowledge.
In 1919, amid the devastation and famine [of the civil war], my grandfather the killer was dying of consumption. He was saved by [the founder of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka,] Felix Dzerzhinsky, who came up with a canister of French sardines from somewhere, most likely from one of those “special” warehouses. My grandfather fed himself with the sardines for an entire month, which is how he survived.
Does this mean that I have Dzerzhinsky to thank for my life? If so, how can I live with it?
Translation: Kerkko Paananen.