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Never Remember: Q&A with Masha Gessen

March 6, 2018
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Inspired by the mysterious disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg (B.A., 1935) after he helped tens of thousands of Jews escape Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II, Russian-American journalist and best-selling author Masha Gessen teamed up with photographer Misha Friedman to search from Moscow to Sandarmokh for traces of the Gulag. Together they compiled a book of photos and essays entitled Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia (Columbia Global Reports, 2018).

The project was made possible in part by a major grant from the Wallenberg Executive Committee and the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. Gessen and Friedman will visit U-M to talk about the research that went into the book, and how the past continues to influence Russia today.

Masha Gessen, winner of the 2015 Wallenberg Medal

Masha Gessen

Q: How did Raoul Wallenberg inspire or impact the book Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia?

Gessen: Misha [Friedman] came to me and said, “Let’s go find Wallenberg.” I replied that better people than us have been working on that for decades. That started that conversation about not actually physically finding Wallenberg, but about doing some sort of joint exploration of memory and the search for the dead in Russia. To me, the Wallenberg story is the quintessential story about memory, and that’s why the book begins with it.

Wallenberg’s story also had a lot of personal meaning, because my mother was one of the first Russian-language journalists to write about him in the 1980s. It’s weird how when you’re a journalist and you write about something, you kind of feel like it’s your story, even though of course it’s not your story. I had the same sort of attitude towards my mother’s ownership of the story, like with a family story, even though obviously it’s not a family story.

This also tied into something I was working on in other ways, including the issue of historical memory and problems of memorialization. I had been researching memorialization for another book, and I realized that it wasn’t actually part of that book. It formed this sort of understanding in my head, but it wasn’t going into the book. It was like picking up what my brain had left on the cutting room floor, and thinking about whether I need a separate project on memorialization. Building on the Wallenberg story worked better as a project with Misha because Never Remember is visual. It’s an odd thing to set out to do, to photograph something that’s not there. The story is really about this elusive memory, this unclear memory, a memory that is constantly, intentionally being obscured. Misha’s brief was to show the “not there-ness” of it. That’s what we set out to do.

Q: What unexpected things did you find in your research?

Gessen: One unexpected thing was when I went to see Irina Flige, somebody who has been my source for understanding memory in Russia for more than twenty years. It was a journalistic experience that I’ve never had before and never had since—I interviewed her for eight hours, and I never do this because I think it’s difficult to talk meaningfully for more than an hour and a half. The interview was like this crash course on everything. I don’t know what poor Misha thought of it but his eyes were just bulging out of his head, as if he had never seen anything like this.

Something that was really significant and unexpected to me, and that completely reframed the project was that I told her, “Look, I’m writing a book about forgetting.” And she said, “There’s no forgetting happening.” And then she gave me a point that’s in the book about how in order for forgetting to happen, remembering has to happen first; and actually, in order to remember you also have to forget. She said that twenty, twenty-five years ago, we assumed that the process we were both witnessing and shaping was the process of remembering.

The process of remembering implies a line between past and present—what you remember is the past and you’re doing the remembering in the present. And there is no decision in that you’re living in this endless, miserable present, then you can’t actually do the work of remembering, as the work of remembering hasn’t been done, then there’s no forgetting. So she reframed the book, not a book about as how first Russians remembered and then they forgot, but it’s actually a book about not remembering, which is not the same thing as forgetting. And that’s why it’s called Never Remember.

Q: Was that shocking to you? To hear that coming from Irina and from someone you worked with for so many years?

Gessen: It wasn’t shocking. It’s one of those great moments in your world when you realize, “Oh my god! Everything just starts making sense. Thank you.” It was wonderful.

Q: How do your discoveries from the research of this book figure into current-day Russia? Do you feel that systematic “never even remembering” is still happening?

Gessen: What is really important is this concept of cacophony, which I’ve come to appreciate more over the last few months. It’s been very useful to me in understanding Russian propaganda and Soviet propaganda, because we usually think of propaganda as dissemination of information with a clear narrative and a clear aim. That kind of propaganda exists but that’s actually not what Russian propaganda is, and it’s not the way Russia has gone about not remembering.

For Never Remember, we visited the prison camp at Perm-36 expecting to find that it had been seized by the state and turned into a museum glorifying the Gulag. What I actually found when we got there was like extensive mush, a lot of static that doesn’t create a story. I appreciate efforts to not create a story around the Gulag. I think that can be very constructive if the point is to show that terror is senseless, but that’s not what was happening there. Instead of showing that terror was senseless, it was imbuing terror with all sorts of out-of-the-blue senses, leaving you very confused.

That has a direct application to understanding Russian meddling in the election. It’s wrong to read [Russian meddling] as this effort to elect Trump and pursue one particular, strategic goal. The strategic goal is to sow discord, to create a lot of static. That’s why you see Bernie [Sanders] as Superman comics, why you see them supporting Jill Stein, and supporting Trump while also organizing anti-Trump rallies. It’s the process of creating these giant contradictory meanings that leave you destabilized and confused. That’s the point.

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