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Book Review


Hochschild, Adam.  The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003). 296 pp, $14.00.

      The Unquiet Ghost was written shortly after Adam Hochschild's 1991 trip to the USSR, four years before his award winning King Leopold's Ghost (1998) and nearly a decade before his most recent widely acclaimed Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free the Empire's Slaves. The Unquiet Ghost shares with those later works a keen interest in the human capacity for evil and denial that coexists with utopian hopes.  The Unquiet Ghost, however, is a far more personal work – and therein lay both its strength and its weakness. 1
     Aimed at a wide audience, The Unquiet Ghost explores both Stalin's Great Purge and, following de-Stalinization, the Great Silence. "How could the Great Purge have happened," Hochschild asks, "and why did so many so long keep silent about their experiences in the Gulag?" What makes these questions important is not simply the appalling number of Soviet citizens who disappeared, but the fact that, unlike other genocides which targeted ethnic or economic outsiders, this genocide targeted regime loyalists and the apolitical.  Equally troubling for Hochschild are the "habits of mind" that enabled both denouncers and the "unseeing" to become complicit. 2
     Unquiet Ghost is, at its best, a kind of travel narrative into the depths of Stalin's system, skillfully interweaving first person observations with testimony from novelists, historians, and personal informants who survived Stalin's purges and gulags.  Along the way we meet Mikhail Volkov, a former secret police colonel from Karaganda province whose bookcases feature Shakespeare, Russian classics and a portrait of an underground poet-singer.  There is Nikolai Fyodorich, a phlegmatic history teacher with a black homburg, leafing through scrapbook pages and reciting their damning facts.  Hochschild's descriptions – of Moscow's KGB archives, of the Central Asian steppe around Karaganda, or of Kolyma's gold and uranium mines give The Unquiet Ghost a sense of place that is both immediate and personal.  There is an urgency to these portraits. Although 100,000 executioners and victims of the gulag are still alive, many are unwilling to talk.  When they die, their testimony will be lost. 3
     Yet one suspects that Hochschild's real sense of urgency comes from his belief that, like Pogo, he "has met the enemy and he is us."  Hochschild's Russians are archetypes for all people who have suffered at the hands of their fellow citizens.  In Russia as elsewhere, Hochschild argues, we must draw a clear line between the utopia dream and the arbitrary cruelty of its implementation. Lest we in the United States "do the same", Hochschild makes his analogies explicit.  "Those who commit atrocities" thus include "Americans in Vietnam" as well as Nazis and South African police. Even novice students should spot the overt comparisons of a neo-Stalinist society, Unity, to the old John Birch Society. Though he claims he found a Russia far more complex than his preconceived notions about "evil executioners" and "heroic victims", this co-founder of Mother Jones Magazine has nonetheless brought some of the same baggage out of Russia as he brought in with him. 4
     Hochschild's meditation on the Great Purge and Great Silence breaks no new ground, but will serve world history students well. His introductory overview of Stalinist purges and camps, accompanied by a timeline and map, ably situates students in the era. Hochschild's bibliographic essay provides an excellent introduction both to recent scholarship and to published testimonies. The Unquiet Ghost also provides students a ready-made case study in rhetorical method.  Students will learn much by analyzing the way Hochschild crafts his prose, organizes his evidence, and structures his argument.  Students will also gain from more critical engagement, gauging the relative validity of Hochschild's analogies and assessing the impact of his political positions on his historical arguments. 5
Mary Beth Immediata
Ravenscroft School

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