The Unquiet Ghost is both a terrific historical and journalistic investigation and a historical document itself, as the author acknowledges in a preface written in 2002, some eight years after the book’s first publication. More than eight more years have passed, and the conditions that made the book both possible and urgent slip ever further into the past. And yet. The memories, most now second-hand, remain; the glimpses of another possible Russia refuse to fade completely, no matter what the present leadership might wish; the ghosts are still unquiet.
The Russia where I had come to live, in 1991, was then a country where only in the previous few years had it become possible to read those long-forbidden books at last, to look the past in the face, and to ask the question that obsessed the Russians as much as it did me: How could the country that gave the world Tolstoy and Chekhov also give it the gulag? Everywhere I went, it seemed, people were thinking about this. In addition to the men and women I sought out to interview, I kept stumbling into other unplanned conversations about Russia’s Stalinist past…
And so 1991 turned out to be the right moment for my journey of exploration. It was a time when mass graves had been newly opened, and I was able to walk through several of them, seeing, in one, skull after skull with a bullet hole through it. It was a time when it was finally possible to see the old gulag camps, and I will never forget standing in the ruins of one of them, Butugychag, a place so cold and remote and surrounded by barren snow-streaked rock hills that it seemed like another planet. Even there, in that desolate moonscape with nothing but snowfields to escape to for dozens of miles, even there, the camp had an internal prison with thick stone walls and cross-hatched iron bars on the windows. Above all, it was a time when people who had survived such camps and the era that produced them were eager to tell their stories. It would be harder to gather such stories today , because so many of those who spoke to me were in their seventies or eighties and are now dead.
In another way, also, I was unexpectedly luck in my timing. The very month I arrived in Russia, the government lifted prohibitions that for decades had placed huge swaths of the country off-limits to foreigners. This meant that in several places I visited in Siberia, I was the first American of Western European whom anyone there had ever seen. … The novelty of meeting their first Westerner made many people particularly eager to tell their stories. I was the first witness from another world.
Hochschild settles into a still-Soviet Moscow in January 1991, where waking up and falling down seem to be happening simultaneously all around him. Memorial, a now-beleaguered institution of Russian civil society was still a protean organization founded four years earlier — gathering names, publishing, archiving what it could digitally, assisting victims materially. “The core of Memorial’s work is to try to restore a set of memories the government worked for several decades to erase.” Much of it was still individual initiative and handcrafted work.
As the book progresses, he moves between Moscow and further reaches, ending with a visit to Kolyma, one of the gulag’s worst regions, described then and now as the dark side of the moon. Along the way, he meets former inmates, former administrators, and descendants of both, fated to live in the same place with the acts of their forefathers between them, seldom spoken but always known.
Hochschild brings the liveliness of good journalism — every page bristles with specifics — and the perspective of a historian. Fitting, then, that his book has become a testament to its times — the first flush of openness and the glimmerings of a new Russian state — as much as a document of the times before it.