By Paul Goble
Two new studies, one by the Moscow Institute of Sociology and a second by the Romir Organization, show that Russians know very little about their ancestors beyond two generations back, a reflection of the traumas of the 20th century but a phenomenon that makes it vastly more difficult for them to integrate into a common nation.
The Romir survey, conducted in June found that few Russians can name all their relatives three generations back, that two-thirds of Russian households do not have family archives, and that despite a recent uptick in interest in the past the share of Russians focusing on the history of their families remains small.
As Mariya Nedyuk of Izvestiya notes, “sociologists link such a ‘short’ family memory to the fact that the country experienced such a large number of shocks,” as well as the fear of talking about the past in Soviet times and the illiteracy of most of the Russian population before the 20th century (iz.ru/616331/mariia-nediuk/korotkaia-pamiat-na-predkov).
Andrey Milekhin, the head of Romir, says “it is possible that the role of inertia of Soviet times when studying history outside of official frameworks wasn’t permitted and that going into the history of one’s own family (and especially telling this to one’s children) was at times simply dangerous” (nazaccent.ru/content/24666-opros-rossiyane-ne-pomnyat-svoih-predkov.html).
The Institute of Sociology study found that 60 percent of those surveyed “did not know whether there were among their ancestors those who during the revolution and civil war supported the Whites or suffered from the terror” at that time. Equally large fractions didn’t know about what happened to their ancestors under Stalin (kommersant.ru/doc/3330116).
This absence of knowledge represents “a kind of ‘family trauma,’” experts say. Dmitry Travel of St. Petersburg University says that his research has found that most Russians have large gaps in their knowledge about their families, gaps that increase as one goes back earlier in time.
Vasily Zharkov, a political psychologist at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences, says that fear in Soviet times played a major role in this: his own grandmother did not acknowledge until July 1991 that she had had relatives who fought for Admiral Kolchak.
The absence of memories about one’s own family has serious consequences for society as a whole. People find it difficult to fit themselves into a national narrative or even to identify as members of the nation if they do not know where their ancestors came from. Being part of an imagined community is easier if one knows something about where one comes from.
Vladimir Petukhov of the Institute of Sociology says that the situation in Russia is especially dire: “Even in Germany with its Nazi past, memories about ancestors have not broken off.” But because the Soviets created a situation where it was dangerous to talk about the past, Russians have learned not to. Overcoming that will be extremely difficult.