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Representing Soviet Rage

Words:

Edd Norval
January 23, 2020

How do we handle anger? It all depends on when. At the time we might confront it, sometimes violently. Breaking things, shouting at things - externalising the feeling. Other times we may close-up and hide, morph anger into sadness and repress a feeling - only one day being able to confront it. While the former might initially have more obvious consequences, the latter gives space for it to grow and in some cases, space for government's to manipulate it.

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This isn't to say that one way of computing anger and fear offers a clearer understanding than the other, they're just very different. When feelings are experienced, they never fully go away. In some ways, what can seem like the the most seemingly trivial of details can - years later - become a decisive factor in important life choices. Even when encountering unimaginable events, it's the 'less horrific' that can hold most impact.


Wars are one place where anger and grief are experienced in such a brutal reality that everyday life can almost become a performance, such is the magnitude of shock reverberating through our bodies, making the most menial of motions that our bodies regularly go through a numb dance used to protect ourselves.


Historically speaking, there are several significantly violent chapters that we tend to think of in terms of their continuing ability to impact our way of thinking. One of them, unquestionably, is the horrors committed under Joseph Stalin's Soviet rule in the mid 20th century - particularly those bound by forced labour by the notoriously unforgiving and barbaric Gulags. As ways of remembering them now, people are turning to art as a new - and somewhat more productive - form of making sense of their feelings, whilst making sure they're not being silenced.

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The Gulag wasn't a place, rather the official government agency tasked with enforcing and organising these forced labour camps. During Joseph Stalin's reign, around 1.7 million people perished in the camps spread throughout the vast country - only a small portion of the estimated total deaths (around 20 million) during the dictator's time at the head of Russian office.


Times have changed in Russia and myriad new controversies and wars have come to pass, but the proximity to our present day, the sheer touching distance that we still are within this episode remains an uncomfortable fact that a group of Russian artists are intent on keeping part of how Russia (and the world at large) think and act. As the old maxim goes; those who fail to know their history are doomed to repeat it. In a time where censorship and fracturing social groups is becoming regular talk on news outlets - both digital and traditional - their point seems crystal clear. Be careful the ground you are treading upon, for it may already be a path.


Hubris defines empires and a minority group of world leaders today are engaging in what seems to be increasingly volatile relations in regards to who can build their own tower the tallest. In this new miniseries, one of the aims seems to be - not taking them down, but giving context to potential followers.

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Inspired by the harrowing tales of Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - things that were never meant to be heard became broadcast across the world, particularly through the astronomical sales, study and teaching of his novel The Gulag Archipelago. Still, not content with the way his story has began to slip out of earshot, news platform Coda Story are revisiting the tales of those who lived through, and their unfortunate recallings of those who perished, during the period to keep the writer's fearless approach alive.


In their new Generation Gulag series, survivors are intreviewed to recall their own personal experiences and reflect on how these have become a part of their lives since. In the nine short films, several things become clear. Of course, there is the horror and the fear surrounding it, but also the willingness and complicity of many to join in in order to avoid their own persecution. Like every war, or major socio-cultural/political event, the complexities are myriad and through the deft editing and storytelling of the Coda Story crew - these truths are once again being brought to light.


Challenging the revisionism that subsequently followed the atrocities, the series examines closely why and how Russia tried to re-write the survivors stories by combining accessible animation and impactful firsthand accounts to confront the particularly ideological slant that these episodes are now retold with - rendering the memories of those affected meaningless in the public eye. But, through this series, it is the victims who are now given back an element of power.


Whilst never an easy watch due to its hard-hitting content, this contemporary re-examination of a crucial period of history brings it back into our current political discourse, acting in the same vein as so many Russian political dissidents have done before, making sure that the stories that matter will always be heard.

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