Red Corpses: A Microhistory of Mass Graves, Dead Bodies, and Their Public Uses
What happens to corpses produced by armed conflicts? This question may seem simple: most bodies are buried, more or less quickly, in mass graves. However, the time between death and the moment when the human remains are inhumed deserves to be studied. This article focuses on the situation in the Urals at the end of the Civil War (1918–1919). The fights between the Bolsheviks and their opponents resulted in many casualties. The Bolsheviks gave a fundamental, and rather unusual, importance to the bodies of ‘their’ dead and attached a specific political significance to them. They developed a politics of corpses, using them in public space to assert their power. The bodies of dead Red fighters were brought back to symbolic places, resulting in impressive public funerals across the city of Yekaterinburg in 1918. Their burial sites became contested territories, protected by the authorities but derided by their opponents. After their final victory in 1919, Bolsheviks displayed their dead as proof of the cost of their struggle. Mutilated bodies were shown to carry the stigmata of sacrifice. The inventory and identification of victims became a central and immediate requirement. Inquiry commissions questioned witnesses and looked for mass burials and abandoned corpses. Mass graves were searched, cadavers exhumed and made visible. The public use of corpses was, however, not limited to identification purposes. The display of dead bodies, which is not unusual in Orthodox culture, took on a special political dimension. There was mass dissemination of the sight of death through these public monuments and the use of photography. We must especially stress the topographical importance of the displayed death: the exhumed bodies were used to tell of victory, to make control of the territory explicit. The memorialisation of some mass graves completed the process. In Yekaterinburg, but also in more distant localities, monuments were erected. They were meant to materialise the sacrifice of so-called ‘communards’ and the peculiar place of the Civil War in the narrative of the new Bolshevik regime, honouring the memory of the dead and mobilising the living.
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