Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 5, 2016

The Memory Artist (2016), by Katherine Brabon (2016 Vogel winner)

The Memory ArtistThis year’s Vogel Award winner, The Memory Artist is a departure from the kind of Australian themed books that we have become used to with this prize.  Recently the award has brought us some really impressive books, novels which have tackled important issues such as Aboriginal dispossession in Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party; Soviet interference in Australian affairs in Document Z  by Andrew Croome; and the ethics of following orders in After Darkness by Christine Piper – but all these novels would have been eligible for the Miles Franklin Award too because they have presented Australian life in any of its phases.  But The Memory Artist is set entirely in Russia, almost entirely in Moscow and St Petersburg, and the novel explores the process of recovering the memory of Stalinist repression.  Brabon has tackled a large canvas for her award-winning novel.

Repression.  I have used this entirely inadequate word to summarise decades of Stalin’s violence against his own citizens.  Unknown millions died in the wake of collectivisation and the Great Purge which took place in the 1930s.  As Stalin consolidated his power, not to be relinquished until his death in 1953, a climate of terror descended.   Rivals, dissidents and intellectuals fell to an ever-expanding network of informers, and they disappeared without trace, either to the gulags or to ‘psychiatric’ institutions, or else were shot and buried in mass graves.  After Stalin’s death there was a brief period of liberalisation known as The Thaw under Kruschev, but it didn’t last long and in 1964 Brezhnev took power and a repressive cultural policy was restored.

Brabon’s novel begins with the birth of its narrator Pasha in 1964, covers his childhood during the Brezhnev Freeze, and explores the flowering of hope and optimism as Gorbachev introduced economic reforms (perestroika) and new freedoms under ‘openness’ (glasnost).  When it’s 1986, Pasha is twenty-four.  He thrives in the new atmosphere in Moscow.  He goes to street protests on the Arbat (a pedestrianised street in central Moscow); he listens to music that used to be forbidden; he gets to wear jeans; and with his girlfriend Anya he plans to research and write the history of repression.  Both he and she have parents who were victims of the Freeze, and Pasha has childhood memories of covert dissident meetings in his mother’s apartment.  Now he can tell the story, he thinks.

But by 1999 Pasha is thirty-five and all that hope has faded.  The novel unravels his quest to learn the secrets of the past, and the complications he encounters.  People die before they have told their stories.  Those who spent time in psychiatric institutions are not confident about their memories because of the drugs they were forced to take.  Pasha learns that attitudes to resurrecting the past vary too: Anya’s father wants to tell – indeed seems to need to tell – but his wife is hostile because she fears that glasnost isn’t real and will not last.  This hostility is so strong that it sabotages her relationship with Anya, an activist with a much more forceful personality than Pasha and one who is determined to contribute to reforming her society.

Not everyone believed in glasnost – some thought Gorbachev weak, too scared to really bring Stalin’s name down once and for all, or just as power hungry as every other leader we had known… (p. 140)

Solovetsky Stone (Wikipedia)

Photo credit: Andy House (Moscow) – “In Memory of the thousands who suffered & died”, CC BY-SA 2.0, (Wikipedia)

One of the major projects of this era was the establishment of the Memorial Society, which researches and publicises the Soviet Union’s totalitarian past, and in Brabon’s novel Pasha travels with his mother’s friend Oleg to the site of one of the most notorious gulags, the Solovki prison camp.  Oleg has made it his quest to map all the camps, just as the location of the death camps in Germany are now known to everyone. Now that Pasha has seen Oleg’s maps, he knows he would be shocked if he saw a map without camp markings. 

As if the map’s creator had made such a grievous error as forgetting to include the capital cities or neglecting to make an entire country.  Names referring to a camp but missing the symbol would hide what was truly there.  (p.168)

It was from Solovki that the Solovetsky Stone was lifted and placed as a memorial to the victims of Soviet repression in what is now Lubyanka Square in Moscow, near the KGB headquarters.  Braban re-imagines the solemn moment when the stone was installed:

In October 1990, the memorial stone was finally laid in Dzerzhinsky Square.  I walked through the city with Ilya – none of the others wanted to come, or maybe we didn’t ask them – among a long chain of people.  Gathering darkness tinted the sky dark blue, towards night.  Candlelight glowed stronger in its wake, while incense hovered, invisible, in the air. We had gathered first at Sretenskaya Gate, and then proceeded down Dzerzhinsky Street.  Each person held a candle, some also a photo of a lost relative, or banners bearing the names of labour camps – Larlag, Bamlag, Alzhir – and walked to the square.  A woman read out names, and after each one the word shot followed with the strange resonance of an echo from a moment that had taken place much earlier, perhaps even before our births.  It felt as though, with her voice, she was in some way re-enacting the shots that needed an honest witness.

On reaching the square, thousands pressed towards the memorial stone brought from the Solovetsky Islands.  Something in the quality of the near-silence, disturbed only by murmurs and footsteps or the light wind, created the impression of a funeral.  The stone was the body laid to rest in the open, cushioned by the mass of red flowers falling one on top of the other.  The statue of Dzerzhinsky, the grandfather of the KGB, was an unwelcome and almost spectral presence in the square.  (p.228)

(That statue was eventually removed, though there are periodic attempts by nostalgic Communists to reinstate it).

Like this excerpt, the novel is sombre in tone.  Not much actually happens, and Pasha the would-be author does a lot of meditating about his history of dissent.  He struggles to write anything because he is so often overwhelmed by memories that he knows aren’t even his.  He drifts from one inconclusive event to another, struggling to understand himself and the collective soul of his fellow Russians.  His relationship with Anya ends and he can’t form a coherent new one with Sonya.  And as Pasha gropes around the truth of Russia’s past, the reader confronts history that may be unfamiliar.  We encounter philosophical concepts about controlling art and how we can name abstract ideas such as justice and freedom but they are the hardest to grasp, the easiest to lose.  This is a book to provoke contemplation about many things, some of which go beyond its immediate context:

I wondered about the consequences of inadequate mourning.  I wondered whether the dead found other ways to remind us of their presence.  Plagued by the uncertainty of loss, the lack of a gravestone, perhaps there would be a sense of disquiet, nauseas of the mind, deep depressions – all as manifestations in the living of the mute presence of the dead, the knocking without hands, the calls without mouths.  (p.165)

Later in the novel, Oleg talks about the consolations of mourning back in the days of religion.  He recounts the traditional rituals which enabled the mourners to remain close to the dead, maintaining a relationship.  For those who ‘disappeared’ under Stalin, grief could not be expressed without inviting further harassment.  Just as it was thought to be irrational to be suicidal in the ‘perfect’ Soviet society, so it was irrational to grieve for anyone who was an enemy of the state.  For the reader – even one who knows about Stalin’s crimes – Brabon evokes realisation that mass suppressed grief was a condition of Soviet life, one that accompanied the Terror, and remained after the Terror was lifted.

MacDonald's, Moscow

MacDonald’s, Moscow

Pushkin, Moscow

Pushkin, Moscow

One of the pleasures for me in reading the novel was the faithful depictions of Moscow and St Petersburg.  Australian by birth, Brabon apparently spent some time in Russia and her atmospheric descriptions of places are detailed and vivid.  Mentions of Pushkin Square and the ‘new’ MacDonald’s, for example, reminded me of my first day in central Moscow in 2012 and my discovery of ‘Pushkin brooding over a nearby park’.  I was excited by the ‘bookish moment’ and I had not known that this site was a gathering place for activists.  Indeed, any awkward questions about the past were batted away by tour guides with a resigned shrug and a reference to ‘Soviet times’.

There were a couple of moments, however, when (although I would never claim to know much about Russia) I wasn’t quite so sure about the authenticity of incidents: there’s a mention of pews in a St Petersburg church, and although there are often pews in Orthodox Russian churches in the west, our tour guide explained that there are no pews in Russian churches because traditionally people were expected to stand.  Well, maybe he was wrong, and of course we didn’t visit every church in St Petersburg. But I was also taken aback by an anecdote by a Muscovite character who, recalling his childhood, makes no mention at all of the near-successful Nazi advance on Moscow (1941-42) which was halted only 41 km from the city, at the cost of many, many lives.  (p.85) This character living in Arbatskaya, would have been about eight when its underground metro station was damaged by a German bomb attack in 1941.  There were bombing raids, and artillery attacks, and the women of Moscow dug anti-tank trenches around the city.  Like the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), the Battle for Moscow seems like a momentous event to me and one that would be seared into childhood memories every bit as much as memories of post-war repression.  But no, Mikhail talks only about playing near the haunted building which was the KGB HQ.  Well, The Memory Artist is not about Moscow’s wartime history, and this character is being interviewed about the dissident past – but the omission does seem a little odd.

These minor (and possibly completely wrong) quibbles aside, The Memory Artist is a compelling book.  I think it would make an excellent choice for thoughtful book groups who are interested in issues to do with memorialisation that Andrea Goldsmith explored in a western-democratic setting in The Memory Trap. (See my review).

PS The cover design – with all those babushkas concealing secrets within while standing on a map of Moscow –  by Sandy Cull from gogoGingko is just perfect.

Author: Katherine Brabon
Title: The Memory Artist
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760292867
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin, whose publication of the novel forms part of the Vogel Prize.

Available from Fishpond: The Memory Artist and good bookstores everywhere.



  1. Sometimes you read books in foreign settings because they are exotic, ‘not us’ and sometimes, with a book such as this, you realise, for instance, that our new laws against revealing arrests for ‘terrorism’ are not so different to the Soviet ‘disappearings’ we’ve always scorned.


    • That’s not the only domestic resonance. It’s that the process of uncovering a distasteful past brings up a conflict between resurrecting painful truths (if indeed you can) and moving on, putting the past behind us. Because if everyone is complicit in one way or another, either in the past or contributing in the present to ‘not wanting to know’ either through hostility or apathy, then it becomes a canker in the national soul.


      • So often ‘putting the past behind us’ is code for I benefitted from that, let’s not talk about it, don’t you agree. This book talks about symbols of reconciliation, the maps, the statue and the ceremony around it. We (Australians) are making such slow progress towards our own symbols that their meaning, their utility is being degraded.


        • True. But I was actually thinking of more recent arrivals who say, it’s nothing to do with me, I wasn’t here.


    • Agree. This book has strong resonance for Russia today.

      Pussy Riot, the all girl Russian band, were not detained on criminal charges for their “anti-Putin” criticism of the current Russian leadership but on “hooliganism” laws. No criminal intent was needed for conviction and subsequent sentence. Their public statements were condemned as “delinquency”. It appears that the abuse of psychiatry still exists in Russia to achieve political outcomes.

      Australia also tends to repress memory. The refusal to say “Sorry”, being one example.

      On a broader note Katherine Brabon’s book serves to resonate about the inter-generational effects of memory. For example, the effects of drug dependency or trauma arising from domestic violence. The effect of war upon Vietnam (and more recent) veterans is another example. If we had remembered and understood the inter-generational effects of WW1 upon families we could have better cared for Vietnam Vets and more recent veterans.

      Inter-generational memory is a bit of an elephant in the room for some groups in our community, for good and bad, and The Memory Artist is quite a profound book in terms of its capacity to promote discussion on this little understood phenomenon.


      • No indeed, not just Russia. It’s not so long ago that an Australian was gaoled for six months (!) for his protest which stopped the Oxford-Cambridge boat race (see And that was in a democracy!
        Yes, I heard commentary when I was at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival about inter-generational grief being appropriated by the young as if they wanted to share in the victimhood. But I believe it’s more complex than that. At its most basic, if the next generation is denied the ordinary human experience of having extended family (grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins) because of genocide or political repression, they do suffer that absence, and it’s exacerbated if there are state secrets about it.


  2. This is on my TBR pile, Lisa, so I can’t say much about the book, although it sounds fascinating. But I wanted to comment on the wonderful cover by Sandy Cull. I’ve been taking more notice of cover designers lately, and she’s been doing some great stuff (Salt Creek, Resurrection Bay, Floodline, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and my own The Anchoress, etc). It’s such an intriguing and particular skill, isn’t it?


    • Couldn’t agree more. I am heartily sick of those endless headless women covers and covers that are just fancy fonts and nothing more. This cover is intellectually satisfying and a perfect fit. I didn’t realise Salt Creek was hers, that’s a beautiful cover and very apt too.


  3. […] I happened to read another book about Stalinist repression straight after Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist.   The latter arrived courtesy of Allen and Unwin after Brabon won the Vogel while The Noise of […]


  4. […] “The Memory Artist” by Katherine Brabon, see my review […]


  5. […] to have taken over the last year or so.  Last year we had The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon (see my review) and this year ventures into the wider world too with the award going to Marija Peričić’s […]


  6. […] Document Z by Andrew Croome, by The Memory Room by Christopher Koch, and Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist.  The lessons for our time are obvious, and What the Light Reveals is a fine example of the human […]


  7. […] 2016 — Katherine Brabon, The Memory Artist, see my review […]


  8. […] “The Memory Artist” by Katherine Brabon, see my review […]


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