The sinking of the Kursk, and the misery of the families who gathered in Murmansk to await news of their sons and husbands, have left us all with a set of unforgettable memories of Russia in mourning. The two images that haunt me still are wordless, as befits the numb world of new loss. But while one is an image of enforced silence, the other suggests a conversation that has yet to end. The first is famous. A woman collapses under the influence of an injection that she did not seek and to which she gave no consent. The second is so intimate that it may have slipped more general notice. It looked like an odd gesture. The scene was a boat in the Barents Sea, and the people in the picture were grieving, mothers and sisters holding hands, fathers staring at the horizon. Some people had brought flowers, hothouse carnations with absurdly long stems, and as the boat that carried them slowed, they threw them over the rail, an act recognisable to anyone who has visited the site of a motorway or air accident in Britain. But then someone lobbed a bottle of vodka into the water. It was not a piece of vandalism, nor was it merely rage. What lay behind it was a tradition far older than the laying of a wreath. The dead, for Russians, still have material needs. The vodka was not a memorial, but a gift.
Vodka has played its part in Russia's rites of death for centuries. Before the revolution, priests were paid, in part, with glasses of the stuff, and relatives often drank to the health of a departing soul. Veterans of the Great Patriotic War against Hitler's Germany still gather every May, on Victory Day, to toast their comrades. "We drink the first glass in silence, standing, and we still remember all their names," an old soldier assured me. Later that night, when all the bottles are empty, they will feel that their eternal duty to the dead has been discharged for another year. Seventy years of communism, with its lectures on everything from the evils of alcohol to the non-existence of the soul, have not destroyed the central rites of death. Even people who regard religion as no more than a set of fables take the essential things for granted. The mourners who were on that boat share some basic traditions. One is the conviviality of the dead, the sharing of food and drink. Another is the sacramental power of earth.
It is always a mistake to generalise about what individual human beings think or imagine. This is especially true when you are considering the private world of extreme grief. But whatever their personal beliefs, most Russians observe the outward rituals of death. A good deal of these are focused on the cemetery. Their inspiration is not the gruesome power of death, but a triumphant and communal resurrection. Easter has always been the Orthodox Church's most important festival.Whether they believe its tale of immortality or not, most people still take the opportunity of the holiday to get their gardening tools out, assemble a picnic, telephone the family, and make for the graveyard. They clear away the debris of the long winter, pull out the emerging weeds, scrub at the moss, and settle down for lunch. If you visit Russian graveyards at other times of year, you may not understand the reason for the tables that are scattered here and there among the stones. Go at Easter, or later in the year at Trinity, and you will see that they are used for pouring vodka, slicing bread and dishing out small bowls of the sweet cheese whose Russian name is paskha, Easter.
The dead, for whom an extra place is laid, are really present at the feast. In fact, they seem to spend a lot of time around their graves. The site of a person's burial retains such magic that relatives and friends still go to the cemetery to talk. Some people sit for hours, not praying, but catching up with all the news; others leave written messages; and many believe the dead have ways of talking back. They can be spiritually present, too, wherever people gather round a table and remember them. Memorial meals include particular kinds of food - eggs for rebirth, yeast cake for resurrection, wholegrains and honey for a sweet and prosperous life in what is called "the other light". Boiled sweets are a modern addition to the list (you may find these scattered on fresh graves in any town), and sometimes mourners leave more permanent objects, such as tins of peas. Vodka is a man's drink. The best way to share it at the cemetery is to pour a glass on to the grave.
If food and drink are central, earth is more important still. The Orthodox Church teaches that physical decomposition, the return from dust to dust, is vital for the soul's release into eternal peace. Coffins should be made of wood, not metal, so that the body will rot naturally. Cremation, or any other kind of interference with this process, is sacrilegious. It is also important for a body to be buried in consecrated ground, in a place where hymns and prayers can be easily heard (the soul has senses as well as material needs). These beliefs are older than Christianity, and more tenacious than a peasant's interest in crops and land. People prefer to imagine their bodies decomposing in their native soil. Their bones will mingle with ancestral dust.
It is the earth itself that is sacred. During the bleakest years of religious repression, it formed the basis for what were called "funerals by correspondence". There were few priests, and even fewer working churches, and so believers could not hope for an Orthodox funeral ceremony. Instead, mourners would send a packet of local earth by post to any priest that could be found, and when it had been blessed and returned they would scatter it on the new grave. Even today, people who have left the country sometimes keep pots of Russian soil in their adopted homes, and soldiers send earth from the battlefield to the mothers or widows of their dead comrades, knowing that the women will keep it to mix with their own graves when their turn comes to die.
This is the universe of belief in which people must now grieve for young men whose bodies are trapped in a steel tank, suspended in salt water, beyond the reach of talk or touch or scattered earth. The relatives of disaster victims, the psychological literature explains, often begin their mourning with denial. If that is true in cultures where physical matter plays a comparatively small part, in this case the temptation to believe that sons and husbands are not really dead must be overwhelming. The 23 August was supposed to be a national day of mourning, but many of the people who actually remembered the dead men chose not to join the official ceremony. They went to work instead and then headed home early to gather round their kitchen tables for a meal. There was an element of boycott about all this, an expression of disgust at Putin's neglect of their emergency. But even without all that, the big public ceremony struck the wrong tone for men and women whose priority was to talk about the missing, to bring them back by thinking of them, to share another bottle in their company.
The future for these mourners is likely to be very bitter. It will help if the bodies are eventually brought ashore for burial, even if that cannot be until next summer. But even when there are real graves, these young men's deaths could well lack meaning. The crisis for Russia's military, of which they were a part, includes material problems such as lack of funding, lack of equipment, lack of food, uniforms, medicine and housing. But it also has a more intangible aspect. The culture of the hero's grave, the myth of patriotic sacrifice, has all but died since communism collapsed, and there seems little to put in its place. Fifty years ago, the slaughter of troops and civilians in the Great Patriotic War was turned into a redemption myth. For two generations, Soviet citizens revered the men and women who had saved the world from fascism. Military cemeteries, huge parks with stars and granite stones and Lenin busts, became places of pilgrimage. Huge memorials were built. Old men, their chests ablaze with medals, gave lectures about self-sacrifice and physical courage to classes of schoolchildren. Young men of a romantic turn of mind imagined themselves future heroes when they signed up for compulsory national service. The deaths of soldiers and sailors made a kind of sense.
All this began to change in the 1980s. The catalyst was the war in Afghanistan. "It was going to be exciting, fighting on the frontier," a veteran of the Afghan war explained to me. "You never thought they were going to kill you." Soviet conscripts soon learnt about guerrilla war. Crude new images of death came to replace the myths of their schooldays. This was not a war of set-piece battles, and many deaths came unexpectedly: a mine exploding, a grenade, an ambush. Some bodies were never found. Others, even more distressingly, were left deliberately to be discovered. These were the ones that had stars, sickles or obscene words cut into their flesh; the ones whose eyes and tongues had been hacked out. There was no time for funerals. The corpses were bundled into zinc coffins and stored in the searing heat until a plane was free to fly them back behind the lines. The veterans remember a stink that reminded them of wild boar.
The Soviet government of the time did not attempt to weave a myth about brave boys and patriotic duty. Instead, it tried to conceal the extent of the killing. Some relatives were informed that their sons had died in traffic accidents or of malaria. Later, when there was no escaping the truth, a new regulation was passed to prevent dead soldiers from being buried in distinctive war graves. Their coffins had to be distributed around the ordinary cemeteries, and references to Afghanistan were not allowed on many of the stones. The same kind of policy was followed more recently with soldiers who had died in Chechnya. In the crazy world of authoritarian power, censorship is a rational policy. It is not the waste of human lives, in battle or in submarines, that causes embarrassment. It is the possibility of public rage and grief. Far better if the exact numbers, and the names and dates, remain a secret.
For decades, the people of the Soviet Union absorbed all this because they had no choice. Propaganda was itself a kind of sedative. Some believed the euphemisms because good news made life much easier to bear. The policy of glasnost, which had stripped away many of the longest-held illusions by the end of the Eighties, was not universally popular. Particularly shocking were the accumulating revelations about the Great Patriotic War, not least the discovery that the government had lied about the scale of Soviet losses in this case, too. People who had been taught that 20 million men and women had died resisting fascism now had to imagine a new reality, which was that the true figure was as high as 30 million. The figures were verified, in many instances, by digging up the bones and counting them. "They lied about the losses," an old soldier confirmed. "There would be hundreds of bodies in a grave, and they would put that 30 people were buried there." They went on doing it into the Eighties.
Glasnost forced people to review the lies and euphemisms of the past, but when it comes to violent death, events since 1993 have turned the clock back. The war in Chechnya remains semi-secret. Bodies disappear, and it is only after months of hard work, queuing at little windows and filling in forms, that relatives are invited - if they are lucky - to identify some bones. Sometimes the only thing that gets back home is a pocketful of letters, a book of matches, a watch, a bunch of keys. One afternoon, a colleague emptied a drawerful of these into my lap. "That's all we've got," she explained. "We keep them, because one day we may find out who they belonged to." There were photographs of young men and their girlfriends, children's drawings, notebooks, rings. Families are waiting, scarcely knowing how to grieve, and all the time the war goes on, although there are no heroes. The story is troubling. Unless they have some direct link with it, most people prefer to think of other things.
Such is the background to the loss of the Kursk but, in this instance, the story has taken an unusual turn. In the first place, this was a disaster, like the meltdown at Chernobyl, with international implications. If Vladimir Putin's advisers had hoped to keep it from the public gaze, they miscalculated, underestimating the power of the international media, as well as the determination of Russia's own press. Second, this group of mourners, unlike the mothers of the men who are dying in Chechnya, has an indisputable claim on public sympathy, an unanswerable moral authority. Their grief, unusually in Russian politics, has created a real crisis. Putin, until recently the darling of a population appalled by rising crime, is now seen as an emotionless cynic, an apparatus politician whose holiday was more important than the lives and families of his own troops. Even his visit to Murmansk was clumsy. The bodyguards who kept the crowds of tired women at bay had real work to do. After he left, people were muttering that, if he had been on his own, the president would have been torn to pieces.
What will the long-term impact of this public grieving be? It is tempting to hope that a corner has been turned, that deaths will never be denied again, nor human life held cheap, in democratic, media-conscious Russia. No other event in the past year has caused such widespread discussion and concern among ordinary Russian people. It is too soon to know whether the humanitarian dialogue will carry over through the aftermath of the Ostankino fire. But optimism of any kind may turn out to be another version of the martyr myth, another effort to give meaning to intolerable deaths.
Public mourning depends on the goodwill of the state. It requires civic spaces, official holidays and an accepted patriotic story. The alternative, which Putin's advisers seem to prefer, is to resort to sedatives. The leadership's new policy includes something that they call "the weapon of information". What this involves is comprehensive official secrecy, widespread surveillance and stricter controls on the media.
A government with tastes such as these, far from learning a more humane openness from the Kursk disaster, may react against its embarrassment and indulge its enthusiasm for control. If that happens, it may be a long time before we catch another glimpse of the intimate world of the talking dead, the world where grief continues and where memory is alive.
Catherine Merridale's Night of Stone: death and memory in Russia is published by Granta Books on 26 October