Confabulated Memories

Story Fossils at Lake Winnipeg
Memory is a curious thing. Without it, events happen and get lost and forgotten. At a recent memorial service on the weekend, I felt connected with others in attendance because we shared memories of the deceased. And it was through the sharing that we validated not only the life of our friend but our own experiences.

Meanwhile, I’ve lived for almost four decades with a man whose various stages of brain damage have led to a confabulated past that leaves my own head spinning. I find myself isolated and alone when I realize that this man I’ve shared a home with, doesn’t share my memories. But confabulating the past doesn’t just hurt families. It seems to be all the rage now in Russian politics.

And isn’t confabulation what we fiction writers do all the time? We invent things. When we don’t know all the facts, we make stuff up. I know that with my own historical fiction I try to build on facts but create a character to personalize them. I invent lives to fit into the events. Sort of like building dinosaurs out of old bones. 

Recently, I was re-visiting a book, first published in 1947, Forced Labor in Soviet Russia by David J. Dallin and Boris I. Nicolavesky. (These 2 co-authors are worthy of more research!)  It’s the best source of detailed locations of the Soviet-era corrective camps I’ve come across. I wanted to find some modern images of the camps on the internet. 

Fence at Perm
Photo: Gerald Praschl, CC
The general vicinity where my mom worked in an open-pit coal mine in the Urals, back in 1947, is now touted as a place for nature-lovers to get away. It has all the modern conveniences that a gulag labourer couldn't even imagine... indoor hot tubs, showers, quaint log cabins with feather duvets and TV.  It’s almost as if what my mom told me when I was growing up ... the bugs, the hunger, the cold ... had never happened. It’s like she might have confabulated the whole thing. 

Putin demonstrates daily that confabulation is thriving in modern-day Russia. The only gulag museum in Russia, housed in Perm, in the Urals, was until 2014 under the management of Memorial, an international human rights NGO. But that truth is too hard to remember and so it's been changed. It’s like a whole country has brain damage and needs to confabulate a storyline to survive.

Perm 36 once a museum remembering the victims of the gulag, now has re-written its own story. For modern Russia, gulags have become a necessary evil that helped Russia achieve greatness. According to the new museum director, it is no longer "politically correct" to view the camps beyond their architectural layout and positive contribution to the Soviet victory. Manipulation of memory. Russia now lives in its own confabulated world. A lonely place to be.

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