The power of dead bodies in Eastern Europe
“Dead bodies have enjoyed political life the world over,” said anthropologist Katherine Verdery on Monday. She did not, however, mean this literally.
Verdery’s lecture, appropriately called “The Political Lives of Dead Bodies” after the title of her new book, aimed to explore the tremendous changes across Eastern Europe that accompanied the end of Communist rule. By studying the dead for political purposes, Verdery hopes to gain better understanding of these changes and their impacts.
She referred to the case of the expulsion of Stalin’s body from Lenin’s mausoleum as an example of the shifting of bodies signifying the shifts in politics.
“Bodies are tangible but ambiguous symbols that have surprising emotional value,” explained Verdery. The magnitude of the questions facing post-communist nations made these symbols worth fighting over.
Verdery divided her examples into two categories of corpses: the named and famous dead and unknown and anonymous dead.
Under communism, atheism was the official stance of many Eastern European governments and the state was hostile towards religion. The revival of religion in former communist countries was one of the changes Verdery associates with the politicization of corpses.
The reinternment of Inochentie Micu, a Romanian Bishop and nationalist icon, was part of the famous dead Verdery spoke of. During the 18th century, Micu was a Bishop of the Uniate Church, a fusion of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox faiths created by the Hapsburg imperial government that ruled Romania.
As subjects of the Hapsburg Empire, the Romanians were a disadvantaged minority. Micu used his position to improve the lives of Romanians, becoming a founder of Romanian nationalism. Because of his agitation, Micu was exiled to Rome, where he died in 1768.
The Romanian Communists merged the Uniate Church with the Eastern Orthodox Church. Uniates that refused to convert were imprisoned. Under communism the Orthodox Church was connected with the government and was later compromised by these ties.
The reburial of Micu became a major issue in 1997. That year marked the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Uniate Church. The Uniates finally received permission from the Pope to exhume Micu’s corpse and return it to his homeland.
This set off a major struggle between the Eastern Orthodox and Uniate Churches. Verdery explained that the end of communism had resulted in fierce competition between churches for believers and the resources that came with them. The Orthodox Church wished to improve its standing by escaping the taint of its previously privileged position and re-establish its association with the Romanian national identity.
Micu was an important figure in the history of Romanian nationalism, so the Orthodox Church “wanted a piece of him,” said Verdery. The Micu controversy produced religious riots, marking a shift in world religion, “the global struggle for souls raised the stakes of a local conflict.”
Anonymous bodies found in mass graves also played an important role as political symbols in post-communist Eastern Europe. “Entire brigades of nameless dead served as shock troops in Yugoslavia’s wars,” said Verdery.
The fact that Eastern Europe had been a frontier between major power centers for centuries meant that there were plenty of nameless dead to be used as political props. Throughout the 1990s, mass graves were searched and exhumed. Different parties attempted to adopt the victimhood of the dead and use it as a source of moral authority. The very anonymity of these victims made it easier to politicize them, making their slaughter into crimes against nations rather than crimes against individuals.
Verdery concluded, “The repatriation of most famous dead means the
anonymous dead will still be used for political purposes. It seems unlikely that
these dead bodies will ever rest in peace.”