by Anthony Johnston
December 30, 2008
Historical Controversies in Russia and Eastern Europe Have Given Rise to a New Discipline: Memory Studies
Russia Profile’s most recent central theme examined how questions of historic memory affect not only how peoples see themselves, but their relations with other nations. Nowhere is this truer than in Eastern Europe, where differing memories of even very recent history can make or break a politician’s career and cause diplomatic crises between neighbors. The row between Russia and Estonia over the Bronze Soldier War memorial in Tallinn is just the most prominent of a number of such controversies. A recent conference of experts in Cambridge, UK, sought to examine this issue further.
Memory, in itself, is a thoroughly personal matter; it is a temporal record of our individual remembrance of the past. But memory, as cultivated and shared by a mass of individuals, is something more potent: it can transcend the passage of time and solidly provide the foundations of a nation's culture and identity. Memory, as a prevailing, instructive device in Russian and post-Soviet society, was at the center of scholarly debate at the two-day conference "Cultural Memory in Eastern Europe: Research Methods in East European memory studies" (December 18 & 19) held at King's College, University of Cambridge. The diversity of those attending - historians, literary critics, sociologists and anthropologists from Russia, Europe and the United States, as well as postgraduate students and journalists - very much corresponded to the multihued and at all times complex issue of the session - cultural memory.
As implied by its almost indescribable yet limitless components ('culture' + 'memory'), the term "cultural memory" is evidently connected with the idea of remembering something of cultural importance. Times of war, trauma and social upheaval, for example, are culturally significant; they force us out of our daily routines and compel us to use our newly-found physical, intellectual and moral endurance – for survival (the Holocaust being a standard example of such period). Alexander Etkind, the conference's organizer and a scholar at Cambridge University, sees how the chronology of events in 20th century Eastern Europe - for example, Russia's Great Terror, Poland's Katyn, and Ukraine's Holodomor - provide a necessary basis for discussion and examination of commemoration and collective trauma, and their role in collective identity, in the new field of "East European memory studies." Etkind added that such examination comes alive through the "actual material which memory is made of – monuments, museums, books, legends, films, artifacts, textbooks, etc."
When using materials or objects for signifying memory, as you look at the grand stages in history, nothing is left bereft of political - and thus, perhaps, expedient - circumstances; a means of reshaping and recreating memory by political actors is at work here. The recent attempts of historical revisionism and reconciliation of Stalin and the Stalinist period - through positive accounts in school textbooks (Alexander Filippov’s New History of Russia: 1945-2006: Teachers’ Handbook) and television programs (the Name of Russia), point to the psychological notion of positive disavowal in the face of progress, as well as the image of a stable, patriarchal leader, as highlighted by Kevin Platt of the University of Pennsylvania and Jana Howlett of Cambridge respectively. This recognition of Stalin is supported by a "lack of distinction between victims and perpetrators, [resulting in a] self-inflicted trauma in the collective imaginary," as Platt described. Howlett has underlined the following: in contrast to the "Body Natural" of Stalin - one of inept, oratorical and intellectual skills - the "Body Politic" of Stalin - through the careful editorial work within Soviet mass media - is one of erudition and physical strength. These assessments point to the notion of cultural memory as ‘cultural propaganda’, an almost explicit attempt by state authorities to skim over a leader’s incongruities and dedicate themselves in amplifying a positive yet feigned interpretation – and thus, memory – of a leader within the public domain.
'Cultural propaganda' doesn't stop with Stalin. In the former Soviet satellite states, namely in Poland, Estonia and Ukraine, various ethnicities and political forces have competitively jousted for official ascendancy through the manifestation of monuments representing one cause or another, or their symbolic iconoclasm. Christoph Mick, a historian at Warwick University, described how different political regimes in post-WWII Poland promoted, through statues and monuments, different and often conflicting causes - and therefore, different memories. Mick also highlighted how, for example, the monument to Stepan Bandera, a celebrated nationalist leader of the interwar group Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), would be an affront to the Polish people, whose relatives died at the hands of the OUN at the massacre of thousands of Poles in the region of Volhynia (present-day Ukraine) during World War II. Maria Mälksoo, a researcher at the International Center for Defense Studies in Tallinn, views the controversy surrounding the Bronze Soldier statue, a Soviet World War II memorial in Tallinn's city center, as a moment when "[Estonia] and Russia seek more recognition from Europe of the Europeanness of their [respective] efforts in WWII, while, at the same time, denying the Europeanness of the other." Estonians see the monument as a symbol of Soviet occupation and repression and its removal as a gesture of liberation and espousal of European values, while ethnic Russians see it as a marker of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, their claim to reside in Estonia, and their contribution to the outcome of European history. The discrepancy over memory has also influenced the commemoration of the Holodomor, the 1932-1933 famine which struck Soviet Ukraine and other regions of the Soviet Union. Rory Finnin of Cambridge University argues that the excessive, retrospective perception, a building up of a particular vision of the Holodomor as genocide through diaries, memoirs and historical texts of the event (supported by the Ukrainian diaspora in North America) contrasts the nullifying or "making [the event] invisible," as well as reducing the free speech and scholarly, public discourse surrounding the event, thus putting pressure on reaching a true understanding on Holodomor.
These interpretations of cultural memory as 'propaganda' are indeed politically saturated, embedded in Soviet, Post-Soviet, or Russian state-led ideology – implying that society and its citizens and memories fall under the fulcrum of the "superstructure," as Cambridge historian Chris Ward has attested at the conference. Nevertheless, to what extent does all cultural memory fall under the political gaze?
Looking at the processes of how memory is created and transmitted puts into question the idea of cultural memory as a universal and permanent vehicle of ideology. Harald Wydra, a social scientist at Cambridge, reflected upon the notion of how generations, and their different time periods of "social initiation" (the developmental stage in an individual's life (from age 13 to 25) when he becomes aware of the general political trend characteristic of that time period), each have their own memory of the age; in Wydra's words, "your generation is defined when you enter or are initiated into your political consciousness." And so, your generation is "the inter-individual nature of memories," not necessarily bound by tendencies from other generations. Nevertheless, conventions, particularly ones from family members, and with it, the impossibility of forgetting a traumatic event, are transferred from generation to generation. In this way, a cultural memory can be maintained outside of state surveillance, and into the realm of the private domain. In the case of Poland following World War Two, one interpretation and meaning of the war sympathetic to the Polish nationalist forces (Armia Krajowa) was carried on generationally, in contrast to the meaning of the war received from the Communist government; in other words, you can recreate and reshape a new memory, but the old memory will still be remembered.
Naturally, many cultural artifacts evoke a humanistic sense of nostalgia and pathos, rather than anything intrinsically political. Jukka Gronow, a sociologist from Uppsala University, notes that the prevalence of memory on a sensory level, in the form of nostalgia for consumer products, has not diminished in many areas since the Soviet period, with the popularity of, for example, Soviet cultural icons as Sovetskoye Shampanskoye and singer Alla Pugacheva an established part of Russian cultural life today. Feelings of nostalgia and pathos emerge from Cambridge anthropologist Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov's examination of how members of the public reacted to the 2006 exhibition "Gifts to the Leaders", an exhibition at the Kremlin Museum in Moscow showcasing over 500 gifts specially crafted and given to the Soviet heads of state. Ssorin-Chaikov, who developed the show along with museum curators, collected the guestbook, and reading through the comments left by the exhibit's visitors discovered that the show's artifacts evoked a strong sense of remembrance, a return to childhood, nostalgia and sentiment in the Soviet past, but not one consisting of a sense of deference to leadership. One comment read as follows: "The exhibition aroused nostalgic memories [...]; this has nothing to do with leaders." In a wholly poignant documentary, filmmaker Katya Krausova reinforces that heartrending and humanistic power of empathy and compassion in the ability to remember, as she films photographer Yuri Dojc journeying and meeting Slovak Jews who survived the Holocaust. In seeing Dojc's photographs of these survivors, the viewers are compelled to recall and remember that these people achieved survival through the utmost trauma.
Sometimes, difficult truths can only be uttered through fiction, while the most ineffable ones require the most fictive fiction. Dina Khapaeva, a historian and sociologist from St. Petersburg, described how in contemporary post-Soviet fiction, authors, such as writer Sergei Lukyanenko of the cult fantasy novel and movie Night Watch, wish to encapsulate "the transformation of attitudes, values, customs and social relations" in the post-Soviet space using the most fantastical genre - horror and science-fiction.
With all these discussions, whether it is interpreted as a tool of state authority, or a genuine, heart-felt, personal sentiment, the notion of cultural memory is governed by an apprehension that the heritage of the past can disappear or be forgotten. But its fading can be diminished through appropriate discourse and reconciliation.