25 November 2009

'A History of Twentieth-Century Russia, Warts and All'

Yesterday the New York Times covered the publication of a landmark two-volume history of twentieth-century Russia edited by Andrei Zubov. An excerpt from the article:
“This is one of the most important books [...] from Russia in the past 20 years,” said Andrzej Nowak, a historian from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In an e-mail message, he praised “the exemplary way” it treated sensitive topics like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; the wartime agreement between Hitler and Stalin; the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939; and the mass murder of Polish officers at Katyn. [...]

“Society is not satisfied,” [RIA Novosti columnist Aleksandr] Arkhangelsky said at the [book] presentation. “It is looking for an answer to the question: Who were we? [...] This means that very serious times await us, because in Russia historical mass consciousness becomes acute on the eve of major changes.”

23 November 2009

President Medvedev on the Issue of Historical Memory

by Josephine von Zitzewitz

On 30 October, Russia commemorated the victims of political repression. The “Day of the Political Prisoner” was instituted by dissidents in 1974 and became an official “feast” day in 1991. This year, President Dmitrii Medvedev delivered a speech on his video blog, in which he expressed concern about the state of historical memory in contemporary Russia:

“Два года назад социологи провели опрос. Почти девяносто процентов наших граждан, молодых граждан в возрасте от 18 до 24 лет не смогли даже назвать фамилии известных людей, которые пострадали или погибли в те годы от репрессий. И это, конечно, не может не тревожить. <…> важно не допустить под видом восстановления исторической справедливости оправдания тех, кто уничтожал свой народ <…> Никто, кроме нас самих, не сохранит историческую память и не передаст ее новым поколениям.” (The full text can be found here.)

This emphasis on the personal responsibility of the Russian people in coming to terms with the negative aspects of the country’s past and present is in tune with another recent statement about shortcomings in the areas of economics and civil society, among other things. Medvedev’s appeal provides a refreshing contrast to government rhetoric presenting Stalin’s victims as the “collateral damage” of the creation of a mighty empire. Yet the speech has attracted little attention, both in Russia and in the West.

It is of course impossible to predict whether deeds will follow these words, such as the establishment of a museum of political repression, as demanded by the “Memorial” society – apparently a lively and positive correspondence with various government agencies is now under way – or a more liberal climate for historical research. But perhaps the President is testing the waters, and surely in this case the community of commentators and scholars out to encourage the tentative new course?

02 November 2009

CRASSH Launches East European Memory Studies Research Group

Two exciting presentations recently launched the new research seminar series in East European Memory Studies at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Andrzej Nowak (Jagiellonian University, Krakow) surveyed two central trends of Polish memory connected to empire. The first trend involved the memory of ‘Polish empire' -- the Jagiellonian dynasty of late Middle Ages, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Second Polish Republic of Joseph Pilsudski, the 2003 Polish occupational zone in Iraq (with its capital in... Babylon) -- while the second involved the memory of 'Poland under empire.' Mark Bassin (University of Birmingham) explored the significance of the Battle of Kulikovo for Russian nationalism in the early 1980s, offering fresh insights into the work of Lev Gumilev and Olzhas Suleimenov.