14 September 2011

Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe Conference Report by Simon Lewis

The “Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe” conference, which took place at King’s College, Cambridge on July 4th and 5th, gathered scholars from institutions in eight different countries, and was divided into seven panels. The last panel was followed by a round-table discussion involving all of the speakers and guests.

The first session, entitled “Burying the Undead”, was started by Andrzej Nowak (Krakow). In his talk, Murder in the Graveyard: Memorial Clashes over the Victims of the Soviet-Polish Wars, he raised the problem of the politicisation of the dead. The dead can have their identities taken away from them, and they can have new identities assigned to them; they can be shared or contested, forgotten or remembered, but rarely are they actually considered by state memory policies. Nowak illustrated his point with particular reference to Polish-Russian memory contests at Katyn and Ossów (where the Soviet victims of the 1920-21 Russo-Polish war are commemorated). The memory of the state reflects the political priorities of today. Julie Fedor (Cambridge) continued this theme in a talk entitled Katyn as Theatre of Memory. Focusing on the the Russian components of the Katyn state memorial and re-telling its history, Fedor discussed the contestation of memory at Katyn between Polish and Russian interests and the problems that arise in trying to find a way to commemorate and mourn the victims of Soviet state terror, in addition to the Polish dead. Seen from the Russian perspective, Katyn provides numerous problems for the architects who designed the memorial, for the state which presides over it, and for society as a whole. The third paper of this panel was given by Natan Sznaider (Tel-Aviv) and entitled Between Cosmopolitan and Ethnic: Europe's Jewish Memory. Drawing on the history of the Nuremberg trials and major UN conventions, as well as thinkers such as Raphael Lemkin and Hannah Arendt, Sznaider argued that universalist concepts such as collective guilt, genocide, and crimes against humanity were the product of a particular Jewish experience and of the Jewish response to the Holocaust. European cosmopolitan memory in post-war Europe arose from a specifically Jewish memory of the horrors of genocide.

The three speakers of the second panel spoke around the theme of “Technologies of Memory”. Simon Franklin (Cambridge), in his talk Technologies of Memory: The Early Centuries, discussed three aspects of early East Slavic history in order to highlight significant transformations in the ways memories were kept: the conversion to Christianity, the introduction of graveyard incriptions, and the technology of printing. Returning to the present day, Uilleam Blacker (Cambridge) introduced his research on urban memory, in a paper entitled Haunted Cities: The Urban Memory of Vanished Others. In many cities in Eastern Europe, such as Wrocław (Breslau), Gdansk (Danzig) and Lviv (Lwów), the shifting of state borders in 1945 means that the pre-war past belongs to a different country and different national culture. In such cities, the creation of a new, national memory is problematic, and various processes of selection are at work in remembering the vanished Others. Urban memory was followed by digital memory, in a talk entitled How New Media Influence the East European Memory Wars, or How Eastern Europe's Memory Wars Affect New Media Studies by Ellen Rutten (Bergen). The study of digital memory, Rutten argued, is tainted by a Western geopolitical bias: so far it has focused on “the Web”, with an implicit assumption that online culture is the same everywhere. However, a consideration of Russian and Eastern Europe shows that digital memory requires altered concepts. In post-Soviet conditions, where official commemorations often remain dogmatic in their representations of history, the web is an indispensable collective testimony to public thinking on the traumas of the past.

The afternoon session began with a panel on “Europe’s Divided Memory”; this was also the title of Aleida Assmann’s (Konstanz) talk. While the memory of the Nazi genocide has been transformed into a trans-generational and transnational memory - a kind of 'foundation myth' for the European Union - the memory of Stalin's terror has had a much more fragmented history. On the one hand, it has fuelled the nationalist narratives of victimhood of post-Soviet states, and on the other, it has disappeared from Russian political memory altogether. These obstacles still prevent the transformation of the GULAG experience into a European memory. Jay Winter (Yale) returned the discussion to the relationship between Human Rights and European Remembrance, asking whether memory has pacifist consequences. The memory boom in post-war Europe, which was inextricably tied to the discourse of human rights, was part of a judicial change in the status of war itself. War has come to be seen increasingly as a pathology, as antithetical to democracy and a threat to all. An example of the changing memory of war is the Imperial War Museum in London, which after a recent renovation no longer presents a history of war as a form of imperial glory, but inscribes the horrors of the Holocaust as part of the narrative of 20th-century military conflict. Harriet Murav (Urbana-Champaign) focused on the problem of memory in visual culture, in her talk Making Disaster (In)Visible: World War II as Catastrophe and Triumph. For Murav, visual representations of war can either elide the problems of transmitting past trauma, presenting a picture of the past which looks towards the future; or they can problematise that transmission. Russian and Soviet propaganda posters and commemorative advertising provided examples of the former, while a painting by the Latvian-born artist Vija Celmins illustrated the latter – the painting “TV” (1964) presents an epistemological challenge, depicting World War planes colliding in an unplugged television set. The displacement affected by such a work is both political and aesthetic, and questions the very assumptions of memory as a mode of knowledge.

The last session of the first day brought in “Postcolonial Perspectives” and featured two speakers. A paper by Simon Lewis (Cambridge) was entitled Memory in a Post-Soviet Dictatorship: Belarus and discussed the relationship between memory and colonialism. Belarus is an inherently post-war country, conditioned by catastrophes which were wrought from without in a short period before 1945. The mid-century traumas of Stalinist terror and Nazi genocide have been mourned and worked through only partially – only the victims of the latter have gained official recognition, both by the Soviet authorities up to 1991 and then by the Lukashenka regime after 1994. Decolonisation must involve working through traumatic pasts and returning the memory of the unmourned dead. The final paper of the day, Is There a Theory of Memory in Postcolonial Studies? by Dirk Uffelmann (Passau), discussed the uses or misuses of postcolonial ideas in Polish intellectual discourse, as well as the resistance to postcolonialism. Drawing on a range of Polish theorists, he discussed the extent to which Polish memory of the ‘kresy’ (former Eastern provinces) can be considered postcolonial, and the complications this paradigm involves for Poland's status as colonised and coloniser.

The second day of the conference was started by Jan Assmann (Konstanz), whose paper title, Memory, Identity and Violence, gave the fifth panel its overall theme. Assmann’s discussion flowed from the Revolt of the Maccabees to Carl Schmitt, showing the intimate relationship that identity has to both memory and violence. The Maccabeean revolt was the origin of a new type of violence in the name of God, and the selective remembering of that event carried out a vital function for Jewish identity. Schmitt’s notion of Erstfall (emergency) was cited with regard to the relationship between communitarian identity and violence: Schmitt saw the political as a divisive principle based on the state of emergency, and the distinction between friend and foe as the founding element of a community. In a global world with an increasingly shared memory, the relationship between violence and identity is changing significantly. Harald Wydra (Cambridge) then gave a talk entitled Generations of Memory, arguing that the study of memory should be sensitive to generational change. Successive generations challenge the beliefs and practices of their predecessors: long-standing myths are debunked by younger generations brought up in objectively different social conditions. Examples include the Jedwabne massacre in Poland, which has undergone re-interpretation in recent years, or the politics of memory in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. Memory studies as a discipline should therefore take account of the social and political conditions of the formative years of the groups active in changing memory. This entails putting history back into memory in order to study the intergenerational fabric of memory. Nancy Condee (Pittsburgh) analysed the use of cemeteries and landscapes in contemporary Russian cinema, in her paper, City-Cemetery, or the New Enchantments of Russian Landscape. Condee focused on the shared memory of the cinema industry itself, treating cinema as a socium of filmmakers and industry professionals. Memory, in this context, is disorganised and not necessarily institutionalised, being a mode of communication within a closed community. The speaker argued that the cemetery in recent Russian films is a setting for exploring the passage of time, whereas depictions of landscape explore the passage of space.

The sixth panel featured three talks around the theme of “Russifying the Soviet Legacy”. In his paper Nostalgic Modernisation: Politics of History in Contemporary Russia, Ilya Kalinin (St Petersburg) described the uses of the past by the authorities in contemporary Russia. Official discourse cleanses the ideological meaning from the Soviet symbols it uses, a trope the speaker described as 'Soviet-free Soviet' (in analogy with caffeine-free coffee). Symbols become part of a national memory paradigm, rather than anything related to political or historical reality. This process makes all of the past in a sense ancient, and thus safe, accessible and recyclable. Andriy Portnov (Kyiv) offered a comparative analysis of three post-Soviet states, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, in his paper entitled Nationalising Memory in Post-Soviet Space. In each instance, nationalisation – the consolidation of a national language and a distinctly national culture – is problematic, and is reflected differently in state practices and in intellectual discourse. Working through the past in the nationalist mode should become a constitutive element of post-Soviet culture, but each of these countries faces significant difficulties in doing so. The paper Whither Russian Memory Studies? A Simple Philippic on a Desultory Field by Mischa Gabowitsch (Berlin) was explicitly polemic, and became a hot point of discussion for the rest of the day. Gabowitsch bemoaned the state of Russian memory studies, making three arguments. First, memory studies is extremely normative: the practitioners of memory research come to their material with pre-conceived notions of what ‘should be remembered’. Second, the study of memory in Russia is yet to emancipate itself from historical research: the boundary between memory and oral history has yet to be drawn. Third, Russian memory studies uses international models and comparisons in ways that are not productive, particularly the comparison with post-Nazi Germany.

After a break for lunch, the final panel of the conference was held under the rubric “The Unsettled Past”. The first paper was given by Alexander Etkind (Cambridge), entitled Writing History after Prison: Three Soviet Cases. Etkind discussed the fates and scholarly output of historians who were sent to the camps, raising the question of how personal experience of the history of the Gulag would later affect historical explanation. Two outstanding cases were those of Dmitrii Likhachev and Mikhail Bakhtin, both of whom wrote historical treatises using the idea of ‘carnival’. Etkind also discussed the work of another Gulag survivor, the graphic artist Boris Sveshnikov, which also depicts a carnivalesque atmosphere of camp life. Polly Jones (SSEES-UCL) then investigated the discourse concerning the Great Terror in the aftermath of Stalin’s death in the 1950s and 1960s, in a talk entitled Truth, Trauma, Teleology: Working through the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s. This period saw an upsurge in written discussion of the events of 1937, for example in victim biographies published in newspapers and in the fiction of writers such Simonov and Trifonov. Surprisingly, rather than reflecting on the Terror as trauma, the materials permitted for publication reflected a return to the Leninist old guard. Trauma was effectively caricatured for purposes of political expediency. The final presentation of the day was Heroes and Traitors: Accounting for a Cold War Emergency on the High Seas, given by Caroline Humphrey (Cambridge). The speaker recounted the story of a Soviet ship, the Tuapse, which defected and moored in Taiwan in 1954. Some of the crew returned to the USSR, but others remained in Taiwan or moved to the West. Humphrey argued that individual recollections were transformed by the public memory cultures of the countries to which the sailors moved. Those who returned to the Soviet Union were influenced by the Soviet idea of ‘rodina’ (motherland), which had welcomed them as heroes on their return. Their accounts were moulded accordingly. Those who remained in exile, on the other hand, were affected by American ideas of freedom, seeing their defection from the Soviet military as the first act of their liberation. These observations show the performative role of memory, and highlight the need to study the Cold War conflict not only in its international perspective but also in terms of local cultures, East and West.

The Round Table which concluded the conference, led by Alexander Etkind, revisited many of the themes that had been discussed over the two days, including: the validity of studying Eastern Europe as a region, and where and how to draw its boundaries; a debate over whether narratives should have primacy as the object of study, or whether more attention to be paid to (generational) ruptures, personal experiences or concrete events; the boundaries of Memory Studies as a discipline, and the possibility of incorporating methods and materials from other fields as diverse as literature, religion and migration studies.

Overall the conference was a great success, and has sown the seeds for future collaboration, publication, and, we hope, will have a formative influence on the future of memory studies in the Eastern European studies. Watch this space for news of future publications based on the conference proceedings.

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