31 January 2012

Memory Work and Civil Society

Memory Work and Civil Society, CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 5 December 2011.

In a paper given at Memory at War’s ‘Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe’ conference in July 2011, Jay Winter outlined the important role of memory in bolstering the growing discourse of human rights in post-war Europe. Undoubtedly, in both Western and Eastern Europe, the attention to memory, versus traditionally authority-centred History, was of huge importance in re-evaluating a continent left in ruins by World War II. The cultivation of memory-based human rights discourse has, as Winter pointed out, been carried out to a large degree by activists operating in the sphere of civil society. Such individuals and groups existed in both Western and Eastern Europe, but the challenges they faced were quite different. In the West, the processes of uncovering and preserving the memories of the atrocities of the war, particularly the Holocaust, were central to official discourse and the basis of the creation of unity in Europe. In the Soviet Union and its satellite states, such groups were decidedly anti-official: memory, whether of those repressed by the state, or of alternative versions of the war, was a key element of resistance against communist ideology. With the fall of communism, such groups did not disappear, but came into the open, grew and developed. Today these movements function as influential non-governmental organisations, continuing to preserve memory and, in many cases, cultivate civil society. A number of these groups gathered in Cambridge in December 2011 to exchange experience with one another, with analogous groups from Western Europe, and with academics at the at the workshop ‘Memory Work and Civil Society’, organised by the East European Memory Studies research group, based at Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).

The first speaker of the day was Nikita Petrov, representing the renowned Russian NGO Memorial, one of the most high-profile non-governmental organisations in Russian public life. Dr Petrov has for many years been at the forefront of the struggle to reclaim and preserve the memory of Soviet repressions in Russia and in Eastern Europe. His numerous academic publications and extensive campaigning work in the difficult circumstances of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia distinguish him as one of the most significant memory scholars and activists anywhere in Europe. The Memorial Society itself grew out of a grass-roots civil society campaigns in the 1980s aimed at commemorating the victims of Soviet terror. The movement went from strength to strength, and while today it remains focused on restoring and preserving historical memory, its mission is broader, encompassing human rights activism as well as historical research and education work. Dr Petrov gave a fascinating outline of the contemporary memoryscape in Russia – a context in which Memorial’s work to promote the memory of repressions and uphold human rights is no less relevant, and indeed difficult, than it was in the 1980s. Dr Petrov discussed the importance of the larger mission of promoting a free, democratic society that is central to Memorial’s activities, and discussed the problems that the organisation has encountered at the hands of the current authorities. Other issues raised by Dr Petrov included the importance of attaching individual stories to statistics of victims, the complex and highly politicized issue of NGO funding, and the lack of coherent historical policy of the present government in Russia.

The East European Memory Studies group is keen to facilitate dialogue between scholars and activists from Western and Eastern Europe, and for this reason did not confine the invitees to former socialist states. The second speaker of the day was Lea Misan, director of the London-based NGO Act for Change. Act for Change is one of a number of NGOs based in the UK that specialises in promoting education about the Holocaust. Lea Misan spoke about the important work her organisation does in facilitating dialogue between survivors of the Holocaust and young people form disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK, as well as with survivors of other atrocities, such as the genocide in Rwanda. These cross-generational, cross-cultural dialogues help to preserve and revitalise memory of the Holocaust among young people who otherwise have little knowledge of it, but also to bring that memory into contact with other, fresher memories of similar tragedies – a dialogue which benefits all sides. Act for Change’s activities are not purely orientated towards history education, but aim to empower disadvantaged young people to take a more active role in society, and to make them aware of the principles of human rights and democracy.

The EEMS group was pleased also to welcome Piotr FIlipkowski of the KARTA foundation, based in Warsaw. While official bodies in Poland, most notably the Institute of National Memory, play a large role in research and education on the country’s past, civil society organisations are also highly active. Organisations such as the Federation of Katyn Families have played a highly visible role in Polish public life in recent years. However, while 1989 made the open, public discussion of the past possible, many opposition circles had been active in this area for some years. The emergence of powerful civil society movements in Poland in the 1970s incorporated an acute awareness of the need to preserve a non-official memory of the dramatic events of the war, and the subsequent years of communist oppression. This was precisely the aim of the KARTA foundation, which began life in 1982 as a small scale, underground publication that documented political repressions. KARTA grew steadily throughout the 1980s, and became a legally registered organisation in the 1990s. Today it is a major presence in Polish society, running many high profile campaigns aimed at preserving the memory of Poland’s recent past, as well as promoting democracy and tolerance. Dr Filipkowski outlined the various activities that KARTA engages in, from archival work to publications, the establishment of the ‘History Meeting House’ in Central Warsaw, conferences and exhibitions to educational and media campaigns. He outlined the varied memory topics that KARTA deals with, from the fate of Poles deported to the Soviet Union to the tradition of cycling in Poland, from the history of Russian-Polish and Ukrainian-Polish relations to the fate of Polish Jews.

While memory activism has been an integral part of Poland’s transition from socialism to democracy, in Ukraine it has been even more acutely significant. Ukraine only became an independent nation in 1991, and, unlike Poland and other East-Central European societies, who had had previous experience of state sovereignty, it was only after this date that the country could begin consolidate its national memory free from ideological strictures. The next two guests of the workshop represented different aspects of the memory culture of contemporary Ukraine: Sofia Dyak of the L’viv Centre for the Urban History of Central Europe, and Oleksandr Svyetlov of the Kyiv Vasyl Stus Memorial Society. The organisations represented illustrate two differing reactions to the memory challenges facing Ukraine today.

The Vasyl Stus Memorial Society has its roots in dissident circles of the 1980s, and was officially registered in Ukraine in 1992. It carries out research and education programmes focussing on preserving the memory of Soviet repressions and violence, as well as anti-Soviet resistance movements. Oleskandr Svyetlov, who is an advisor and council member of the organisation, outlined the various ways in which the memories of Ukrainian national suffering and resistance are threatened by what he perceived as anti-Ukrainian policies and statements of the present government. Mr Svyetlov laid out how the Society attempts to redress this discourse with a more nationalist, Ukrainocentric view of the past that focuses on national victimhood, particularly on the Holodomor, the artificial famines of 1932-33. The presentation provoked lively discussion over the place of nationalist politics in memorial activism.

A contrasting approach to Ukraine’s past was evident in the presentation by Sofia Dyak of the L’viv Centre for Urban History. The Centre, which was founded in 2004, takes both local and transnational approaches to the past, focussing in particular on the urban history of L’viv, and of the wider region of East-Central Europe. Its activities encompass academic conferences, education programmes, exhibitions, archive work, the development of online resources and programmes aimed at consolidating civil society activities. Taking urban space as its starting point, rather than national affinity, the centre investigates the multi-ethnic past of its city, particularly its non-Ukrainian – particularly Jewish or Polish – elements. As Dr Dyak pointed out, such an approach can meet with resistance locally. The careful negotiation of various, often conflicting parties interested in the work of the Centre, as well as with various levels of political authority, from local to national, was a particular theme of the talk.

The high-profile memory conflicts that characterise Eastern Europe are far from unique to the region. Similar phenomena can be found throughout Europe and the world, and in order to benefit from this alternative perspective the EEMS group invited two participants specialising in Spanish/Basque memory. Dacia Viejo Rose, a researcher working in Cambridge on the project Culture Heritage and the Reconstruction of Identities after Conflict, gave an overview of Spanish memory discourse, and the important role memory and forgetting have played in how the traumas of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship are perceived today.

Dr Viejo Rose’s talk was complemented by a presentation by Fiachra McDonagh, a researcher and collaborator with the NGO Gernika Gogarotuz (founded in 1987), which works on promoting peace through preserving the memory of the bombing of the city of Gernika (Guernica). Mr McDonagh outline the complexities of working with the numerous groups and conflicting memories that surround the Gernika tragedy, explaining the processes by which such groups can be brought together in order to facilitate dialogue about that past, with the larger aim of promoting peace. The case of Gernika, a location that concentrates divergent memories of various interest groups, providing both a focus of conflict and of dialogue, had many echoes for the case of L’viv in Ukraine.

The workshop was well attended, and provided an excellent forum for dialogue between academics, students, NGO practitioners and members of the public. The dialogue across the various cultural contexts represented – Poland, Russia, Spain, Ukraine, the UK and beyond – also allowed for a wide-ranging and enlightening discussion.

Numerous common themes emerged during the workshop. First was the relationship with politics and political parties. Memory NGOs constantly tread a precarious line between retaining their independence and objectivity, and either pursuing or begin drawn into the pursuit of particular political programmes. Should an NGO present a strong vision of the past, or remain open to divergent memories? Similarly, how far do NGOs have a responsibility to represent the memories of particular groups, and how far should they pursue the stories of individuals? The sheer complexity of the work of memory NGOs also became apparent: these organisations must simultaneously be many things to many people. They must educate, research, archive materials, work with the media, and engage in politics. The spheres in which they operate are also complex, and often fraught with difference: they must deal with local and national communities, political parties and factions, with business, administration and authority on all levels from local to European, as well as with the media and other NGOs.

Perhaps the most important function NGOs fulfil lies in another common theme that emerged: the promotion of tolerance, democracy and human rights. These are aims that are specifically stated in the mission statements of several of the participating organisations. Because of the crucial role, identified by Jay Winter, of memory in the cultivation of respect for human rights, memory NGOs are in a unique position to achieve these aims. In fact, in the countries that form the focus of the EEMS group, these groups have been at the centre of transitions to democracy, and in the continuing propagation of tolerance and the discourse of human rights. Listening to the talk by Nikita Petrov that opened the workshop, one could indeed be forgiven for asking what his and his organisation’s main aim is – to preserve the memory of the past or to fight for a free and fair society in the present. The answer for most of those civil society activists engaged in memory, is, of course, both.


  1. I think that all memory is very strong when it comes to war. Strengthening of tolerance, good intentions and good will-all they need.

  2. In war politics is a great factor in every nation.NGO's plays an important role in people.All nation experience this.