There is one notorious paradox deeply entrenched in the ardent debates about Russia’s May 9th celebration marking the 70th anniversary of World War II. While Russia is eager to use the victory narrative of the Great Patriotic War for justifying its “natural” belongingness to Europe, the opposite effect is being achieved: the Kremlin line is actually alienating Russia from the West, and the EU in particular.
The key element of the growing disconnection is not the malicious attempt of ill-wishing Russophobes to falsify history. The problem is much deeper, and it contains two interrelated facets.
First, Russia’s hegemonic discourse, enmeshed in the total glorification of Russian history, cannot accept that there might be other ways of commemorating the past – ways different from massive military parades and heavy, ceremonial mourning. It goes without saying that the Russian state is absolutely against leaving this delicate sphere up to citizens themselves to decide what is appropriate and or not.
The general movement from Russian officialdom is “discipline and punish.” A group of young Russian dancers were recently arrested for a twerking dance performance in front of the World War II Memorial in Novorossiysk. Their actions were deemed “illegal.” There was a similar incident when a school dance group in Orenburg twerked in a show that had some colors of the St. George ribbon, one of the most popular symbols of Russia’s military glory. And in Tatarstan, prosecutors opened an investigation into “Dzalil,” an opera where the head of the local Communists spotted “direct parallels between Communism and fascism.”
We see the creeping colonization of Russian political debate by theological discourse, with growing similarities between the two. It all started with the campaign to protect the “religious feelings of believers,” leading to episodes such as the imprisonment of Pussy Riot to the dismissal of a theatre director in Novosibirsk for staging “Tangeizer,” which had scenes that “insulted” some church-goers.
The question is whether Russian society can afford feelings other than official pomp and mourning as elements of memory politics. The answer is a severe “no.”
There was Russia’s fierce reaction to a recent Holocaust exhibition at the Tartu Art Museum (Estonia), which had some “ironic” items that Moscow interpreted as a mockery of the victims of fascism. Russia accused the Estonian and Polish exhibit organizers of sacrilege using the same, rigid, semantic framework consistent with Russia’s contemporary memory discourse.
What this narrative categorically refuses to accept is that traumas can not only be bemoaned, but also overcome through emancipatory performances.
Take, for example, some of the “controversial” photos at the Tartu exhibit by Polish artist Zbigniew Libera. There is a depiction of a liberation from an extremely tragic experience through the gesture of life-asserting smiles. There are scenes of dance performances by an elderly Holocaust survivor in front of concentration camps, with the symbolism being the victory of life over death, as projected by the artist's own idiom.
Perhaps, a country whose intellectual traditions include the thoughts of renowned philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who said a lot about the stabilizing functions of “laughs” in society, could be more open to alternative means of memory and celebrating.
The second interrelated facet is that Russia seems unable to understand that for the “rehabilitation of fascism,” in particular in the Baltic states, a very different type of public attitude is required, one that could be dubbed the temporal othering of history. In other words, Russia wants to take history into its future, while Europe wishes to leave history in the past without making a morally-impossible choice, such as between two former dictatorships: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Two movies that came out recently in Estonia, “1944” and “The Fencer,” are narrative stories about war (and scars of war) that are exactly about attempts to conceptualize the distance that separates people from old traumas involving submission to a foreign power. Both Estonian films tell a story drastically different from Russia’s crafted take on history. The movies bewail the tragic splits that occurred within society, yet they refuse to judge from today’s perspective their old compatriots who, due to multiple and often contingent circumstances, fought not only against foreign occupiers, but also against each other.
It would be beneficial for Russia to at least try to understand this type of history-telling, to accept the legitimacy of other ways of remembering the past, to go beyond a simple, self-glorifying discourse – otherwise the boundary between exaltation and hysteria becomes even more blurred.