Commemoration of the past is always political, but why? Is it because we lack due knowledge of history, or because our knowledge is distorted by relations of power? These questions were vividly discussed at the autumn school on “Identity and Memory Discourses in Eastern Europe” co-organized by the Free University of Berlin, the University of Helsinki and the Tartu University.
The debate was focused on the fragmentation of historical narratives. On the one hand, as Eva-Clarita Pettai (University of Tartu) made clear, for the EU the memory of the Holocaust was a key shaper of its contemporary identity, and a key factor that defined the policies of EU countries in violent conflicts like Kosovo.
Yet on the other hand, memory politics remains very much state-oriented, and nation-based hierarchy of victims is inscribed in the European identity narratives. For example, Estonian schoolbooks don’t cover the Spanish civil war to the same extent as the history of sufferings of their own people, and vice versa. This may render political effects: by stressing their status as victims, East European and Baltic official narratives wish the West to recognize that it left many small countries in the hands of Stalin.
Apart from the proliferation of national histories, it appears that a common European memory about the Second World War is fragmented by the very structure of the European discourse itself. This fragmentation is visible from the vantage point of Giorgio Agamben’s question: who speaks on behalf of the victims of terror and repressions? Who organizes discourses centered on people who are already dead and left only some testimonies of these times? It is not only the state who does this, but also different social and ethnic groups, from gay communities to the Roma activists all across Europe.
The plurality of European voices often leads to debates. For example, can the Nazi regime and the USSR under Stalin’s rule be equated to each other? Many in Europe think that drawing such parallels between seemingly similar regimes might deprive the experience of the Holocaust of its uniqueness and therefore dissolve identities based on commemorating the Holocaust victims. Unfortunately, in Russia these voices remain unnoticed, which weakens the force of the Kremlin’s resistance to any attempts of comparing Stalinism and fascism.
Russia, of course, has its own version of national history. Yet what the official narrative of the Great Patriotic War proves is Russia’s isolation from other post-Soviet and post-socialist states which are reluctant to share the constituent premises of Russia’s self-portrayal as the savior of Europe. This type of discourse can hardly be used to strengthen a common post-Soviet identity as a key factor to shape the reunification projects designed by the Kremlin.
Of course, Russian memory discourse is far from unitary, and its fragmentation is due to the proliferation of alternative historical narratives that challenge the hegemonic storyline of the Russian history as necessarily victorious and triumphalist. Interestingly, such new interpretations of history are more visible in Russian cinema than in political discourse.
As Markku Kangaspuro (University of Helsinki) assumed, one of the issues that requires further professional debates is the continuity between the Czarist Empire and the USSR. The very concept of succession (to the Soviet Union or the Romanov Empire) is still open for debate. What is equally interesting is Russia’s dominating perception of the demise of the Soviet Union not as a chance to come back to Russia’s authenticity, but as a deprivation, and even as a loss of “basic elements of national identity”. What we see here is an interesting interplay of claims for Russia’s political self-sufficiency and inherent feelings of deficiency of – and ruptures within – Russian identity.
Seeing from this viewpoint, one may ask how authentic are Russia’s claims for sharing European identity? Obviously, for the ruling elite this is a pragmatic – rather than normative – choice, which certainly explains the growing doubts about Russia’s European identity in the West.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.