Memory politics

The Russian-language version of the journal ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ has published a section in which various commentators say 500 words or so about the conflicts over historical memory which have become prominent in recent times (e.g. the spat between the presidents of Russia and Poland about the origins of the Second World War). You can find them all on the journal’s website here, and among them is a piece by my good self. In case you don’t speak Russian and want to read what I have to say, an English version is below. This is what I had to say:

***

History is a political tool. It is through references to the past that we legitimize or delegitimize our political and social systems. It is no surprise, therefore, that different groups compete to control their society’s historical memory. Where competing narratives are incompatible, this competition can be quite bitter in nature, as can be seen, for instance, in the dispute in the American south over Confederate monuments, and by that  in Ukraine over the memory of the Second World War.

The logical way to resolve such issues is through objective historical research (insofar as such a thing is possible). In the 1980s, there were sharp disagreements among historians about the number of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror. In the context of the Cold War, some historians regarded it as important to keep the numbers high in order to delegitimize the Soviet Union, and so resisted attempts to revise the numbers downwards. In the end, however, the dispute was settled in favour of the revisionists. For once the Soviet archives were opened, it became possible to adjudicate the dispute on the grounds of firm evidence.

Unfortunately, the power of history is such that politicians are all too often not content to leave it to the historians. This can be seen, for instance, in legislation passed in various countries declaring certain atrocities to be ‘genocide’ (for instance the Armenian genocide and the Ukrainian Holodomor). The selective nature of such declarations as well as the often disputable nature of the judgements, points to these being essentially political statements, designed to enforce one form of historical memory over another.

Inevitably, the political nature of such acts is evident to those who feel that their own historical memory is being traduced. Politicized historical memory thus often backfires. This is true on the international as well as the national level. As Robert Jervis has pointed out, states often fail to realize that other states perceive things differently. This applies to the field of historical memory as much as any other, as we can see in the recent argument between Poland and the Russian Federation about the Second World War. The Poles’ belief that the Soviets, in liberating them from the Nazis, subjected them to a new form of occupation is perceived in Russia as an attack on the legitimacy of the Russian Federation. But the Russians’ insistence that that the Soviets were liberators, not occupiers, is perceived in Poland as a sign of unwillingness to repent of past sins, and thus also as an indicator of possible future aggressive intent. The more each side insists on its righteousness, the less it convinces the other.

Disputes over historical memory are part and parcel of political competition. It is no surprise, therefore, that the debate about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War should have become so sharp at a time of rising East-West tension. When that tension subsides, the historical disputes will probably become less tense too. In this sense, they are perhaps more a symptom than they are a cause of conflict.

21 thoughts on “Memory politics”

  1. “ But the Russians’ insistence that that the Soviets were liberators, not occupiers, is perceived in Poland as a sign of unwillingness to repent of past sins, and thus also as an indicator of possible future aggressive intent.”

    Faced with this, I generally ask how Poland would have been better off getting totally conquered by Nazi Germany in ‘39, or if they’re upset that Nazi Germany’s organized, systematic, bureaucratized plan for exterminating Slavic untermenschen there got stopped over the course of 1944-45.

    Hilarity often ensues!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “The Poles’ belief that the Soviets, in liberating them from the Nazis, subjected them to a new form of occupation…”

    When one says “the Poles” one should be aware of a simple fact that “a new form of occupation by the Soviets” is a rather recent, post 1989, invention perpetuated by current political elites. The same elites seem to believe that the w.w.II ended in 1989 or about that time which tells a lot about their state of mind.

    Regards,

    Like

    1. Good point, vander, when one says “The Poles” one also needs to take into account the class factor. As in bourgeoisie vs proletariat.
      Believe it or not, there was a segment of the Polish working class that actually supported the Polish Communist Party! And the Russian archives reveal many accounts of Soviet soldiers being welcomed as liberators by ordinary Polish families.

      “The Poles” who regarded the Soviets as worse than the Nazis, and as occupiers, were and are a certain segment of a certain class. They came out on top in 1989, and it may well be that their point of view is the dominant one in today’s Poland. But was not always necessarily the case.
      Just a gentle reminder that no nation or society is monolithic in its ideology or opinions.

      Like

    2. The aforementioned “post-1989 invention”, was evident beforehand in some emigre and other circles.

      On a somewhat related note, the 1990 movie, “Europa, Europa”, based on the life experience of a Jew, has a scene showing Poles leaving the Soviet taken area, with Jews moving the opposite from Nazi control.

      Like

  3. “It is no surprise, therefore, that the debate about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War should have become so sharp at a time of rising East-West tension. When that tension subsides, the historical disputes will probably become less tense too. “

    Two questions, neither of which is rhetorical:

    1) Have you read 2018 National Defense Strategy of the US of A?

    2) If the answer is “yes”, then why, Professor, do you take your intended readership for a bunch of imbeciles?

    Besides, “rising East-West tensions” has less to do with the fact, that the entirety of the Butthurt Belt of Europe ™:


    ^IMO, should include Finland.

    consists of the born-again (ultra)-nationalist capitalist states, for which nurturing past grievancies is a must for maintaining their eternally fragile and insecure view on self and others. It can’t go away just like that, even if StateDept directive commands them to “Make It So”.

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    1. There’ve been some anti-Russian leftist Poles as well as some non-leftist Poles who aren’t anti-Russian. The latter opposed Pilsudski’s kinda, sorta, early day Molotov-Ribbentrop variant:

      https://www.eurasiareview.com/08042016-fuzzy-history-how-poland-saved-the-world-from-russia-analysis/

      I know someone related to one of Pilsudski’s staff who had been an officer in the Russian Army. This latter person along with some other Poles were against that Machiavellian move by Pilsudski.

      Like

    2. I’d include Romania in the Butthurt Belt along with Finland.

      They’ve entirely forgotten who got them their independence from the Ottoman Empire, and treat their occupation of Bessarabia in 1918 as written in stone.

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      1. Meh. Romania is a Balkan country. Every Balkan country has the Greater [insert your name here] nationalist version. Romania Mare! It’s not different from the rest of them; regional quirk, that’s all.

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      2. Borat’s “Kazakhstan” scenes had been filmed in Romania.

        […]

        And that’s all that I can say about “Romanian nationalism” (c).

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      3. Romania traces its name from the Roman Empire; but there is another etymological theory out there. According to which “Romania” actually comes from “Romani” as in “Land of the Gypsies”. It’s a serious theory, not a joke.

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  4. “Butthurt Belt”. Of course some of it is telling their new master what they think he wants to be told. I would love to see somebody do a really good study on what the East Europeans think of the last 30 years. Did their dreams come true or do they feel somewhat swindled? How many would agree with Simonyan: “For fifty years, secretly and openly, we wanted to live like you, but not any longer“?

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    1. During those pivotal years, what were your views of Eastern Europe’s future? Set hindsight aside. I myself am very, very disappointed, almost bitter.

      Like

    2. “Did their dreams come true or do they feel somewhat swindled?”

      From my observations , both. As usual there are winners and losers.

      Regards,

      Like

  5. Hi all:

    Paul, with all due respect (ha, ha, infamous turn of phrase…):
    Not sure whether the “revisionists” (or Social Historians, as they sometimes preferred to call themselves) were indeed proved right in terms of their downward numbers re Bolshevik terror. As my colleague Golfo Alexopoulos has recently argued on good grounds, many of the deaths in the Gulag were not counted (comrades who are not Paul: read her book) as Solzhenitsyn had already suggested. That does not mean necessarily that Anton Antonov-Ovseenko (read The Time of Stalin: body count, of sorts, 100 million!) was correct either, and common clumsiness/bureaucratic goof-ups or spiteful nastiness accounted for some of this—not a totalitarian desire to murder people because of Politburo monsters—certainly informed the death toll, but I suggest that Stalin c.s. managed to kill 1 million or so at least in collectivisation, 5 million in the Ukrainian , southern Russian and Kazak famine at a minimum, 2 million in the purges (outright execution and in camps like Mandelshtam or Radek), another 500,000 w Katyn/Mednoe/Starobel’sk, Baltic executions/deportations, Koreans and so on, several million thanks to Stalin’s lack of willingness to expect the Nazi-led attack or retreat in time even after when that seemed the only sensible thing to do, the 100,000s who died in the ethnic cleansing of the “Punished Peoples” (Nekrich), and many more (especially Ukrainians) after WW II. So I still get to about 10 million at least due to Yosif Vissarionovich bloodlust or lack of humanity, and that is a very modest estimate; is that a revision downward?

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    1. “ several million thanks to Stalin’s lack of willingness to expect the Nazi-led attack or retreat in time even after when that seemed the only sensible thing to do”

      Oh please, spare us all. In 1941, the Red Army fought the Nazis better than anyone else had up to that point of the war.

      And while not expecting the Nazi attack until 1942, Stalin hedged against a ‘41 attack, declaring a ‘special period of military threat’ in April of 41, mobilizing reserves from military districts in the East, & building a strategic reserve on the Dnepr. The Soviet counterattacks using these forces rocked Army Group Center hard in July & August ‘41.

      By comparison, note how the Anglo-French Armies folded up & blew away in six weeks, in a war they themselves declared nine months previous.

      Like

  6. Sorry for off-top, but if anybody out there interested in Slavic Historical and/or Indo-Aryan Linguistics: I just posted a new piece today which includes some etymologies of words for “fear”. I seek to prove that the Russian word boyazn, along with uzhas and ispug, all stem from the same Indo-European root, and are cognate with German Bang and Angst! boyazn in fact a borrowing from Bang (the Big Bang Theory) via Gothic.

    Like

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