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.