Public Lecture
Memory Wars
Tatiana Zhurzhenko introduces us to the legacy of Europe's memory conflicts
Tatiana Zurzhenko has made a name for herself talking about what's been called 'memory wars', although she bristles a bit at the term. It's been a concept in academic conversations for about a decade or so, and people use it to talk about heated debates about the recent past (particularly WWII) that tend to political or cultural consequences. Examples include how people use symbols or the memory of people from the past (Stalin, victory over the Nazi's, various independence movements or former kingdoms/empires) to rile people up or make one's current political interests seem more legit.

But this is something relatively new, at least in its current form. We're obviously talking a lot about the post-Soviet world at Viadrinicum, and when the USSR collapsed there wasn't the same emphasis on memory or the processing of national traumas. People were thinking about political interests, nationalism or re-negotiating national identities according to new priorities. It wasn't until the mid-2000's or so that we saw the rise of (almost literal) battles over who has the right to interpret the past.

She would have us remember, though, that we have to be careful when we talk about the concept. It's a bit of a buzzword now, especially in the post-Ukrainian-Revolution space, and it's too easy to create causal links. Crimea, because memory! The war in Donbas, because memory! So there are a lot of other things to keep in mind.

So. She describes the collapse of the USSR as a moment when memories, especially from the war, were essentially taken out of the freezer. People could start to challenge the official Soviet line and develop their own approaches to the past. While this might have been the time to start squabbling, she found that this wasn't the case as much as today. People were focused on using memory to service the transition: emancipation from the Soviet Union, reclaiming the normal moral order, the victory over totalitarianism, the return to Europe.

There was a broad consensus to keep complicated topics away from politics so as to better facilitate transitions and good neighbourliness. Take better French/German relations, for example, or Polish/German ones. Poland accepted the new Ukrainian borders (though much of the west was Polish before the war) and supported their independence. The Czech gov't apologized for expelling Germans post-war. People were wanting to move on.

There are a couple ideas why memory started flaring up again in the mid-2000's.
The EU and NATO expanded to include former Soviet satellite states. This could both increase tensions while also making the joining nations 'play nice' for a while. But, once accession was complete, they could start returning to old grudges.
The New Guard
New politicians started coming into power, characterized as 'memory warriors.' They didn't go through a number of things the older generation went through, and may be said to characterize the belief that there's one correct version of history and alternatives needs to be isolated and delegitimized.
Distance from the Old Regime
Wanting to distance oneself from the former regime was also a big deal. The older politicians were trying to smooth things over into the post-Soviet system, but they themselves were part of the Communist power structure. Their success was also based on surviving Soviet bureaucracy and such, and was corrupt. They were rejected by new politicians, perhaps with the desire to move forward. The emerging right used this to get into power, opted for a more nationalistic program and public debate was re-shaped.
There could be said to be two main pillars of European collective memory and identity: the Holocaust and the fight against Communism. EU bodies also offered new arenas for eastern actors to find recognition for memories of suffering under Stalin and the Soviet regime – there were new declarations against the evils of Communism, days of remembrance of Stalin's victims. And so on.

The idea of collective suffering also helped create new national identities, and these [exclusively] victim narratives clashed with the Russian narrative. As Russia is the successor state of the USSR, being remembered as the bad guy was a tad unacceptable. From Moscow, these new interpretations of history were seen as attempts to alienate them and push them out from European orbit and dialogue.

But Russia isn't innocent when it comes to the resurrection of memory politics either. Since the early 2000's, with Putin coming into power, there was more of a focus on the ways memory could serve the rebuilding of national identity. Russian imperialism wasn't the most fertile ground for a new myth-making, but the Second World War was. It has to be said, though, that much of the fervour for this was in response to what was seen as the way that the Baltic states and Ukraine were 'rewriting history.' The defeat of fascism was on its way to becoming the core of their geopolitical identity as a great European power.

They were not, as it were, happy about their neighbours' challenge to this.

Add to that the rise of 'colour' revolutions, which were mostly peaceful transitions of power in a number of post-Soviet states – these were seen, in Russia, as Western attempts to undermine the Russian sphere of influence. They were conspiracies against Russia, and since Russia was the victor over the fascists it was an attack on the victory over the Nazis. The fact that certain Ukrainian underground independence fighters collaborated with Hitler only made it more evident (for some) that it was all really a return of WWII.

This was the discourse that rose in 2013/14 with the revolution on the Maidan in Kyiv. One could say that the narrative was weaponized, as it impacted how people reacted in Crimea, Odessa, Donbas and other places. Which leads us back to the very term 'memory war.'
There could be said to be two main pillars of European collective memory and identity: the Holocaust and the fight against Communism.
So, then what? Is memory the primary source of the conflict? Some historians tend to see the role of memory this way, or as a clash of irreconcilable narratives, identities, and memory cultures. Tatiana maintains that these narratives were deliberately weaponized by the Kremlin to delegitimize the state and to sow disorder. That it couldn't have happened without the active cultivating of Putin's administration. Which might very well be true, but I certainly want to look more into it before saying anything about it.

But there are very real collisions of the past and the present – in Donetsk, one of the breakaway cities, captured soldiers from the Ukrainian army were paraded on the Ukrainian national day in a mockery of Stalin's parade of the defeated Germans in 1945. And the culture of political and historical reconstruction/reenactment sometimes seems like it's up for swallowing up the present, with members of high-ranking Donbas folks being big players in those communities. Or popular celebrations in Sevastopol (Crimea) that combine reenactments, rock concerts and patriotic performances

And all this to frame current conflicts, for people, as something like the final battle of WWII. But it also comes with consequences, like how Kyiv is now pretty much rejecting Russian soft power. Some might say there's no memory war between Russia and Ukraine because there's no one left who wants even to listen.

On the European side, the two pillars of memory (the Holocaust & the fight against Communism) are also up in the air. A generation has passed and the era of the Warsaw Pact keeps getting more and more distant. Plus contemporary nationalists are on the offensive, gathering around issues that have nothing to do with communism: migration, identity, national sentiments. Some of these also challenge the Holocaust, or appeal to forces who do. "What we're left with," Tatiana sighs, "are national traumas and competing victimhoods."

Well, she never promised us an optimistic evening's lecture.