On “National images of the past”

The twentieth century left deep and unhealed wounds in the memory of almost all the nations of Eastern and Central Europe, with its revolutions, uprisings, two World Wars, the Nazi occupation of Europe, the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust. Then there was the huge number of local wars and conflicts, most of which had a pronounced national flavour: the Baltic States, Poland, Western Ukraine and the Balkans. We witnessed a string of dictatorships of different ilk, each unceremoniously depriving people of their civic and political liberty, foisting upon them instead a standard system of values binding on all. National independence was in succession gained and lost, and gained again, with this for the most part being seen within the framework of ethnic self-identification. And each time, this or that community felt insulted and humiliated.

This is our shared history. Yet each national group remembers and perceives it own history in its own way. National memory refashions and interprets this shared history in its own way. For this reason, each national group has its own twentieth century.

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Obviously, any “collective image of the past” is a loose and abstract category. Yet this abstraction is embodied in entirely specific things and public political and moral assessments of historical events, in cultural life, in the content of education, in State police and inter-ethnic and international relations.

The bitterness of old mutual grievances can long poison relations between ethnic groups, unless they have leaders like Vaclav Havel who, having become President of Czechoslovakia, found the courage (despite the mood at the time of most of his fellow citizens) to publicly apologize to the Germans expelled after the War from the Sudeten region and their descendants.

Such symbolic gestures are fully capable, if not of putting an end to mutual grievances of different groups, then significantly softening their force. Unfortunately people of the moral calibre of Vaclav Havel seldom become national leaders. We are aware that there is no judge who would be able to hand down an independent and unbiased verdict on the past. In almost every one of the various images of the past generated by national memory, one can see both the wish to justify ones own national group, and a fragment of the historical truth which is most clear specifically for that national group and less noticeable to its neighbours. The difference in historical assessments is a reality which is senseless and dangerous to try to blur. It is not sufficient to simply bear it in mind; we need to try to understand it.

At present disputes on historical issues arise less over the facts themselves, as how these are interpreted. An honest attempt to understand this or that event, phenomenon or process requires in the first instance consideration within a specific historical context. However the very choice of this context often generates assessments which are difficult to reconcile. For example, the forced separation of Vilnius and the area around it from the Lithuanian state in 1920 and its subsequent annexation by Poland, the return of this territory to Lithuania in autumn 1939 looks like an act restoring justice. Yet this looks entirely different if viewed within the context of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact and the accompanying secret protocols, the destruction of Poland under the double blow from the West and the East, and other realities of the first weeks of the Second World War. A similar multitude of assessments is implicit in a whole range of territorial reapportioning, “annexations” and “restorations” of those years.

What is 17 September 1939 for Poles? It is a day marking a national tragedy when the country resisting with its last breath the Nazi aggression was suddenly subjected to an unprovoked invasion from the East. This is historic fact and no references to the injustice of the pre-War borders or to the need to ensure defence for the Soviet Union of its western borders can remove the Stalinist leadership’s burden of responsibility for their complicity in the Nazi aggression against Poland.

However for a significant part of the Ukrainian people this day has an extra meaning, since this day marked the uniting of Ukrainian lands into a single whole, albeit within the USSR.

Do Ukrainians have the right to a different approach from Poles to these events? They do, yet both Poles and Ukrainians are entitled to expect understanding from each other and respect for their different memories. .

How should one view the events of 1944 when the Soviet Army drove the Germans out of Lithuania, Estonia and most of Latvia? As the liberation of the Baltic State from the Nazis? As an important step towards the final Victory over Nazism? Undoubtedly, and this is precisely how the events are perceived in the world. In Russia the perception is especially strong with it forming part of the basis of national self-awareness.

Yet for Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, the military victories of the Soviet Army also meant the return of their countries into the USSR, which in 1940 had deprived them of their national independence. It spelled the restoration of a regime which over 11 months from July 1940 to June 1941 had made its mark through huge numbers of arrests and politically motivated charges, the deportation of tens of thousands to Siberia and Kazakhstan and the extrajudicial executions of prisoners in the first days of the War. And the immediate future, as became finally clear in the autumn of 1944, held forced collectivization, new arrests and new deportations on a mass scale. Do citizens of Russia and the other republics of the USSR have the right to be proud of the Soviet Army’s military successes in 1941? Without any doubt, this right was paid for with the blood of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

Yet while not in any way waiving that legitimate pride, they should know and understand what, as well as liberation from Nazism, these successes also brought the Baltic nations. The latter in their turn, while remembering their tragic history, should remember and understand what the memory of the great struggle of the nations against Nazism meant for Russia and for all humanity.

“Museums of the Soviet Occupation have recently opened in Georgia and Ukraine. This has aroused bemusement and irritation in most Russian citizens since in the mass consciousness there is no memory of the forced inclusion of these countries into the Soviet Union. In Russia only specialist historians know about the existence of a Georgian Democratic Republic from 1918 to 1921 and about the attempts from 1918 to 1920 to create an independent Ukrainian National Republic, as well as about the role of the Red Army in their liquidation. Yet in the countries themselves the memory of their independent existence as states in the twentieth century albeit for a short period has never fully been erased. It is entirely natural that the will is now emerging there to rethink the events of 1920 and 1921.

One can disagree with some conclusions which are made in the process. You can argue with those historians and lawyers who derive present Ukrainian or Georgian statehood from the events of 1918. You can emphatically argue with those inclined to view all the history of these countries from the end of the Civil War to 1991 as a period of “occupation”. However society in Russia, the country which many are used to regarding as responsible for everything that the Soviet regime did, should be aware of the discussions about the past developing in their neighbouring countries and treat such discussions with respect and understanding, and not respond merely with newspaper satire and cartoons.

At the same time one would like Ukrainian and Georgian society to acknowledge that the fact that in Russia there is no automatic consensus with the hard-hitting epithets sometimes applied in Georgia or Ukraine to some key episodes in our joint history does not necessarily demonstrate “Great Russian chauvinism” and “enduring stereotypes of imperialist consciousness.”

This applies to assessments of the armed partisan resistance to the communist regime during the post-War years in Western Ukraine, in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. The memory of the resistance movements, as a rule, is complex and dramatic and cannot fail to generate a multitude of very different judgments, including the most radical. Some are inclined to unquestioning glorification of “the freedom fighters”, for others it’s desperately difficult to part with the usual ideas about “bandits”. And you can find arguments without difficulty for any point of view. Those arguing are not able to convince one another even where the dispute takes place within one country. When the heated debate becomes merged with national and state ambitions and political passions, one can probably not hope to achieve balanced and mutually acceptable judgments. However we can and must move from arguments and mutual insults to a civilized exchange of opinions.

The list of examples when the memory of one people comes into conflict with the memory of another could be continued. There is absolutely nothing bad in these contradictions, on the contrary, if we treat them with proper understanding they only enrich the historical consciousness of each group and make our impression of the past more comprehensive.

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In the area of history which Memorial is involved with, the history of the Soviet State terror, this difference in assessments and understanding has proved no less painful than in other fields. The tragedies of the past not recognized or understood, or seen in a hypocritical and superficial manner, become the basis for new historical and political myths, influence national mentalities, distort them and bring countries and national groups into conflict.

In almost all countries of the former socialist bloc the forms of historical and political reflection flourishing are those which represent “their” suffering purely as the result of ill will from “others”. Dictatorship and terror are presented in the first instance as aimed against the nation, and those who carry them out as “foreigners” or foreign puppets. The fact that the communist regimes in those countries were for many years propped up not only by Soviet bayonets, but by certain internal resources is gradually erased from the national memory.

At the same time the historical and legal assessments of what is taking place are sharpened to the limit. For example, standard fare in the political lexicon of a whole number of post-communist countries is the word “genocide”. We recognize that extreme assessments of this kind often have some historical truth. Yet we assume that partial truth is always dangerous, in the first instance for those who are prepared to accept it as historical truth in its entirety. The cultivation of an image of one’s own people as “victims”, and elevation of the level of human losses to the rank of national dignity are linked with the removing of responsibility and the personification of the image of “executioner” in a neighbour. This is the natural result of the reflex-level need people have to remove from themselves the overly burdensome weight of civic responsibility for the past. However waiving any responsibility and placing it all upon ones neighbour is not only a poor foundation e for mutual understanding between nations, but is also bad for ones own national revival.

For Russia, the history of the collapse Soviet Union cannot be separated from its own history – this is the self-awareness of most of its citizens. Partly for that reason, and partly because Russia declared itself the successor to the USSR, for a number of neighbouring nations, it becomes a convenient object on which to lay historical liability, to quite unequivocally identify today’s Russia with Stalin’s USSR and point to it as a source of its national tragedies.

Russia on its part has found a particular means of easing the burden placed by history on the national groups which went through totalitarianism. Instead of honest attempts to come to an understanding of twentieth century history in its tragic entirety, instead of a serious nationwide discussion about its Soviet past, the Soviet State patriotic myth with small changes is reviving. This myth views Russian history as a string of glorious and heroic achievements. In this myth there is largely no room for blame or responsibility or acknowledgement of the very fact of the tragedy. What kind of civic responsibility can you have for heroism and self-sacrifice? As a result many Russian citizens are simply incapable of understanding not simply the level of historical responsibility of the Soviet Union before the neighbours of modern Russia, but even the scale of the catastrophe for Russia itself. The rejection of memory, its replacement by a tacky picture of an empire where “from Moldovan to Finn, in all languages each is silent, for they thrive” poses for Russia no less public danger than the cultivation of national grievances for its neighbours.

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We would repeat again that in themselves national differences in the interpretation of important historical events are natural and inevitable. We must simply understand clearly how to relate to these differences.

We should obviously not reject our own understand of history to fit “political correctness”, but must also not foist our own truth upon our neighbours.

It is senseless to ignore “another” memory, pretending that it doesn’t exist at al, senseless to deny its justification, declaring all the facts and interpretations it’s based on totally false.

One must not turn the suffering and misfortune of ones own people into a kind of moral primacy over other peoples supposedly (or in actual fact) not having suffered so much, and use this suffering as political capital, converting it into lists of grievances to present to neighbouring countries and peoples.

One must not under any circumstances try to exploit the discrepancies in the “national images of the past” and to turn the specific features of national memory into a reason for inter-ethnic enmity and inter-governmental conflicts.

With any historical perception at present it is unproductive and dangerous to divide nations into “victims” and “executioners” and to assess the past in categories of “historical blame” of some with regard to others. It is not even merely that contemporary legal thinking rejections the concept of collective, let alone inherited, blame for a crime. We are not touching upon issues connected with legal liability of states before their own or foreign nationals. We are convinced that in order to seriously come to an understanding of the past and to seek a way out of the dead end of historical contradictions, the main thing is to not seek those guilty, but civic responsibility which all voluntarily takes upon themselves, feeling themselves to be members of a historically formed community for the actions committed in the name of that community. If a people are united not only by everyday civic and political existence, but by a shared passed and the hopes for a shared future, then the concept of civic responsibility naturally extends to national history. It is specifically civic responsibility for ones own history, and not the great achievements and major catastrophes as such which make a group in the fullest sense a nation – a society of fellow citizens.

This responsibility is not work which can be done once and for all. Each nation must return to its past again and again. It must again and again, with each new generation, understand and reassess this past, not turning away from its bitter and terrible pages. It must develop its own reading of history – and clearly understand with this that others have the right to their own, different reading. Moreover, each nation must aspire to see and understand the images of the past which their neighbours experienced, and understand that historical reality which is behind these images. Not accept, but understand, not replace ones own truth in history with another truth but to supplement and enrich ones own view of the past.

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Unfortunately, history before our very eyes is becoming an instrument to achieve immediate political gain, a club in the hands of people who essentially have no interest in the national memory of other nations, nor in the tragedies experienced by their own people, or in the past in general. The events which were played out recently around the memorial to Soviet soldiers in Tallinn clearly demonstrated the lack of civic responsibility among politicians both in Estonia and in Russia. The story with the monument is a clear illustration of the possible consequences of differences in national images of the past, if the dispute about history assumes the form of a “conflict of memories”.

There will clearly always be people wanting to stir up this conflict for political dividends – at the expense of their own people, at the expense of other nations and at the expense of all normal people. One cannot remove responsibility in society for such a course of events, since conflict becomes possible where there is a lack of good-willed and interested dialogue.

What can society use to oppose old-fashioned prejudice, mutual intolerance, self-interest and the limited horizons of politicians?

We believe that the only way of overcoming the increasing divide between nations is free, unbiased and civilized exchange of opinions on all issues of our common history eliciting disagreements. The purpose of this exchange of opinions is not to fully eradicate differences, but merely to better learn and try to understand each other’s point of view. If we reach a shared view of some painful issue linked with our past, that’s wonderful. If we don’t, no problem, each of us will remain with our own understanding, but we will learn to also see and understand the images of the past in the consciousness of our neighbours. The only conditions for dialogue must be the participants’ shared willingness to respect the other’s point of view, however “incorrect” it may seem at first glance, genuine interest in this point of view and the sincere desire to understand it.

For this dialogue, we need to create the corresponding mechanism, a discussion platform of its kind.

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Memorial calls on all interested in a substantive and good-willed discussion on the issues linked with our common past to take part in creating such a platform — an International historical forum. We view such a forum as a free association of civic organizations, research centres, cultural and educational institutions etc, within which there will be an ongoing exchange of views regarding historical events of conflict in the twentieth century connected with our region.

Clearly, the forum cannot be closed for individual researchers, publicists and other interested individuals. And of course we would hope that both the “dominant” and “dissident” historical viewpoints within any given society would be represented, with the exception of those interpretations based on overt people-hating, fascist or racist value systems.

The state of national memory in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe is interesting and important in the first instance for the peoples of this region, however not only for them. So-called “old Europe” is today turning into a new Europe. Almost all the countries of the region have joined or hope to join common European structures. Together with them, our historical issues, traumas and complexes enter European culture and the shared European memory. The experience of post-communist countries (including not only “geographical” Europe, but also Kazakhstan and the countries of the Caucuses and Central Asia) present a challenge for all Europeans. This needs to be worked on and understood. Our envisaged dialogue is merely a part of a common European, and in the final analysis, a common human dialogue about the past. Furthermore, learning and coming to understand the twentieth century experienced by many peoples in Western Europe, Latin America and other regions of the world, we have encountered issues similar to those which we face now, and it would be very important to know how these issues were and are being resolved. We therefore hope that the topics and participants in the forum will not be strictly restricted to our region alone.

The specific forms of organization of the dialogue are a special Internet site, a series of “face to face” bilateral and multilateral thematic conferences attended not only by professional historians (who already carry out an exchange of views within the academic community), but lawyers, sociologists, journalists, activists from civic organizations and others. We propose that all who support our idea and are ready to participate in achieving it, work together on preparing it. This applies also to various products of the Forum’s activist including joint periodicals and joint preparation of textbook materials through which the youth in each of our countries can become familiar with the “national image of the past” common among neighbouring countries and peoples.

The historical forum which we are proposing will undoubtedly promote the development of mutual understanding between its participants – individuals and organizations representing different countries and different traditions of interpreting the past. However we hope that it will also become one of the ways towards mutual understand between our countries and peoples.

We must do this in order that our common tragic memories bring nations closer rather than dividing them. We have the chance to achieve this if we agree to work on understanding our past together and not in isolation.

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