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Russia’s long shadow

In the battle for history,Moscow attempts to checkmate the EU

Written by Sudeep Paul |
August 4, 2009 5:26:39 am

Moscow is paranoid about what the world intends to do with the Soviet past and the Russian present. It cannot afford a European historical consensus negating how it sees itself,the only way it wishes to be seen. The Putin-Medvedev regime sometime back resurrected the ghost of Stalin and rehabilitated the Soviet past. Now,it is institutionalising the construction of a national historical narrative connecting Imperial Russia,the Soviet empire,and the post-Soviet era in a whole — with the emphasis on “continuity” rather than the rupture or “break” that the Soviet collapse meant,something Putin calls the “greatest tragedy of our times”. But the battle for memory is not Russia’s alone to fight.

History is a political tool used to serve the present. So when Dmitry Medvedev recently announced an Orwellian-sounding commission to “counter the falsification of history”,Oxford historian Robert Service aptly called it “absolute poppycock”. Russia’s bludgeoning through history,its identity and memory compounded by geo-political and economic ambitions,however,has to be seen against a project that EU historians have embarked upon.

Forget 40 years of the moon landing,20 of Tiananmen or the first burning of The Satanic Verses in Bradford. 2009 is also 70 years since the outbreak of World War II; 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down and East Europe exited the Soviet orbit. What Europe lost was compensated for in the EU — a re-baptised continent,yet a work in progress as evident in its eastward expansion,gathering in states and cultures some of which should have rightly belonged or once belonged to Old Europe. Milan Kundera is an iconic voice of this desire of the East to be included in the Western narrative. This,however,is also an anachronistically Orientalist idea whereby East Europe demarcates itself from the real East — Asia,or the “barbarians”. Now,Russia refuses to belong to the West; yet it fears not just accountability for Soviet crimes but being re-bracketed with the barbarians,even as the West comes closer to Moscow via former Soviet

satellites and republics.

Europe is witnessing a clash of memories,in a historical culture increasingly commemorative.

Western historians have realised that eastern newcomers don’t accept their post-1945 consensus about the 20th century. With its post-war grand narrative wrecked,Europe is slouching towards another,but would be happy to merely accommodate the current plurality of national memories. But the EU project is the people’s — history debated in the public cultural space and the academy — even if individual state machineries (particularly in East Europe) actively construct new histories. For Soviet apologists Messrs Putin & Medvedev,however,a historical narrative must be handed down to the people and jealously guarded. (And Leszek Kolakowski is dead!)

Russia is the name of the EU’s dilemma. It still defines the politics of memory for the former East Bloc. That’s why Moscow,which speaks of the Great Patriotic War again,saw red when Estonia decided to remove a Soviet WWII memorial from Tallinn in 2007. 1945,in the West European narrative,signifies liberation; but countries that threw off the communist yoke 20 years ago,see the end of WWII as the substitution of one occupation by another. That explains their re-intensified communist head-hunting,and their clamour for memorials to Soviet victims. But their post-1989 political experience is also disparate,their national opinions fractured,with many people rejecting a blanket censure of the past. For instance,the Red Army,while still “liberators” for eastern Ukrainians,are equal “oppressors” for western Ukrainians (of former Polish Ukraine) and the Baltic states as the Wehrmacht. Likewise,Ukrainians debate labelling Stalin’s Collectivisation as genocide against them,while Soviet-hating Victor Yushchenko never really carried eastern Ukraine with him.

The East’s post-Soviet worldview stems from memories West Europe is just beginning to recognise. It’s a competitive commemoration of contesting and overlapping memories of victimhood: I too was there; I too suffered,perhaps more than you. While the Holocaust forms the core of the narrative of victimhood,East Europeans,even as they begin to accept its centrality,also posit their twice victimisation by the Nazis and the Reds. In Holocaust studies itself,an emerging narrative challenges the focus on Auschwitz,where the majority of West European Jews died,since the eastern camps killed East European Jews (more numerous) and Poles. The archaeology of memory reveals layers suppressed underneath layers and overlapping circles of trauma. Moreover,a European history of only the Holocaust and the Gulag overlooks ethnic expulsion and colonialism. How will Turkey and the EU resolve the Armenian question? Shouldn’t the few bricks left of the Berlin Wall be preserved as a Cold War memorial?

Russia knows that the EU’s battle over memory has just begun. Without a pan-European history,it will be difficult to delegitimise the repellent Putin-Medvedev project. But a Grand Narrative today sounds self-defeating. And even if,say by 2015,Europe reaches a consensus,Russia may still not call it the end of history.

sudeep.paul@expressindia.com

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