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  Путь : Главная / / Jutta Scherrer: Russia's new-old places of memory 

Jutta Scherrer: Russia's new-old places of memory

Jutta Scherrer: Russia's new-old places of memory 03 октября 2015 автор: Шеррер Ютта

The varied fortunes in Western societies of "history and memory”, that pair of concepts, are also leaving their trace in Russia. One seeks in vain, however, for any reappraisal of Russia's recent past on the agenda in Russian history policy today.

The moral dimension of what is understood as "political correctness” in Western democracies is unknown to public discourse in Russia. "Politically correct” in Russia is what serves the interests of the state.[1] The state-directed commemoration culture is based exclusively on the search for a past which can be exploited and put to good use. The creation of new places of commemoration, or the re-dedication of old ones, is undertaken almost exclusively with a view to the construction of a post-Soviet identity for the Russian nation. How far this concept goes beyond the core ethnic Russian population to include the numerous other peoples who inhabit the territory of the Russian Federation is a question which is seldom addressed, or which alternatively is whitewashed over with a vague metaphor about "the Russian idea”.

In terms of the process of finding a post-Soviet identity, it is significant that no battles are being fought in Russian society about its historical memory, of the kind which are being fought in France over the memory of colonialism, slavery and immigration or in Germany over the memory of expulsion and flight. In Russia, everything is quietly taking its course. Decisions made "on high” about public commemoration are accepted calmly, and from time to time they are just as calmly ignored. The continuity of a policy on history laid down by the state or the Party continues to have its effect. Civil society plays hardly any role in the construction of a commemoration culture, or with the value judgements which go with that, apart from exceptions such as the courageous activities of the human rights organisation, Memorial.

The "day of national unity” (den' narodnovo edinstva) decreed last year, which is supposed to take over from the commemoration of the October Revolution (no longer considered appropriate for our times) is a striking example of the political use of history for the purposes of national cohesion. What was behind the choice of a new national day? What was at stake?

"Day of national unity”

As will be recalled, the historical publications of the perestroika period had already relegated the October Revolution to the level of a coup d'état. However, the national holiday on 7th November was retained, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Although in 1997 Boris Yeltsin changed the celebration of the "Great Socialist October Revolution” to "A Day of Concord and Reconciliation”, this meant very little to the average Russian who embodies the so-called "collective memory”. The monument to the victims of the revolution, which Yeltsin promised for the new-old holiday, has not so far been put up. By contrast, the memorial to the embalmed leader of the revolution and the founder of the Soviet state in the mausoleum on Red Square remains open, in spite of occasional protests from public opinion and the church.

In 2001, Vladimir Putin reintroduced the old Soviet national anthem which Yeltsin had replaced with a tune from Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar”. Putin also gave back to the army its red Soviet banner with the Soviet star, which Yeltsin had removed.[2] At the time some critics thought they could equate Putin's Russia with Soviet Russia. But after a long trawl through Russia's eventful history, an episode was found in which the church calendar came to the aid of the Putin, the Orthodox Christian, and which was used to put a final end to the celebration of the October Revolution. In order not to upset too greatly habits which had been inculcated into the population over a period of seventy years, a date was deliberately chosen which lay just a few days ahead of "the red day” in the calendar.

On 4th November 2005, the Russian people were called upon for the first time to commemorate something which, in the opinion of the State Duma, had occurred on that day in 1612: a people's army from Nizhni Novgorod, under the command of a citizen, Kuzma Minin, and a prince, Dmitri Pozharsky, had liberated the Kremlin in Moscow from Polish occupation. The Duma opined that this was the end of the political "time of troubles” (smuta), the term which even at the time people used to describe the decades-long dynastic, social and national crisis. The first Romanov ascended the throne in 1613, and with him came new ideas about the power of the Russian state, as Putin's court historian, Andrei Sakharov, recalled in Literaturnaya Gazeta.[3] Putin himself declared in a speech on Red Square near the monument to Minin and Pozharsky which "a grateful Russia” had already erected to them in 1818, "The Kremlin was the political and spiritual centre of Russia. The Polish occupiers threatened the existence of the whole Russian state. The liberation was made possible by the coming together of the people whose representatives belonged to different religious confessions, nationalities and social classes. This is especially symbolic and importance for our multiethnic state. So long as we feel this internal unity, Russia will remain invincible.”[4]

The analogy with the demand for a strong centralised Russian state and a unified people, which Putin has repeated constantly since the beginning of his rule, is obvious. The new value laid on the "rebirth of Russia” on the basis of national unity and "directed democracy” is supposed to put an end to the "troubles” of the 1990s. The fact that the date of 4th November is by no means historically proven, and that the "troubles” of the 17th century did not end in a single day or even in a single year, does not need to bother the politician Putin. More serious, however, is the fact that the Russian people seem largely unconvinced by the new-old national day. According to opinion polls, less than eight per cent of the population can remember the historic date conjured up by Putin, which incidentally cannot be found in any of the history books. Less than one per cent of the population took part in the nationwide celebrations.[5] It was by no means only Communists who felt a certain nostalgia for the old centrepiece of the Soviet identity and history policy. According to opinion polls, 7th November is still "the most important day in Russian history” for one third of the population.[6] Above all, though, the habit of enjoying two days holiday for the revolution is a more potent force than all of Putin's raison d'état.

This is one of the main reasons why the day of the revolution refuses to lie down and be completely forgotten. Now it has equal status to other official days of celebration such as 1st May, Women's Day, the Day of the Defence of the Homeland which was taken over from the Soviet era, and to the new commemorations introduced by post-Soviet Russia which include Church holidays. From this year, on 20th December, the Soviet "Day of the Employees of the Security Services” will be reintroduced.

"Victory Day”

The most important day of commemoration which has been survived since the Soviet era, and which occupies the most important place also in the post-Soviet commemoration culture, is Victory Day, (den' pobedy) 9th May. It recalls furthermore that the victory over National Socialism made the Soviet Union into a world power, on a par with the United States and it therefore enjoys, now as before, the support of all strata of Russian society. Emotionally and morally, the commemoration of victory in the Second World War nourishes pride in a glorious past which reaches into a present felt to be less glorious. The state organisation of the commemoration of the war emphasises, with old and new strength, the invincible Russian state whose continuity Putin seeks to consolidate. Just as the Russian Federation assumed the legacy of the Soviet Union, so she has put herself in the place of the former Soviet Union as a victorious power.

With regard to the war as the "central” experience of collective commemoration, there is still a wide gap between public and private memory.[7] In families, the memory of the victims of war is still alive even if there are fewer and fewer direct witnesses of the events themselves. Young couples continue to visit the tomb of the unknown soldier on their wedding day. Groups of young people seek out the remains of fallen soldiers on battlefields in their summer holidays in order to give them a decent burial. As in the Soviet times, the majority of schoolbooks deal extensively with the battles of the Great Patriotic War which, in keeping with Soviet tradition, dates from the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22nd June 1941 to 9th May 1945 (news of the capitulation of the German army on 8th May came only in the early hours of the following day, Moscow time). Huge amounts of popular literature in bookshops and depictions of the Red Army in the media recall the victory, seldom the massive losses, and they therefore serve to maintain the image of the Soviet Union as a super-power.

The fact that young historians are beginning to question this myth, and to raise issues which were once taboo (for example, collaboration in the Ukraine and Byelorussia; the deportation of non-Russian ethnic groups like the Volga Germans, the Crimean Tartars, Chechens and the Ingush; or the behaviour of the Red Army towards the German civilian population) has so far had no influence on the official way in which this period of Russian history is dealt with. The official discourse is oriented entirely towards the depiction of Russia as a great power for the purposes of Realpolitik. That is why Putin asked, at a meeting with historians in 2001, for the contribution of victorious Russia, especially of her generals, to be more greatly emphasised.[8]

The cult of commemorating the victorious war is proof that the Soviet past, in spite of Stalin's reign of terror, is not considered to be a burden and therefore does not need to be "come to terms with” in the way German history does.[9] It is emotionally and morally a sort of cover for pride in a glorious past – the only positive thing which has remained from the Soviet Union, as people often say in a critical but nostalgic way. In spite of the shocking revelations during perestroika about Stalinist repression, the memory of it has quickly faded. Today Stalin is again for many Russians one of the most important figures in the country's history and one of the greatest world politicians. The authoritarianism and dictatorship of the "strong man at the top” are seen as the necessary means for Russia's transformation at the time. When in January 2005 people were asked about the intention to erect a memorial to Stalin for the 60th anniversary of the victory, 29 per cent responded that they were in favour, 37 per cent that they were against and 28 per cent that they did not mind.

Russian-Soviet mixed identity

After the Enlightenment phase of perestroika, a patchwork of different national myths was pressed-ganged into service which went right through Russian, and to a lesser extent Soviet, history. Isabelle de Keghel is right to speak of a "a Russian-Soviet mixed identity” which post-Soviet Russia is constructing for itself.[10] This is not the place to list the numerous examples of how history is dealt with, from the commemoration of medieval battles to the evocation of the positive aspects of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky (the founder of the Cheka). It needs only to be mentioned that there is also a religious dimension to the search for usable places of commemoration, whence the constant demands for a Christian Orthodox grave for Lenin's "body of crime”. Although the Church has not managed to get its way on this, it did achieve the burial of Anton Denikin in the cemetery of the Donskoy Monastery which belongs to the Patriarchate. The transfer of the remains of the general in the White Russian army who died in exile in America in 1947, and who was considered a traitor in the Soviet Union, took place, in the words of the patriarch, Alexei II, as a "symbol of the unification of our people which has been divided by the tragic history of our century.” To the sound of the Soviet anthem and wrapped in the new-old Russian flag with the Tsarist emblem of the double-headed eagle, Denikin's coffin was finally lowered into the earth of his home country with the Church's blessing.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian-Orthodox Church has become a major factor in Russia's national and cultural "identity policy”. As the only institution which has its roots in pre-revolutionary Russia, it is connected in the "memory” of many Russians with the image of an "unblemished past”. Christmas and Easter have become public holidays again. The head of state and the nomenklatura attend the church services on these feast days, which are broadcast on state television throughout the country. Even other religious feast days like Whitsun and the Assumption, or the commemoration of national heroes like St. Sergius of Radonezh and St. Serafim of Sarov are respected again and, thanks to the media, made known to a wider public.

The constitution provides for the separation of church and state (Article 14) but the historical role of Orthodoxy as the state church in pre-revolutionary times is omnipresent. It is especially remembered by the church hierarchy. For some senior clerics, Orthodox and Russian are once again identical terms, as was the case under the Tsars. The "spiritual and religious rebirth of Russia” on the basis of Orthodoxy, encouraged by both Yeltsin and Putin, is supported by all political camps – communists, nationalists and Western liberals. The Church counts as the bearer of the tradition of a strong state and it is supposed to provide the missing link between state and society. The rebuilding of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, which Stalin blew up, was undertaken together by Yeltsin and Alexei II as "a symbol of the greatness of Russian power”. The Orthodox Church, or rather Orthodoxy, still stands, then, for the Russian "originality” (samobytnost') when it is a matter of rejecting Western influence as damaging and of protecting Russia's "own values” from those of "the other”, i.e. the West. Not least was the Church co-responsible for the choice of 4th November as the "day of national unity”, because in the Church calendar since 4th November 1649 the date of the liberation of Russia from "Catholic Poland” has been the day of the miracle-working icon, the Mother of God of Kazan, in commemoration of the men from Kazan who brought their own icons with them for the liberation of Moscow.[11]

The "Russian Idea”

At a time when there is a boom in commemoration culture and history politics, Russia's search for identity provides exemplary and fascinating material for examination. The way that history is treated in Russia has nothing in common with the way that memory is cultivated in the West. It is presumably not supposed to, since it is simply a matter of reconstructing that self-image of the country as a great power which took such a severe knock with the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the purposes of this myth of memory, every image of history and every portrayal of the past which calls on national feeling, patriotism and imperial ideas is useful. The "Russian idea” (russkaya idea) is mobilised for the national consciousness, for Russia's special path (samobytnost') and for the vocation of the Russian people, which is equally valid for all, according to Putin, whether they are Tartars, Bashkirs or Chechens: "No state can be great without its own idea.”[12]

In a certain sense, the "Russian idea” has taken the place of the old "Communist idea”.[13] That is why the Russian historian, Andrei Zorin, bitterly and cynically regrets the abolition of 7th November: according to him, the living memory of a historic event, "the main cause of all the misfortune which my country suffered in the last hundred years, including in the present restoration by stealth,” has been replaced by an illusion.[14]

The memory of the democratic awakening of perestroika, which began twenty years ago, seems to have gone with the wind. When its spiritual author, Alexander Yakovlev, died last year, the media spoke of him as a historic figure but said nothing about his achievements for glasnost. Neither Putin nor Mikhail Gorbachev attended his state funeral.

Given a political constellation which so far has not articulated any distance from the practices of Communist rule, and which allows Putin still to see the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”[15], the work of the private organisation, Memorial, is all the more remarkable. Thanks to its employees, who are independent of the state, there are now numerous volumes of documents about the system of terror and the Gulag; thousands upon thousands of victims of repression have been listed (recently made available on CD-ROM); and human rights centres have been opened. It is only to be hoped that the existence of Memorial will not be threatened by the new laws on the state control of NGOs. That would be a fatal encroachment onto the most significant attempt so far to reappraise the Soviet past and thus to create a true culture of memory.

Translated from German by Dr. John Laughland

[1] In a case brought against the Chairman of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a Russian court ruled in February 2006 that his use of the term "Chechen people” was not "politically correct”. The judge ruled that, "Stalin's deportation of the Chechens in 1944 was in accordance with the policy which at that time was being pursued in the interests of the state.” Quoted by Marie Jégo, Un journaliste qui avait publié les leaders tchétchènes condamné in Le Monde, 5th – 6th February 2006, p.5

[2] Cf. Jutta Scherrer, Zurück zu Gott und Vaterland in Die Zeit, No. 31, 26 July 2001, p.31.

[3] Andrei Nikolaievich Sakharov, Kogda ukhodit smutnoe vremya in Literaturnaya Gazeta No 45-46, 2nd – 8th November 2005.

[4] www.regnum.ru/news, 4th November 2005; www.russland.ru, 4th November 2005.

[5] The participants included a few thousand young ultra-nationalists, who demonstrated for "Russia for the Russians” and against "Azeri Mafiosi”, "Tadjik drug smugglers” and "American vermin”.

[6] Izvestiya, 3 January 2005.

[7] History competitions organised by the human rights organisation Memorial with the support of the Körber Foundation, which encouraged schoolchildren to ask their family members about their experiences during the war, show the true extent of the tragedy and are therefore far removed from the official glorification of the war and patriotism. Cf Irina Sherbakova, ed., Russlands Gedächtnis. Jugendliche entdecken vergessene Lebensgeschichten, Hamburg 2003.

[8] Irritated by the number of school history books which have become available in the last decade, Putin called later for a single unitary history book to be valid for the whole country. According to his point of view, the job of a history book is to console society and not to represent different opinions. See Jutta Scherrer, Geschichte? Aber bitte nur eine! in Die Zeit, No. 19, 4 May 2005, p.46.

[9] Cf. Andreas Langenohl, Patrioten, Verräter, genetisches Gedächtnis. Der Große Vaterländische Krieg in der politischen Deutungskultur Russlands in Sprünge, Brücke, Brücken. Debatten zur politischen Kultur in Russland aus der Perspektive der Geschichtswissenschaft, Kultursoziologie und Politikwissenschaft, eds. Marina Ritter & Barbara Wattendorf, Berlin, 2002, p.121. Langenohl expresses the view that the capacity for integration attributed to the commemoration of the world war has been put into question since 1995 in the light of expressions of dissident opinion.

[10] Isabelle de Keghel, Die Staatssymbolik des neune Russland im Wandel. Vom antisowjetischen Impetus zur russländisch-sowjetischen Mischidentität, Bremen, 2004.

[11] See Vladislav Nazarov, Kto budet' prazdnovat' v Rossii 4 Noyabrya 2005 goda? in Otechestvennye zapiski, 2004, 5, p.85-96.

[12] Quoted by Jakov Fruchtmann, Putins Versuch einer Rekonstruktion Russlands in Kultur als Bestimmungsfaktor, ed. Hans-Hermann Höhmann, Kultur als Bestimmungsfaktor, Bremen 2001, p.120.

[13] Jutta Scherrer, Ideologie, Identität und Erinnerung, Eine neue russische Idee für Russland? In Osteuropa No. 8 (2004), p.27-41.

[14] Andrei Zorin, A New Holiday for Old Reasons in Russia Profile, No. 1(2005), p.11.

[15] Poslanie Prezidenta Federal'nomou Sobraniyu Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 25 April 2005, www.rg.ru/2005/04/25/poslanie-text.html

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