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Genealogies of memory. Myths, memories and economies: Post-socialist transformations in comparison

The 9th edition of the Genealogies of Memory conference entitled “Myths, Memories and Economies: Post-socialist Transformations in Comparison” focused on the transformation from state socialism to market economies and liberal democracy in the former Eastern Bloc.

December 16, 2019 - Joanna Wawrzyniak Veronika Pehe - Events

Veronika Pehe and Joanna Wawrzyniak. Photo: Agnieszka Wanat / ENRS

The conference raised such novel questions as: How is this time remembered today? Who constructs the memory of transformation? What are its founding myths and key narratives? What are its political and cultural modes?  How do memory narratives differ among various social groups and across media? To answer these questions, the conference was organised along different scales of memory, with panels first investigating the global context, then moving toward the national, regional, local and vernacular levels. The conference thereby offered a somewhat different approach to the 30th anniversary of democratic transformations in Eastern Europe, as commemorated this year by so many events that concentrated more on history than memory.

The conference began by exploring the global perspective. Johanna Bockman laid out the paradoxes of commemorating socialism in Washington, DC, a city often considered to be the centre of global capitalism and neoliberalism. Yet, Bockman argued that the city’s landscape includes many traces of socialism in the form of memorials or other memory sites reminding us of socialist traditions linked to the city, particularly pan-Africanism. Bockman’s talk thus laid out traces of the “other Washington Consensus” present there.

Photo: Agnieszka Wanat / ENRS

Following up this global exposé, a roundtable discussion introduced a recent monograph entitled 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe. In a conversation with Joanna Wawrzyniak, James Mark, Bogdan Iacob and Tobias Rupprecht outlined their ambitious undertaking of situating the Eastern European events of 1989 in a global and longue durée context by looking at parallel developments in Africa and Asia. Their findings suggest that the roots of today’s “Fortress Europe” can be found in the course of subsequent transformations of 1989.

Subsequent panels moved down a scale to explore national memories of the transformation. In a section dedicated to key narratives, Florian Peters sketched the state of current memory battles over interpretation of the economic transformation in Poland. Focusing on the Balcerowicz Plan and its current reception by the liberal and conservative political camps, Peters effectively demonstrated a recurring trope of the conference: not only 1989 itself is being contested in collective memory, but perhaps even more so the period that followed. Next, Muriel Blaive outlined a revisionist perspective on the role of key actors in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Only by properly historicising events of the revolution itself, Blaive argued, can we understand what followed. Finally, Wolf-Rüdiger Knoll laid out a broad picture of the role of the Treuhandanstalt in the privatisation of East German industry. This trustee agency, he suggested, garnered an exceptionally unfavourable reputation and is today used to channel negative memories of the transformation in East Germany.

Focus then shifted to how particular groups within Eastern European societies remember economic change. Rigels Halili spoke about the contested memory of socialism in post-1989 Albania and the role it played during the transformation process. A key category in differentiating the memory of particular groups, he suggested, is blame: who is to be held responsible for the negative aspects of change and why. Jill Massino offered the results of extensive oral history interviews with female Romanian workers. They presented a picture of trauma and of crushed hopes and expectations that came with economic change. In their view, the transformation did not deliver the prosperity it promised. Finally, Andrzej Pabisiak, who conducted a wide-ranging quantitative analysis of parliamentary transcripts, raised the question of who has controlled discourse on the transformation in the Polish Sejm in recent decades. His data firmly supported the intuitive conclusion that it has always been the ruling party that determined how the transformation was addressed, although other political actors also played significant roles at times.

Photo: Agnieszka Wanat / ENRS

The panel on memory and agency continued with an exploration of social memory. Veronika Pehe offered thoughts on competing positive memories of entrepreneurship among former university students of 1989 and increasingly negative public assessments of the transformation in the Czech Republic. According to Pehe, the “transformation nostalgia” of this group stems from its advantageous starting position allowing it to seize opportunities offered by the free market. Gazela Pudar Draško delivered a talk on the course of the economic transformation in Serbia and the critical stance of intellectuals toward this period. It emerged that the experiences of war and deindustrialisation were particularly central in the Serbian case. Katarzyna Waniek, like Pehe, presented the results of a research project based on biographical interviews. She offered a case study of how representatives of the generation born in the 1980s in Poland make sense of their own life in neo-liberal capitalism. Their narratives do not necessarily offer simple divisions into “winners” and “losers” of the transformation.

In the conference’s second keynote speech, Thomas Lindenberger spoke about the intertwined memory of transformation and unification in Germany. He observed that some failures of the transformation in East Germany can be seen as contributing factors to the current rise of xenophobia. His remarks were followed by a panel on the cultural memory of the transformation, as represented in cinema, with case studies from Romania (Alex Condrache), Ukraine (Olga Gontarska) and Poland (Saygun Gokariksel). A subsequent discussion raised the important question of periodisation. While many memory discourses studied by the presenters pose 1989 as a clear caesura, this is not so obvious in the post-Soviet case, with a longer period of change usually being remembered.

Reflection on the cultural memory of the transformation was continued during a discussion of one of the most popular Polish films at the time, Dług (The Debt, Dir. Krzysztof Krause, 1999). The movie, which details aspirations of the emerging middle class and predatory practices of the local mafia in the 1990s, was introduced by film scholar Mateusz Werner, who took part in a lively debate after the screening.

Adam Mrozowicki. Photo: Agnieszka Wanat / ENRS

Several presentations were dedicated to the memories of labour, deindustrialisation, privatisation and unemployment during the transformation. Adam Mrozowicki’s keynote address succinctly summarised the results of wide-ranging sociological investigations of the biographical experiences of Polish workers and union members after 1989. This allowed a comparison of the macro-context of economic change with individual life strategies, thereby suggesting that interviewees tended to ‘neutralise’ history in their accounts. In a following presentation, Till Hilmar spoke about narratives of the transformation in Germany and the Czech Republic on the part of engineers and nurses and how their experiences of economic change shaped their moral economy and ideas of ‘deservingness’. This was followed by Joanna Wawrzyniak’s summary of the results of a collaborative research project on the vernacular memory of privatisation among staff at Polish enterprises purchased by foreign corporations. Finally, the section on memory and labour was closed by Mariusz Jastrząb, who introduced his research on representations of corporate histories of Polish enterprises. Altogether, this conference section on the memory of labour sought to introduce complex narratives of rapid deindustrialisation and changes in work regimes concurrent to political transformation processes.  

The conference’s final keynote address was delivered by Martin Schulze-Wessel, whose discussion of universalist and particularist policy legitimations of the transformation in the Czech Republic complemented Polish and German case studies of previous keynote lectures. The last conference panel was dedicated to current uses and echoes of the transformation in material culture and on social media. Sabine Stach spoke about portrayal of the transformation by tour guides offering city tours in Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw by arguing that they engage in a commodification of anti-capitalism. Bartłomiej Krzysztan analysed the presence of memory in artefacts at Georgian flea markets, focusing on complex processes of hybrid identity formation taking place in the post-Soviet Caucasus region. Finally, Mykola Makhortykh presented his findings on references and different uses of the 1990s on Russian Instagram in suggesting that purposes of these appropriations differ according to user cultural capital. On the whole, three fully-packed days reflected on multivalent and often contradictory memories of the 1990s as well as on economic change in Eastern Europe and beyond.  

Veronika Pehe is a cultural historian focusing on contemporary history in Central and Eastern Europe.

Joanna Wawrzyniak is a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Warsaw where she researches memory studies, sociology of labour and contemporary history.

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Genealogies of Memory in Central and Eastern Europe is an international academic project run by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity in cooperation with the Institute of Sociology of the University of Warsaw since 2011. Its aim is to facilitate academic exchange between Central and East European scholars of individual and collective memory, and to promote this region’s study of memory among the broader international academic community through workshops, seminars, and conferences.

European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS) is an international undertaking aimed at the study, documentation and dissemination of knowledge on the history of 20th century Europe and forms of its commemoration with particular consideration to periods of dictatorship, war and social upheaval in the face of oppression. Network members are: Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Albania, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Georgia have observer status. More: www.enrs.eu

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