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Category: History and Memory

Why Russians still regret the Soviet collapse

In 2019, a Levada Centre poll revealed that 66 per cent of Russians regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union while just a quarter did not. This represented an increase of 11 per cent in ten years. In the same time, Russia’s economy shrank by 23.2 per cent. The most stated, and consistent, reason for regret was the “destruction of a unified economic system”.

On December 25th 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted defeat live on Russian television. The red flag came down from the Kremlin after more than 70 years. Thirty years later, Muscovites found themselves voting in a referendum on whether to restore Felix Dzerzhinsky’s statue to Lubyanka Square (headquarters of the FSB, formerly the KGB). Its toppling symbolised the rejection of Soviet socialism and a repudiation of the October 1917 revolution, which few initially believed in. Yet since 1991, a clear majority of Russians have consistently regretted the USSR’s collapse.

April 25, 2022 - James C. Pearce

Raphael Lemkin: the ambassador of our conscience

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to massive killings and casualties among civilian population. War crimes committed during the conflict remind us of the menace of genocide, especially while the invaders put the “denazification” motto on their banners. When dealing with such a divisive topic, it is important to remember the legacy left by the man who first coined the term “genocide”.

He was the first to call genocide by its proper name. He was the one who dedicated his life to one mission and enhanced international law via his “own” convention. Like many selfless humanists, this man accomplished his goal at the expense of his private life, welfare and premature death. He was unsuccessfully nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize ten times. He was not heard, when needed. He was accepted, only when the world had no choice. He was forgotten, once the world had no more use of him. That was the fate of Raphael Lemkin.

April 25, 2022 - Grzegorz Szymborski

Between nationalist propaganda and recognition of minority victims: the Russian interpretation of the Second World War

A conversation with Sergey Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Center in Moscow. Interviewer: Kristina Smolijaninovaitė

KRISTINA SMOLIJANINOVAITĖ: The Sakharov Center as we know deals with the history of Soviet totalitarianism as part of its mission to promote freedom, democracy and human rights. It once held the exhibition “Different Wars” by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, which concerned conflicting memories of the Second World War across different parts of Europe. That war often serves as a focal point for collective memory on fascism or imperialism and is therefore a key reference point for defining national and regional identities. It also helps to remind people of the ideals of peace and respect for human lives. So how relevant is the remembrance of the Second World War in your country today? One underlying question also concerns the choice of narrative, with the specific ideals of the Great Patriotic War contrasting with the more general Second World War.

SERGEY LUKASHEVSKY: I do not think that there is generally any real remembrance of the Second World War, but rather of the Great Patriotic War. Basically, one can describe it in just four sentences: 1) The Great Patriotic War was fought by the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany; 2) this conflict was the bloodiest and most destructive episode of the Second World War; 3) the Soviet Union triumphed over Nazi Germany, in a war that left millions of people dead, wounded or crippled, with major destruction in all parts of the Soviet Union where the war took place; and 4) due to this, remembrance is considered relevant nationwide.

February 15, 2022 - Kristina Smolijaninovaitė Sergey Lukashevsky

Novgorod, violence and Russian political culture

The themes of violence, plots and suspicion are integral parts of Russian political culture. Although it is not easy to trace the origins of these issues, they appear to partly stem from the times of Ivan the Terrible. His oprichnina and the sack of Novgorod marked the beginning of instutionalised oppression on an unprecedented scale.

Every autumn, the city of Veliky Novgorod hosts the Valdai Discussion Club. Introduced 17 years ago, these talks have focused on the country’s present and future and provide an arguably open and democratic environment for expert dialogue. Meanwhile, Russia’s political system has been evolving into an autocracy where basic civic freedoms are greatly limited and state violence is on the rise. Poisoning of those proclaimed foes and defectors, long prison sentences for peaceful protesters, and intimidation have become everyday realities for those who oppose the current state of affairs in the country.

December 2, 2021 - Miłosz Jeromin Cordes

Blindspots in Second World War history

Historical memory related to the Second World War is too complex for there to be a single version recognised around the world. This is because historical “truth” is by no means a simple matter of black and white. Addressing various blindspots and imbalances in understandings of the past may subsequently help tackle difficult historical legacies at political, legal and civil society levels.

The Second World War, with its unprecedented death toll, is the most painful and widespread armed conflict present in the collective memories of nations in the modern era. It was in fact many wars in one, with different front lines, enemies and consequences that can still be felt today. In an attempt to bridge the gap between different perspectives across the continents, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and its history programme “Confronting Memories” held the third discussion in its series on the Second World War in May 2021. This is part of various ongoing socio-political debates on postwar memory-making. This series of discussions aims to broaden understandings of the war’s history beyond the mainstream narratives and to draw lessons from human suffering and injustice that are often overlooked.

December 1, 2021 - Kristina Smolijaninovaitė

1968 in Prague and Bratislava

The Prague Spring was originally the name of a musical festival that took part in the town every spring. In 1968, it became the description of a political hope. Yet, there was strong resistance against attempted reforms to give socialism a human face.

“1968” happened not only on the streets of the cities in the United States, in Paris and Berlin (West), but also in Prague and Bratislava. Soviet tanks and people on the street protesting against it determine the collective memory of this year. However, the eastern “1968” was more than that. There was a reform movement and a lot of hope. The changes started with the party congress of the Czechoslovak communists at the end of 1962. The Czechoslovak reforms did not begin in the streets as a protest movement against the rulers, but started at a meeting of the ruling party at which the communists criticised their own policies. The central keyword is political rehabilitation.

September 12, 2021 - Dieter Segert

Contemporary witnesses of change

Despite individual points of light from the 1968 Prague Spring, when Michal Reiman was a companion of Alexander Dubček, the path to democracy and freedom was not a straight one, but paved with control and arrests by the Soviet regime. Nevertheless, the contemporary witnesses were important carriers of the cycles of change.

With the coup of the Bolsheviks in October 1917, the communist party seized power in the Russian Empire for the first time. The revolutionary spark of the party in power in the Soviet Union did not, as Lenin and later Stalin intended, spread across Europe to shape societies. Instead, contacts to Moscow via Berlin to Vladivostok were continued as an instrument ranging from equality to state terror. The so-called great terror in 1937/38 was marked by excesses of socialist violence.

September 12, 2021 - Iris Kempe

Three weeks before the occupation. An interpreter’s memories

As a result of reforms taking place in 1968 Czechoslovakia, the Soviet leadership initiated a special conference to meet with Czechoslovak officials which took place from the end of July until the beginning of August in Čierna nad Tisou, a small remote town on the Soviet-Czechoslovak border (with the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). I participated as an interpreter and share, for the first time in print, my memories of this important time.

On July 28th, 1968, when I was working at the department of international relations of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, I was called and told that we should report to work with a bag packed and enough supplies for a few days. I was not permitted to discuss this with anyone, as it concerned a simultaneous interpretation at an international conference. When we arrived, nothing was explained, except that we would be travelling to Čierna. The participants were brought to the airfield where everything was ready for the government plane to take off. The entire Czechoslovakian delegation flew to the city of Košiše.

September 12, 2021 - Tamara Reiman

Shifting empires. The Treaty of Nystad turns 300

Three hundred years on, the Treaty of Nystad, which ended the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, still has a strong legacy today. The new reality, which formed after the signing of the treaty on September 10th 1721, saw Moscow emerge as a significant actor in Europe.

Russia’s road to power and significance in the world was long and ambiguous. Moscow’s imperial aspirations were sparked by the start of the Great Northern War in 1700 and were confirmed exactly 300 years ago. The famous battle of Poltava on June 28th 1709 paved that way. Yet, in spite of its military significance, it was the diplomatic and legal solutions that announced the rise of a new player, taking Sweden’s place, at the table of European powers. But it took 12 more years before Moscow broke the will of Stockholm entirely.

September 12, 2021 - Grzegorz Szymborski

The Holocaust in Romania turns 80, with antisemitism back in political vogue

Eighty years after the dawn of the Romanian Holocaust, a new force on the far right has emerged that closely mirrors the fascist organisation that wrought havoc on Bucharest’s Jewish community in 1941. This political party, the AUR, denies any connection to the past, but with national education on Romania’s role in the Holocaust historically limited, connecting the dots is not always a simple feat.

On January 21st this year, Jewish Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern performed a monologue online in which she attempted to portray the fear and anxiety felt by the Jewish community in Romania 80 years ago. The occasion marked a dark chapter in the country’s history: the anniversary of Romania’s first pogrom during the Second World War, constituting three days of sudden and brutal violence, as it ushered in its participation in the extermination of Europe’s Jews. In her performances, broadcast over one week, Morgenstern and the State Jewish Theatre shed light on the morbid events that took place during that bleak period in Romania, a country that has historically struggled to come to terms with its role in the Holocaust and the murder of around 400,000 Romanian Jews. The commemorations, however, came just weeks after Romania’s parliamentary elections, which saw the ultra-nationalist Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) party take nearly ten per cent of the overall vote, winning 47 seats in parliament. It was a meteoric rise that stunned many observers, and alarmed several more.

June 23, 2021 - David M. Shoup

Ultranationalist utopias and the realities of reconciliation (part two)

Constantin Iordachi and Ferenc Laczó discuss the aftermath of the Second World War and Romanian–Hungarian relations.

March 4, 2021 - Constantin Iordachi Ferenc Laczó

Ultranationalist utopias and the realities of reconciliation (part one)

Constantin Iordachi and Ferenc Laczó discuss fascism and the Second World War in Romania.

February 25, 2021 - Constantin Iordachi Ferenc Laczó

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