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Category: History and Memory

The best story: The Ukrainian past in Zelenskyy’s words and the eyes of the public

In the current Russian war in Ukraine, history and the historical narratives underpinning the conflict are featuring front and centre. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been very effective in his use of historical references, especially when addressing international audiences.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent fighting in that country have been accompanied by an avalanche of historical rhetoric from both sides, underlining just how important narratives about the past are for this conflict. As Joseph Nye reminds us: “Conventional wisdom has always held that the state with the largest military prevails, but in the information age it may be the state (or non-states) with the best story that wins.”

December 7, 2022 - Félix Krawatzek George Soroka

What the past is for. Polish-Ukrainian memory politics and Putin’s war

Despite contentious differences in memory, Polish-Ukrainian relations have remained close and notably strong in important national moments. This reflects two aspects of Polish society: a generation of youth acclimated to supporting Ukrainian sovereignty with compassion, and a national memory politics which allows humanitarianism, but only when it fits into a politically suitable narrative.

In 2003 the Polish philosopher and historian of ideas Leszek Kołakowski gave a speech at the American Library of Congress titled, “What the Past is For”. Kołakowski believed that history serves not to predict the future nor to gain technical advice on how to deal with the present, but to discover the values constitutive of human identities. He told his listeners that “to say that [the events of the past] do not matter to our lives would be almost as silly as saying that it would not matter to me if I were suddenly to erase from my memory my own past personal life … The history of past generations is our history, and we need to know it in order to be aware of our identity; in the same sense in which my own memory builds my personal identity, makes me a human subject.”

December 7, 2022 - Daniel Edison

Auschwitz-Birkenau. Death at a wave of a finger

As the years pass, the last witnesses to the nightmare of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death factory where more than a million Jews from all over Europe were exterminated, are passing away. What remains is the camp itself, and the objects within it that allow historians and conservationists to learn the stories of individuals. Their stories not only help to understand the tragedy of the victims who were exterminated here, but add a human, personal dimension to these memories.

November 23, 2022 - Bartosz Panek Jarosław Kociszewski

Modern Europe – forged in the Gdańsk Shipyard

In recent years Polish collective memory has become too focused on the military traditions of freedom and independence fighters. This approach overlooks the thinking and achievements of the 1970s and 1980s, which were the result of peaceful social movements. By opting for non-violence, the ten-million-strong Solidarity movement, Solidarność, chose a difficult, but in the end effective, path.

The historic Gdańsk Shipyard is one of the most important memory sites in Europe today. It is a complex that includes Solidarity Square, alongside the Monument of the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970, the historic Gate Number 2, the former BHP Hall (a place where in 1980 the famous August Accords between the communist authorities and the democratic opposition were negotiated) and the European Solidarity Centre (ECS). Upon the ECS’s initiative the shipyard was placed on the European Heritage Label list.

September 29, 2022 - Basil Kerski

The unfin(n)ished story of the Baltic alliance

From the region’s perspective, the 1922 Warsaw Accord between Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Poland was a significant step in strengthening geopolitical interests and safeguarding against Russian aggression. Unfortunately, the agreement ultimately failed. This year’s ratification by Finland’s parliament of its application to join NATO can be seen as a final step in this process that began over 100 years ago.

The most promising and – to a certain degree – surprising declaration made by Finland on its interest in joining the NATO Alliance immediately reminded me of the so-called Warsaw Accord. This treaty was drafted 100 years ago on March 17th 1922 and embodied the initiative of a Baltic alliance between Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Poland. Anti-Soviet in nature, cooperation ultimately failed due to reservations expressed by Helsinki. In the summer of 1922 the Finnish parliament – Eduskunta – decided not to ratify the pact. A century later, on May 17th 2022, 188 out of 200 Finnish MPs voted on accession to NATO. The story has come full circle. A story which deserves to be told.

September 29, 2022 - Grzegorz Szymborski

The Russo-Japanese War. A forgotten lesson?

The Kremlin appeared very confident as it launched its invasion of a comparatively weaker Ukraine in February. In light of this, the Russian authorities appear to have forgotten their country’s defeat at the hands of a relatively untested Japanese military at the start of the 20th century.

Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) was a model nobleman, a gentleman with a decidedly British air about him. His face was well defined and he had a well-cut beard, similar to the ones seen on Royal Navy officers. Should you be shown his photograph among a group of British naval commanders, you would not see much difference. Some people argue this was the result of genetics. Of course, Nicholas II was the grandson of Queen Victoria, who was also grandmother to Wilhelm II of Hohenzollern, the emperor of Germany. In addition to having the same grandmother, Nicholas and Wilhelm also shared the same dream – they both wanted to become admirals of a sea fleet.

July 14, 2022 - Andrzej Zaręba

In search of Baron Kurtz in Bucharest

In the summer of 1990, I found myself sitting on the platform of Wien Sudbahnhof waiting for a train to Bucharest and dreaming of waltzing down the River Danube. In the dream, my partner and I spiralled through rooms that had hosted the secessionist salons of Mitteleuropa. We landed on the couch of Freud’s 20th century, before spilling onto the streets and the opening scenes of The Third Man.

This is where my imagination takes me: Holly Martins has arrived in a burnt-out city. There are traps and ambiguities for a visitor from the New World; there are harsh and shifting choices forced on refugees. The lush romance of the Danube waltz lingers in the background, but my appetite for suspense has me gripped. In Vienna at the end of the 20th century, I searched in vain for the slippery labyrinths containing an enigma in the shape of a moon-faced man. I never found him, so I took the train to Bucharest.

July 14, 2022 - Lilian Pizzichini

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

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