East European Memory Studies: An Emerging Sub-Discipline

20 January 2011, 14:30 - 16:30

CRASSH

Conveners

Dr Alexandr Etkind (Slavonic Studies, King's)
Dr Harald Wydra (POLIS, St Catharine's)

A series of seminars on Thursdays in term at 2.30pm from Thursday 20 January 2011. The teaching seminar is intended for PhD students who have registered beforehand.  For further information, please contact the convenors. 

Summary

Memory studies have become a major topic of interest in the humanities and social sciences but their empirical focus has been largely, if not exclusively, on ‘western’ societies. This course has a double objective. First, the seminars will map how historical and psychological vectors of memory have shaped cultures, societies, and politics in post-communist Eastern Europe. Second, they will develop a conceptually innovative methodological focus with a view to defining a theoretical blueprint of this emerging sub-discipline. This pilot course is open to graduate students and academics across the humanities and social sciences, in particular to students enrolled in Mphil courses across PPSIS and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages (European Literature and Culture; Russian Studies; Screen and Media Studies).

This collaborative seminar provides a pool of interdisciplinary expertise from which graduate students in the two faculties and beyond will greatly benefit. Drawing on a number of scholarly traditions and concepts developed mainly in historical, philosophical, and psychological research in France and Germany, this course breaks new ground in the growing area of memory studies. The creation of the field of East European memory studies is as much a task for language-based cultural studies as it is for politics and international relations. East European memory studies have considerable importance for contemporary politics in the region and beyond. Memory has actively shaped public discourse about international security in the area, military alliances, energy contracts, and economic cooperation. Yet the presence of the past has also given rise to ‘memory wars’, increasingly leading states in the region to act against their own economic and political interests. Some core questions guiding the seminars will be: How have practices of commemoration been used to establish narratives of independent nationhood? To what extent do memories ‘make’ societies and ‘legitimate’ states? What is the contribution of memory in Eastern Europe to identity-formation processes in uniting Europe?

Abstract

Eastern Europe is a fertile ground for memory studies for a number of reasons. This is the only region world-wide to have been consecutively ruled by Nazism and Communism. Imperial legacies of territorial dismemberment, belated state-building, and massive forced migration were compounded by the unique material devastation and disastrous psychological consequences of World War II. The destruction of social elites, urban spaces, and ethnic groups caused divided memories of victimhood but also desires for vengeance and retribution. The diversity of national self-images, cultural policies, and international relations across Eastern Europe can be largely explained by different beliefs about historic events involving large-scale human suffering. The public memory of these twentieth-century traumas mediates the variety of ways in which nations develop in the post-socialist space. Unlike Western Europe, where the initial post-World War II repression of memory has been transformed into political recognition of victims and  has contributed to the politics of regret, much of Eastern Europe is in the grip of a ‘presence of the past’.

Whilst societies to the west of the Iron Curtain developed a number of ways to deal with memories of the two World Wars, those to the east of the Iron Curtain also suffered from the Yalta syndrome, ‘the defeat in victory,’ as some called it after 1945. Blessed acts of oblivion, so important for the capacity of human beings to build identity have been here very rare, if not inexistent. But the ability to mourn, equally important for the post-catastrophic condition, has also been compromised by a number of factors that will be thoroughly explored in this seminar. In many countries of Eastern Europe, problems with mourning and forgetting are exacerbated by state-led attempts to remythologise the past. While victims’ memories abound, the memory of perpetrators is silenced in the service of national pride and honour. After the breakdown of communism, post-socialist societies such as Russia have launched new attempts at ‘organised forgetting’ by constructing patriotic master narratives and silencing the complexity of the past. The memories of twentieth-century tragedies travel onto political agendas by mass media, literature, film, the visual arts, and new Internet media. The dynamic interplay between post-traumatic memory, ritual practices, and nationalist politics is tangible in public narratives in today’s Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.

This seminar will be attended by Mphil students at POLIS and from several MPhil programs at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages (European Literature and Culture; Russian Studies; Screen and Media Studies). There are currently a number of Mphil and PhD students in both faculties working on topics related to memory politics in Eastern Europe. The CRASSH-sponsored East European Memory Studies Research Group has promoted the subject since October 2009. The interest in the field will be boosted by a research grant awarded to Dr Etkind in 2010. This major research project, is financed by the European organization, HERA (Humanities European Research Area): Memory at War: Cultural Dynamics in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine and will create a number of research and graduate positions in the field. This seminar will be pivotal for the field of memory studies at Cambridge University.