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Window on Eurasia



Window on Eurasia: Non-Russians Winning 'Memory Wars' while Russians Still Losing Theirs, Bordyugov Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 7 – The non-Russian countries in the post-Soviet space are more or less quickly "liberating themselves from the Soviet and Imperial past," but the Russians have not found a way – or do not want to find one – to do the same thing, according to a leading Moscow specialist on contemporary history.

In yesterday's "Novaya gazeta," Gennady Bordyugov, a member of the RIA Novosti council of experts, sums up the findings of his latest book, "Memory Wars on the Post-Soviet Space" (in Russian, Moscow, 2011) by noting that "history is again playing a mean joke with Russia" in this regard (

Russia's inability or unwillingness to make progress in this regard, he says, helps to explain why many Russians have reacted so angrily to what is taking place in the CIS countries and the Baltics in recent years, a reaction that many observers since 2005 have characterized as "wars" over memory.

Such observers, Bordyugov continues, in recent times have argued that these wars are calming down, pointing to the March 2008 appeal of Memorial for "peaceful dialogue about the common past" and to the decision of most but of course not all post-Soviet states to mark Victory Day, arguably the most important civic holiday in Russia.

But in fact, the historican says, Russia will continue to face "memory wars" for some time to come, perhaps less often in the realm of foreign relations than within the country itself. Deep disagreements over Stalin, the Lenin Mausoleum, the approaching 400th anniversary of the Romanovs, the centenary of World War I, and the revolution all guarantee that.

In each of these cases and in others as well, he points out, the essence of the divide will be over how to say "farewell" to the Soviet and Imperial pasts or face their "re-animation in new forms." And all of those debates will be conditioned by the process of "re-Stalinization or de-Stalinization" now taking place.

The commission formed by the Kremlin to oppose "the falsification of history" will defend Soviet traditional assessments of most historical events, but that commission's approach will be opposed by another Kremlin body, the Council of Human Rights, which has proposed a broad program of de-Stalinization.

Indeed, Bordyugov argues, the methods of these two groups regarding historical memory are remarkably similar. "Representatives of both sides presuppose the continued politicization of history, the suppression of those who think differently, "a unification of approaches to the past," and so on, first in the schools and then more generally.

Another reason for that assumption, Bordyugov suggests, is that "de-Stalinization is a reflection of the new ideological course of Medvedev," a course that ensures that Russians are "on the eve of a new outbreak of 'memory wars,'" this time as so often in the past one "subordinate to the struggle for power."

There is "a way out" of all this, the historian says. It requires an end to the politicization of the Soviet past and to the use of discussions about that past as part of electoral struggles. In fact, there should be "a temporary moratorium on themes that call forth a split in society," as so many of these issues do.

"A wise policy on history could allow for filling the great and tragic Soviet epoch with a human context, in the contexts of which 'memory wars' would become senseless," Bordyugov argues, something that must be approached with care because "the transition from 'soviet' to 'russian' is far from completion.

Another means of reducing the intensity of "memory wars," he says, is "the inclusion of national histories within the broader space of the past." That too will be hard because "our current political and simply human culture to put it mildly is far from perfection" and thus there will always be a temptation to fight about the past.

But while the obstacles to moving beyond "memory wars" are clear, Bordyugov says, their recollection should not become a reason for not trying to overcome them. Moving beyond them is a precondition for achieving "a humane view of the past," a view which unlike many positions now on offer avoids both demonization and panegyrics.