12 August 2015

Memory games

Unspoken history as a tool of reactionary policy in contemporary Russia

The selective retention of any given event is typical of collective memory. The process of collective self-identification is inevitably accompanied by the commemoration of certain figures in the social memory. Holidays and monuments are among the most common ways of symbolically capturing the past. Sociologist Boris Dubin identified two categories of holidays: firstly, a holiday as a ritual aimed at the restoration of the old order and, secondly, a holiday as a vehicle for possible advancement towards the future. It seems that the erection of the monument in honor of Felix Dzerzhinsky is a means of reverting to the past for today’s Russia. Dzerzhinsky, nicknamed ‘Iron Felix’ by his comrades-in-arms, was one of the key ideologists of the October Revolution in Russia and the founder of the Bolshevik secret police which contributed to ‘the Red Terror’ campaign carried out throughout the entire country. Soviet power in general, and security agencies in particular, epitomize order, highly valued by Russians, for a considerable number of people. Russians associate the restoration of order with the model of the imperial past, as there are practically no other political or moral reference points.

The return of the inquisitor

In June, the Moscow City Duma approved the initiative by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) to conduct a referendum on the issue of restoring the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky. The idea of the reinstatement of the monument is a political movement with its roots in the CPRF and is not an expression of the people’s will. No rallies or active mass support for the reinstatement of the monument has been noted, either. However, during the entire period of monitoring the attitude of Russians as regards this issue, we observed a higher level of approval for the plan to restore the monument. Why is the referendum being conducted precisely now? It is obvious that communists have decided to take advantage of the current symbolic policy of the Russian leadership. Having rejected Soviet symbols and ideology, and because of the lack of experience and tradition of direct participation in politics, society turned out to be incapable of keeping the nomenklatura and the key repressive institutions of the state in check. Moreover, while demanding moral compensation for the lost sense of unity within the framework of the Soviet state, Russians eagerly accepted the logic of the superpower that is the only mode of thinking and modus operandi that government institutions were capable of. The essence of this logic lies in the extreme simplification of all historical processes and their reduction to a linear sequence of events.

Official propaganda does not allow the multifacetedness of the past. The history of Russia is described via binary oppositions. The ‘great’ past of the superpower is juxtaposed by the phases of decline and fragmentation. The most important milestones from the point of view of state ideology unite in a single picture in the public mind: the Christianization of Kyivan Rus’, consolidation and collection of Russian lands, victory over fascism in 1945 and later the “accession” of Crimea, too, are seen by Russians as a single, consistent concatenation. The importance of the above historical events can be traced by assessing attitudes towards events or figures-symbols.

Back to basics

In the interpretation by Vladimir Putin, Crimea is important as a reference point for Russian identity. According to him, ‘it is the spiritual headstream of a multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation and Russian state’. It is logical that the Russian authorities want to symbolically anchor this historical myth and associate it with the onset of the history of Russia with the help of the Baptist, Vladimir I. The monument to Vladimir was supposed to be erected on Sparrow Hills – thereby, it would overlook the city as does the monument to the same Vladimir in Kiev. The idea of the reference to the symbol of Kyivan Rus’ has provoked a lot of controversy but in general, Muscovites would like to see the monument in honor of Vladimir the Great in their home city: 64% of residents of the capital approve of the decision.

It is noteworthy that among those who approve of the erection of the monument to Dzerzhinsky, 76% of Muscovites also approve of the erection of the monument to Vladimir (64% on average). We may be surprised by the contradictory desires of Muscovites to simultaneously commemorate both he who paved the way for the Christian faith in Rus’ and he who was the initiator of repressions including persecution of the clergy. It becomes apparent that the majority does not engage in reflection and adheres to the spirit of the syncretic policy of the Kremlin. Masking the truth about the terrible atrocities of mass terror, incompatible with the image of the mighty superpower that won the Great Patriotic War, allows the drawing of a logical line between the 10th and 20th century.

Family memory

It will come as no surprise that the victory in the Great Patriotic War is considered the most momentous event of the 20th century. However, to understand the depth of penetration of any specific event in collective memory, one needs to look at the ways that knowledge pertaining to this is transmitted within the basic social institution – the family. According to a survey conducted in August 2014, 49% of respondents claim that senior members of their family used to talk with them about the Great Patriotic War while 30% - about repressions, prisons and deportations in the Stalinist and Soviet eras. At the same time, the Great Patriotic War was discussed a little less frequently with the youth of families when compared to the representatives of the elder generation, which points to the existence of continuity in terms of this knowledge. However, as regards repressions, they are discussed by persons of the 18-24 age group in as few as 14% of families and by 36% of respondents over 55. This serves to prove that, first and foremost, recollections of terror are being replaced by the collective myth as regards the victory of the Soviet Union over fascism.

Another institution of socialization which imparts basic knowledge about the history of the people and the state – school – also pays no considerable attention to the topic of political repressions, attempting to round off rough corners and present the history of Russia as a great and heroic one. Manipulations of the past will become even more outrageous when the plan for a single history textbook is finally approved against the backdrop of continued limited access to archival information. It turns out that Russians can barely form an idea of the full picture of their country’s past, since out of their own volition or due to circumstances outside of their control, they are deprived of mechanisms for the reproduction of memory. Thus, it comes as no surprise that as few as 13% of Russians intend to talk to their children and grandchildren about the complex and largely damning history of political repressions.

Uninformed consent

In July of this year, the Levada-Center conducted a survey among Russians about their attitude towards the idea of the restoration of the monument: 49% of Russians (51% of Muscovites) are generally in favor of the return of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s monument to Lubyanka Square. First of all, one needs to understand what the reasons are underlying the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses.

The following reasons are among the most popular: 22% of Russians believe that the erection of the monument is an act of recognition of public merits of Dzerzhinsky, while 29% consider that this is a reminder of the historical era personified by this figure, the era to which order and confidence are retroactively attributed. It is expected that the monument as a reminder of the past, plays the most important role for the elderly generation (63% of the respondents from the elderly age group are in favor of its reinstallation). Incidentally, the tendency itself comes as no surprise, too, given that the restoration of the idea of a strong state is a leitmotif of the latest presidential term of Vladimir Putin. Obviously, the figure of Dzerzhinsky does not specifically fit Putin’s concept of a superpower, since it gives rise to too many historical parallels which the president would rather avoid. But, by some quirk of fate, the halo of popularity of the Soviet era is attached to Dzerzhinsky.

The bleaching of the black pages of history inevitably affects the attitude of young Russians towards the erection of the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, too. Based on the data of the aforementioned survey, we can see that nearly 40% of respondents aged 18-39 find it difficult to express their attitude towards the erection of the monument. Notably, in general, across the sample, the share of those undecided grew by 12 percentage points over the course of 15 years. This signifies the diminished relevance of the topic: the issue has been forced aside by more pressing matters.

At the same time, we can observe a ‘localization’ of this issue: the topic of the restoration of the monument to the revolutionary figure is still quite relevant for Muscovites, and the number of ‘indifferent’ respondents grew by as little as 6% over the course of 13 years. Criticism of the erection of the monument has become significantly tempered instead. And the metropolitan youth are among the active supporters of the restoration of the monument who are actively engaged in local issues unlike their peers from other cities who are not concerned about changes in the cultural appearance of Moscow.

It seems amazing that young Muscovites approve of the plan to erect the monument as strongly as respondents of the pre-/retirement age group. It is unlikely that it is down to the fact that Russian history is taught differently in schools in the capital to those of other regions. The point is that the youth, in principle, have less attachment to how things stand now and are less change averse. The relatively low awareness of young respondents hampers a critical approach to the election of historical symbols. By the way, the approval of the erection of the monument to Prince Vladimir is also much higher among the youth and, even more surprising: the same goes for the renaming of Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge to ‘Nemtsov Bridge’.

The primitivization of historical discourse obscures the ‘less important’ characteristics of historical figures and highlights those most attractive from the point of view of today’s man in the street. People reject the possibility of the existence of absolute moral truths: any act, even immoral and criminal, can be justified by a greater good. Forty-five per cent of Russians are prepared to justify the sacrifices of the Soviet people in the Stalinist era by the greatness of objectives and results, although seven years ago as few as 27% of respondents shared this opinion. The peculiarity of collective memory in Russia lies in the fact that it is under the significant influence of the state. The scale of state objectives renders the feelings and beliefs of an individual insignificant not only for the country’s leadership but also for the person himself. Under the circumstances, a Russian, bombarded with fabricated evidence of a ‘heroic’ past, leans towards emotional unity for the sake of the grandeur of the state whilst forgetting the value of individual achievement. 

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