Putin’s Russia is currently waging two wars – in the towns and villages of eastern Ukraine, and in the field of historical memory. In some respects, the former is a continuation of the latter. But the outcomes of these wars do not depend on one another. Perhaps politicians will manage to put an end to aggression in eastern Ukraine – Minsk 2 was such an attempt, however futile. But the Kremlin’s victory in the 'memory wars' appears unavoidable.
Now, it seems, a monument to the victims of political repression will be erected on Moscow’s Andrei Sakharov Avenue in 2016. According to official documents, the State Museum of Gulag History put forward the initiative at the request of President Putin. Indeed, after the initiative was approved by the Moscow City Parliament Commission on Monumental Art in February 2015, you can now apply to the competition with your own design. A jury will carry out the selection process, and here civic and cultural figures loyal to the Kremlin will work side by side with rights activists, museum professionals and people who have themselves suffered repression. The winning entry will be announced on 30 October, Day of Memory of Political Repressions, which was set up by dissidents in 1974 to commemorate the victims of Soviet power.
But it’s not important what the competition designs look like, or which one they choose for the corner of Sakharov Avenue and Sadovo-Spasskaya street, where a rather gloomy and non-descript office building currently stands. No, what’s important is that this whole story has been concocted so that Russian politicians can say: ‘A monument to the repressed will be built on Sakharov Avenue.’ There’s not the slightest doubt that rights activists, having lobbied for a monument for many years, sincerely believe that it will become a symbol of historical justice, inviting us to join a wider debate about political repressions and our national history.
For many Russian rights and civic activists, this monument has been their life’s work, and now the authorities are cynically using it.
But the reverse is taking place. For many Russian rights and civic activists, this monument has been their life’s work, and now the authorities are cynically using it. As soon as a self-satisfied bureaucrat (or even President Putin himself) begins the opening ceremony with feigned solemnity – and this will be shown on all Russian TV channels, you can forget about historical justice; and the possibility of dialogue between society and the authorities on the place of political repressions in Russian history will vanish forever.
The memory of repressions will be appropriated by the Kremlin, and declared official history, and then neatly written into the necessary chapter of the single, official textbook. And the collective Putin narrative (or an entirely concrete Putin as the embodiment of Russian society’s ressentiment) will gain a full and final victory in Russian memory wars.
Resisting the state monopoly
We remember as long as we experience. Living memory, personal or historical, cannot exist without affect. Proust knew this well, and they know it in the Kremlin too. Private experience will always stand in opposition to the state’s symbolic monopoly. And this is why the right to affect is more important than the price of oil; and exactly why, according to a popular Russian joke, the television is still winning out over the refrigerator in the battle for Russian hearts and minds.
We remember as long as we experience.
In the Soviet era, the state had a monopoly on memory. It strictly controlled expressions of affect. The images of heroic struggle and victory in the Civil War (1918-1921), and victory in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) became cornerstones for symbolic mobilisation in the Soviet Union. As a result, the First World War – with its tragedies and millions of deaths – is completely absent from Soviet and post-Soviet cultural memory. The role of the USSR in the Second World War is connected with 22 June 1941 (when Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Ukraine), rather than September 1939. State commemorative practices connected with the war are ordered in such a way that private remembrance and grief are side-lined in public space. The core of the Russian state’s commemoration narrative – the main ‘spiritual clamp’, as the Kremlin’s PR men would put it – is to create a managed collective memory, based on images of the military glory and power of the Soviet Army, which beat the Nazis almost single-handedly.
Perestroika and the 1990s witnessed an intense privatisation of memory – the destruction of the state monopoly and the creation of multiple private discourses. From the 1980s up to the first half of the 2000s, private narratives of memory were liberated and a veritable plurality of emotions emerged. But from the middle of the 2000s, this process has been reversed via the appropriation, or nationalisation, of affect.
History as a political pretext
This process is realised primarily through a network of mass and local media outlets loyal to the Kremlin. For instance, the state news agency RIA Novosti launched a campaign ‘Granddad’s victory is mine too!’ (Pobeda deda – moia pobeda) in 2005, the symbols of which became the black-and-orange St George ribbons – now used as identifying markers for separatist forces in Ukraine. Indeed, the slogan itself is a clear example of the denial of the right of history and memory to be unique.
The appropriation of memory of victory in the Great Patriotic War is only one element in a far larger process.
The appropriation of memory of victory in the Great Patriotic War is only one element in a far larger process. For instance, the Kremlin, alongside numerous loyal non-governmental organisations, has attempted to appropriate anti-fascist and Holocaust-related rhetoric since 2010 in order to put pressure on neighbouring countries. Just as pro-Kremlin youth organisations such as Nashi (‘Our people’) and its precursor Idushchie vmeste (‘Moving together’) picketed the Moscow embassy of Estonia and Lithuania in the 2000s, in memory of the victims of fascism, today the Russian state justifies war in Ukraine under the pretext that neo-Nazis have seized power in Kyiv.
Likewise, the Russian state justifies the annexation of Crimea with reference to the town of Khersones – the location of Prince Vladimir’s christening in 988AD, and thus a ‘sacred place for Russians’. The town is located just outside of Sevastopol. Meanwhile, sport is mobilised to create ‘patriotic’ collective identity. Commentators and fans perceive any victory by the national team or Russian club in terms of a tradition of opposition to the West.
Believing in the monopoly
The Kremlin has effectively regained the monopoly on affect, at the same turning citizens into subjects. Moreover, many Russians readily believe in the monopoly.
The official Russian state politics of memory are not only totalitarian, but total: they strive to seize as much space as possible. Here then, the memory of repressions remains a forum for discussing history and contemporary life, where multiple points of view exist. Active memory of the repressions is a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. In a country with 46 political prisoners (according to the Memorial Human Rights Centre), conversations about repressions concern not only history, but today too.
The Kremlin has effectively regained the monopoly on affect, at the same turning citizens into subjects
The prospect of building a monument to the repressed in Moscow fits in well with the unprecedented attack on independent historical organisations (Memorial, Perm’-36 and Sakharov Center) currently being waged by the authorities.
The site of the future monument was, of course, chosen carefully. Although Sakharov Avenue bears no relation to the work of Andrei Sakharov, it is associated most of all with the mass protests of 2011-2012. And it this space – physical and emotional – which the authorities have to appropriate.
The politics of form
The politics of memory cannot be divorced from the aesthetics of memory. Arseny Roginsky, the head of Memorial and a former dissident, has stated that the monument on Sakharov Avenue will be ‘not only a monument which reminds, but a monument which invites us to think, a monument as a source of public discussion, a monument as a source of understanding our past.’ This, of course, will not be the case. This monument won’t remind us, nor will it invite us to think. It will become yet another monument in a Moscow which is already overcrowded architecturally, and will occupy that same emotional niche as the monstrous monument (to be erected in 2015 on Sparrow Hills) to the freshly-christened Prince Vladimir.
This monument won’t remind us, nor will it invite us to think
Any traditional monument is totalitarian by nature. It supposes neither empathy, nor interaction. You can take a selfie with the monument in the background. You can walk right past it. You can lay flowers there once a year. But a monument – any construction of concrete or marble – cannot provoke a lasting remembrance, nor one which leads to action.
The exceptions emerge only occasionally. The monument to the Kazakh poet and educator Abai Kunanbaev (1845-1904), who never lived in Moscow, was erected not far from the Kazakh embassy in Moscow in 2005. It provoked bewilderment – even displeasure – from local residents. But in the spring of 2012, when the centre of the Moscow protests shifted to Chistye prudy, the monument to Kunanbaev became a symbol of that movement. But Occupy Abai was defeated, and now this sculpture depicts a (once again) unknown poet. The monument to victims of political repression will not promote discussion: for that, you need principally different ways of speaking about the past.
Memorial, Russia’s oldest rights and historical organisation, devised the most effective form of commemorating the victims of repression in Russia: the ‘Return of the Names’ event, which is held every year on 29 October at the Lubyanka. Here, in front of the former KGB and current FSB headquarters, Muscovites read out the names of those who died during the Great Terror. This event gathers thousands of people every year – a prime example of the interaction and solidarity in which citizens are united through affect and common action. A no less effective project is ‘Last Address’, whereby citizens contribute their own money to place memorial plaques on the buildings where victims of repression used to live.
If the ‘Return of the Names’ and the ‘Last Address’ (or other forms of commemoration at the crossroad of public art and public history) have been the most important form of commemoration, then they became also the main source of that affect which makes memory active, living; and the conversation about repressions – whether contemporary or past – would have carried on for a long time. But now this won’t happen.
What we will see then, in 2016, is a country, which wages war on the territory of a neighbouring state, and which holds dissenters in prison, erect a monument to the victims of state terror on a Moscow avenue named after a dissident.
Standfirst image: still from the YouTube video Открытый конкурс на создание Монумента жертвам политических репрессий by Музей ГУЛАГА.
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