The politics of memory and national identity

While Hobsbawm and Smith are right to emphasise the importance of the past for national identity, the way in which a nation remembers its past is more complex and ambiguous than their statements may suggest. In fact, the collective memory and the past of a nation are fundamentally different concepts. The term ‘collective memory' refers to the shared memories held by a community about the past (Hunt 2010: 97), an image of the past constructed by a subjectivity in the present (Megill 2011: 196). Collective memory is a discourse about historical events and how to interpret them based on a community’s current social and historical necessities (Arnold-de Simine 2005: 10, Pakier and Strath 2010: 7). It is neither a mere or accurate reflection of the past, nor the product of historical research. As Maurice Halbwachs (1992) argues, collective memories are socially framed: they form when people come together to remember and enter a domain that transcends individual memory. According to Andreas Huyssen (2003: 6), collective memory is also essential to imagine the future and give a strong temporal and spatial grounding to life.

The study of collective memory is of particular relevance at institutional level (Lebow 2006: 13-14). Political elites formulate or adopt selective discourses of past events in order to forge national identities that strengthen social cohesion. In particular, politicians try to forge national memories, a particular type of collective

Identity, memory and the Russian Other 9 memory where the collective coincides with the nation (Gillis 1994: 7). National memory is disseminated primarily via political leaders’ official discourses and commemorations in realms of memory (lieux de mémoire), namely historical or pseudo-historical sites that are reminiscent of selected events in national memory (Nora 1992: 7). This does not preclude the role of other, unofficial actors in the forging of national memory. Individual or other group memories coexist side by side with official national memories and often influence them. However, political leaders play a decisive role in the construction and diffusion of national memory because they have easier access to mass media, which makes them highly influential. Richard Ned Lebow, Wulf Kansteiner and Claudio Fogu (2006) call the selection and dissemination of discourses on a country’s past ‘the politics of memory’. It involves actors who use their public prominence to propagate narratives about the past which are functional to their political goals (Lebow 2006: 26-28).

Memory matters politically because it can be used by the political establishment as a source of legitimacy for its power. For instance, policy makers can make reference to events that play an important role in national memory and construct plausible historical analogies to obtain support for their policies (Bell 2006: 20, Gildea 2002a: 59, Koczanowicz 1997: 260, Kônig 2008: 27-34, Olick 2007: 122). The inherent ambiguity of collective memories, which are in constant flux, facilitates their manipulation and mobilisation in the service of national identity formation (Berger 2002: 81. Müller 2002: 21-22, Ray 2006: 144). As Emmanuel Sivan and Jay Winter (1999: 6) have noted, political elites manipulated the past on a massive scale during the twentieth century. Manipulations of national history took place in particular after wars and regime changes, when states and new political ehtes attempted to restore social cohesion. Following major social dislocations, political elites tend to formulate and propagate official narratives that reflect their view of history and exclude all events and elements that do not fit therein (Hunt 2010: 110). They construct national histories as triumphant narratives, a selective retelling of the past based on accounts that stimulate strong identification with the nation (Eder 2005: 214-215).

Due to the constant influence of a multiplicity of political, historical and social factors, collective memories are not fixed; they undergo a process of gradual change and adaptation. As Pierre Nora (1989: 8) argues, national memories are constantly constructed and reconstructed in a selective way; they are ‘in permanent evolution, a perpetually present phenomenon’. During the last 20-30 years, this process has been fuelled by a dramatic upsurge of public memory debates in North American and European societies (Huyssen 2003: 12-15). Politicians have attempted to intervene and guide these debates in a way that suited and served both their political aspirations and their conception of national identity (Gillis 1994: 3, Muller 2002: 23, Smith 2011: 235).

A widespread use of the politics of memory to forge national identities took place in almost all European countries immediately after the Second World War and again after 1989 in most East-Central European countries, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc (Assmann 2006: 260, Evans 2003: 5, Judt 1992: 96).4

Both in 1945 and 1989, the new political elites that emerged from the ordeal of war and from regime change needed founding myths to strengthen social cohesion at a time of economic dislocation and transformation from authoritarian to democratic forms of government (Muller 2002: 7-9). This political necessity led new leaders to search for a ‘usable past’ in national history and reframe it in narratives that propped present political goals (Moeller 2003a).

The national memories that were constructed in Western Europe after 1945 and in East-Central Europe after 1989 constitute the core of current national memory discourses. This is due to the fact that many of the founding myths of today’s national political systems in Europe date back from these two historical moments. In countries such as the ones under analysis in this work, the images of Russia that crystallised in national memories during these periods, partly in continuity with pre-existing perceptions and partly based on new elements, influenced the process of national identity construction. Thus, particular perceptions of Russia as a foreign policy actor have become enshrined in national consciousness and still affect attitudes to Moscow.5

National memory can be conceptualised as an essential component and driving factor of national identity. Unsurprisingly, the two concepts share many of their essential features. Like national memories, national identities are multiple, malleable, contested and provide a powerful instrament for the political elites that have enough power to manipulate them. Their multiplicity derives from different conceptions of national identity across the large and diverse national community. However, states tend to propagate one particular narrative of national identity, which becomes dominant in official discourses. Individual and other group identities coexist and interact with officially endorsed versions of national identity, thereby creating alternative and competing variants that can become dominant within new historical and institutional contexts.6

National identities are malleable because they are influenced by domestic and external events and can change over time (Rumelili and Todd 2018, Siddi 2018c). Changes usually take place gradually; core constituents such as the founding myths and cultural frameworks of reference of the nation (notably in literature, the arts and music) are relatively stable. However, sudden changes in national identity discourses may also occur, particularly when historical events force upon the nation a reconsideration of its values and interests.7 Moreover, national identities are contested because they are subject to manipulations by social groups vying for dominance and because they compete for people’s allegiance with class, religious, local and supranational identities (Miller 1997: 45-46). Narratives of national identity tend to be used as political instruments because they are generally formulated and propagated by the state in order to strengthen and legitimate the existing political system (Guibernau 2004: 140). Political leaders are both the main advocates and beneficiaries of national identity construction. National identity promotes homogeneity in a community because it cuts across class and local differences and transcends divisions of rank, descent, region and profession. It is therefore functional to the creation of a strong bond between political leaders and

Identity, memory and the Russian Other 11 ordinary citizens, as well as among different sections of the population (Benner 2001: 162, Greenfeld 1990: 550).

Since national identity provides a very useful tool for the unity and cohesiveness of a state, governments employ several strategies to promote it. They disseminate a specific image of the nation that usually relates to the dominant ethnic group. In addition, they confer citizenship and advance numerous symbols and rituals that serve the purpose of reinforcing the sense of community among citizens, as well as their loyalty towards the state. National identity is constructed also through the steering of public education and the mass media. This phenomenon is particularly marked in authoritarian states but also exists in democratic countries.

Furthermore, states often attempt to strengthen national identity by creating external enemies (Guibernau 2004: 140). For instance, France and Germany constructed each other as external threats for nearly a century (from the 1860s to the 1940s) and used the image of the menacing neighbour to foster national unity in moments of crisis. Past rivalries in Franco-German relations left a trace in national identity that influenced the political debate at a later stage, as shown by the French reservations about German reunification in 1989-1990 (Gildea 2002b). Similar patterns of national identity formation against an external Other, namely an actor that tends to be perceived as alien and antithetical, can be detected inter alia in Soviet-US, US-Chinese and Europe-Russia relations.8

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