Yulia Yurchuk: “This ‘year at home’ has squeezed our horizons of memory”

Yulia Yurchuk, Doctor of History, Researcher and Lecturer at the University of Södertorn (Stockholm, Sweden), has been living and working for over ten years in Stockholm, where she studies changes in politics of memory in Ukraine under the influence of the challenges posed by the war in the east.

Yulia holds a Master’s degree in European Studies from the University of Göttingen (Germany) and the University of Deusto (Spain). In 2015, she defended her dissertation on history on the topic of politics of memory on the OUN and UPA at Stockholm University. She contributes to the resources of KORYDOR, “Modern Ukraine” and others – about the politics of memory in Ukraine, about socio-historical constructs in culture, and academic life in Sweden; translates literary texts from Swedish and German.

 Yulia and I talked about how we will remember 2020, what it taught us (or not), and how it will be considered in terms of history.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Adam Gavlák

Ye. N.: Maybe this question will seem a bit naive, but I’ll start our conversation with it anyway: what will you remember from 2020?

Yu. Yu.: It’s difficult to answer it at once. I think then I will remember all the endless zooms, teaching online, sitting in the same place, and talking to everyone in the world. An interesting fact: just on New Year Eve, my friends and I talked on the phone; mentioned 2020 – some events that were supposedly in it… And then realized that these were the events of 2019! Due to the lack of change of geographical points or the cancellation of the usual meetings, the year 2020 somehow “fell out of memory”. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of memory, how it works – and I think how important spatial, geographical points are. In 2020, all our geography seems to have shrunk to the limits of our home (we only traveled a little in Sweden this summer). This “year at home” has squeezed our horizons of memory – as if you don’t remember what else happened? … And instead, you fill this horizon with some other memories, substitutions.

Ye. N.: So, the time has stopped because our movements have stopped? To what extent does the effect of the time-space of our memories work here, that they are fixed at certain locations?

Yu. Yu.: Actually, yes: since the change of locations stopped – time “stopped”. This is very interesting, because I write about memory, and how the place triggers our memory – and there was no one and nothing to trigger. Everything happened right here – at home. For example, when I turn on a laptop with Zoom, the first thing I want to do automatically is teaching. And this part of my room became associated with my work. Or, for example, yesterday on zoom my friends and I spoke English, and I wanted to speak Swedish because I teach Swedish – and in zoom mode, my brains immediately switch. Our cognitive system is very interesting – it shows how we work – if we closely monitor and reflect on each such stimulus. Place, location, and time – this is how our memory works, in unity: we are attached to the place, and it tells us something.

Ye. N.: Don’t you think that this lack of movement has been an impulse for many to delve into themselves, in particular, into the memories and private history of families? I know those who are seriously engaged in searching for family trees, restoring information about ancestors, or simply taking the opportunity of not being able to go abroad, went to the village, and began to sort out old papers, metrics, and family photos. How correlated do you think this is?

Yu. Yu.: I think there is something in it. I can’t say that there are people in my circle who have started to compile family trees. Instead, people like us who have come to Sweden and lived here for a long time but come from other countries have a desire to return home. For example, a few of my friends said they understood that nothing held them back there and that they would do anything to return home. I think it very much has to do with the “corona” and sitting at home. My Swedish colleagues are somewhat different: they started buying houses in the villages en masse. This is something like our “dacha”, and now the prices there have almost doubled because everyone wants to have a house in the village. On the one hand, these people can go on holiday, for example, to Spain as usual; and on the other hand, it is an attraction to a kind of “authentic life.” Very often in such houses, there is no electricity and water supply. I could not live like that. But people love it and buy it, regardless of the price – this year it has become just a trend.

Ye. N.: What other patterns do you think have changed during this experience of the prolonged self-isolation?

Yu. Yu.: I can’t say for everyone, but for many people self-isolation even justified the fact that they did not want to meet people, did not want to see anyone. They seem to have been permitted to behave the way they really want to. This isolation, which they probably already desired, has now come true. Some, for example, went to the village and did not come back for a year. I think that for many our, so to say, modern life, life in the city, is not suitable. And those who do not accept this have now been able to devote themselves completely to what they love, to live the way they want – and at the same time to work because everyone works remotely. And this is also interesting as a trend – how will it develop in the future?

Stadsbiblioteket in Stockholm – Gunnar Asplunds library from 1928. Photo by Gunnar Ridderström

Ye. N.: To what extent does this correlate with the recollection of some familiar schemes that always work? Because, by and large, in today’s world, each new generation lives very differently than the previous generation of parents. For a modern young city dweller, returning to the countryside is like going back two generations, to the experiences of grandparents. How do you see that the old patterns, tested for centuries and 100% effective, work in this trend?

Yu. Yu.: On the one hand, there is a purely rational grain in this – you become truly independent of the environment. You have water in the well, you can somehow survive without paying for utilities in the city, which are really very high. That is, it is a life in which you can live even without great expenses. This is because many people lost their jobs – I watched TV stories about families who sold all the apartments in the city and went to live in the village. So, it’s not clear what is a more widespread reason: some attraction to authenticity, to supposedly “real life” (because Swedes love to be in nature, in the woods), or a rational solution to unemployment and limited access to work. Because really: you can live in the forest for a very long time if you sell a city apartment.

Ye. N.: You become less dependent on infrastructure and economic fluctuations, but you become very dependent on nature. And in this sense, you turn into a person who is not at all an urban type of existence, one leading a different way of life.

Yu. Yu.: People themselves are urban, urbanized. They do not always understand that nature is not only positive, and brings not only joy, rest, or relaxation. I think that the urban population romanticizes nature and does not understand that it can be of great danger as a force of nature; it may not be at all what we imagine. For example, my colleagues, professors at the university, think that this will be a wonderful place, an idyll where you can work in a garden, and where everything will be fine. But their distance from the village and the rural way of life is extremely large. When I visit such cabins, I can’t live there because I need comfortable conditions. I still remember being left in the village, and the village was a permanent job and just a job – and I never liked it there. So, when I get into this Swedish cabin without running water and a toilet in the room, I do not immediately turn on the mechanism of relaxation, but on the contrary – I seem to need to work here immediately, I think, what should I start with. I can’t switch off in such conditions. But they can, because there you have to, for example, cut logs, work with your hands, provide yourself with heat. That is, they do not have this associative attachment, which I have because as a child I went to an authentic Ukrainian village.

Gällnö, Sweden by Fredrik Öhlander

Ye. N.: How adaptive does Swedish society seem to you to such crises, for example, compared to Ukrainian society?

Yu. Yu.: I always say that Ukrainians are, so to speak, “stronger” – we can survive in any conditions because I think we do not count on help. As for the Swedes, they put a great deal of trust in the state, and the state must decide absolutely everything. The state must say what will happen and what to do with it. We in Ukraine, it seems to me, on the one hand, still have a Soviet attitude to what the state “should do” (and as a result – as if to spare oneself from responsibility). On the other hand, we are so used to the fact that the state does nothing, or even becomes a mechanism that brings you trouble, that we do not trust it, and tend to look for some way out of any situation. It seems to me that this greatly affects the social situation. In Sweden, since the early twentieth century, the trend of trust in science began – science seemed to replace religion. And if scientists say so – the Swedes believe it. People actually follow the recommendations.

In Sweden, the problem of pandemics and the virus was not politicized – politicians tried not to say anything at all, all communication with the public was conducted by the Public Health Agency. And the main epidemiologist Anders Tegnell became a hero of the nation, with people getting tattoos with him, considering him a deity. Every day at 12.00 there was a press conference where he talked about the situation in the country. He always did it very calmly, even jokingly, never panicked, although his discourse changed a lot: he said that there would be mass immunity, that it was in the Swedes’ character never to meet anyone, and that nothing would happen to them… What was said depended on how the situation with the disease changed, how other states reacted, how many deaths there were. But what remained unchanged was people’s belief that he knew what he was saying and that everything would be fine.

In Sweden, there were no strict restrictions, as in other states. Everything was open all the time, and every representative of the government in his first speeches (for example, the Prime Minister) said that it was the responsibility of each individual. Of course, each individual can interpret this differently. Some companies closed, some did not; at our university, we also thought for a long time whether to transfer everything to Zoom or only partially. It was more about the fact that everyone was responsible for themselves.

It is worth remembering that Sweden is a very decentralized country, everything is divided into communes. Each commune has many levers for regulation. In one commune it is said that all gyms have already been closed, and we ours continue to work, or they have closed swimming pools, whereas we haven’t. That is, on the one hand, there is the chief epidemiologist who says what we do as a state, and on the other hand, there are communes that respond to the recommendations of the authorities. And the most noticeable thing for me, of course, was that people trust the representatives of the state very much. No criticism. Even when it is said that children do not contract covid – no one thinks that children are just the same as everyone else, and can carry the virus. There were no such discussions; although there were parents who did not let their children into school and who were called from school to remind them that school was a child’s responsibility and they had to attend it. In Ukraine, on the other hand, I witnessed great political polarization of the topic and the (non) acceptance of any government actions by supporters of one or another party – and this was the biggest contrast with Sweden. So, we return to the issue of distrust in state mechanisms and institutions.

Ye. N.: Do you think there is any equivalent in the historical experience of Sweden for this scattered, divided social responsibility? Do Swedes as a community have specific social experiences that have formulated such resilience to crises? Because we understand that this is the action of the established institutions of democracy, self-government, and so on, and it all has been formed over the centuries. But the question is, were there any crisis historical experiences that formed this calmness, made it possible not to be so nervous and not to panic in such situations? After all, despite the reassuring speeches, the information pressure was probably still there, and the mortality statistics in one way or another affected the mass consciousness.

Yu. Yu.: It seems to me that the disease itself affected the Swedes very much: people who came into direct contact with it began to behave differently. Whoever avoided it was more relaxed. But perhaps this is not about experience or history as such, but about culture. The pandemic has really shown how individualistic this society is. Everything we read about the Swedes, about their culture of individualism, became very noticeable during the pandemic. Of course, we continue talking about how this whole individualism was formed.

The fact that there was no war in Sweden as such is also very influential, and isolates them into a kind of “island” in Europe. Over the centuries, there has been shaped a form of the state where there is supposed to be a consensus between the state and the people. These are the mechanisms through which all decisions are made – and they seem to take a very long time, but they always go through constant negotiations. This is very visible at the university level – it is full of commissions that are responsible for various areas of activity, and which include people who decide everything collectively. All these mechanisms give the impression that you are like an individual, but at the same time, you are included in the system that decides your life. And it seems to me that such involvement through different formats of influence does not create an illusion, but really a feeling that you are influencing something. Because you belong to the structures of influence. And it does work – you can really demand something, come up with your proposals. They will be discussed for a long time – the bureaucracy takes a lot of time, but then it can be decided in your favor.

Like many others, I have read Fareed Zakaria, who writes about ten lessons after a pandemic – and it seems to me that states that operate in such complex situations do not have to be authoritarian societies. This can be a working government as well as institutions. In Sweden, the bureaucracy is really working – it has been around for so many centuries that it takes a lot of time, but at the same time it really affects people’s trust. Unfortunately, the incidence and mortality figures are not greatly affected. In fact, many people die. Why are so many older people dying who could still be alive? These are very ethical issues, and I will not delve into them.

Ye. N.: What synonymous series has this pandemic affected in the Swedish information field and how do you see them, for example, in comparison with the Ukrainian information field? Because it seems to me that for the most part everyone tried to find some reference in the past – and a lot of world media wrote about the Spanish flu, for example. But were there any such local stories that were discussed in Sweden?

Yu. Yu.: Yes, the Spanish flu was a popular topic, as well as the economic crisis of 2008 – it seems to me that these economic issues were discussed very intensively and I think it was such a counterweight to the Ukrainian discourse. In Sweden, the issue of unemployment became acute, especially in March, when the entire financial market fell and chaos began on world stock exchanges – then there were many parallels with 2008, and even with the Great Depression. People were really horrified – and I think it was a notable trigger against all lockdowns and strict bans, in other states as well, because it would mean a high unemployment rate and economic crisis.

In the information field, the comparison, for example, with the Spanish flu was in the tone “now science is much more developed, and all it won’t be as it used to be.”Of course, they started selling a lot of thematic books – for example, about bubonic plague. All of these historical works (which perhaps no one had read before) became mere bestsellers because people wanted to know more about what was happening to society during the pandemic. Everyone thought it might be the same: people would just die on the streets. There were many discourses from the past at the beginning of the epidemic: the plague, the Spanish, the crisis of 2008, and the Great Depression – these were the four reference points when talking about covid.

Ye. N.: And what is it to us, readers? Let’s be honest, it’s hard to calm down while reading a book about the bubonic plague.

Yu. Yu.: I myself was among those people who read it all. We are so vulnerable that we can lose absolutely everything due to some virus. This gives an understanding of inclusion in life: everything has happened before, but we survived – as a species, as a human. It was interesting for me to look at the perspective: all these memes as if the earth has been cleared and dolphins are just swimming in Venice, and bears are walking around the cities – I think all this indicates the connection between our memory and the future. Daniel Kahneman writes that our memory includes these mechanisms about the future. If we recall the Ukrainian experience, it seems to me that Chornobyl was such a major starting point. Something just as unknown, invisible, undetectable, and you think it may not be so scary, but it is actually scary and affects our lives. There seems to have been a very strong connection between these experiences, especially the picture of the future after Chornobyl – the exuberance of nature, the animals walking freely everywhere. For me, it showed how our memory of the past already includes something about our future. And these ideas of the future weren’t really all that bad: even if we are not there, there will still be life.

Stockholm, Sverige by Magnus Olsson

Ye. N.: It seems to me that in 2020 our thinking about the future has changed very drastically. Given the explosion of many long-standing problems, we have begun to sharply rethink the vision of the future. Next year, for example, Ukraine will be commemorating the anniversary of Chornobyl and the anniversary of Babyn Yar. And this post-catastrophic thinking, formulation, or attempt to formulate the future after the catastrophe, of course, next year will be multiplied by the experience of 2020. It will be difficult not to think about it or to pretend that it did not happen. How do you see it in terms of memory research? To what extent does experience the current crisis change our vision/perception of previous crises and catastrophes?

Yu. Yu.: From the point of view of memory studies, we mostly talk about Ukraine as a post-genocidal, post-catastrophic society – and for obvious reasons. But it seems to me that now the whole planet will be post-catastrophic. In some ways, it may be easier to accept it for societies that have long been post-catastrophic. It will now be global. And maybe this will allow different societies to understand each other better, and for Ukraine – to tell more about itself.

Ye. N.: Will our experience become clearer?

Yu. Yu.: I have such hope. For example, there have been no catastrophes in Sweden, and the only point we can “relate” to is this post-pandemic. No matter what we say, many people have lost their jobs, lost their loved ones. And perhaps this collective traumatic experience will become such a point of understanding with countries where this state is constant “post-“. Perhaps this will allow more empathy at the global level for societies that were actually in this state of post-catastrophe before the pandemic. Because as a result, all societies have become more vulnerable, and to some extent have gained common experience.

Ye. N.: Has the pandemic caused significant shifts in historical science?

Yu. Yu.: At the most pragmatic level, it has, of course, affected the issue of digital archives, and the deeper introduction of various aspects of digital humanities into training courses. There was, for example, a large online conference on digital history, where we discussed digitized sources, which are still somewhat scorned in classical science. For many historians, the pandemic has made it impossible to do their job, to conduct research. If your archives exist in another state and you can’t go there, you can’t work in principle. Of course, you can look for other ways out, which are in digital form, but it greatly affects the work, the angle of vision, the perspective of writing. I began to think that I needed to work more with Swedish topics because all my topics in Ukraine were then closed to me. I understood very well how important it was to be in the city and the place you were writing about. I am currently writing an article about Ukraine, about religion and memory, and I know very well what I am writing about – I know all the streets there, I have been there hundreds of times. But the fact that I am far away now affects me a lot. We are writing together with a colleague who is now in Ukraine, and I asked him to go and see – to check if there was what I was writing about. The map says something completely different from what you see and notice in reality. Being in a place is important, especially if you are writing about the city and its past. So, in my opinion, if we stop traveling and flying – it may be great for the planet, but not for science. Online conferences do not work as well as offline. People need each other to produce new ideas. I’ve been to every possible conference this semester, everything was online – and I promised myself that I would never participate in online conferences again. I used to meet colleagues at each conference with whom we then produced various articles, new projects; and here you seem to have presented everything, received some questions and answers – and that’s the end of it. This format just doesn’t work. Therefore, I do not believe that the development of science is possible when we all sit in apartments and produce knowledge. It is impossible. Knowledge is created in a team.

Ye. N.: People of intellectual labor this year in general tormented themselves with questions why they are needed at all if it turned out that at a critical moment doctors, cashiers, drivers are needed the most, those who will support the vital functions of the infrastructure. How did this respond to the professional community of historians? Your science is dealing with the past, and it doesn’t seem to require answers right now, but I don’t think you haven’t had any thoughts about your being in demand.

Yu. Yu.: You know, the question of historians being in demand has been relevant for so long… Very few people come to study history at universities, this is a global trend. On the one hand, we may not need a book to survive – we need to eat, drink, and breathe. But on the other hand, there are other needs: the need for reflection, the understanding of what we are doing here, what we did before, and how it all happened in general – and these are eternal questions. It really doesn’t take much to exist, but it takes a little more to live.

By the way, during the pandemic, many historians were invited to various talk shows to contextualize everything that was happening, to place it at some length. It is historians who have shown that there is hope, there is a way out, and that we have coped with everything by drawing conclusions (or even not drawing them).

The pandemic hasn’t brought any significant changes into history; it has rather confirmed the previously voiced points about the connection of past and future through memory, about our vulnerabilities. In fact, the pandemic did not say anything new about human, or did but very little.

Ye. N.: How quickly do you think this experience will become our memory? And do you think that this “image” in the collective memory will correspond to reality, or we will displace and forget everything that we did not like in this experience, and leave something, such as pies, which everyone baked, or idyllic tomatoes, grown on city balconies?

Yu. Yu.: My “image” stems from the cover of the New Yorker, where the girl is sitting at the laptop, and “behind the screen” is a mess, and life is happening – this is how we will remember it. Of course, everything will depend very much on how we went through this period. My experience is really positive, because I haven’t lost anyone during this time, and everyone is healthy – so it will be memories of work, and this piece of room in which my whole world is concentrated. And I think for many it will be the same.

But for many others, it will be different. For some, this disease has completely changed their whole life. By the way, we are still in this period, that is, we cannot say for sure what the “post” will look like.

Ye. N.: What part do you think social networks play in creating this “image” of the pandemic? We are at the peak of the popularity of social networks, and although everyone understands that photos posted on Instagram or Facebook are just a “cover”, and not necessarily reflect the real feelings of a person at that time, yet a lot of news is created based on social networks. It turns out that we have an information shell filtered through a social network prism. How do you see this process in terms of collective memory formation?

Yu. Yu.: As a historian, I can say that criticism of sources is always the basis of everything, and therefore, of course, to all social networks, there must be a criticism of sources. It is worth reflecting on why and how people teach exactly what they teach.

I am also interested in the media technologies themselves – how they affect how we see this picture depending on the type of social network – Instagram or Facebook. How does the technology itself affect our vision of the world and the formation of this vision? Many different aspects need to be included in this analysis. While speaking of social networks, we should compare them. For example, a hundred years will pass and we will analyze everything: here people only eat pies, and here Trump does not want to leave his post – what is happening here? Therefore, each analysis is the inclusion of different contexts in the big picture, which can eventually lead to something more relevant or true, to what really happened.

After all, social media can be seen as a mechanism for survival. During the pandemic, they helped find or maintain contact with a closed world.

Ye. N.: In fact, almost no one has talked about the abuse of virtual communication this year – no one has dared to complain about it. Instead, there were many offers of self-education in social networks, or even attempts to conclude the experience. And the conclusions at the end of the year included a lot of people’s achievements. What did you learn in 2020?

Yu. Yu.: I actually learned a lot.

I never thought I could spend so much time with my family, and that it would be great. I learned that you could be very happy with simple everyday things: go for a walk every day, cook, etc. I think we just haven’t had enough time and inspiration for that in a long time.

At the same time, quarantine has taken away a lot of different pressures (you always have to be with people, you have to do something around them) – and it turns out you can be with fewer people, or you can be alone, and appreciate it too. I like to be alone, but I always perceived it as antisocial. And in fact, it is such an advantage! Instead, in my profession, I realized that I could not be alone. This is a very distorted picture of the world, where a person who works intellectually can sit at a table and only produce super ideas. Quite the opposite: intellectual labor requires the presence of another person.

The material was prepared with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation. The position of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation may not coincide with the opinion of the author.   



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