ALEXANDER ETKIND: “TO RECOGNIZE CRIMES OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR MEANS TO CHANGE YOUR VIEWS ON THE STATE”
This article was released under the patronage of Irina Chernyshova who contributed to the project Korydor trough crowdfunding platform.
I started looking for Alexander Etkind’s “Warped Mourning. Stories of the Undead in the Land of Unburied” in Kyiv’s bookstores right after I’d finished the “Portraits in the Barbed Frame” by Vadim Delaunay. The autobiographical fictionalised diary of Delaunay’s journal goes back to the beginning of the 1968 protest in Red Square, where young people under the slogan “For your freedom and ours” came out to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In my mind, the pictures from the “Portraits” went side by side with the letters and news reports from the Crimean political prisoners – Kolchenko and Sentsov. And at some point, very clearly, I sensed the need to look at this from the perspective of history, including the main themes of the “Warped Mourning” and personal family history that opens Etkind’s book.
Alexander Etkind is a British and American scientist, historian and literary critic, leader of the European research group “Memory at war”, author of works on historical memory and internal colonisation. We meet Alexander in Kiev, where he is giving a series of lectures and presents his books which, as the author once pointed out, a scientist has to have at least two, and preferably even three.
Tatyana Bezruk: How come nowadays it’s the politicians that we hear the most, not historians?
Alexandra Etkind: Well, historians do speak up, at least history is being discussed quite often. I had such an impression, especially when I’m following Russian debates (perhaps this applies to Ukrainian as well) that the debates about the past reach such intensity that they obscure any understanding of the present. As if politicians have no other ways to discuss their problems, turning to the distant past. The past is used as a language to discuss the present. This is a strange tendency and I hope that my book “Warped Mourning” explains why this is happening in post-catastrophic societies. Though, I would like it to change somehow.
TB: Do you see this way out?
AE: If we talk about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, there are a lot of current issues that require legal language, or politics language, or international relations language, or economy language. Therefore, it is very strange when the Russia’s foreign minister writes an article where he states Russia’s foreign policy strategic problems originate from the times of Ivan the Terrible, and through the course of history finally reach this foreign minister. Behind this stands an ultra-conservative position that implies that there is no modernity, modernity seems strange. Modernity is a foreign country, but the past, even the archaic past, is it’s ours, it belongs to us.
TB: You say that the state can’t have memory. But through historical institutions or remembrance institutions, it still tries to infiltrate, to influence these processes. Is there a problem in this?
AE: I see the problem in that the state doesn’t know its place. This has always been a problem, and this has been happening in Russia all the time because the state historically has been excessively large. But I’m afraid the same applies to other countries, such as Poland and Ukraine. The state’s role in the economy is still a matter of disputes. But much less is said about the role of the state in history and cultural policy. And involving the state in these affairs leads to the citizens’ distrust of this state.
TB: Is it a part of the authoritarian legacy or this still may occur without any relation to authoritarianism?
AE: This is not necessarily related to authoritarianism. In Poland, for example, it has to do more with nationalism. I mean simple things: it’s completely normal from a historian’s perspective, or any social science researcher’s perspective, to argue over some facts, specific moments because there are always different points of view. For example, someone thinks the document is fake, other thinks that it’s not. These disputes last for decades and even centuries and it’s good. But everything changes when the state intervenes.
TB: Can a local initiative change or affect this influence?
AE: When do people tell the state to know its place? When the politics gets involved, big politics. We’ve seen this happen on Maidan several times already. If we take Russia, there still has been no such initiative yet.
TB: But is it possible?
AE: Yes, it is. But something has to change in Russia and in the world so that the civil society could get more power and opportunities than it has now. It’s not there yet. If we are talking about a theoretical possibility, of course. I believe that this will happen. The question is, when.
TB: Your book «Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied» was written in 2012. And at the very end you are saying that the Gulag scenario is impossible in present-day Russia. Has your position changed in regard to the events of the past two years?
AE: No, it hasn’t changed.
TB: And don’t you see any tendencies?
AE: Well, there are different tendencies. However, historians and political scientists may not come to an agreement on what are those tendencies exactly. But despite the control the state is gaining over the various forms of life, in culture, in the economy, everywhere – the Stalin regime is still far way off. We see political violence in Russia, but there is no mass violence. On the other hand, today Russia suffers from mass corruption, which wasn’t there during the Soviet period. These are huge differences. From my point of view “Putinism” and “Stalinism” are two completely different systems.
TB: Does this comparison annoy you? As if a historian can be annoyed by anything like that.
AE: No, this doesn’t annoy me. People constantly make such comparisons. When a person tries to understand A, he compares it to B, which he finds to be more understandable. The past is more understandable, it’s clearer than the present, so the present is compared with the past. But, most likely, this is an illusion, because we all live in the present, and the past is always a mystery.
TB: How do you see the museum of the Soviet past? Will it be a global one, or will there be several separate ones in Russia, in Ukraine, some scattered across Western Europe? And what can they be like?
AE: Most likely, there will be many of them, only we don’t know when this will all happen. For many, the Soviet era is still going on, and there are no Soviet era museums precisely because it has not yet ended. Museums that appeared in the Baltic countries – the occupation museums – are quite specific. The emotional background for these museums was intense, but it hasn’t been overcome yet. In these museums, deep hostility toward the Soviet era and nostalgia for it combine. This double effect is exceptionally noticeable in Tallin.
What should the Soviet era museum be like? In Moscow, probably, there should be a museum that would correspond in scope and volume to the entire Soviet Union. But it should be different for a museum in Kyiv. A Soviet Ukraine museum would do. Such a museum would serve an enlightenment task as well as it would be taking other functions. In my book «Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied» I talk about these functions, but there, of course, I’m not referring to the future. Most likely, such museums are to appear in the places that are of symbolical significance to the Soviet power, like ministries, prisons and camps. On the one hand, it is important to show how it was, and what was happening here in this particular place. On the other hand, it is necessary to show that any of the sinister things like torture, deception etc. – are not here anymore. Among those who come to such places, some remember how it was. They are convinced that this will not happen again. And if we consider these two functions of the museum, then it seems that to some extent, we, both the public and historians, are ready for the first one. But we are not ready for the second. In many of these places the same things are still happening; They are even occupied by the same departments, even if they are not engaged in mass terror.
TB: Will not the museum of the Soviet era be a little further than 1991? Considering the Russian aggression of today.
AE: Yes, it is quite logical that they will have post-Soviet departments. But we have to understand that take a lot of time. The post-Soviet era must come to its end, because a quarter of a century has passed. A new era has to start, and it will have a different definition, we do not have a name for it yet. For example, Ukrainians may call «the era of free Ukraine», and in Russia, it may take a name of «the era of wealth and prosperity» or «the era of stagnation and decline». In any case, we’ll come up with the new definitions for a different era.
In fact, the word “post” is very deceptive. The Soviet era did not call itself «post-kingdom». Let’s imagine what was happening 25 years after 1917. It had been ridiculous if back in 1942 the Soviet Union would call itself «post-tsar» or «post-imperial». New empires take new names. There should a name for the post-Soviet period that would clearly express a new identity because it seems like the post-Soviet identity, a new identity, is slow to develop not only in Russia, but also in Ukraine. European identity is possible for these countries based on the idea of how they became Europe, after they ceased to be Soviet countries and became European.
TB: Can Russia give up the symbol of victory in the Second World War?
AE: Why should Russia give it up?
TB: Well maybe to cultivate it less then.
AE: Victory is an important political symbol in France and Great Britain. No one renounces victory and the outcome of World War II. This is the line beyond which the history of Europe and the world altogether has really changed.
TB: Is Russia ready to share this victory with other countries?
AE: No, not now. Now it’s too early. But if you look into the future, what other option is there? But when Putin, exaggerating numbers with each year, says that there have 27 million people died, and then this number changes, it makes me think that he includes all of the fallen Ukrainians, all of the fallen Uzbeks. This creates a contradiction, which is generally is typical of the entire Soviet system. Do we share this holiday with the Ukrainian officials or with the officials of Lithuania? It definitely will happen but in some very utopian future.
TB: How far have now Ukraine and Russia come in remembrance of the executioners?
AE: We have talked about those people: officials, investigators, NKVD officers who were shooting, torturing and guarding the camps. There are very few monuments to them, in fact, it is not customary to commemorate these people at all, it is neither good nor bad to talk about them. But we know something about what happened to them, at least to the most prominent of them. Some have committed suicide, some have gone on the bottle, and some have died in their beds being of old age, with medals upon their chests.
TB: “Warped Mourning” in the context of Ukraine: when grief is not fully experienced, and the discourses switch places: the Soviet one changes into a nationalist one. How soon, and is it possible at all, that society will stop mourning?
AE: In this case, I think that Ukraine will never be able to experience it in full. The point is not that the mourning has to overcome, the point is that it has to take artistic shapes. Live the present, but also remember the past.
TB: And if there are two terrible things took place at the same historical period – the Soviet terror and the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia? And when some victims are remembered and mourned and others are not, just because this is an uneasy story, it doesn’t fit into the general narrative. Then you can’t talk about it and therefore you can’t ask for forgiveness.
AE: I am sure that someday this balance will be restored, but today we don’t see this balance at all. This is based on a false and primitive understanding of patriotism and nationalism. Ukraine is not alone in this, similar processes are taking place in Poland. Recognising those crimes that were committed before, during and after World War II, is very unfortunate. But recognising them means that the view of the state on itself is changing. In fact, it seems to me that this may be more easily achieved in Ukraine than it is in Poland, because in the post-Soviet space it is relatively easy to say that this is a completely different state, the present Ukraine. Modern Ukraine is free and is willing to accept that truth because Soviet Ukraine was an absolutely different state.
TB: Has the left idea been affected by the Soviet terror?
AE: Yes, of course, the Soviet Union is generally a tragedy, a terrible failure, although the most successful implementation of this project. This is complicated, and it would take generations of philosophers and politicians to somehow generate a new left idea. It is impossible to clear it from the Soviet dust; otherwise it means to get on with a lie. But by recognising and accepting our failures not only we can follow this new direction, it’s utterly necessary.
TB: Now you are working on a new book, which deals with oil and gas issues. I can’t help asking: Have you got tired of symbolism and identity issues, and decided to talk about economy?
AE: It’s not my business to talk about economy, it’s the business of the economists. I believe that natural resources like oil and gas are also a part of the cultural history. This is a radical idea of culture, and I’m interested in it. It’s not that I’m tired of symbolism. Today’s Russia is very dependent on oil and gas, and this has a huge impact on it. If these resources hadn’t been there – nothing bad would have ever happened. Everything would have been completely different. And yes, now it seems that it’s time to answer the most important question of modern history. You haven’t asked me, but it seems to be a key question.
TB: Asked what?
AE: What is the difference between Russia and Ukraine? Why was it impossible for Russia to experience anything close to that has happened in Ukraine? Why did everything that happen in Ukraine hasn’t happened in Russia yet? What is the difference? Where is this difference?
TB: I guess, I heard you saying that Ukraine is a Russia without gas.
AE: Yes, no gas or oil. Anyway, this is a key and a very problematic question. You can go through different answers trying to get the right one. What makes the difference? Is it mentality? What is “mentality” then? Is there any scientific way to prove that Ukraine has A mentality and Russia has B mentality? If a social scientist made a discovery and said that the whole thing, is about, say, family, that Russia has it organized one way, and Ukraine has it different, then it would be a great discovery. But there is nothing like this. Maybe it’s the government structure? No, it’s nothing like that, the systemic differences are way too insignificant. I’m sure Ukraine is trying to establish those differences by changing the existent structures. But at the same time I see that they are very hard to change.
At the political and economic levels, the difference is enormous. It is in the figures, feelings, experiences, people’s careers, their wealth, opportunities and inequality. Ukraine used to be an appendage of the Russian resource economy, receiving an annuity from its resource flows. Now Ukraine is trying to free itself from these Russian flows. The annuity renunciation leads not so much to poverty as to the dissatisfaction of the oligarchic elite that has made a fortune on these incomes and would not survive without them. The significance of this liberation for Ukraine is underestimated, but it is huge.