War and Memory in Eastern Europe


By Caroline Johnson

The lecture series organized as part of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies recently welcomed Dr. Karen Petrone of the University of Kentucky to present on the war memory of WWI and WWII in relation to the Late Soviet and Post-Soviet identities of Russia and Ukraine.  She specifically touched on how these memories constitute feelings of citizenship and belonging and how such memories are produced or promoted by the Russian government.

In her recent work entitled “Now Russia Returns its History to Itself”: Russia Celebrates the Centenary of the First World War, Petrone discusses how the Centenary of the First World war is being used by the state to “bring interpretations of the war into alignment with nationalist Russian narratives that seek to build a positive national identity, reassert Russian national pride, and affirm Russia’s status as a European power” (Petrone 2).  This intersection of the Late Soviet and Post-Soviet history and its current memory is crucial to understanding modern day notions of national identity within Russia and Ukraine.

In order to frame her discussion, Petrone began the lecture by briefly discussing the ideas of what she deemed “The Analytical Trio” as well as the linguistic turn and cultural turn. According to Petrone, the Analytical Trio incorporates ideas of race, class, and gender in order to determine the full social impact of these ideas on memory formation.  Additionally, the linguistic turn supports the notion that the past does not exist outside textual representations while the cultural turn looks beyond the political and economic views of history.  In her lecture, Petrone attempted to navigate between these two ideas.  These frameworks allow Petrone to navigate shaky ground between history and memory.

To support her ideas, Petrone focused heavily on the idea of memory and how she believes “all memory is contested memory” (Petrone 3).  She suggests that memory acts a source of power: those who wield memory are often those who have the political and social power to promote it.  She asserts that, since the Soviet Union did not embrace World War I as a glorious one, they did not promote it in the archival record.  Not until ten years after the war did elements of the war appear in literature, yet they were censored by publishing houses and other institutions.  For example, real account of soldiers “disappeared” as to promote the heroic tale of the war, rather than a grim picture of reality.

In both her writing and in her lecture, Petrone uses monuments to show the relationship between war memory and national identity in Russia and Ukraine.  One example she gave was the statue of Stepan Bandera.  In Russia, the celebration of this figure is deeply offensive, whereas in Ukraine, he acts as a cornerstone of independence.  Petrone uses several monuments such as this to show the disconnect between history and memory in varying post-Soviet locations.

Petrone closed her lecture by clearing asserting national identity as a top-down clash.  She believes citizens had a form of agency in accepting or rejecting national identities while historical accounts are often shaped through the state and official records.  As the Russian state seeks to promote a national narrative of heroism and pride with the anniversary of the Centenary, this is important to keep in mind.  The state can promote a particular history, but it is the public who will need to embrace this as national memory.

Caroline Johnson is a senior history major at Miami

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