Why it is important to study memory politics?

By Marat Iliyasov

(Miami University)

Why do governments, political elites, or interest groups emphasize some historical events more than others? Why do they choose some historical events for commemorations over others? How do they try to promote or discourage knowledge about certain events? What hides behind these kinds of policies, activities, and decisions? The studies of memory politics help to answer all these and many more questions.

What memory politics is

Before delving into the question of why it is important to study memory politics, we need to understand what we mean by the term. While it derives from a more complex phenomenon known as collective memory, it is quite easy to understand what it refers to. To put it bluntly, memory politics is related to historical events and how the ruling elite wants people to remember them. A more formal definition of memory politics could be structured in the following way: memory politics is a political process initiated or sponsored by the ruling elite to shape the population’s knowledge about selected historical events. In other words, for memory politics to come into being three factors have to be present: 1) a political agent, usually a ruling elite, 2) a certain selection of historical events, and 3) a target group deemed important. As a rule of thumb, the political agent decides which historical events should be memorialized and commemorated and which ones should be dismissed or forgotten. The way in which the memorialization processes take place depends on the significance that the appropriate agent puts into the chosen events. They include but are not limited to adapting specific laws that target memorialization and symbolics, constructing memorials, staging ceremonies around them, allowing or forbidding commemorations, encouraging research, financing TV programs, or requesting to write books that would present the events in a desired light. But what kind of governments or political elites are interested and engaged in memory politics? What is the goal that they pursue by implementing their memory politics and by shaping the population’s memory or knowledge? And, finally, how successful they can be in pursuing their goals? These are the questions that my research helps to bring to the fore.

Memory Politics in Democracies and Autocracies

To answer the first of the listed questions, we can look at the two broadest categories of regimes – democracies and autocracies. While different in fundamentals ways, other types of regimes are interested in and engaged in memory politics. This is clear even from the way that the history of a country is taught at schools. It tells us about the image that political elites try to create and inculcate in the heads of students. Interpreting, embellishing, and polishing history is very common and can be found even in established democracies. All ruling elites are keen to gild and garnish their past with nice details and omit good chunks of history that could present them or the dominant group of the society negatively. For instance, a large portion of the US population suffers from a lack of knowledge about the ways that non-white groups were treated throughout history. There is also little acknowledgement of the role and contribution of these groups to the cultural development of the country.

Autocracies go much further. Not only do they omit some parts of history, autocratic political actors also rewrite it, creating a new and false collective memory often about dubious heroes. In democracies, people can still learn about the pieces of history outside of the schooling program, through documentaries or their own research. There is little chance to do so in autocracies. Autocratic elites usually discourage or even forbid any other interpretation of history except for the official line. Moreover, they often try to restrict access to alternative sources of information. This ensures a high rate of success in creating and instilling myths. It also makes the process of debunking them even harder. For example, Soviet propaganda stubbornly claimed that the mass execution of nearly 22,000 Polish military officers in 1940, which is known as the Katyn massacre, was committed by Nazi Germany. Even after official recognition by the Russian Federation that this crime was committed by the Soviet Union, many people in Russia still refused to believe it.

The goals of memory politics

The generic interest behind the engagement in memory politics is quite simple – the ruling elites seek some kind of long-term benefits, which answers the second question posed in this essay. Following the famous dictum of George Orwell “one who controls the past, controls the future”, these benefits have to do with the vision of the future that the ruling elite has. However, identifying these benefits brings us to a more complex sphere, which justifies, informs, and directs research on memory politics.

The benefits sought by the political elites differ in democracies and autocracies and often depend on the goals of domestic and foreign politics, resources that elites have access to, political power and aspirations of the elites, stability of economic growth, and the types of society itself. For instance, populist ruling elites often want to ensure the dominance of a particular group of society, whereas non-populist ruling elites would construct their memory politics to achieve consolidation or stability of the population. Therefore, memory politics in non-populist democracies can stay quite stable, despite the political changes in a country. Even though there might be some difference in the opinions regarding the legacy of one person (e.g., General Robert E. Lee or Christopher Columbus), this difference rarely becomes a driver behind an electoral campaign or political agenda.

Getting rid of a controversial legacy and preventing backsliding into authoritarianism can be another purpose behind democratic engagement in memory politics. The memory of the Holocaust that is memorialized throughout Germany serves as an example of this purpose. It can also be seen in the memory politics of Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, where governments have all condemned the Soviet past and started cherishing heroes of the anti-Soviet resistant movements. They have also removed the reminders of the Soviet times, such as monuments and national holidays. More than that, they banned Soviet symbolics, equating them to the symbolics of the Nazis (although this too is problematic).

Unlike democracies, authoritarian regimes aim to prolong or legitimize their rule and hence they often engage in a quite radical re/interpretation of history. Moreover, on top of the conventional methods of promoting an official interpretation of history, they use enforcement and coercion to ensure that their version would be the only one. This task became harder with the development of information technologies as they provide access to alternative sources of information. However, it is not always the case that the population search for or is interested in the available alternative. The availability of resources and means does not always guarantee success in constructing and implementing memory politics, which brings us to the last question of this essay and the last point of justification of research on memory politics. The determinants of success and failure 

So, what makes memory politics successful and when does it fail?

Because an autocrat seeks above all to remain in power for as long as possible, they often construct their memory politics in quite a controversial way. It is usually situational and derives from the fact that ruling elites (especially if new to power) need to create a fresh and positive image of themselves. This interpretation might oppose or reverse the interpretation that existed before and is already rooted in society. People can and in many cases do have their vision and interpretation of history, which is often transmitted orally. The result of this mismatch can differ depending on the type of society and the regime’s brutality. If a society is compliant, autocratic regimes that persist throughout time have more chances to reconstruct memory and prolongate their rule. The brutality of a regime and the aggressive way of propagating and imposing new interpretations through laws, regulations, bans, memorialization ceremonies, and building monuments, can give similar results after some time. The time in power and generational change can also favor the desired effect.

The final success in this endeavor is not certain.  Societies still ultimately determine the success of autocratic memory politics and time is not always the factor either. To understand this decisive role of society, we need to turn to collective memory. The concept was coined by French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in the early twentieth century. According to him, all memories are social because one way or another other they connect to the social surroundings, habitat, or milieu in which people live. However, not all of them form collective memories. It is only some memories that can reach this point. Usually, they are those that are the most important to the mass population because they are attached to very deep feelings such as pride, shame, humiliation, or tragedy. Such memories are usually transmitted orally through generations, and they persist without any additional effort because they remain part of a family history. Even if interpreted differently from person to person, these kinds of memories have an overarching idea of an event, which was something to take pride in or something tragic. These kinds of memories are attached to people’s collective identity and even form it, which means they persist for a long time. As the famous researcher of post-Soviet memory politics, Alexei Khazanov argues: “Tell me, what you commemorate, mourn, or remember and I will tell you who you are”. Indeed, we are what we remember.

However, this important characteristic does not ensure that collective memories stay unchanged. Much like individual memories, collective memory is also flexible and can evolve. These characteristics of the collective memory open the possibility for interpretation, manipulation, and re/construction. In other words, they open the possibility for memory politics and its success. This success depends on the desire of the population to remember or forget and the strength of collective identity which is built on memory. The interpretation that omits the shameful details of history and focuses on the glorious past of history has a better chance to be accepted by society even if false. Whereas, reinterpretation of the widely accepted memory of heroes or tragedy can be rejected, even if facts support such reinterpretation. Such acceptance of rejection by society, in its turn, can lead to further political consequences for the ruling elite. As the history of many empires demonstrates, nationalistic sentiments based on an alternative interpretation of historic events can awaken even after decades of being dormant. 


Studies of memory politics allow us a better understanding of a regime and the vision that it tries to pursue. The focus of research can differ and include the following aspects: memorialization, ceremonies, TV shows and movies, teaching history in schools, building monuments, and more. However, the success of all these efforts depends on society, which means that studying collective memory together with memory politics is essential.

This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink.