Friday, May 29, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Collective Memory’ of Russians Sets Them Apart from Other Nations, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 29 – Both the content of the collective memory of Russians and the manner in which it has been formed by the government not only distinguish members of that nation from many others but places extraordinary constraints on the way in which their identity is likely to evolve in the future, according to a leading Russian scholar.
In an introductory essay to the current issue of “Neprikrosnovenny zapas” which is devoted to the problem of historical memory, Aleksandr Kustaryev, who has written frequently on these issues, begins by examining the lists of national heroes British and Russian television viewers have offered (
In 2002, British viewers of the BBC put Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and 19th century engineer Brunel at the top of their list of national heroes. Then,, last year, Russian viewers of Moscow’s “Rossiya” channel offered Aleksandr Nevsky, Stolypin and Stalin as their favorite national heroes.
The Russian list attracted a great deal of attention at the time, with many commentators suggesting that it was either inaccurate or the product of concerted campaigns by this or that institution or group. But Kustaryev provides a detailed discussion of the different ways in which the historical memory of nations is formed and the roles it plays in national life.
And while he explicitly notes that judging on the basis of such a narrow empirical base is “of course, risky,” he argues that “this tip of the iceberg” provides six important clues not only about the very different pasts of the two peoples and their regimes but even more about their equally different presents and futures.
First of all, Kustaryev notes, “the English rating is infinitely more varied than the Russian,” an indicating that “English society is not monolithic and its various segments have different symbolic heroes. Russian society, in contrast,” he suggests, “is monolithic,” with far less diversity of opinion.
Second, “Russian heroes are extremely mythologized.” Very little about those who were named goes beyond what might be described as “icons.” Even with respect to Stalin, they recall “ancient saints or mythological heroes” rather than historical personages about people make judgments on the basis of more or less precise information.
Third, Kustaryev continues, the collective memory of Russians is both more passive and more nostalgic. Indeed, the recollection of Nevsky, whom most Russians know about from Eisenstein’s classic film, means that the collective memory of Russians is in many ways similar to “the memory of primitive peoples” – it is, in fact, “a tribal memory.”
Fourth, “in the collective memory of Russians the spontaneous and non-conformist element is weaker” than in the British, reflecting the “much stronger” role played by those in the Russian state and society who play a “manipulative” role, structuring how members of the population there view the past.
Fifth, and related to that, “the Russian public in coming up with this rating” of national heroes “took this much more seriously than the English public did.” The British audience treated this as just one opportunity; the Russian appeared to view it as an almost unique change at self-assertion and self-definition.
And sixth, present-day politics played a much greater role on the answers Russians gave than on those the British audience provided. That can be seen, Kustaryev says, if one compares the figures of Churchill and Stalin. For the British, Churchill is “not contradictory: he is a non-party symbol who unites the nation.”
“One cannot say the same thing about Stalin,” the Russian scholar says. Instead, “there are two Stalins: the Stalin of military victory and the Stalin of repressions. Consequently, the choice of Stalin has a political meaning” quite similar to voting in elections. And Kustaryev says he “suspects” one could say the same thing about his more contemporary “clones.”

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