We are good at keeping quiet — about many things…

A conversation between Irina Kosterina and Sergei Oushakine, Princeton, New Jersey, 2015. Part 2.

Serguei Oushakine is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Slavic Languages and Literatures and Director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Princeton University. His research interests include memory and politics of history, postcolonialism, post-Soviet and Eurasian studies, and everyday life. Mr Ushakin is author and editor of several books and collections both in Russian and English.

Irina Kosterina: Sergei, as far as I remember, you have done several studies on war memories and the perception of history in general. Today, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Second World War, there has been a sudden upsurge in referring to this event as a pivotal moment in Russian history. Why do you think it has become such, and what does it mean for our present lives?

Sergei Oushakine: In one of my articles, I tried to explore what the victory celebrations in Russia mean and how do people celebrate it. I looked at how this festivity and memories of the war are being presented on the radio and in TV news shows. I looked at how the event was marked in public since around 2005.

What was striking was that public recollections of the Great Patriotic War were, usually, not recollections but the emotions about the war of people who had no direct connection with the war. In other words, it amounted to a form of indirect accommodation or contextualisation of oneself within the past so as to create some sort of an emotional relation with it. We do not learn from the past, we live in it.

In this respect, [Russian director Andrey Malyukov’s] film “Black Hunters” managed to portray this general attitude very clearly: The past has not passed, and what is more, I can enter it again. Since there is no trust in the printed word, I can only understand the past by letting it pass through me.

This is an entirely different approach to history, based on emotion rather than analysis. Emotions are almost impossible to control or manage. They are like an autopilot.

Indeed, attempts at interpreting the past are met with such an oversensitive reception because they smash people’s existing emotional attachment to the past. Interpretations include past text, series of events, and facts, which can then be reformatted and repackaged.

The fight against the “falsification of history” is, essentially, not so much a fight against any given interpretation of facts as a fight to maintain existing perceptions and emotional attachments. These two logics — emotional and textual — can never converge.

I am still waiting for when we will begin to argue not about history but about historiography; not about “how it really was,” but about who did we learn it from, who wrote about it and how, and how it can be described as well.

I think the Great Patriotic War has, by and large, turned into what in English is called a “placeholder” — into a notional (temporary) symbol used to designate all those traumas that it is easier to keep quiet about. It is a sort of a “black hole” that encompasses everything: Soviet repression and deportations, killed relatives, harsh conditions of survival, search for the disappeared. On Victory Day, everyone cries for their own. Frankly, I do not know how to begin to divide this “unmarked grave” of memory into separate histories.

It seems to me that this constant emotional processing of experiences that are not your own, constant readiness to “recite” a war that you did not take part in, prevents us from seeing the war as a bygone past which is no longer with us, but which we should know about. The recent dispute [between Russia and Poland regarding the liberation of] Auschwitz is, in this respect, indicative: Events of 70 years ago are still regarded as unfinished, unhealed, and unended.

IK: Is this not an indication of the state’s deliberate policy to use the “Great Patriotic War” as building blocks for patriotism?

SO: I think the state is not so much initiating as, so to speak, tied to a chariot. I still cannot listen to the song from the [Soviet war film] “Belorussian Station” without emotion, even though I understand very well the way it was done and why I react the way I do. The song pushes some button, that is all. I do not think I am alone in reacting this way.

Be it with the state or without it, the emotional impact of the war remains high. On the one hand, it is understandable, given the enormous number of victims and wounded. People who fought or were exiled in the war exist in almost every previous generation and in every family (my grandfather from Buryatia was killed in the beginning of the war).

On the other hand, it is not entirely understandable. I cannot really see why this has become part of my emotional experience instead of mere knowledge about the past. In the US, for instance, V-Day is not celebrated at all. Against this background, the Russian Victory Day parades, the tally of those invited, and offence [taken at the refusal of foreign leaders to attend the ceremony] appear not just puzzling but also incomprehensible.

IK: That is exactly what I mean: In our [Russian] discourse, the victory in the war is built up as an exclusive “achievement of the Soviet people.” This theme shines through countless war films that we all watched when growing up and that are still shown regularly. These films create an emotional context to a war, in which we did not participate, and engages people in compassion with events, in which they took no part.

In recent years, living veterans are being replaced with new rituals. For instance, ever more people don “Ribbons of Saint George,” attach bumper stickers with slogans such as “To Berlin!” or “Thank You, Grandfather, for Victory!” on their cars. Recently, I saw a 35-year-old driver of a SUV with a bumper sticker declaring, “I Remember! I Am Proud!” You can buy such things at every petrol station.

SO: Yes, this amounts to commercialisation of the memory about the war: Buy yourself a piece of the past. But I do not think that this is happening because someone “built it into the discourse.” If it was a question of discourse only, all of this would have worn off a long time ago.

I think that this is happening because of a fundamental “lack of history.” When the Soviet Union disappeared, history collapsed as well. [The Russian philosopher and sociologist] Natalia Kozlova once wrote about how after the revolution, an unusual situation arose in Russia: A “new man” set foot on the path of history, not burdened with the past.

In this respect, the 1990s were structurally very similar. Suddenly, the past turned out to be of no consequence — both in a material and a social sense: It became “Soviet.” The past could neither help predict the future nor build one’s life in the present.


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IK: Why was there no such need for this kind of emotional reflexion of this event before?

SO: In the 1990s, the emergence of a historical “new man” was largely forced, or rather inevitable, and not without its fascination. Everyone was on his own and had no one else but himself to rely on. It was just like in one of Peter Nalitch’s songs: “I am alone on the battlefront, just and at peace.” Such a fundamental liberation from all social dependencies, from all Oedipus complexes — once and for all.

Yet to build ties with history by yourself is hard; it is easier to buy a piece of the past and thus blend in with a certain community.

I remember one my acquaintances in Barnaul who, having managed to get somewhat rich, had a “European-style renovation” done on his apartment: He had his entire apartment painted all in white, including the floor. At that time, it seemed terribly “chic,” but now I see that it was merely an expression of the same wish to update one’s “memory.” Like an elemental Malevich painting: White on white. Where there are no traces whatsoever of the former life; where it seems that everything is possible.

However, to live within such sterility is very dull; and besides, everything was still not possible. Yet to build ties with history by yourself is hard; it is easier to buy a piece of the past and thus blend in with a certain community. At one time, the “Ribbons of Saint George” came with a wonderful slogan: “Let us create tradition together!” Not revive, nor recall or discover, but create. It was like the applied use of [British historian] Eric Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition.”

By the way, the popularity of the “Ribbon of Saint George” showed how strong the need for the public demonstration of one’s affiliation to a certain community was. People need readable symbols, but which are, strictly speaking, not legible: The ribbon has no proper history, no proper narrative. It is not a piece of history; it is a symbol of a material bond.

In this sense, Russia is, of course, no exception: The sudden interest in Ukraine and Belarus in traditional embroidery is an indication of the same phenomenon. Very few people care to investigate where this or that pattern came from and what it actually means. History boils down to ornaments. What is important is its material presence (as a sign of community) and its availability, not its genealogy or meaning. We do not need any explanation of our ornaments; they are pretty as they are.

I just returned from a lecture by [the Slovenian philosopher] Slavoj Žižek, who talked about a similar tendency. According to him, modern ideologies were built not so much on the principle of a symptom as on the principle of a fetish. Nothing is hidden anymore, and the disease is there for all to see. Yet the presence of a small (or not so small) “thingy” allows us to accept the “unbearableness of being.” And we have no illusions whatsoever about it. The “invention of tradition” that we see today is, in my view, one of those small “thingies” that allow us not to pose any questions about something bigger.

IK: How do people’s assessment and perception of the past influence the current identity of Russians? What is the identity based on?

SO: Well, I do not think that there is any single identity. When I was doing field research in Barnaul in 2001-2004, what struck me the most was a tendency that in my book I called the “patriotism of despair.” People built their social bonds and groups around their negative past experiences, organising kind of “communities of deprivation.” I read a lot of letters from soldiers’ mothers whose sons had died in Afghanistan. One of the letters really astounded me. I can even quote from it.

In 1992, a woman from a village in the Altai region wrote to another in Barnaul: “I wanted to invite you for talks, but our telephone exchange was stolen just then. They steal everything. We are getting along somehow, we are sort of okay. Yet I feel bitter: I was one year old, when my father was taken to the [Soviet-Finnish] war and then to the Great Patriotic War, from which he did not return, but was missing in action. We were raised by our mother and later by our step-father. Mother did not work because of her illness. Our step-father only earned 13.60 rubles, and I and my sister got very little. Things seemed to get a bit better, but then the death of [my son] Yevgeni sapped my health. My husband is very ill as well.”

Life in these letters seems like an endless succession of loss and deprivation. The losses are like mileposts measuring time: Soviet-Finnish war, Great Patriotic War, illness, poverty, new illness, etc.

What was interesting in these stories was that personal stories, narratives about one’s own life, tended to line up against the backdrop of the history of the country as a whole — be it positive or negative. I heard very little life stories that would have been separate from the state. The concept of “the Russia that we lost” seemed to have become a kind of a “macro version” of people’s own lives — with the stolen telephone exchange and all.

“The dead cannot be led to battle, but they can be piled up, and then paths can be trodden and sand spread between the piles.”

Naturally, this largely reflected the specificity of the groups that I conversed with. However, I think that the “patriotism of despair” is characteristic of not only them. I think it depicts a more universal cultural mechanism that people in Russia employ to structure their ties with the country and its past.

In fact, there is very little that is fundamentally new in this. My favourite author Viktor Shklovsky wrote in his memoir, A Sentimental Journey, devoted to the Russian Civil War: “The dead cannot be led to battle, but they can be piled up, and then paths can be trodden and sand spread between the piles.” This only sounds cynical, but in effect he is right: The losses become the foundation, the road that we tread on our path of life.

Needless to say, this is characteristic not just of Russia. Many post-Soviet states have similar models: The optimisation of a negative past and instrumentalisation of actual or imagined losses serve as an important mechanism for articulating and forming an identity that is coherent in a social sense. What is new, in other words, is not the structure how communities of deprivation are formed, but rather the scale of this process.

But there is a problem. The [Bulgarian] historian of the Balkans, Maria Todorova, has a very good article about how the tendency to portray the socialist experience in Eastern Europe as an experience of colonialism did not lead so much to the emergence of new ideas on future development as to even more ornate narratives about victimisation.

So as not to lose their identity, the communities of deprivation — and this is the paradox of their existence — have an interest in constantly reproducing traces of the losses that made the communities possible. The absorption and assumption of the traumatic experiences of the past, the constant reproduction of its traces and symptoms, are a method of constant self-reproduction. So far, I see no other language with which people talk about themselves.


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IK: Is this why your book is called Patriotism of Despair? The book is about the negative narrative we talked about, is it not?

SO: Yes, that is right, or to be exact, about a life built around a traumatic experience. My book includes the results of my studies of the soldiers’ mothers. I took the trip to Barnaul immediately after 9/11. Like any person writing a thesis, I prepared myself, read about the soldiers’ mothers, about how they fought to stop the war in Chechnya.

Yet when I began to talk with them, I saw that the fight was, on the whole, not the most important thing for them. What was more important was to immortalise their fallen sons. This is a process that can never end: First, there is a memorial plaque, then a memorial chamber, then a cemetery, and so on.

I talked with one woman whose son had died in the war in Afghanistan; we talked for some three hours about her life and about how bad it was without her son. Then, suddenly, at the end of our conversation, she mentions, in passing: “When I go home, I have another son waiting there.” I was astounded at the complete absence of this living son in her preceding story about herself and her life. It is like in the letter that I quoted earlier: There is no peace; there is only war or a stolen telephone exchange.

These letters are really striking: The way they have been written, how everything is stylistically and thematically uniform. They can begin from the expected, like for instance: “Yes, of course, I placed the photos of our son [who died in Afghanistan] on the bedside table and talk with him every morning and night.” And then, without any transition, about the bumper potato harvest this year. And next: “I cry when I come home, but life goes on, and my daughter got a trainee job.”

All this is delivered in a single thread, and the trauma is like a syrup that permeates everything and becomes a connecting link, glue, or cement between the life events. And there is no exit from this trauma. One of the women I talked to said this about herself: “I am a mother of a hero who is no longer alive.” A life in the glare of death. A form of identity that allows them to be if not heard, then at least recognised.

IK: It turns out that the trauma structures one’s whole life, and the trauma is the element that makes sense of it all. I learned this when working with people from Chechnya.

SO: Yes, in my book, I wrote about several versions of such traumatic narratives: Veterans of the Chechen War told me how they were “betrayed” and “conned”; how the “state failed to pay its debt.” There is a chapter about sociologists who write about the “Russian tragedy” and about “vitality,” and something about the National Bolsheviks.

On the one hand, the book is about a trauma that is generative and that produces not only symptoms but social networks, relationships, and rituals as well. Also, the trauma leads to transformations of the social and private spaces.

On the other hand, the trauma is pathological because the usual logic of the development of and coping with trauma (shock — suffering — adjustment — rehabilitation — new life) does not work in this case. The trauma is not allowed to be forgotten.

I remember a letter, in which a mother of a son killed in Afghanistan complained to her friend about the son’s widow (this is a standard theme of a differentiation of the trauma and the victim, by the way): “I do not believe her, because she shows no grief.” There is a need for grief and for it to be obvious.

IK: In other words, people need suffering that they can be proud of?

SO: I do not think they need it in order to feel proud. No one needs such suffering of one’s own free will, of course. I think this is something else. We are talking about a culture, in which negative experience in particular occupies a privileged position. It is recognisable; people respond and understand it. Yet it is not very clear what to do with this experience and how to overcome it.

Some years ago, I edited a collection of articles together with [the Russian professor of philosophy] Elena Trubina entitled Trauma:Stations. There is an article by [the British historian] Catherine Merridale. She did comparative interviews with veterans of the Second World War and came to an interesting conclusion.

In the West, working with trauma focuses on processing it verbally. People learn to talk about that which pains them, package the pain into words, and thus gradually distance themselves from the pain, acquire a new language that is post-traumatic and no longer traumatised.

In Soviet Russia, Merridale writes, it was the other way around: People learned to keep quiet about their trauma. However, the conclusion that Merridale makes is about something else. She saw no fundamental difference between British veterans of the Second World War, who managed to talk about their trauma, and the Soviet ones, who kept quiet about it. Both turned out to be quite capable people, with similar narratives and similar attitude toward life.

I am left thinking, maybe this is the greatest “defence secret” of Russian culture? We are good at keeping quiet — about many things…

Read the first part of the conversation at: http://www.4freerussia.org/we-do-not-learn-from-the-past-we-live-in-it/

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