From triumph to trauma


The Soviet “empire of memory” was an integral part of the Cold War geopolitical order and it is no surprise that it collapsed along with that order. As Jan Werner Müller has written, after 1989 “memories of the Second World War were ‘unfrozen’ on both sides of the former Iron Curtain [….] liberated from constraints imposed by the need for state legitimation and friend-enemy thinking associated with the Cold War”.[14] The disintegration of the Soviet bloc (and later the USSR) might even to some extent have been a result of the subversive victimhood narratives entering the public space as well as domestic and international politics. Think about the narratives of the Katyn massacre and of the Great Famine, which undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet regime at the end of perestroika. Or consider the Baltic republics, where demands to reveal the truth about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the new meta-narratives on Soviet deportations and repressions helped restore and legitimize national independence. One can find many explanations of the Soviet collapse in academic literature, but one is rarely discussed: the Soviet empire collapsed under the burden of historical guilt. If narratives of suffering proved to be so effective in dissolving the Soviet empire and enabling the former Soviet republics to achieve national independence, no wonder that political actors still find them still useful today – for example, in containing Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in eastern Europe.

more from Tatiana Zhurzhenko at Eurozine here.