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Relacja z konferencji: Politics of History and Memory Conflicts in Post-Communist Europe

Refleksja nad pamięcią zbiorową i jej wpływem na dynamikę społeczno-polityczną jest jednym z najważniejszych elementów życia publicznego zarówno w Europie, jak i Ameryce Północnej. Międzynarodowa konferencja „Politics of History and Memory Conflicts in Post-Communist Europe”, organizowana przez Zakład Historii Europy Wschodniej na Wydziale Historii UAM w dniach 26-28 maja 2022 r., pozwoliła nieco przybliżyć te dwie perspektywy. Poniżej relacja z wydarzenia, która ukazała się na portalu Europe – Canada Network.

Link do relacji na portal EUCANET:

From May 26th to May 28th, 2022, EUCAnet’s European Memory Politics (EuMePo) Jean Monnet Network organized a conference in collaboration with the Department of Eastern European History at Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU) in Poznan, Poland. The lead Polish organizers were Beata Halicka and Piotr Oleksy, both Professors of history at AMU, and the panel participants were a selection of top scholars and analysts from across Europe (plus one from Canada) who specialize in memory studies.

The theme of the conference was memory politics in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically eight countries that fall within the broader Post-Communist sphere: Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and Hungary. Over the course of three days, the aim was to unpack the distinct memory conflicts and dynamics at play across the region, bringing different national and disciplinary perspectives into conversation. Furthermore, while not an overt theme of the conference, tracing the varying national responses to the Ukraine-Russia war was a running thread of discussion.

Day One opened with welcoming remarks from Rafal Witkowski, Vice Rector for international cooperation at AMU, Oliver Schmidtke, Director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria and Co-Director of EUCAnet, and Beata Halikca. This was followed by our keynote panel discussion led by Jarosław Kuisz and Birte Wassenberg and chaired by Piotr Oleksy of AMU.

This first panel introduced some of the key issues that would be tackled by subsequent panels, such as the different perspectives of Western and Post-Communist Europe, the feasibility of a shared European memory culture, and the broader significance of Putin’s invasion. Birte Wassenberg began the conversation by arguing that the project of European integration has always been defined by memory politics, specifically the effort to construct a shared identity around “a European memory of peace.” Later, Birte Wassenberg emphasized the commonalities between Western and Central/Eastern experiences, namely the ways in which both ‘sides’ have crafted themselves in opposition to Soviet domination. Jarosław Kuisz, in contrast, discussed at length the “gap in expectations” between Western and Post-Communist states, both after the breakup of the Soviet Union and in the wake of the Ukraine-Russia war. In contrast to Germany or France, he argued, “[Poland’s] opinions are based on the political experience of tyranny.” The memory of Communist oppression has, in Jarosław Kuisz’s term, resulted in “a nervous sovereignty.” Piotr Oleksy chimed in at various points, often agreeing that Europe faced fundamental divisions based on different historical memories and collective experiences, especially in relation to the Soviet Union/ Russia.

The panel discussion was followed by a lively Q&A session, which included questions on the efficacy of blackmail and military strength in dealing with Putin, the significance of the United States (and NATO) in Europe’s immediate future, and the tools that can be utilized to construct a supranational European identity.

Day Two involved three panel discussions followed by Q&A sessions. Each panelist addressed a specific case study, discussing completed or ongoing memory politics research.

The first panel included three EU case studies – Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania – and was chaired by Oliver Schmidtke. Bartosz Dziewanowski began with a discussion of Poland, specifically how the Polish government has used memory and trauma as crucial tools of foreign policy. His presentation looked at Polish government decrees and popular culture, demonstrating how changing presentations of victimhood and historic suffering continue to shape Poland’s diplomacy towards Germany, Russia, and the rest of Europe. Beata Halicka’s presentation concerned the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – and the different ways in which each country remembers the Soviet occupation. She examined the ongoing controversy surrounding Soviet monuments that still stand in the Baltic, as well as the development of national museums dedicated to the occupation; Beata Halicka concluded that all three countries (albeit in different ways) are witnessing a memory politics shift: from “glorification to victimization and commemoration.” To close the first panel, Kamil Całus zoomed in on Romania, where there is broad sympathy and nostalgia for the Communist past in general and Nicolae Ceaușescu, the former dictator of Romania, in particular; this despite the Romanian Communist party’s history of violent oppression and widespread economic failure. To explain this curiosity, Kamil Caus gave a sweeping account of the insecurities and shortcomings of modern Romanian politics, suggesting that ‘Communist nostalgia’ is driven by a popular desire for “dignity, independence and stability.”

Our second panel was chaired by Alina Cherviatsova and focused in on two non-EU case studies: Ukraine and Russia. Marta Studenna-Skrukwa tackled the Ukrainian case with her examination of historical discourse, Soviet-era monuments, and Ukrainian school history textbooks. The overall purpose of her talk was to consider the development of Ukraine’s relationship with its past, especially regarding Ukraine’s stance towards Russia. This development, Marta argued, has been vastly accelerated in the wake of February 24th, as the “attempt to build continuity back to 1917,” to a time before Communist occupation, has been made more urgent. Maria Domańska followed up by exploring the illogical and sometimes disturbing memory politics of Putin’s Russia, in particular how Putin’s interpretation of particular historical grievances directly serves his domestic and foreign policy objectives. She concluded on a forceful note: “Irrational as it may seem, the logic behind Putin’s memory politics is to perpetuate the current regime’s hold on power.”

Last but not least, Matt James chaired a panel of young scholars who discussed very different yet equally fascinating research projects involving Hungary. Judit Molnar presented her ongoing research project concerning the Hungarian diaspora, specifically the ways in which the relationship between the Hungarian state and Hungarian expats has changed over the years. One of the main takeaways was that Hungarians living abroad often experience very different ‘memories’ of Hungary than the official government narrative; another was that the government has treated certain Hungarians living abroad with increasing suspicion and scorn. Diana Bartha then presented a uniquely-constructed database of Hungarian political discourse, examining the prevalence of references to the Holocaust and the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. She showed how such references to the past are becoming increasingly common in a political environment defined by nostalgia and historical grievance.

Day Three involved a meeting of our EuMePo network in order to reflect on the conference and exchange thoughts on future events. It was also an opportunity for the team to discuss and plan future memory politics outputs, including an upcoming book project and a journal special issue.

For those curious to learn more about the above issues, we recommend the short selection of reading materials below. Moreover, stay tuned for updates on our network’s upcoming EuMePo book, the product of over three years of collaborative research and transatlantic exchanges!