“A common European memory can hardly be achieved” Interview with Ekaterina Makhotina

We talked to Ekaterina Makhotina ahead of this year’s conference about Western-Russian relations, shared cultures of memory and her expectations for the conference. For the Russian version нажмите здеÑ?ÑŒ.

The year 2015 was marked by the 70th Anniversary of WWII. What is special about the Commemoration in Russian Society?

This year even more so than in years before the memory of the war has become a symbol of national identity in Russian society. People use symbols and rituals associated with the military memory as markers of common memories, as markers that unite, consolidate and build consensus. This social need is most strongly expressed on May 9, Victory Day, undoubtedly the most important national holiday. The anniversary is celebrated not just at the state level, it is also an important event for many families. Victory Day is not only used by political leaders to legitimize their power; it is also an important commemorative event on the grassroots level. And so there are two planes of memory that currently coexist: a  political one, and a communicative, social one.  They may be one format in which the two converge, and this is the Immortal Regiment initiative which was invented in Tomsk in 2012 and quickly spread throughout the former Soviet Union. People parade on the streets carrying portraits of their fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers who took part in the war effort. This movement expresses a personal need to remembers and honor a heroic generation, and it also connects to the political message of “Our Victory”, and the political need to endow the memory of the victory with some sort of sacredness.

With Macedonia the NATO invited its 29th member to the alliance in December 2015. How does this extension affect Russian Society?

I think it is sending a message to Russians, strengthening their perception that Russia is not included in the negotiations about the admission of new members, and Russian views on this matter are not taken seriously. The move will likely enhance Russia’s anti-Western rhetoric.

What effect have the sanctions of the West against Russia had?

The sanctions have hit Russian economy quite hardly, and as such they have had affected wide layers of the Russian population. This in turn has allowed official ideology to sound a more anti-Western propaganda, and to do so effectively. The messages that are being sent out by the state are falling on fertile ground. At the moment, we see a significant deterioration of Russian relations with the West in general, and the United States in particular. There is a widespread public sense that the West is using all available means to hurt Russia and Russians.

What can the West do to improve the relationship with Russia?

There can be two approaches from the West to Russia. If the West sees Russia under Putin as irrational and absolutely evil, as something that can only have negative consequences for the general policy, no strategy can be used at all. If Russia (and I mean not Putin personally, but the ruling elite and the wider public as a whole) is perceived as a rational partner who acts in the service of national interests, this perception could lead to an improvement of mutual relations. Russia would appear in international politics, and its interests would be taken into account.

What could be done to create a unified European commemoration of the Second World War?

I think that, in light of vastly different historical experiences in Western and Eastern Europe. At the risk of oversimplification: the memory of the Holocaust in the West is pitted against the memory of the Gulag in the East.  The European Union defines itself in terms of being „united in diversity,“ and hence it does not strive for a homogenization of diverse memories.  What it seeks to do is to ease the conflict of memories. To achieve this, particular national communities need to recognize and integrate the suffering of others into “their” history; they need to include “other” victims in their historical narrative, thus moving away from a discourse of national victimhood. This discourse must be open to all citizens of nation-states, regardless of their ethnicity.

What do you think are some of the most pressing issues to be discussed at the conference?

How can we recognize different approaches and different concerns in the memories and commemorations of the war? How can we overcome the conflict of narratives? Can the search for, and articulation of, a shared space in historical memory contribute to solving urgent problems in Europe and Russia – the economic crisis, the treatment of refugees, the fight against terrorism, and others?

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