Posts Tagged 'politics of memory'

Decommunisation

In the village, decommunisation continues apace. The statue of Lenin has been cut down by local stonemasons. Yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags fly from houses. In the old cemetery there’s a new memorial to the Holodomor (the Soviet engineered famine of the 1930s). It says ‘We’ll always remember and we won’t allow you to forget’. There are many new memorials in the new cemetery too, to more recent deaths. Nina’s street, 1 May, is the latest to be renamed, after the village’s first fatality of the current war in the east – or at least the first to die while in service; two other veterans have died since they came home.

potiivka ATO graves

Graves for veterans of the war in east Ukraine

The village’s longest street, an earthen track running straight out into flat fields and marshland, doesn’t have to be renamed; it’s called Shevchenko, after the Ukrainian poet. Nina told me a childhood story about the very last house on this road:

“We went there for my father’s birthday, in secret. He was a communist. His birthday was on the 6th of January, and Orthodox Christmas was on 7th January, so all his life he was afraid to celebrate in case people thought we were celebrating Christmas. I remember going to my aunt’s house, which was the furthest house in the whole village, and my father took us such a roundabout route past the cemetery and through the fields so no one would see us. The house was one big room inside, with a stove and curtains to make room divisions. The main thing I remember is the music from the victrola.”

Nina, now nearly 70, left the village as a young woman to work in Kriviy Rih in the industrial east of Ukraine. When she arrived people called her a ‘Banderovka’, a vague half-joke, half-insult (it means a follower of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Bandera) that she didn’t even understand at the time. Everyone there spoke Russian, so she did too. She became head of a Trade Union and organised Soviet parades for 1 May.

Now that she has moved back to her native village, she speaks the local Ukrainian surzhik again and laughs a little at the loud new-found Ukrainian patriotism of her old friends from Kriviy Rih. “They’re a bit like children, always looking round to make sure you’ve noticed what they’re doing.”

Much of Nina’s life in the village is an uncovering or recreating of childhood memories – new memories laid over old ones, until it’s not clear what’s true now and what was true then, because so much of her childhood was based on secrets and evasions. “My grandmother died of hunger,” she told me this time, when I mentioned the new Holodomor memorial; she’d never told me that before. This time she also said “I suppose my parents were informers.”

Her communist-card carrying, ex-Red Army officer father was married to the village midwife, a surprisingly good post for the daughter of an enemy of the people: Nina’s grandfather, arrested and shot in 1938, about whom the whole family kept silent for years. The family was the first in the village to have a pram; as a child Nina remembers allowing the other village kids to take turns pushing her baby sister in it. Yes, I suppose it’s quite possible her parents were informers.

potiivka carts

As I walk along the long, long road that’s called Shevchenko I pass horse-drawn carts, their use and design scarcely altered since before communism arrived. The bundled-up drivers turn to stare at me. Old women in ancient, ageless felt valenky and headscarves ask me where I’m going, and – suspiciously – why I’m taking photographs. It’s hard to explain where I’m going, since when I finally reach it, the house at the very end is a ruin. All that’s beyond is acres and acres of bleak, flat, snowy country. A flock of bullfinches bounces on willow branches, rose-red breasts puffed out with the cold. They’re the smartest brightest thing in the world.

When I tell Nina about them later, she smiles over happy childhood memories of these birds in the yard of the family house. “You’re lucky you saw them before the khokhly [a pejorative name for Ukrainians] caught and ate them,” she said. “They don’t touch the blue tits of course. Because they’re yellow and blue.”

potiivka winter field

 

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Unity

Ukrainian Unity Day. In central Dnipro, by the new memorial to those killed in the east Ukraine war, a small group of mostly pensioners are singing cheerful Ukrainian folk songs under the blue and yellow national and red and black UPA (insurgent army) flags. The accordionist stops playing, blowing on cold fingers. “No, more!” shout some of the women in their bright traditional shawls. He starts up again, and they launch happily into a Soviet World War Two song about red partisans.

Heroes don’t die, the memorial says in English and French and German and Ukrainian. I’m searching the many glass panels, trying to work out where the local authorities had to hurriedly take down some names and faces, after ceremoniously opening the memorial without informing families who believe their sons or husbands to be missing, that they’d included them among the glassy rows of dead. I’m searching too for the name and face of a soldier whose funeral I went to in 2015. The missing aren’t there anymore, and he isn’t there either.

dnipro memorial singers

Later I take a bus travelling further east towards the frontline. At a military police checkpoint outside Pokrovsk (which everyone on the bus including the driver still calls Krasnoarmeisk, or red army) all the men are taken off the bus. It’s minus five and snowing. The men are searched right there by the side of the road – buttons undone, belts unbuckled. Finally they get back on, all except one boy of maybe twenty. The driver drives off.

Passengers: Wait! You left one behind!

Driver: the fuck I care if the cops found a problem with his documents

Passenger: But his phone’s still here

Driver: the fuck I care

He stops, and a passenger grabs the phone and runs back with it. The two men sitting behind me are muttering: how many other check points? Two, I think. Jesus…

On and on along dark snowy roads, through more than two checkpoints with soldiers muffled in capes and balaclavas. In every bus station toilet two or three semi-stray dogs are curled up in cardboard boxes. There are fairy lights in apartment windows. Bullet holes in the walls. The snowflakes fall and fall, perfectly shining tiny stars. The bus driver stops and gives a free ride to two men the same age as the one who was detained at the checkpoint, whose car has broken down.

Ukrainian unity. There’s the story of how Ukrainian independence was declared on 22 January 1917. You can read about it on the website of the Ukrainian Institute of Memory. There’s the story linking that through the red-and-black UPA flag to east Ukraine today, and all those glassy faces of the dead. And then there’s the faces that aren’t on the glass and the faces that had to be removed. The towns with their new old names, the Ukrainian folk songs and the Russian red army songs. The people who don’t care and who care. There’s this, which doesn’t pretend to be a story at all.

dnipro memorial

 

 

 

 

The politics of memory II (don’t mention the war)

Last week on 9 May millions of people in Russia and former Soviet states joined ‘immortal regiment’ marches, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War 2. With each year that the war gets further and further away, more and more people turn out on these marches. They march in identical crowds holding identical placards: the black and white faces of millions of people who killed or died or disappeared or got medals or were deported or deported others or made a black market fortune or lost everything or fell in love or were raped or told magnificent war stories or never, ever talked about the war.

They marched in Chechnya, without a mention of the Chechens deported in 1944, or a single picture of the thousands who died and disappeared in two more recent wars with Russian forces. They marched in Crimea, and dressed up their children in Red Army hats, and wore the same striped ribbons worn by modern fighters waging a senseless war against children of the same Red Army soldiers in mainland Ukraine. They repeated identical phrases about solidarity and patriotism and pride in their ancestors.

In Russian-annexed Crimea you’re actively encouraged to mention the war. But only if you remember it in the right way.

Today, 18 May, is the day the Soviet NKVD and Red Army deported the Crimean Tatars, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Germans from Crimea in 1944, for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. There aren’t any marches in Crimea today to commemorate this event. Instead there are police cars and FSB (the successor to the NKVD/KGB), anonymous denunciations and warnings from the prosecutors office that any public action today may be considered an extremist or terrorist offence.

crimea terrorism monument

Crimean myth-making: 2016 site in Simferopol for a monument ‘for innocent victims of terrorism, and security and law enforcement agency staff who lost their lives in the line of  duty in the fight against terrorism’

One of the aspects of the deportation I still find hardest to grasp is the men and women from these ethnic groups who were fighting in the Red Army in 1944. At the same time as they were at last becoming victorious heroes, who will go on to become black-and-white faces in ‘immortal regiment’ marches, their families were deported as traitors – even they themselves were deported for treason, when the war was over and they were of no more use as soldiers.

The same authorities that needed them as heroes to win a war then, and still needs them now, also needed them and needs them still to be the villains, fifth columnists, extremists and terrorists.

I can imagine the deportation, I think, sort of and inadequately. But my imagination fails when it comes to a man from a Red Army regiment whose family disappears in Soviet-liberated Crimea while he fights all the way to Berlin. How did he feel? How could he bear it? How could he keep wearing that uniform and follow orders and be so obedient?

I tried to retell this story – one of several told to me in Crimea – in Dream Land; here’s the excerpt although I don’t think it’s a very succesful part of the book, because actually I simply can’t imagine it.

“Did you go up on Mangup-Kalye? What did you find?”

“A cemetery,” Safi said glumly. She didn’t really want to be reminded of those tombstones, mossy and tumbled on their cold carpet of flowers.

But Refat was interested. “I wonder who’s buried there. Let’s ask your Grandfather about it.”

…“My best friend once came looking for my grave there there,” grandpa said… “My friend Ayder came from the war to find us, but he was too late, and we had all gone.

“[Ayder] defended the Soviet Union against the Germans. Alongside him fought Russians and Chechens, Ukrainians and Uzbeks, Azeris and Armenians. It didn’t matter. They were all from the Soviet Union. They all wanted the same thing: to get the German fascists out of their country so they could return to their families; to stay alive.

“Ayder was in Azerbaijan with his unit when an Azeri officer, a Muslim like him, said he should go back to Crimea as fast as he could. He said he’d heard something about the Crimean Tatars, and he’d help Ayder get leave to go home before it was too late. But he didn’t say what it might be too late for.

“It was June 1944; Crimea had just been liberated from the Germans when Ayder arrived, met by the smell of roses. The flags welcoming the returning Red Army hung limp in the streets. Everywhere walls were shattered by bullets and bombs. From lamp posts dangled the stiff, dry bodies of collaborators.”

… “At his mother’s house in Akmesjit, the door was locked. Next door was empty too. There were no Tatar children playing in the yard. It was as if they had all stepped out for something, and if he waited they would come back. But he did wait, and no one came. Ayder was wearing his uniform, which made him look like any other soldier defending the Soviet Union, but the Russians and Ukrainians avoided his eye, and hurried away when he approached. All through the city was the same. The Tatar houses stood deserted; when he peered through the windows he could see the kind of mess people leave when they are in a hurry and expect to be back soon to tidy up.

“My friend thought perhaps the Tatars had fled the fighting and gone to the villages for refuge. So he came out here, to Adym-Chokrak. But here too, all he found was empty houses and silence, and up on Mangup-Kalye he found a cemetery. It wasn’t a Tatar cemetery, but there was nowhere else to look, nowhere else we could be. Ayder searched there for his family, for my grave, my mother’s grave, the graves of all the vanished Crimean Tatars.”

The silence of those narrow stone beds up on the hillside. Imagine the silence of a whole village emptied of people, the beds in the houses unslept in and stony cold. Safi wished more than ever that they’d never found the graveyard.

“But you weren’t buried there, Khartbaba,” she said.

“No. And it was our Karaim neighbour who told Ayder what had happened… Old Gulnara Tata tended the graveyard on Mangup, even though no one remembers who is buried there any more. She found my friend there, crying as he searched, and she told him, ‘They took all the Crimean Tatars away. Red Army soldiers, like you. Some people say they drowned them in the Caspian Sea, or took them to Siberia.’

… “Ayder had nothing but his army uniform and his soldier’s papers. He went back to his unit, and a few months later he was sent west to the Front. He was with the Red Army when it marched into Berlin.

…“He had always thought he was the same as all the other soldiers, wanting only to free their homeland and return to their families. But while he’d been struggling to stay alive, the Soviets had taken away his homeland and given it to the Russians,” grandpa said. “After the war, he too was exiled to Uzbekistan. He kept on searching, and in 1950 he found me and my mother. His own family vanished for ever. He never even found their graves.”

karaim cemetery

Karaim graves, Bakhchisaray, Crimea

Here is a first-hand account of a similar, even more shocking story. Note the tone – no blame, no anger, no analysis either from the narrator or from anyone within his narration (other than an Odessan Jew who wraps up his response in a metaphor about black smoke) –  just a kind of matter-of-fact numbness. It reads to me like the testimony of a person still, decades later, in total shock.

“They gave us shovels, and we dug holes in the ground, erecting the posts and enclosing the area with barbed wire. Thus we imprisoned ourselves, surrounded by barbed wire.”

In these stories I think you can read the whole human trauma of the Soviet Union, which taught its people to obey and admire the thing that destroyed them, and feel proud and patriotic to belong to a black-and-white story commemorated with millions of black-and-white faces, while the shades of grey and unbearable darkness are banished now as then by police cars and security services, prosecutors notices and anonymous denunciations and arrests.

crimea adym chokrak well

Well – all that is left of the Crimean Tatar village of Adym- Chokrak. After the inhabitants were deported in 1944 the village was bulldozed.

(On a side note, long ago when I started asking in Crimea about the Crimean Tatar deportation I was struck by the similarity between the Russian word for traitor (predatel’) and for legend or tale (predanie). I presume – a philologist can put me right – they come from the same root as peredat’, to give or pass on, but on the level of historical memory and myth-making in Crimea it still strikes me as very strangely and ironically apt.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living memory II

In August 2014 I wrote this piece about Slavyansk museum in east Ukraine, where staff were collecting artefacts from the three months the town lived under pro-Russian/separatist/rebel/insurgent/take-your-pick rule before being retaken by the Ukrainian army.

With director Lilya Zander I discussed the difficulties of making any coherent historical narrative out of recent events, and the problematic labelling of objects when opinion is so freshly, painfully divided and words are weapons more effective than bullets. And I asked her what the exhibition would be called.

Over a year later, I visited the completed, untitled exhibition. The museum has got round the problem of narrative by scarcely offering any narrative at all, and the problem of labelling by providing consistently inconsistent labelling. This is a war exhibition which never mentions the word ‘war’; an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ exhibition which calls the object of the operation ‘fighters’ or ‘separatists’ more often than ‘terrorists’, an exhibition of occupation and liberation which lines up the most deadly weapons on the side of the ‘liberators’ and calls the dead simply ‘victims of armed conflict’.

“Where are the pictures of civilian casualties?” one of the museum staff said, when I told her about the article I wrote.

There were no such images in the exhibition. “Has the museum collected such pictures?” I asked.

“Oh yes. We can’t show them. No one knows how many died, they say around 120 but no one knows, no one wants to admit it. And no one will ever get any compensation.”

I tried to ask her whose decision it had been not to show pictures of casualties, and if the exhibition had divided the staff. “Are you asking me my opinion of what happened?” she said sharply. “My opinion is that they had no right to bomb us.”

slavyansk museum hall

An elderly woman was visiting the exhibition with her grandson. “This is what they shot with,” she said to him, as they wandered from left (covering the Ukrainian army’s period of retaking the city) to right (about the other side, and the time leading up to that) and back again. “This is what they wore.” “These are the leaflets they printed.” “This is what they ate.” It was a weirdly pointless and neutral commentary. I asked where she was from – Lisichansk, on Ukraine controlled territory of Luhansk, near the line that increasingly separates one reality from another.

“What do you think of the exhibition?”

“I always visit the museum first in every town I visit. It’s important to know history,” she said.

Her grandson took pictures of the dummy dressed in ‘separatist’ uniform, practically identical to the dummy in Ukrainian army uniform in the opposite corner. “Pray god all this never happens again,” said the woman, the only comment with any emotion or opinion in it I heard her make.

‘Badges and chevrons of the Ukrainian armed forces and volunteer divisions’

‘badges and chevrons of seperatist formations’

I tried to imagine what a visitor from the future, or from another country, uninformed about these events, would learn from the exhibition. I had to conclude they would learn pretty much nothing.

Some unnumbered and unnamed people held a referendum for confused anti-European reasons which their own leaflets do not make at all clear; there is some mention of fascists; they built barricades with portraits of Lenin and Orthodox icons and Russian flags; they used Russian army medical supplies and soviet-era rifles, and produced militant recruitment fliers copied from the posters of Hollywood action flicks. On the opposite side the Ukrainian army and unexplained ‘volunteer brigades’, eating American army rations and firing gigantic Soviet ‘hurricane’ rockets, lost in some unexplained way a helicopter, lost named men, gave out bread and soup and produced anti-propaganda propaganda leaflets. Someone put up a small monument somewhere, to unnumbered and unnamed civilian casualties ‘of armed conflict’.

I don’t mean all this as a criticism of the exhibition, exactly. History is written by the victors, but in Slavyansk museum I sense that no one is sure who the victors are, only who are the losers. No information, no certainty, scarcely any judgement. Just objects.

When I asked the director last year what the exhibition could be called, she said, “Trophies from an incomprehensible war.”

'In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014

‘In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014’

 

The politics of memory

There’s a very interesting post here on the ‘politics of memory’, or, how the way a country chooses to view its past will dictate its present – in this case, looking at how Ukraine views (or ignores) the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

I have come across the politics of memory repeatedly these last few weeks in Crimea, not just in regard to the Crimean Tatars but also to the other nationalities that have called Crimea home: Greeks, Byzantines, Goths, Khazars, Russians, Krymchaks, Karaims…

To my dreamy novelist’s eye, some of these nationalities sound half-mythical, drowned in the mists of ancient history. But there is no such thing as ancient history. The stories we tell ourselves about what happened in the past shape who we are in the present.

Paul Goble in his post is kind enough to cite the Crimean Tatar translation of Dream Land as a small but positive sign that the 1944 deportation is beginning to enter Ukrainian popular culture, thus initiating a change in Ukraine’s politics of memory. He’s quite right to point out that a Ukrainian translation would be more significant.

Another important sign is the 2013 release of a new film about the Crimean Tatar deportation, which I’ll write about in my next post.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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