Images of the Past:

The Political Relevance of History in Post-Socialist Change

International seminar in Tallinn, 18-19 September, 1998

It is commonly known, that in the socialist countries, historiography was subjected to important political constraints. That resulted in important discrepancies between the Western, emigrée and domestic views on the histories of those countries; there were also important differences between the official history, and private memories of the population. Starting with the gradual abolition of censorship in late 1980s, the Western historiography became more widely known and accepted in Central and Eastern European publicity, at the same time as new views of history started to emerge among historians, intellectuals and civic activists in the socialist countries themselves. The change in history-writing played an important political role also, as it provided arguments for criticism against the communist system, and elements for the formation of new identities. Now, some years after the fall of communism, much of the Central and Eastern European history has been reassessed. The time for meta-level analysis of the role of history-writing in the transforming societies seems also to have arrived.

The topicality of this theme is well illustrated by the fact, that during a short period, several different events have focused on it. Changes in Baltic history-writing was the proposed subject of this years’ Baltische Studientage (Forum Balticum), originally planned for September 1998; because of unexpected practical reasons it had, however, to be postponed for July, 1999. In Tallinn, an international seminar on ”Images of the Past: The Political Relevance of History in Post-Socialist Change” took place on 18-19 September. It can even be mentioned, that one week later, the Finnish-Estonian friendship society ”Elias Lönnrot Society” celebrated its anniversary in Tartu with a series of lectures on changes in Finnish and Estonian history-writing.

The seminar ”Images of the Past” was arranged by the Estonian Institute of Humanities (Eesti Humanitaarinstituut), a non-governmental, non-profit organisation founded in 1988, that offers university courses and university degrees in a number of human sciences, including history and sociology. The subject of the seminar was the different uses of history in directing, legitimating and criticizing the post-socialist changes in politics, economy and society. Evidently, the cultural, symbolic and identity-building aspects of the post-socialist change deserve more attention than hitherto, and the uses of historical consciousness play here an important part.

The seminar was arranged as a series of six presentations of research papers with subsequent discussions on two days. The public consisted of around sixty mostly Estonian scholars and students, and the lecturers included Kristian Gerner (Uppsala), Elena Hellberg-Hirn (Helsinki), Mikko Lagerspetz (Tallinn), Jonas Oskinis (Kaunas), Erle Rikmann (Tallinn) and George Schöpflin (London). The aim was not to gather a very large quantity of participants, but to enable serious discussion on the basis of written research papers, which were available in advance.

The first paper was presented by Prof. Dr. Mikko Lagerspetz, since September 1998 the Rector of the Estonian Institute of Humanities, and bore the title ”Post-Socialism as a Return: Notes on a Discursive Strategy”. His paper examined the uses of the metaphor of ”return” in political and scholarly discourse describing recent Central and Eastern European development. It was noted, that in addition to the modernization theory, that often is used for interpreting post-socialist change, also ”return theories” have been frequently used, either as warning for the surfacing of ”primordial” nationalist sentiment, or as referring to the return of some positive aspects of pre-war Central and Eastern European societies. Prof. Lagerspetz distinguished between the views of post-socialism as a way back to historical ”truth”, to the roots of the ”nation”, to a ”normal” society, and finally, as a way back to ”Europe”. After discussing them and illustrating them by examples, he noted, that even what is usually regarded as historical ”truth”, enables several, sometimes diametrically opposed, ways of interpretation; a reference was made, e.g., to the divergence between Lithuanian and Belarusan views on the proper inheritor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus’ and Samogithia. The discursive strategy of ”return” can, thus, be used for very different purposes. In the post-socialist countries, it has been used with some success to support the (re-) introduction of capitalism and the Western brand of democracy, by rendering them a sort of traditional legitimation they seriously are in need for. But the discursive strategy of return is available for conservative Communist and extremist movements, too. The different uses and different users of that strategy deserve to be studied also in order for us not to repeat the history, but to learn from it.

Prof. Dr. Elena Hellberg-Hirn, from the Alexander Institute for Eastern European studies in Helsinki, presented an analysis of the development of Russian state symbols under the title ”The Return of the Eagle”. She gave an overview of the debate in the 1990s over new state symbols, thoroughly discussing the political connotations of different proposals. The inclination of President Yeltsin and the Russian power elite to utilise imperial symbols was interpreted as serving the purpose of legitimating strong central power and future imperial ambitions. First and foremost, it means that the imperial identity (imperskoe soznanie) of the power elite, and not a democratic development of the Russian federation, has been symbolically boosted. But the need for legitimating and identity-building symbols is all the more important, because the rapid social change has made Russia ”a foreign country even for Russians”. Prof. Hellberg-Hirn ended her presentation by claiming, that those who have the power to control the past are able to control the present and, perhaps, even the future.

The topical question of EU enlargement was treated in the following paper, presented by Prof. Dr. Kristian Gerner from the Institution for Eastern European Studies of the University of Uppsala. The paper titled ”Piast and Jagiello, Árpád and Stephen: Historical Myths and EU Integration” made a comparison of the historical myths of Hungarian and Polish nations. The formation of the Polish historical identity has become to be tied to two royal dynasties, one (Piastian) from the west and one (Jagiellonian) from the east. Whereas Piastian dynasty had contacts mainly with Western and Baltic areas, Jagiellonian dynasty was turned towards the Lithuanian and Ruthenian Eastern frontier, and towards the Black Sea (Miedzymorze). Whereas the state under the Piastian dynasty was Polish, centralist, and overwhelmingly Catholic, the Jagiellonian period of Polish history was characterised by multinationalism, federalism and pluralism. When assessing the present political orientation of Poland, prof. Gerner suggested that it can be described as following the Piastian alternative. A ”defensive Jagiellonianism” characterises Poland’s eastern policy, however. In a similar manner, Hungarian history can be described as dialectics between the myths of the founding father Árpád and St. Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary. The ancestry myth ties Árpád to the East, to nationalism, and to Transylvania. The christening of Saint Stephen contacts him to multinationalism in the framework of the Catholic Habsburg Empire, and to the urban and royal environment of Budapest. In the contemporary process of European integration, the westerner Saint Stephen has come to the foreground in Hungary - similarily to the rise of the westerner Piast in Poland. However, as prof. Gerner noted in the subsequent discussion, the multinationalist connotations of Saint Stephen make him a more suitable myth to be used in the EU environment, than the nationalist and centralist myth of the Piastian dynasty.

Ms. Erle Rikmann, from the Estonian Institute of Humanities, discussed the role of political influences in the construction of peoples’ personal biographical narratives, in her paper titled ”Retroactive History and Personal Memory”. On the basis of her in-depth-interviews with eight persons who played important roles in the cultural and educational spheres of the Estonian Soviet Republic, she analysed the ways in which politics was mirrored in their personal life-stories. She identified different interpretation schemes, by which the narrator was able to motivate and legitimate her/his actions during the Soviet régime. These included their references to the so-called ”Lithuanian example”, which they presented as a strategy of defending Estonian national values by joining the Communist Party and intending to take it over from Russians and Russian Estonians. By making comparisons between the personal biographies and the historical discourse after independence, Ms. Rikmann came to the conclusion, that a new kind of hegemony, or ”monistic way of thinking” is emerging in Estonia, making it difficult for many of the old generation of intellectuals and administrators to justify their actions during the Soviet rule.

The second day of the seminar was started by the presentation of Mr. Jonas Oskinis, then working at the Comparative Civilizations Centre of the University of Klaipeda, now doctoral candidate at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. His paper ”Nothing in Common” dealt with the popular images of interwar, Soviet and contemporary Lithuania. It was based on text analysis of twenty most popular Lithuanian printed media sources from the first half of 1998. When, first, the media image of interwar Lithuania is concerned, it seems that there is a lot of controversy and indecisiveness. However, a shift from ”Smetona revival” to an evident skepticism over his policies and style of governance is clearly visible. The view emphasizing interwar Lithuania’s economic backwardness and poverty seems to have pushed aside the previous view of that period as the ”Golden Age” of Lithuanian economy. On the other hand, the educational development of interwar Lithuania is usually presented in a more positive light. The image of the Holocaust in mass media was characterised as ranging ”from ’no guilt’ claims to the peculiar form of ’anti-semitism without Jews’ - the tendency to accuse the victims”. Soviet Lithuanian times were discussed from the point of view of cultural life rather than the political realm. The period from 1954 to 1968 was very scarcely covered in the popular press. In all discourse treating the Lithuanian past, the notion of statehood played an important role. Mr. Oskinis also made a remark on the mass media’s tendencies to stress the uniqueness of Lithuanian character, and to dichotomize between villains and great men, between Lithuanians and enemies. However, the new international influences and the growing of new generations seem to predict an end to the ”ritualisation” of Lithuanian past.

As the last presentation of the seminar, a paper titled ”Uses of the Past in Inter-Ethnic Relations” was presented by Prof. George Schöpflin from the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, University of London. He started from the remark, that given that there can be no total history, there can be no absolute truth either and no absolute objectivity in the uses of the past. But nevertheless, every community acts as if absolute truth and objective history did exist. This is, in turn, based on the sacralisation of a set of basic norms that are central to that collectivity’s cultural reproduction. This is the world of doxa or of implicit meanings, or, at a more banal level, of common sense. It should not be regarded as manifestations of irrationality, but as structured by the rationality of cultural reproduction. Because the past can be used to underpin those basic norms, its uses become an inescapable aspect of identity-construction and, necessarily, an aspect of power. In inter-ethnic relations, the stronger group may try to deny the weaker group the capacity to control its own past. Prof. Schöpflin used the Hungarian-Rumanian and Anglo-French relations as examples of controversies there contrasting claims of the past are involved. However, both examples could also be used to show, that despite the irreconcilability of the competing historical discourses, action that will result in violence can be successfully avoided.

The final discussion touched a number of matters, including the question of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, when compared with the atrocities taking place in former Yugoslavia today. The possibility or impossibility of establishing objective historical truth was once more discussed. Despite the variety of the themes discussed at the seminar, a theoretical starting-point, quite clearly common for all of the lecturers, could be identified. It comes close to the constructionist view of history and social reality as results of interpretation by social actors.

The arrangements of the seminar were supported by the Open Estonia Foundation, the Swedish Institute, and the Information Bureau of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Estonian versions of the papers of Ms. Rikmann and Prof. Lagerspetz were published in Vikerkaar 10-11/1998 and 1/1999, respectively. The original English version of the latter will be published in Eastern European Politics and Societies (Vol. 13, No. 1). At least some more of the papers will also be published during 1999 as a special issue of the Finnish Review of East European Studies.

A continuation for the seminar has been planned for the end of March, 2000, with the focus on Images of the Future: The use of utopias and dystopias in post-socialist politics.

Mikko Lagerspetz