Contested Memories - or Where does Nostalgia Lead us?

Contested Memories – or Where does Nostalgia Lead us?

The transition dialogues are about experiences and memories about the very recent  history. For Ukraine, the communist past is a taboo issue, only fragments appear on the surface, but trigger conflicts in families and entire regions. Clashing beliefs about the past are not new and and have become an obstacle to mutual understanding within society – as you can read from the voices below. We were diving into the see of thoughts of the Ukrainians about Soviet times.

Voices below are taken from are discussion on the eve of 2017 in the Kiev “Museum of Dreams” – a museum that is exploring how the dream meets reality in human life. Could there be a better place to talk about the time of change since the end of communism?

How to Remember Communism?

Tatyana (born 1957): Communism was only good because we were young

“It scares me speaking with people who are 20-30 years old, and they tell me how cool it was in the Soviet time, how lucky it was, not such a cannibalistic time. I studied in Leningrad, and went through Moscow [in the time after the end of communism]. And I remember I saw happy people on Gorky Street. […] And when I hear of this young nostalgia, I ask again: “Wait, you are 30 years, how do you know what it was like back then?” I had a conversation yesterday. And one woman told me, “I understand everything, I understand, but in that time I was young!” – “Of course, that’s great, but the youth does not return. Do you want to get back to those circumstances instead?”. So go back to youth, yes! But it would be good if there was also a thing like the internet back then (all laugh). Because now I can go to any museum, walk around any city online.”

Victoria (1981): Things would have changed anyway – with or without the Soviet Union

“But imagine if it was the Soviet Union, but with what we have now. Perhaps the Union would rethink itself as a country. We are simply different, as a whole […]. Perhaps the Union would now have the same challenges, the Union would also change.”

Victoria (1970): You were not at the elections in the Soviet Union.

Elena (1982): I remember – caviar, music. Everybody went to eat there.

Tetyana (1957): Suddenly election results depended on the people’s choice

After 1985 my  first impression – a congress of deputies. I was in Kherson and was walking along the Ushakov’s street. There were no mobile phones, but  small receivers, that shouted out to the whole Ushakov’s about the  candidates. People listened. They wanted change. Then they were all waiting. We then first realized that something now depends on us. We realized that the election would not be approved by a district committee member. It was great what happened that time. People listened and turned around.

We all love to believe in illusions

What would happen if people in 1914 would have been prepared for what would be in 1917? If people would have anticipated this terrible transformation [the tough time of revolution, shortage of food and civil war]? They probably also would have thought that this would be over eventually and all would be all well in the end. I also once had this illusion . Now I know that there is no stability – history never ends. Ludmyla spoke about absence of ideology. But there is a humanist ideology, we all believe in people. We all want a good world, warm and well for everybody. It’s also an ideology, but it is good.

Clashing values, clashing generations

During the discussion, a conflict evolved between two women – Victoria, born in 1970, and Ludmyla, born in 1981 – about the question, if there was a freedom of choice even in the Soviet Union. Was there really no choice in life (says the one born in 1970) or was it just convenient to deny the fact that there is more than one possible way to go (says the one born 1981).

Victoria (1970): “There are things that unite us with the European Union, but there are also our personal changes: changing of values, transition from paternalism to justice.”

Victoria (1980): “You talk about changes of values. What kind of values did Soviet people have?”

Victoria (1970): “First, this is Paternalism. The question of choice for them did not exist.”

Victoria (1980): “This is not a value.”

Tatiana (1957): “The value of the military communism and stability.”

Victoria (1970): “I mean the paradigm of paternalism. Nothing depended on you, they [Soviet power] could give something to you or not. You lived in set frames and they said that you should be comfortable within. This imposed value, which raised more than one generation. Now these people do not have these frames anymore and it’s not comfortable for them. For us however, the main sense is in that change. The more people accept free values, not the values of the Soviet Union, the faster our country will develop.

Ludmyla (1981): We did not just move out of a closed, capsular existence. We actually have changed the ideology [the whole framework of values, the political ideology]. I have no personal experience of living in the ideological space of the Soviet Union. I have not had time to put forward some unwelcome ideas that could be suppressed.  I was too young, just 9 years old. Now we can choose freely. Our mission is to carry this memory.  People are now developing a collective  consciousness [on the past] and this can be dangerous because it can be manipulated.. We must remind people how it really was. The only task I see for the transition generation is this explanation.

What also makes me angry is when people say, that the Soviet people had to act like they did because they grew up with these values. That people had no choice. That is not true! It was just convenient. And even now, people choose what is more convenient – no influence on policy, not affecting anything. This is perceived also normal.  This is a dangerous narrative: to tell people that they have no choice.

Victoria (1970) You have such a position, because you have not lived in that time. Today you said that at the age of  nine you did not have to make a choice. You just did not see that the scope of available information was so  very narrow, as you may not have been aware of the choices that you could theoretically have made.

The time of the 90s that you have experienced is a very different time. When you lived in Soviet Ukraine, you did not even know what was going on in other countries. There was no choice.

Ludmyla (1981) I think, that you just liked to live like that. Sit and wait that someone decides for you. It was comfortable for you.

Victoria (1970) You had no expectations, because you just lived in this system. You just didn’t know any other varieties of existence.

Tatyana (1957): Luda [Ludmyla], if you did not like the government and the system, you simply went to a psychiatrist.

(Ludmyla laughs) Yes, Luda, this is serious, you lived and you had to be happy, because how can a normal person do not like the Soviets? You were considered crazy if you did not like it.