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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The taste of ashes

Marci SHORE: “Communist and Nazi past of Eastern Europe has not been dealt with yet”
18 June, 2014 - 17:47

When the Berlin Wall fell, the future intellectual history professor of Yale University Marci Shore was 17. She was fascinated by the history of Eastern Europe and came to the continent for the first time in 1993. After doing research in the Czech Republic and Poland, she wrote two books which went on to receive numerous awards. The first, named Caviar and Ashes, described the Warsaw 1918-68 generation’s life via biographies of Polish and Polish-Jewish writers. The second book, The Taste of Ashes, is a study of the presence of the Communist and Nazi past in today’s eastern Europe. She intended to write another book this year, but was, like her husband, American historian Timothy Snyder, prevented from carrying out her plan. Shore said that when the Ukrainian revolution had erupted, she had been simply unable to focus on something else. She empathized with Ukrainians and followed the events, arriving in Ukraine to see the situation firsthand and to talk to the revolution’s participants. The Euromaidan events are likely to become part of her book on the phenomenology in Central and Eastern Europe, as Marci Shore aims to use personal stories to give a human face to the revolution. We were able to talk to the American professor in Lviv after a lecture given at the Center for Urban History. Very friendly and open as well as stunningly clever, Shore told us about her understanding of history, the difference between the perception of the past in America and Eastern Europe, and the importance of the Ukrainian revolution in European and global context.

In the preface to your last book you wrote, “Eastern Europe is special. It is Europe, only more so. It is a place where people live and die, only more so. A place between the West and Russia where the past is palpable, and heavy.” In your opinion, is it possible, that history can not only throw the anchor in the past, but also inspire? Ukrainian history in particular.

“Friedrich Nietzsche, in Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie fuer das Leben (1874) tells us that we cannot be happy because we are oppressed by the past. ‘It is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration. He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past, will never know what happiness is – worse, he will never do anything to make others happy.’ Yet of course history has the potential not only to oppress, but also to inspire. We can find anything and everything in the past – good and bad, love and hate, cruelty and compassion, the very best and the very worst in human nature. This is true not only of Ukrainian history, but of history in general. I think I was especially struck by the weight of history in Eastern Europe because I come from a culture that dislikes dwelling on the past. Historical memory tends to be quite thin in the United States. A crisis, a tragedy that took place a year ago is quickly forgotten – or perhaps effectively repressed. Sometimes this is liberating, sometimes it is damaging.

“During my lecture at the Center for Urban History I gave the example of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which resulted in the flooding of the city of New Orleans. Some 20,000 people, perhaps more – largely poor, people who had not had the resources to flee the city earlier – were trapped in the Louisiana Superdome, a huge football stadium. It was August and extremely hot. The toilets overflowed, garbage accumulated, there was little food and not enough water. There were elderly people, sick people, children, babies. There were reports of rapes and suicides. And our president at the time, George W. Bush, simply did not pay very much attention for the first day or two or three. Everyone knew where those people were. We were watching on the news. The federal government could have immediately sent in helicopters with more water, more food, more national guardsmen to protect people. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera makes a famous distinction between people for whom life is light and people for whom life is heavy. President Bush was someone for whom life was light. I was teaching at Indiana University (in the middle of the country) at the time, and watching children dying of thirst in that stadium was a real moral shock for my students, even the ones coming from families who were strong supporters of Bush. I could feel their shock and their horror. While this was happening, one of my students asked me, ‘Professor Shore, the president wouldn’t just let those people die there if they weren’t poor and black, would he?’ And I thought: this is a real shift in consciousness; this has to be the end of the Bush administration, Bush has to be impeached; Americans will not be willing to forget this. But by the time of the next president elections, there was very little mentioned about Hurricane Katrina and the Superdome. Americans forgot about it – or pretended to forget about it. We don’t like to talk about death, we don’t like to think about death. We prefer to forget it all very quickly and pretend it didn’t happen. And perhaps in part for that reason, it was so intriguing for me to come to a part of the world where the past felt so present.”

You said that Americans have a very short memory, citing the example that even the events that happened 5 years ago do not leave a trace in memory. In Ukraine on the contrary, what happened a century ago, still responds to the present. What is the reason for this different perception of the past in your opinion? How far can the memory go?

“I don’t know the answer – or answers – to that question with any certainty. I will say this: the United States is a country built by immigrants; it was built upon a so-called ‘melting pot’ experiment: immigrants were encouraged to forget where they had come from, to start anew, to abandon their former identities, to ‘melt into’ American culture. This was declared to be the condition of possibility for becoming American, and therefore the condition of possibility for success and happiness. And so the project of forgetting has been part of the construction of American identity for a long time.

“I would add that not only the Ukrainian nation-building project, but all of the nation-building projects developing in Central and Eastern Europe through the 19th and 20th centuries were very much concerned with remembering history – or rather remembering a particular version of history. They all shared the conviction that national identity required a very strong historical memory – of a certain kind. The historian Eric Hobsbawn, himself a lifelong Marxist critical of nationalism, once wrote that historians are to nationalism what poppy seed growers are to the opium trade: we historians supply the basic raw material to fuel the market.”

Ukraine for centuries was located at the crossroads of cultures and religions, each era has left its mark on her. As an expert on Eastern Europe, what do you think, in which extent Ukrainian history is a part of European history?

“Ukrainian history is entirely a part of European history. Ukraine, like Poland and other lands in-between Hitler and Stalin, was not on the periphery but at the very center of European history in the 20th century. This was unfortunately the very worst place to be. This was where the most modern social engineering experiments – the abyss of European modernity, the Frankenstein of both Enlightenment and Romanticism – played themselves out.

“This was for me an important point to convey to American readers, for example, in connection with the Jedwabne debate. Well over a decade ago now, the historian Jan T. Gross published a book about a massacre in Jedwabne, a small town in the Polish kresy. It was early July in 1941: Hitler’s Germany had just broken the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression treaty and attacked the Soviet Union. The Red Army had retreated and the Wehrmacht had arrived, although the new occupation regime was not yet quite in place. In this small town, there opened a window of semi-anarchy between two totalitarian occupations. The newly-arrived Germans told the Polish townspeople that they presently had a few days during which they could – in fact, should – take care of the Jews. It began with stoning and lynching, with murders by farm tools. Later the townspeople forced several dozen of the strongest Jewish men to take down the statue of Lenin erected during the Soviet occupation, and carry it to the cemetery, and dig a grave for its burial. Then the Poles threw the bodies of those Jewish men into the same grave. Germans were there, taking photographs. Then, on the afternoon of July 10, the local Poles forced Jedwabne’s several hundred remaining Jews from their homes and into the town square. The townspeople herded their neighbors into a barn. Then they set the barn on fire. You might well already know this story. In any case, when at the time, ten years ago, I wrote an essay about the Jedwabne debate for an American journal, I tried to explain precisely this: that Jedwabne, a tiny town in ‘the backward half of a backward European country,’ as Gross described the kresy, far away from Moscow and Berlin and even far from Warsaw, was passed between Nazism and Stalinism three times. That there was no place more at the center of European history at that moment.”

With books, which have appeared in Polish translation, you have provoked debate about continuity and presence of Marxism, not only in times of communist Poland. In your view, is the communist and Nazi past still present in society in this region?

“Yes, the past certainly is very much still present, as is the ongoing Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung [comprehension of the past. – Ed.] There was a law passed in Poland about seven years in connection with the Instytut Pamieci Narodowej (Institute of National Remembrance). The law stated, ‘Whoever publicly and unjustly accuses the Polish people of participation in, organization of, or responsibility for communist or Nazi crimes is to be punished by up to three years’ imrisonment.’ In response the historian Dariusz Stola wrote an essay in Gazeta Wyborcza in which he said, ‘If no groups of or individual Polish citizens have anything to do with these crimes, why then all this fuss about a wrong communuist regime? For all bad things were done by some aliens, presumebly Martians.’

“Poland’s populist variety of ‘polityka historyczna’ (politics of memory) expresses a deep longing for purity, an attempt to safely reassure oneself that what was bad came from outside. In some sense all nationalist endeavors have this inclination to export guilt, to clearly define the boundaries between inside and outside, and to find a safe place for ourselves inside. In human terms this is very, very understandable. We all want to find a safe place for ourselves in the world. But the tragedy of the human condition is that there is no such safe place.”

As for you, which significance has Ukrainian revolutionary explosion in 2014 in European and global context?

“In some sense I’m poorly placed to answer that question, because in my own family (and my own environment), we paid intensely close attention. The revolution in Ukraine distracted us from everything else we were planning on doing this year. But I suspect that my experience is not representative of either the American or the European experience. After all, I’m a historian of this part of the world, and while I’m not an expert on Ukraine in particular, I felt and feel close to what was and is happening here. And my Polish friends in particular have been mesmerized. I suspect that for some of my Polish friends who are older than I am, who took part in Solidarity movement, what was happening on the Maidan was a certain kind of miracle they had never thought they would witness the second time in their own lifetimes. When everything happened in February, I stopped following the English and German news coverage and for some time just followed the Polish coverage. Gazeta Wyborcza had a live feed that was updated every several minutes. Poles understood that everything was at stake.”

Can you, please, tell us more about the planned project concerning Ukraine?

“It is not a book project. It is more of a deviation from the book that I am supposed to be writing about phenomenology in East-Central Europe. This (currently unwritten) book about phenomenology was the book I had very much wanted to write this year, but I was distracted by your revolution. It was impossible not to pay attention. And it was impossible not to realize that something extraordinary was happening. I began to think about what I could write, what I could do. I am not a political scientist and I don’t feel competent to analyze political events in real time, as they occur. To truly understand geopolitics today you have to understand economics, and the world economy. And my understanding of economics is very weak. But the thought occurred to me what I love doing most as a historian, and what perhaps I do know how to do, is to write about ideas through the prism of individuals and individual lived experience. And so I began to think about how I could write about the meaning(s) of this revolution – about ideas, desires, ambivalences, and ambiguities – through the prism of individual experiences. So I’m working now on an essay about the Ukrainian revolution in a sense from the perspective of pure subjectivity. What I always see as my task as a historian is to write in such a way that my readers (and I’m an American writing in English, so when I think of my readers I tend to think first of Americans) can make an imaginative leap into a time and a place where they themselves weren’t. It’s an effort at understanding. And that understanding (ever necessarily imperfect) requires empathy, and requires that people about whom I write become real, live, complex subjects for my readers.”

By Olesia YAREMCHUK, The Day
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