What to Remember versus What to Forget


About the author: Wietse Zwart is a Dutch student at Leiden University, the Netherlands, of the Russian and Eurasian Studies master programme. Part of this programme is an internship abroad, which he is doing at MCERC. Within this programme, he has opted to specialise in Georgian cultural memory, researching such things as the Georgian memory of Stalin, the Georgian memory of the Democratic Republic of Georgia and the Georgian memory of Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.



Despite Georgia’s history going back Millenia, Georgia’s independence in modern times is quite novel. Over thirty years since Georgia broke free from the Soviet Union, the Union’s presence can still be seen and felt throughout Georgia: sometimes overtly, such as in monuments from the time, yet oftentimes much more covertly, by way of indirect legacy. An example of this would be my holiday picture: this picture was taken at the Russian-Georgian friendship monument, next to the main road to Vladikavkaz. Painfully ironic is that this friendship monument is mere kilometres away from South-Ossetia – Samachablo by its Georgian name. This is, of course, quite an overt example of Soviet legacy. Still, Soviet and Russian influence in Georgia is often much more covert, influencing the way Georgians perceive the news, politics, economics, and even their own past.

What is cultural memory?


Cultural memory, first developed in the 19th century under the umbrella term ‘collective memory’, only really took off in the second half of the 20th century. In this sense, the field is relatively new and in combination with often vague terminology, the exact meaning of different terms is still under discussion (Erll, 2010, p. 1). Nevertheless, whilst exact meanings are still under discussion, the terminology is perfectly suitable to apply in practice in most cases. At its core, it could be argued that cultural memory takes the way individual memory functions, and applies it to society. However, whereas individual memory is stored in the brain, cultural memory is stored in society; memory is stored and remembered by engagement between those within this society and thus, cultural memory becomes more of a metaphor for memory, rather than an actual memory: through cultural memory, people are able to ‘remember’ an event they were not involved with in reality (Erll, 2010, pp. 4-5).

With this basic understanding of cultural memory, we can move into the realm of national memory and with it, national identity. National memory is simply collective memory, where a nation is the collective in question. Both the nation and the memory then mutually reinforce each other: the national memory is built, expanded, and kept alive by the nation, whilst the shared national memory reinforces the cohesion of the nation (Harth, 2010, p. 86).


Then, how does a nation remember its national memory? For this, the idea of lieux de mémoires (places of memory) was developed by Pierre Nora. The idea that memories can be evoked in individuals through physical places was already developed in ancient times, however whereas the ancient loci memoriae were very limited in their function of strictly evoking memory, Nora’s lieux de mémoire are not simply there to evoke a memory: they exist to evoke the memory of a narrative (Den Boer, 2010, pp. 20-21). To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the Russian-Georgian friendship monument I mentioned in the introduction: the monument is hardly there to simply evoke memories of the past: displaying scenes from ancient times, mediaeval times, and the victory in World War II, only the last display could even evoke real memories. Rather, the monument exists to promote a narrative, the idea that Russians and Georgians have always worked together: there is no intention to portray the past accurately, the intention is to portray the past the way it suited the state.


Notably, just like the individual memory, the collective memory cannot remember everything. To categorise forms of remembering, we have canons and archives. Canons are forms of active remembering: erecting monuments, celebrating holidays, and teaching children about the national past are examples of how nations actively stimulate the remembrance of the national past. It is worth noting that the canon is highly selective and thus, institutions and states are likely to greatly influence the canon so it aligns with their views and interpretations of national narratives. Archives are the passive side of remembering, and functions as the name implies: memories, or artefacts of memories, are stored and preserved to be rediscovered at a later date, or to slowly be forgotten (A. Assmann, 2010, pp. 97-102).


It is this last word that interests me most: forgetting. Similarly, to active & passive remembrance, there is active & passive forgetting. Passive forgetting lies close to passive remembrance: some artefacts intended for remembrance are simply never retrieved from their storage, lost, or neglected to the point they wither away. Active forgetting is much more interesting: you may put in an effort to remember something, yet trying to forget something is paradoxical: as you engage with anything, you remember it. Putting in an effort so others do not remember something is however much more doable. Members of, in the case of national memory, the nation, have some agency in this: taboos can be formed, or artefacts and lieux de mémoires can be destroyed. The state also has these tools, plus some extra: they can negate memories, for example by choosing not to include a part of history in a school textbook, or they can introduce censorship (A. Assmann, 2010, p. 99).


That is about as brief as I can make an overview of cultural memory studies. The field can be esoteric and convoluted, as it tries to explain in a logical manner why on earth people separated by hundreds of kilometres would feel connected over events that happened hundreds of years ago. Additionally, it is important to note that, even when talking about a national memory, this nation ultimately consists of usually millions of individuals, and it is more than likely that not all of these individuals fully agree with the national memory. This can be the cause for heated discussions - or worse - about the national memory. More so when it comes to the national leadership making decisions with regards to this ‘hot’ national memory.


Outsider’s Perspective of the Georgian Cultural Memory


Cultural memory is fascinating to me, especially in the Georgian context. When doing research into cultural memory in practice, this research will be into the national canon in the majority of cases. Which memories are part of the national canon? Which memories are not part of the national canon? And why are or are they not part of the national canon? And does the entire nation agree with what is and is not remembered? These questions I have tried to answer in the past in case studies within the Georgian context, and since Georgia has such a turbulent recent past, I intend to do so going forward. To show what I mean, I have selected some of the interesting findings I have made so far.


  • The Georgian Memory of Stalin


The Georgian Memory of Stalin was the subject of my bachelor thesis. I had picked this subject because I wondered if he still enjoyed any popularity in his country of birth. As to be expected, previous research into this subject had largely focussed on his hometown, Gori, and the museum dedicated to him there. On the other side of the spectrum, the museum of Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi. This left me with two issues: one issue being that I only had an idea of significant lieux de mémoire, but not of the opinions of anyone else in Georgia, the other issue being that I would have to try to differentiate between the Georgian memory of Stalin, and the Georgian memory of the Soviet Union. The first issue is a difficult one to tackle: it is impossible to ask every Georgian about their opinion on Stalin. Still, a study by Gugushvili et al. (2015) did provide some insights into the matter, by doing quantitative field research in which they interviewed around 2500 people around Georgia. One of their findings, for example, was the correlation between the distance to urban centres and support for Stalin. It is researches like these that emphasise that nations are not necessarily united on the perception of the past, and that a student in “Vake park” will likely describe the past wildly differently from the elderly men outside a village near Gori. In addition, the researchers made a very interesting remark on what to remember, and what to forget: a Georgian nationalist in favour of Russian cooperation might emphasise Stalin was Georgian and led the Soviet Union, whilst tactically ignoring the murders and terror. The other issue was memory’s conjoining: you can hardly think of Stalin without thinking of the Soviet Union. And, if you are in a situation where you want to either defend a positive memory of the Soviet Union or seek to dismantle positive memories of the Soviet Union, the memory of Stalin becomes a tool in this, rather than a focal memory itself. The Museum of Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi would be a good example: the museum lists Soviet atrocities all the way from 1921 to 1991, and Stalin is just another argument. And not just for the Soviet past: for while the memory of Stalin is tied to the memory of the Soviet Union, the memory of the Soviet Union in turn is tied to the memory and perception of relations between Russia and Georgia (Batiashvili, 2019).


  • The Georgian memory of the first Democratic Republic of Georgia


The second major subject of Georgian national memory I researched was the Georgian memory of the first Democratic Republic of Georgia, referring to the independent Georgian republic which existed from 1918-1921. More specifically, I did a case study on the ‘Republic 100’ series by Civil Georgia: this series consisted in part of news articles from the time, in part of essays and expert interviews. The Georgian memory of this DRG was, as I saw it, marked by its absence: learning about the DRG, it became evident it was a country which was, certainly for its time, progressive, equal, and democratic. For a brief moment in time, packed tightly between the violently dissolving Russian and Ottoman empires, Georgia could be seen as a beacon of liberty. Yet nowadays, instead of making the memory of the DRG a core part of the Georgian national canon, to make it a memory to be proud of and to emulate, the memory is simply absent. Why? The answer is twofold: the first part of the answer is that the memory of the DRG was actively erased by the Soviet Union. The second part is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgian politicians, including the first president of Georgia Zviad Gamsakhurdia, perceived the DRG as socialist, yet did not differentiate between the social democracy of the DRG and the Leninism of the Bolsheviks. Possibly, this was because of a lack of knowledge, as historians had been educated in the Soviet Union, which omitted the history of the DRG from Georgian memory, and when they were interested in the DRG, the hardships of the 90’s made it difficult to study this time period (Gente et al., 2018). Nevertheless, Georgian historians are now starting to properly examine the DRG, and their findings are worth keeping an eye out for.


  • The Georgian memory of Zviad Gamsakhurdia


For now, for my master thesis I am researching the case of the Georgian memory of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Frankly, I have had many moments where I deeply regretted picking this subject. Not because it isn’t an interesting subject - quite the contrary. The problem is that his memory is not only still ‘hot’, it is sometimes even painful: when remembering Gamsakhurdia, you do not simply remember Gamsakhurdia: it fits in a context of the violent repression by Soviet troops, in a context of war in Georgia (particularly in Abkhazia and Samachablo) and finally in a context of civil war between his supporters and opponents. Moreover, even if the violence of this period did not affect individual Georgians, the difficulty of the time as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union – unemployment, food shortage, electricity shortage - also provides a difficult contextual memory. On top of that, Gamsakhurdia can be remembered for different reasons: he can be remembered as a writer, a nationalist philosopher, a dissident, a democratically elected president, or an authoritarian dictator for others, or almost any combination of these denominations, depending on who you ask. Researching his memory, it seems there are only scraps to be found. There seems to be very little academic work on him, and searching for such things as his statue or monument yields particularly little: in Tbilisi, he has an embankment named after him, and Saakashvili had him reburied in the Mtatsminda Pantheon, later also awarding him the title of National Hero. In Zugdidi, a museum has been dedicated to him for a couple of years. And that’s about it.


Facing the Past


First of all: I am not saying Georgia should make up for lost time and start commemorating either the DRG or its first president as a hero properly: not when there are still so many unknowns about these periods. After all, the history of Georgia over the last century has not been easy.


Until today, how Georgians memorise the past is greatly influenced by its Soviet legacy: whether that is Soviet propaganda presenting a false image of Stalin, the legacy of going 70 years without being able to study the DRG, or the effects of being launched into independence with an absence of a unified national memory, it is understandable Georgia today is still struggling with plenty of ‘hot’ memories. It is a good sign Georgian historians have discovered these topics, yet historians deal with just that: history.


Memory, however, is not just for scholars: it’s for the entire population. And within this population, each and every individual is still affected by the past, formed their own memory of the past, and have formed (political) opinions based on these memories; it could even be said all these individuals have proposed their own version of the historical narrative. Individuals with similar interpretations of the past tend to group together: they form groups - movements, or political parties - and these groups can come to represent a significant portion of the country. However, people with competing narratives also form such groups and as such, they compete for which narrative is ‘right’, according to the respective group.


Through these steps from the individual to this group representing the narrative, individual memories have become more and more abstracted, yet ultimately, I would argue these individual memories still form the basis on which people decide with which larger group they identify - which larger, abstracted proposal for the collective memory they support; which side they take in a ‘hot’ memory discourse. Thus, for Georgians to overcome their differences on how they view the past, conducting historical research is only one requirement: another is to face the individual memories, to understand what these individual people went through during the Soviet Union, or the struggles surrounding Georgia’s independence, for only then it is possible to deconstruct and analyse how historical narratives are formed without falling into the trap of judging ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ purely on historical research.


Bibliography


Assmann, A. (2010). Canon and Archive. In A. Erll & A. Nünning (Eds.), A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies (pp. 97–107). Walter de Gruyter.


Batiashvili, N. (2019). Power/memory: New elite, old intelligentsia, and fixing of the Georgian mind. Nationalities Papers, 47(6), 1083–1099. https://doi.org/10.1017/nps.2019.29


Erll, A. (2010). Cultural Memory Studies: An Introduction. In A. Nünning & A. Erll (Eds.), Companion to Cultural Memory Studies (pp. 1–15). Walter de Gruyter.


Gente, R., Suny, R., Jones, S., & Urjewicz, C. (2018, July 21). Q and A: Why are Georgians still suspicious of the First Republic? Civil Georgia. other. Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://civil.ge/archives/246979.


Gugushvili, A., Kabachnik, P., & Gilbreath, A. H. (2015). Cartographies of stalin: Place, scale, and reputational politics. The Professional Geographer, 68(3), 356–367. https://doi.org/10.1080/00330124.2015.1089104


Harth, D. (2010). The Invention of Cultural Memory. In A. Erll & A. Nünning (Eds.), A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies (pp. 85–96). Walter de Gruyter.