On October 21-22, 2019, the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office, together with Ilia State University and Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SOVLAB) organized the South Caucasus Regional Conference on Memory Politics. The main aim of the conference was to discuss memory politics and rethink the current approach on rethinking the Soviet Past and memory studies in three countries of the region.
Regional Conference gave the opportunity to researchers, academics, and students to share with each other knowledge and experience while working on different topics of memory politics. At the same time, during public discussions, speakers discussed some of the important challenges that are connected to historical research and memory studies in the South Caucasus such as the openness/accessibility of archives, lack of funding for research institutes, etc.
Dr. Ljiljana Radonic, Institute of Culture Studies and Theatre History, Austrian Academy of Sciences opened the conference with a keynote lecture on Why Memory Politics Matters - Wars on Memory in the Post-Communist and Post-Yugoslav Context. She outlined that in the Yugoslav wars, memory conflicts played a crucial role in nationalist mobilization and emphasized that cultural memory always serves for present-day purposes, so in a way every kind of memory politics is an instrumentalization of history. Yet, there are huge differences between resourceful (state) agents trying to establish their historical narrative as the history by democratic means on the one hand; and authoritarian censorship of opposing (self-)critical historical narratives by questionable memory laws or media control on the other hand - as it was the case in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s wars or currently in Poland and Hungary.
After the keynote lecture, first panel discussion was held on the following topic: How do we talk about the Soviet Past in the South Caucasus and how does the Soviet past influences current developments in the region?
The first speaker of the panel, Davit Jishkariani, Historian at Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SOVLAB), underlined that in Georgia the Soviet past is represented as if it is the history of others and not part of Georgia’s history. At the same time, instrumentalization of Soviet History happens every day and is part of political and intellectual life of the country which creates difficulties for historians since on the one hand, they have to fight with the propaganda and on the other hand, they have to work in such a scientific environment, where discussing different historical topics does not really occur.
The next speaker of the panel, Dr. Sergey Rumyantsev, co-founder of Center for Independent Social Research CISR. e.V Berlin, touched upon the issue of attitudes toward the soviet history in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. He talked about dismantling and reconstructing the Soviet memorials. He also outlined that even though the attitudes are slightly changing, one could say that discussing Soviet past and publishing materials on this issue is not very popular in Azerbaijan.
The next presentation was regarding the Soviet language of holidays in post-Soviet everyday life in Armenia. The speaker was Gohar Stepanyan, PhD in History, Department of Contemporary Anthropological Studies, Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences, Armenia who emphasized that in the memories of the Soviet past, perhaps, a special place is occupied by Soviet holidays. According to her, these memories are sometimes so enduring that no matter what the feast today, it often comes down to familiar May Day celebrations (although the warriors still had a pre-Soviet, tsarist tradition, but in the post-Soviet era they are perceived as Soviet holiday practice). Throughout the post-Soviet period, both from below and from above, the search for a new holiday language and, accordingly, a rethinking of the Soviet past, does not stop.
The next speaker – Tamar Karaia, Associate Professor at Tbilisi State University talked about the Memory Strategies in Post Rose-Revolution Georgia. She underlined that after 2006, when Georgian citizens were deported from the Russian Federation, the tendencies of the politics of memory changed rapidly. Terms such as “occupation,” “repression” etc. appeared in the political discourse. From this period on, the strategies of memory could be associated with a politics of victimization and the formation of the collective memory prioritized as a national security issue.
The second panel was about the topic of victims and perpetrators and different perceptions that are about this issue. Irakli Khvadagiani, Historian at Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SOVLAB) summarized that in Georgia there have not been fundamental steps taken in order to rethink the totalitarian past. Among broader society, on the collective level, following issues have not been discussed and analyzed: where is the boundary between victims and perpetrators? How do we talk about the victims? What made people to be part of Soviet regime? However, one could say that still there is a discussion about the victims, however, talking about the totalitarian system and people, who created this regime, is not discussed.
The next speaker was Gayane Shagoyan, anthropologist at Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences, Armenia. She talked about rethinking Soviet past in Armenia not from the level of officials but from ordinary citizens. She also touched upon the problems connected to lustration and openness of archives.
Elguja Kakabadze, PhD Student, Interdisciplinary PhD program in Social and Humanitarian Sciences at Ilia State University discussed the factors that are important to take into account while talking about the rethinking of the Soviet past in current German historiography, how is the Soviet past represented in museums, what are the challenges in this process and how to overcome them.
Prof. Giorgi Maisuradze, Philosopher at Ilia State University opened the second day of the conference with a keynote lecture on Post-Soviet Georgia – trying to find its place. He outlined different forms of memory and the main trends that are characteristic for post-colonial situation. Prof. Maisuradze also discussed different symbols and narratives that were created during the periods of different presidents in Georgia and outlined that anti-imperial impulses and modifying the historical periods significantly determines the collective memory of post-Soviet Georgia.
After the keynote lecture, panel discussion was held on the topic of Political instrumentalization of history: How can we rethink our current approach on history and archives?
The first speaker was Elnura Jivazada PhD Student in East European History, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. She talked about memory of Stalinism in visual culture in Baku. She outlined that remembering Stalinism in Azerbaijan after the independence 1991 was characterized by the externalization of the perpetrator role. Moreover, she emphasized that neither the former sites of torture and execution in the country have been marked, nor a commemoration day for victims has been adopted.
The next presentation was regarding the women who were repressed during Soviet time. Lela Gaprindashvili, Professor at Tbilisi State University, emphasized that researching women’s histories is especially important, however, there are many problems in this regard when women’s roles in different historical and political processes are not researched adequately and in-depth manner.
Anna Lolua, PhD Student in East European History at Ilia State University and Georg-August-University of Göttingen (Lehmann-Haupt International Doctoral Programme) made a speech about the current trends of memory politics in Georgia based on the example of Occupation Museum.
The next presentation was regarding the hierarchy of Soviet historiography. Eviya Hovhannisyan, Projects Coordinator in Armenia, Heinrich Boell Foundation underlined that history was divided into different levels such as the history on republic, regional and ethnic minority level. Furthermore, she also mentioned how history was rewritten for different political purposes.
Dr. Oliver Reisner, Jean Monnet Professor in European & Caucasian Studies at Ilia State University talked about the importance of history while implementing memory politics. He described different strategies of nationalization in Georgian since 1990s. Furthermore, Prof. Reisner put forward several discussion topics such as the limits of historiography in Georgia, how can the oral histories contribute to researching about the recent past in Georgia, etc.
After all presentations, the conference was concluded. The representatives of Heinrich Boell Foundation talked about their future plans with regard to working on the topics of memory politics and rethinking Soviet past..