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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).