Stockholm conference participants Tallinn University Professor Magnus Ilmjarv and Latvian University Professor Gvido Straube discuss problems of historic memory.
Historic guilt and responsibility are frequent subjects of public and academic discussions, but not only in relation to the history of former Soviet countries. A majority of people hardly consider the implications of these notions, using them randomly. Though they seem to be simple words, they might refer to human destinies and even fates of peoples. International political discussions borrow a major share of arguments from history.
When they say "historic guilt" or "historic responsibility" do they mean that one has caused damage to another in the broad sense of the word? Who can now bear historic guilt for the past? What do the political formulas mean?
Ilmjarv. No country or people want to be guilty. Each family has its own history - some of the ancestors fought and some were imprisoned. Current generation can painfully perceive the past and you can do nothing about it. However historic hard feelings should not affect modern politics and should not be used although history had and will exert an impact. The description of history from the moral guilty/non-guilty point of view can continue for decades and will find new evidence that will heat up passions. If we speak about past developments that tell on relations between our countries and peoples their influence will continue for at least another fifty years. Estonia enjoyed state independence twenty years ago and all these years history was an important factor in relations with Russia. The dispute seems to be endless. Politicians will anyway exploit the past for their own sake.
Straube. It is a difficult question in which many things interlace. Sometimes they say a fact is a fact and interpretation is not important. Guilt and responsibility are moral categories. We should hardly bear the guilt of other generations. If there was injustice in the past we should know about it and critically assess it. But we should not take over the guilt. We cannot judge a child for the deeds of his parents. It is wrong to blame the people or family for past developments. We can hope for acknowledgement that previous generations were wrong. But only strong and convinced people and nations can make such an acknowledgement. Those who make it should not be surprised that those offended do not hear them. There are people and even nations who eternally live with the pain which seems to be uniting them. The solution of the problems may last for years and even decades.
You mentioned a phenomenon which is often called "victimization syndrome" and outlined how to overcome it. What does the overcoming mean?
Straube. It means the problem should not impede people and nations from developing and should not bar communications between them. The pain of yesterday has passed. We can look into the future without repeating old mistakes. But I will repeat that the other side may be unprepared for that and will continue to live and turn the head back. If the state position is the same it can trigger negativism in a nation in general and encourage a feeling of underestimation. But there are no selected nations in the world.
If we delete the political factor from reality and consider only social and community factors and thus get rid of the subject that rubs the healing wound, would new times quickly overshadow the bad past? The evil would remain in distant history which can be read, discussed and described unemotionally.
Ilmjarv. Yes, of course. World War Two developments would be perceived like First World War which does not trigger major emotions.
As for the First World War, Russia has to restore memory about it. It was a deliberately forgotten war.
Ilmjarv. Naturally, it all has to be analyzed. But I doubt it would be of interest for current generations as it happened too long ago. The longer we live the close are the two wars to each other.
Estonia and Latvia were parts of the USSR for half a century. It is a long time for a human being. What imprint did it leave in the conscience of modern Estonians, Latvians and Russians in Latvia and Estonia? How much are they still Soviet? How does the Soviet epoch sprout in modern times?
Ilmjarv. When Baltic countries regained independence there were people who believed it was possible to return to 1939. They believed the Soviet period can be erased from memory and the lost paradise can be returned. Many nostalgic newspaper articles, movies and TV shows have until recently tried to describe the period between the wars as a time of general wellbeing with no problems. However a different reality appeared from under the nostalgic blanket. The problem was in limited historic landscape and non-critical reflection in self-conscience. It confirms the words by French historian Ernest Renan who said the wall of national identity is built, inter alia, with a good share of errors and dreams.
I have to say there were two Soviet Unions - one before 1956 and another one which was more vegetarian - after 1956. Estonian history science did not study the second one properly. The question about the perception of the Soviet Union by Russians in Estonia also demands major analysis. I believe they perceive it as their own country - "it was our state". Naturally, Estonians are of a different opinion. But it is also impossible to claim that Estonians have absolutely no nostalgia about the Soviet Union. Sociological research is necessary. There is nostalgia about the time when everyone enjoyed free education and free medical aid...
Straube. It is difficult for me to say what various categories of Latvians think. In general there is a negative assessment of the Soviet times as they are associated with the loss of independence and other problems if we speak about political aspects of the past. It is different in private life. When people today encounter problems they can react were unexpectedly: it was better under the Soviet power. The spontaneous emotional reaction is often positive regarding the Soviet past.
It is clear for an historian that such perception of the past is natural for people in any time and in any society. People could react the same way when Latvia was within the Russian Empire or during a hundred years under the Swedish rule or under Polish authority or in the time of the Order and Bishop. It is all history and you cannot change the past. Its knowledge is valuable in itself because it allows to learn history lessons. History is full of mistakes, betrayal, and stupidity. My teacher Theodor Zeids said there is no logic in history, it is the most illogical science. But anyway for us to avoid stupid things today and tomorrow we have to learn the lessons of knowledge which history provides to us and thus comprehend opportunities for our development. There is always something good in all times, including the Soviet period. There are also positive examples of our coexistence with Baltic Germans: we learned a lot from them and they learned a lot from us. Years and centuries pass and negative perceptions disappear as people realize: yes, it was this way. School textbooks and scientific literature begin to provide more objective assessments. Time will come for a calm assessment of the Soviet period...
Soviet traits do exist in people. They lived with them, continue to live and will die with them.
Are there many Soviet-minded people among the Latvians who support nationalistic positions? By Soviet I mean simplified perception of the world.
Straube. Primitive perception of the world is characteristic also of the people in liberal-democratic societies, not only the Soviet Union. I believe it is less in societies with a long democratic history. The more they have democracy and the more they are used to resolving social problems themselves the less standard is the conscience of the people. There are numerous stereotypes about socialist society. If we look at northern countries which have much more socialism than in the Soviet Union the idea may not look that bad.
Do you agree that history teaches?
Ilmjarv. If we take Germany or Japan, for example, they have likely learned something. Finland is also an example. But we can hardly say each people learn the lessons of history. However when we pronounce the names of countries we do not distinguish between the state and the people.
Many modern Germans are ill at ease, to put it mildly, when they are blamed for the developments that took place seventy years go. The more time passes the more absurd it will be to remind modern people about the deeds of their predecessors. It turns out the loser is to blame. Only those who suffered a major defeat have to feel historic guilt. And the skeletons of the winners remain in closet and sleep well.
Ilmjarv. If we study the history of war losers we shall immediately discover it is a very delicate topic. In response you often hear arguments that you should not harrow feelings and pick in acute and dramatic moments of history. Nobody likes to be weak. History dislikes losers. It is written by winners.
Today it is yet impossible to write the history of the Baltic peoples so that it is equally acceptable for all. The history of any people and country has developments and periods which are viewed in a very contradicting manner.
How do you see the future of your country as a citizen and historian who went beyond its geographic and mental boundaries in his works? What would you predict to your country?
Straube. One can seriously speak about future only when present-day problems are overcome. One of them which we do not always perceive is a legacy of the Soviet epoch. At that time they often spoke about "the big brother" in Moscow who taught us how to live. We continue to live with the syndrome. It always seems to us that we do not know how to do something and that someone other knows and can do better. I clearly see it in my professional sphere - in science and education. It always seems to us that we are not that clever as our "big brothers" - now in the European Union. When travelling from one European country to another I do not see anything outstanding. The problems are the same everywhere. Both positive and negative experience exists everywhere. We should stop crying the blues and idealizing others. When we overcome it and convince ourselves that we are capable of resolving problems independently then there will be sense to look into the future.
If we overcome depressive self-conscience there will be hope that society will become better conscientious and honest and the law will become equal for everyone. There have always been dishonest people. If society is democratic and active in the fight against negative things the existing share of dishonest people who do not respect law will decrease. It would be easier for everyone to live in such predictable society.
We have also to understand that Latvia cannot limit itself to a transit bridge and has to produce something. It is ridiculous to hear constant deliberations about the necessity to build enterprises. Each time every option is opposed by irreconcilable greens. Next day they demand higher wages and pensions from the government. But that is impossible. If we want to live better we have to work hard and produce something rather than look at western commodities unloaded in Riga port and sent further east or vise versa.Or from north to south and back.
We have to reorient our patriotism towards rational and pragmatic course. Today it is sometimes destructive for the state itself. Time ago we were proud that the USSR collapsed and nobody was polluting our nature and rivers any longer and that there were no chemicals in agriculture. However modern realities do not make us happy about green grass and pure air. We have to think how to build up Latvia. Poor Latvians whether Latvian, Russian, Estonian or Jewish will not survive without industry.
Ilmjarv. I once heard interesting stories at a conference in Kharkov. They said it was good in Estonia and bad in Ukraine. I spontaneously responded: you number 47 million in Ukraine and we number one million and three hundred thousand in Estonia. Close to a million are Estonians. It is our main problem from the future point of view. There are no borders. Nobody in the EU knows how to cope with existing unemployment. Small Estonia is a tiny piece of the global world. If I were a politician I would definitely say how to resolve the problem. But I am historian and will not interfere in politics.