To read / 29 October 2022

Overcoming Public Amnesia – Counter-Memory as a Tool to Challenge Official Narratives

The Deryabins, Pakhotnyi Ugol, Tambov Province of Russia, ab. 1945 (personal archive).

my grandmother
doesn’t know pain
she believes that
famine is nutrition
poverty is wealth
thirst is water […]

from Grandmother (2008), by Valzyna Mort

Several photographs of my great-grandparents are left in our family archive – all sepia, all with bent or torn out edges, featuring serious faces of people who had few reasons to smile. This one was taken in the first postwar years and depicts the Deryabins, my maternal family tree branch: my great-grandfather Pavel, his son Josef, daughter Raya and their mother, my great-grandmother Pelageya. Wearing the military uniform is their uncle Ivan. The photograph was taken in the once prosperous village of Pakhotnyi Ugol, Tambov Province of Russia, where in 1921, reacting to Tambov massive riots against the Bolsheviks, the Soviets killed between 30 000–50 000 peasants. Mikhail Tukhachevsky, put in charge of this military operation, urged his subordinates to conduct it ‘with elation and inspiration’ – among the suppression measures were the taking of hostages from among the rebels’ relatives, the extermination of entire villages, the creation of concentration camps where children were kept along with adults (more than 450 hostages were under the age of 10), and mass executions. In the military reports on the operation’s outcomes people were referred to as ‘dissenting human material’.[1]

The stories of numerous victims got lost in the tragic peripeteia of history – both personal and national identities were wiped out together with the very awareness of the trauma presence. I was lucky to discover those few photos, but many families have neither graves nor any photographs of the dead. Tukhachevsky’s callous decisions are also perceived differently today. In a recent RIA Novosti article, the Soviet general is presented as a hero who ‘succeeded in performing the task of finally eliminating the mass peasant uprising’ and was even granted the title of Marshal of the Soviet Union.

‘May there never be a war’ is a slogan familiar to anyone born and brought up in the USSR. This phrase, like a mantra or a prayer silently repeated in the red kingdom of atheists where for exercising religious beliefs one could be sent to a labour camp, grew from numerous ordeals our grandparents went through fighting against the Nazi regime during WWII, commonly known in this part of the world as The Great Patriotic War. In Belarus, ‘one out of four’ formula is something we learnt during our school years – every fourth citizen of my homeland is claimed to have been killed from 1939 to 1945. However, one century later, our ancestors’ existence appears to be erased from Russian collective memory – between 65% and 71% of Russians support the war in Ukraine and do not seem to care much for the cruel lessons of history repeated. But our ancestors’ suffering is not the only thing censored from the memories of present generations. Every fourth Belarusian did die, but, along with this tragic number, there are other figures Putin’s and Lukashenko’s regimes prefer to keep away from the public eye.

Up to 6.5 million Soviet citizens are said to have been executed in the Gulag system and other concentration camps or died of starvation and illnesses resulting from the poor conditions in the places they were resettled to in forced deportations. Numerous human histories remain unrevealed with every family remembering one or two members as lost, suddenly arrested at night, taken in an unknown direction in a notorious black “Voronok” police van – and today the regimes make every effort to prevent the light from being shed on the USSR’s past.

The battle for collective memory seems to be taking place at various levels with different strategies of imposed forgetting being deployed. In Russia, the international human rights organization “Memorial” investigating crimes committed under Joseph Stalin was declared a “foreign agent” by the Ministry of Justice in July 2014. A few months later, the Supreme Court ordered it to close for violations of the “foreign agent law” – a ridiculous regulation banning any NGO from getting financial support from outside Russia.

In Belarus, meanwhile, the authorities are levelling a memorial site containing the graves of Polish resistance fighters who died battling Soviet soldiers during WWII. In 2020, after brutal suppression of peaceful protests, the country’s self-proclaimed leader said he was ready to ‘turn over a new leaf’. Following the example of Belarus’s eastern neighbour, collective amnesia is publicly proposed as the country’s new strategy.

However, the resistance to memory censorship is indeed something Belarusians and Russians differ on, either because of the two countries’ size, histories and geographies or the invigorating scale of solidarity evidenced after 2020 in Belarus. In the last two years we find numerous art/documentary projects focusing on so-called ‘counter-memory’, a term introduced by Michel Foucault and defined as ‘an individual's resistance against the official versions of historical continuity’.[2]

A powerful starting point in counter-memory activism in Belarus is undoubtedly the literary legacy of Svetlana Alexievich, whose entire career is built around pursuing the goal of memory-keeping. All her central works (The Unwomanly Face of War, Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, Enchanted by Death, Chernobyl Prayer) are aimed at giving a voice to the ‘uncomfortable’ people – making first-hand experiences stand up in opposition to the official discourse that denies radiation, the senselessness of the 1979–1989 Soviet-Afghan War, the issues of neglected mental health of the first post-USSR generation and other burning problems.

Actualizing such counter-memories and introducing them as an alternative to the country’s history, the first Belarusian Nobel Prize winner does something Lukashenko’s regime would never be able to do – and it is not an accident that the word ‘monument’ is mentioned in the official statement outlining Alexievich’s contribution to world literature. ‘For her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’, it says, and her intentions are monumental indeed, promising a tribute and remembrance to those destroyed or hurt by the Soviet red machine. Genuine living monuments do appear to be more solid and longer-lasting than the actual cement-made ones in honour of Soviet generals and their tanks.

Perhaps the most emotional of Alexievich’s works is The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) – well-known in Belarus long before the writer was recognized internationally. The book brings together eyewitness accounts of more than 200 women who took part in WWII: as girls they joined the army shoulder to shoulder with men and had to renounce their dreams for the sake of something that was to them a greater cause. Spending months in conversations with her protagonists, Alexievich felt herself turning into ‘one huge ear directed towards another individual’, as she confesses in the book, giving undivided attention to people sharing what one has no moral right to forget – ‘the truth of those days’, the writer explains. The lessons of war, one of which would definitely be about its deromanticization: no one is born to be a hero ready to sacrifice her life for ‘big men’s’ political interests.

Fearing that counter-memories documented in Svetlana Alexievich’s books would be at odds with the official discourse of war – where the political was presented as higher than the personal – Belarusian regime started withdrawing them from public libraries. In August 2021, all the works of the Nobel Prize winner, alongside with the books of a few other contemporary Belarusian dissident writers, were taken off school curricula.

However, the counter-memory activism trend initiated by Alexievich back in the 1980s keeps on evolving, taking various art forms and formats but apparently pursuing the same memory-keeping goal.

Such projects as, for example, the Brest Stories Guide, The Square of Changes, The Art of (Not) Forgetting and ‘The Colors of Belarusian Protest’ can be viewed as the artists’ attempts to save new generations from having to write their history from scratch, falling for Lukashenko’s stories of victory and from seeing Russia as rather than an empire-aggressor that strives to conquer new territories. Combining visual and textual parts, they document the historical moment of “here and now”, collecting personal memories that have not yet had time to be changed – either because of the brain’s biological nature or by the dominating discourse of the alternative memory fed by state propaganda.

Thus, the Brest Stories Guide project focuses on anti-Semitism and the destruction of the Brest Jewish community in 1941 and 1942. Before WWII, approximately 24,000 Jews (around 45% of the city population) lived in Brest – almost all of them were killed because of the Holocaust and the Soviet anti-Semitism. Memories of the Jewish community are restored and re-examined through a series of documentary audio performances in the city space made by a group of theatrical enthusiasts ‘Kryly Khalopa’.

The mobile application consists of the audio-play and a city map which allow the user to navigate between key Jewish heritage sites and historical events with streets, buildings and yards turning into a stage. The stories offered to the public are based on real materials from archives, books and interviews with eyewitnesses of post-1937 anti-Semitic incidents, the Brest ghetto and the obliteration of the Jewish community in 1941 and 1942.

A more recent project aimed at documenting the historical events of the 2020–2021 protests in Belarus is The Square of Changes photobook and website. Both reconstruct a timeline of the resistance of an ordinary ‘backyard community’ – dwellers of one Minsk area – whose lives were radically changed by the police interventions aimed at suppressing dissent. Just like in counter-memory works of Svetlana Alexievich, the project’s author Yauhen Attsetski, although being a witness of the tragic events himself, hands the narrator’s role to other Belarusians, namely his neighbours who recall their emotions and actions related to different stages of the backyard’s resistance. ‘The goal of our project is not to let history be rewritten’, Yauhen says in one of his interviews.

Active in memory-keeping are also Belarusian poets Dmitry Strotsev, Valzhyna Mort and Julia Cimafiejeva, whose voices can now be heard across Europe keeping public focus on the country’s agenda and expressing solidarity with the neighbouring Ukraine in our common struggle against the war. The topic of searching for roots and existential reflections built around the realization of one’s place and role in the chain of human destinies in historical turmoil are nothing new to them, either.

Mort’s poem Grandmother was written in 2008. However, a decade later it sounds different, it can be perceived not only as a reminder of the horrors of WWII our grandparents went through, but as a criticism of currently unfolding propaganda discourses where trauma is silenced and violence positioned as the norm.

Prophetic in its message is also Strotsev’s well-known poem Father and Son (published under the same name in 2019 as a separate illustrated children’s book) – a father’s testament to his son who is asked to keep the book and open it ‘close to heart next to the fire’ as a timeless reminder of love, self-sacrifice and truth while the father himself will ‘wait like a grain waits in the earth’.

Julia Cimafiejeva has a different, less peaceful and forgiving metaphor of continuity of trauma across generations and the symbolic heritage she has received from her ancestors as a family heirloom. While Strotsev’s is centred around a book is taken by a round stone of fear[3] the poet’s great-grandparents stole from their landlord’s field, a memoryless object that must be nursed. The feeding ritual described in the poem in the form of stern instructions is actually perceived as a guide to suicide with silence and fear thus leading to the eventual death of an individual or a nation. Fear, states the poetess, is something that can actually be inherited and it is up to each person to decide what to do with our intergenerational trauma – to follow the instructions of silence or speak up: both for ourselves and for the generations of our silenced ancestors.

‘The personal story and the national are interconnected’, writes Efraim Sicher, an Israeli literary scholar, noting that ‘no nation can have a future without acknowledgment of its origins and development or without some understanding of its past’. The very purpose of memory as one of human brain’s functions is to recall the past in order to prevent us from making the same mistakes in the future. The same holds true for art, which is able to reopen old wounds by addressing archives or first-hand accounts.

Counter-memory art projects can contribute to the awakening of the national consciousness, however painful the stories we discover may be. The most dangerous thing here is to inherit and pass on to future generations silence, blind spots in collective memory narratives, because blank minds can too easily be filled with censored, ideologically processed content where wars are called ‘special operations’, mass murders are ‘tasks’, and victims – ‘human material’.

While I searched for information about my maternal family tree branch, I came across a photograph the reverse side of which appeared to be as significant as the front. The neat lines of my grandmother’s handwriting said something I felt was addressed not only to her grandchildren. A long list with our relatives’ names finished up with a request: ‘I do beg you, my dear kids, to cherish the memory of my beloved kin.’ Memory is intrinsic to human nature, it has been scientifically proven to be a part of our DNA and the spread of amnesia enforced by those in power would mean only one thing – the loss of both humanness and humanity.

The reverse side of Maria Deryabina’s photograph (ab. 1945), (personal archive).


[1] Yulia Kantor: War and Peace of Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s, Dialogue, Publishing House, 2005, p. 43.

[2] Michel Foucault: Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Cornell University Press, 1980.

[3] Julia Cimafiejeva’s poem The Stone of Fear translated from the Belarusian by Valzhyna Mort (https://lithub.com/the-stone-of-fear/).

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