Russia and Ukraine, history and memory



Two countries, two memories. But also two stories… It is dizzying to see how much on a common past, kyiv Rus’, which brought together Slavs, Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians between 882 and 1240, the two national stories diverge. This is certainly not the first time that different visions have collided. But in this case, it’s quite spectacular. We arrive at completely opposite interpretations which, in this case, open the way to all forms of manipulation and fake news historical. Who is telling the truth? Who says wrong? Journalists themselves find themselves caught up in these controversies, regularly accused of falsifying history in a way too favorable to either Ukraine or Russia.

We could give up. Getting to doubt history, or rather accepting a form of impossibility of historical objectivity. Basically, each camp has its own history. And too bad if it does not converge. A form of historical relativism, in a way… In the 1980s, partly under the battering of a current from the United States considering history as a literary discourse (the linguistic turn, linguistic turn), some have denied the possibility of an objectified study of history. This has provoked a whole debate in France, with the work of Michel de Certeau, Paul Ricœur or Antoine Prost, to emphasize that if history is partly writing, it is also scientific research which aims to give life to the reality of the past.

Yes, making history is possible! There are criteria and tools allowing to set up a critical reading of the documents, obliging to cross the sources, to verify, to put rigor in the elaboration of the historical work. Incidentally, one of the conditions is the independence of historians from the state apparatus, which is always inclined to propose its own ideological vision. An independence that is not always guaranteed in Russia, as in Ukraine.

Making history is possible. And it is even necessary. The current terrible conflict clearly shows that it is essential to be able to distinguish history from mere memory. Certainly, the tension between memory and historical rigor is constitutive of the work of the historian. There is no history without memory. But also, as Antoine Prost noted in Twelve lessons in history (1) is “the duty of the historian to transform into history the memory of [ses] contemporaries ». Because memory doesn’t choose what it forgets. And that it is indeed the role of history to have this awareness, that not everything has been remembered, and to dig into these “holes” of memory. We must achieve this articulation, where history recognizes its dependence on the credible testimonies of memory, but where memory accepts a critical, comparative distancing, an autonomization of history vis-à-vis memories. Paul Ricœur spoke of a “just memory” : “I remain disturbed by the disturbing spectacle given by too much memory here, too much forgetting elsewhere, to say nothing of the influence of commemorations and the abuse of memory and forgetting”, he wrote (2). A “too much memory” which today kills thousands of people and displaces millions of refugees, at the very heart of Europe.

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