Why are young people such a focus of state-crafted historical narratives?
Krawatzek: I think there are two dimensions to it. First, we can talk about the discursive possibilities that are created when we speak about youth. The language about youth opens up an imaginary that relates to the past, present and future and is therefore very powerful for whoever can dominate what is considered appropriate to say about youth. The discourse about youth provides a narrative about the future, because undoubtedly, there will be future youth. And so as a political leader, you can try to project that both you yourself and the nation you are leading transcend the present moment. At the same time, the language about youth allows politicians, authors or commentators to move back in time, because there was also youth back in the past.
Alongside the discursive dimension, there is a second component that we could call the demographic or biological one. Young people, by virtue of being young and oftentimes in education or professional transition, are exposed to much more immediate state influence than people at later stages in life. As distinct from childhood, youth is a time when this exposure to history is very consequential, since your political and social views are forming and might outgrow those of the family. That’s why states put so much time and effort into shaping the social and political values young people hold.
Frieß: I would like to emphasise the second point about youth. Even in democratic societies, there is no other stage in life when other people decide so much for you. But of course, that does not mean – and this is something the volume shows – that the attempts by the state, the government, or whoever to mould young people’s minds are always successful. The historical narratives conveyed to young people and what young people end up making of them are often two entirely different things.
Your volume emphasises that far from just absorbing the memories that are passed on to them, ‘young people express received historical narratives in new – and potentially subversive – ways’. Is their scope to do so not very limited in authoritarian states?
Frieß: I think it is, because it’s dangerous for authoritarian regimes to let people think what they want. So, of course, they try to control this. But the regimes are often a step behind. Because they continue to use the more traditional methods of influencing young people. I’m talking here mainly about textbooks and television. But nowadays, we see young people reaching out to other media. Many young people in authoritarian regimes try to get other information from independent sources on the internet. And even if internet content is censored or blocked, there are still channels that remain beyond state control. For example, governments do not currently use TikTok in any meaningful way to shape young people’s minds, and as soon they discover it, young people are bound to find a substitute.
But it doesn’t just depend on the availability of information. For example, it’s possible for young people in Russia to access views on Russian history that challenge state narratives, but that’s no guarantee that those views will actually be consumed and adopted.
Krawatzek: The other point to emphasise is that politicians in authoritarian states are not the only agents that try to imprint memories on young people. The most important competing agent is the family. Even in authoritarian states, we can show that a family’s historical experience – diverse and contradictory as this always is – has a significant impact on a young person’s historical memories. Even three or four generations down, the descendants of families that suffered greatly during the Great Patriotic War or Stalin’s Great Terror tend to be more historically interested and more aware and critical of what happened in these periods. What’s more, people who are more critical of Stalin as a leader of the Soviet Union also tend to be more critical of the current Russian president. And it’s very hard for authoritarian states to penetrate the family transmission dynamic. They can, as Nina described, try to control the public space, the media, and the educational system. But when it comes to historical narratives that are so intimate, personal, and at the same time authentic, control is much more difficult. So authoritarian states find themselves in a credibility competition with the family. If your grandmother tells stories about how her father suffered in the Gulag and returned severely harmed, that is a strong personal testimony with the mark of authenticity. And an authoritarian state, even if it is social media savvy, cannot compensate for that authenticity.
I was struck by the plurality of historical views you were able to show for young Belarusians – and the key differences from their Russian counterparts. How do you explain these findings?
Krawatzek: I was struck by that as well. I think the Belarusian regime has quite simply overdone the control of the media sphere leading to a situation where there is a more general rejection of everything that you see coming from the top. The fact that there are no in-between interpretations in the official media is a driver of this rejection. In Russia, on the other hand, there is more of a plurality of discourse in this historical realm – or at least there was until February of this year. And maybe the government propaganda was more effective precisely because of that limited room for diversity. Another reason is the fact that Belarusians have less of a sense of threat when they tell their history, especially of the Second World War. The besieged fortress mentality we find in Russia – we need to defend our historical interpretation, because the West is trying to steal our victory from us – does not prevail to the same extent in Belarus. Another factor at play: Belarusians cannot wholeheartedly buy into the heroic Great Patriotic War narrative, because Belarus is the territory where most people died relative to the pre-war population. The violence and degree of infrastructure destruction was incomparable in scale. The heroic narrative that dominates in Russia is in stark contrast with the Belarusian experience. Here we’re back to the disparity between the family version of history and the state version, which has far less chance of being perceived as authentic in Belarus.
Frieß: I think this difference between Belarus and Russia can also be seen in the slogans you encounter in Belarus. So, in Russia in recent years there has been a growing sense of okay, we can do it again, win a war. But in Belarus until 24 February, people would often say: As long as there’s no war everything is going to be okay. And now they’re saying: As long as the war is over soon. I think that that’s quite telling. Another point is that in in pre-Covid times, Belarusians, particularly young people, travelled a lot more within Europe than their Russian counterparts. So they had first-hand experience of the more vibrant European memory debates, and this of course makes you think about things in a different way.
A number of the contributions look at children’s literature as a realm where alternative historical narratives can be expressed and young people encouraged to engage critically with the past. Can you give some examples of this?
Frieß: In Russia, for example, the very strong state narrative about wartime heroism can also be found in children's literature from the Soviet period. But what is really interesting, and what was surprising for me, is the fact that none of the more recent children’s books stick to the Kremlin’s script here. Instead, we find a lot of alternative narratives in the area of children's books, which seems to be a space that is relatively free, because it is just not important enough to the Kremlin. And so we have picture books that deal with twentieth-century Russian history. I’m thinking here in particular about the book The Apartment. A Century of Russian History, which was a huge success, not only on the Russian book market but also internationally. It tells the story of an old apartment in Moscow and its inhabitants throughout the twentieth century. While it highlights some moments of heroism and the victory in World War II, it also mentions the losses. You can see a soldier who lost his leg. People related to the family that lives in the apartment tell how they died during World War II. And this, of course, is something we don’t find in the official discourse. We see something similar in other countries. For example in Poland, where the government tries to establish a heroic narrative which is at the same time a victim narrative. But some contemporary children’s literature calls this into question by asking why did we have to sacrifice ourselves for the state.
In what ways does your volume challenge the assumption that ‘cosmopolitan’ Holocaust memory is universal?
Krawatzek: It’s true that since the 1970s, cosmopolitan memory – a mode of remembering the Holocaust focused on victims and their rights – has increasingly become established as a global norm. And what we can show are the local realities of that global norm and what it actually means in concrete societies and specific cases. Because this abstract norm always becomes a reality in specific local circumstances that are informed by specific experiences of the Holocaust. I think it’s potentially confusing when people speak about this universal norm because it might suggest that it looks the same across different societies. But even within one society, it can have different manifestations. For instance, what does the norm of Holocaust remembrance mean for descendants of Turkish migrants in Germany compared to white, Christian, middle-class Germans? So on an analytical level, we are careful not to overstate the universal dimension of cosmopolitan memory in order to emphasise the importance of regional diversity.
The interview was carried out by Anne Boden, editor for English-language publications at ZOiS.
Nina Frieß is a Scholar of Slavic and Literature Studies at ZOiS whose research focuses on Russophone literatures.
Félix Krawatzek & Nina Frieß (Hrsg.): Youth and Memory in Europe. Defining the Past, Shaping the Future. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2022.