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Monday, March 30, 2015

International Symposium sheds light on memory, transition, justice, and representation in post-Communist Europe

sympcam.pngEarly in March, we welcomed several of the foremost experts and scholars on post-Communist Europe to the University of Minnesota to engage in a three-day discussion about social memories and human rights in the region. Organized within the IAS "Reframing Mass Violence Collaborative" by the Human Rights Program and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies from March 4-6, scholars from the U of M and other U.S.-based and international institutions engaged in lively exchanges aimed at creating a better understanding surrounding the re-interpretation and reframing of the atrocities and the transitional justice mechanisms adopted afterwards.


Noted historian John-Paul Himka of the University of Alberta, opened the symposium with an evening keynote address on the reception of the Holocaust in post-Communist Europe, in general, and Poland and Ukraine, in particular. In the address, Himka examined the contested shaping of social memory of domestic actions and involvement by individuals and Communism in Eastern Europe during the time of mass atrocities.

Sessions over the next two days covered different aspects of contested memories in post-Communist European countries. In reference to vernacular memory in Germany and Poland, Lars Breuer of the Free University of Berlin addressed how victimhood is remembered through mapping the various ways in which conflicting memories is dealt with in a transitional context. Likewise, Professor Matti Jutila of the Department of Political Science discussed memory of past genocides in the "European double genocide thesis," which holds that the crimes committed by the Communist regimes in Europe deserve equal attention as those committed during the Holocaust. In an analysis of the 2008 documentary The Soviet Story, which argues for greater recognition of the Soviet violations, Jutila contended that such an acknowledgement must be done in a non-nationalistic or politically-motived manner, which the documentary fails to meet. As such, this bias creates an atmosphere of innocence in both the past and present for and by those who committed violations.

Next, scholars addressed the topic of memory in the states and regions of the former Yugoslavia. Social anthropologist Sarah Wagner of George Washington University put forth a narrative on the emerging role of international forensic investigation as a form of intervention in transitioning and post-transition states. Specifically within the context of social memory of the missing individuals of Srebrenica, Wagner discussed the way empirical evidence has helped to establish a common memory among the various individual and sides of the conflict. Political scientist Jelena Subotic of Georgia State University spoke from her recent work on a "mythologized" Communist past created in the former Yugoslavia as a mechanism used in the rise of nationalism, war, and violence in the late 1980s.

The second afternoon session, a "Thursdays at 4" event in the Institute for Advanced Studies, was filled by guests wanting to hear speakers on the current conflict in Ukraine. Historian George O. Liber was joined by Himka once again and J Brian Atwood, chair of the Global Policy area of the Humphrey School of Public, to discuss the events leading up to, the causes for, and the perspectives of the various sides involved in the struggle. Liber spoke on the issue in terms of the response by Vladimir Putin and Russia's foreign policy, while Atwood, with the help of his many years of experience in the federal government, focused specifically on the views and role of the United States.
The final day was composed of discussions with an interdisciplinary mix of scholars. The morning session, "Law and Memory in Transition" was focused, much like the morning session of the previous day, on the role of memory and justice. Ryan Moltz of the department of sociology, Adam Czarnota of the University of New South Wales in Australia, and Nadya Nedelsky of Macalester College each addressed how various societies of Eastern Europe established systems of rule of law, national remembrance, justice, and rights as they transitioned from Communism. Moltz's presentation specifically addressed the divergent choices on enacting vetting policies in Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia, whileCzarnota spoke on the role of time in studying law and Nedelsky investigated the reasons for and implications of the influence of a positive perspective of the past fascist regime. Michal Kobialka and Margarita Kompelmakher, both of the department of theatre arts and dance, closed the symposium with a session on the politics of art and representation. Through this panel, Kobialka's examined theatre as a mode of suffering and memory as it balances the perversion of artistic esthetics, conventions, and the culture industry. Kompelmakher told of her experience seeing the award-winning, underground Belarus Free Theater and the story of its efforts to represent the Belarusian people and its social memory in spite of the control imposed by the government of Belarus on other registered theaters.

Overall, the symposium provided a great platform for discussion, learning, and debate surrounding memory, transition, justice, and representation in post-Communist Europe. From the political appropriation of memory through stories, art, and law to the fragile balance of societies experiencing transitions, the event brought to light not only the issues of the past and steps that remain but also the progress that has been made in various sectors and disciplines to address and study these topics. We thank all the participants and guests who made this event possible, and we look forward to future advancements and developments as they relate to these important areas of focus.
-written by Cameron Mailhot