30 Years after the End of Communist Regimes: New Perspectives on the Art and Politics of Memory

Date: 14 September 2020, 1.00 – 5.00 (CET)

Format: Virtual Event

Panel on Zoom: https://cuni-cz.zoom.us/j/97078866851?pwd=dVd5dXdUdmtvODNpbXZGRkdUR0xCdz09

The end of communist regimes triggered a series of convoluted memory wars on all sides of the political spectrum. To various degrees, the politics of memory impacted the memory cultures of populously diverse regions around the globe.  While state-sponsored museums and memorials received consistent attention in academic studies dedicated to these topics, the cultural (artistic) renderings are less addressed.   This workshop’s main aim is to disentangle the multifarious materializations of cultural (artistic) memory in the post-1990s time frame. As cultural production after the collapse of the communist regimes reveals, there are significant differences both in the form and content of recalling the recent past. Some art pieces and cultural productions follow the official politics of memory, while others contest, complement or rectify what the official institutions of remembrance enforce as the “memory of communism.” While there are certain similarities in how the artists and cultural producers from the region remember communism, there are likewise differences in the manner in which they address it. While the central topic of cultural memory has been the de-communization and fading away of the past in some countries, the contemporary culture of remembrance in others highlights the fact that the citizens have not moved forward since 1991. Thus, this workshop’s main aim is to unravel the similarities but also the differences – and even incompatibilities – of the cultural materializations of the memory of communism in the former Eastern bloc.  In addition, we aim to explore the phenomenon of nostalgia that was acquired in Eastern Europe after the 1990s with almost exclusively negative connotations. Over time, new theoretical and memory studies frameworks were advanced, particularly in that nostalgia was no longer utterly understood in inherently negative terms as restorative, unhealthy, a “defect of memory” or potentially dangerous for democracy and its well-being. We welcome contributions from scholars of memory studies, arts & politics, cultural studies, political science and contemporary history. The speakers are expected to deliver a 20 minutes presentation.


Panel 11.00 – 2.20 p.m.

Chair: Dan Drăghia (University of Bucharest)

Caterina Preda (University of Bucharest), The Role of Art and the Politics of Memory of Communism in Romania: from ‘Communism Never Happened’ to “the Nice Side of Communism”

The official policy of the Romanian state has emphasized forgetting rather than remembering the communist regime. In the absence of a coherent public policy of the memory of the communist past, cultural memory practices are relevant to understand the multiple communist pasts that aspire to become hegemonic in Romania. Using the approach of the art and politics of memory, this presentation investigates art’s role as a tool of understanding the recent past and the extent to which artistic interpretations such as visual art (paintings, performances, video works, etc.) films or theater plays reproduce the public discourse on the need to reckon with the communist past and provide a missing or alternative perspective on it.

Romanian artistic discourses about the communist regime have focused on several topics, among which five are recurrent: the obsessive portrait of Nicolae Ceausescu, the portraits of perpetrators/the Securitate, the memory of the victims of communism, the material symbols of communism and the nostalgia for the “good side of communism”, and the 1989 revolution and the end of the regime. This presentation explores three aesthetic strategies employed by artistic discourses of memorialization of the communist regime: the aestheticization of memory, the use of art as a form of “poetic justice” by providing another documentary source of understanding the past, and the activist memory discourse that consolidates the heroization of the victims of communism who are regarded as “prison saints”. This presentation concludes that an overview of the artistic discourses about the communist regime in Romania shows the plurality of experiences of the past, compared to the dichotomies/political cleavages: communist/anti-communist, collaborator/dissident, or anti-communist/nostalgic.

Maria Alina Asavei (Charles University), Memorial Tattoos and Mnemonic Bodies: Remembering the Socialist Leaders from the Former East

The presentation zooms-in on the privately created and maintained commemorative practices of the former socialist leaders. The tattoo bearers who consent to have the former dictators’ portrait inked on the skin contribute to a culture of vernacular memorials: that is, a spontaneous form of memorial created by individuals that conform neither to the official politics of remembrance and its aesthetics nor to its content. Intentionally inscribed in the skin, tattoos like crosses, fluffy toys, roadside markers and other vernacular memorials carry the memory of the lost one. Tattoos, unlike other vernacular memorials, cannot be visited and then left behind because they are “sublime scars” carried with the body (and, yet ephemeral since it holds only the time of a life).

Unlike the memorial tattoos that mark the recognition of a group that suffered the same trauma (e.g. the victims of the Holocaust’s tattoos; the survivors  of the Bataclan attack) the commemorative tattoos analysed in this presentation reflect a centripetal set of identity concerns, ranging from Yugonostalgia to individualized spaces of self-healing. The argument put forth is that tattoos can act as vernacular commemorations collected into a body archive of nostalgia for the security of the past. The argument I put forth is that tattoos are vernacular memorials that guide the understanding of the distinctiveness of the socialist leader’ image and its propensity to re-orient the tattoo bearer to the present. At the same time, this paper focuses on the aesthetic, political and epistemic intricacies of remembering through the inked body. These mnemonic actors who indulge in such modes of remembrance are more often than not disenchanted with the present.

Alexandra Oprea, (University of Bucharest), Artivism: A new language to channel the anti-corruption project in post-communist Romania

In the context of the anti-corruption social movements in post-communist Romania, what role do local civil society associations and, more specifically, artivism play in the articulation of corruption as a public problem? This presentation argues that through a specific form of political art, Funky Citizens, a very active NGO on the anti-corruption stage, is an example of a modernizing agent in post-communist Romania. Moreover, this goes hand in hand with the desire to overcome the idea of corruption as a heavy Balkan heritage that explains the existence of a contestation movement only through external pressure. Therefore, analyzing visual means of expression of actors that promote this specific modernizing project, allow us to grasp the specificity of the Romanian case. Aiming for a socio-historical perspective, this research uses concepts and perspectives borrowed from the theoretical field of pragmatic sociology instrumentalized for the pursuit of apprehending a certain type of political art. Through the investigation of this case-study, a new attitude towards corruption is put forward, different from the one that marked the first 20 years after the Revolution, which implies the need to investigate its references to the recent past. Last but not least, this contribution reflects on the usefulness of artivism as a new language to channel ideas, in the pursuit of contributing to the articulation of a certain narrative of the communist past.

Panel 2: 2.20 – 3.40

Chair Jiri Kocian (Malach Center for Visual History and Charles University)

Mykola Homanyuk (Kherson State University),The Transformation of Peripheral Memory Spaces in Modern Ukraine

Since the 2010s an active transformation of memory spaces dedicated to the WWII (often including monuments dedicated to the Civil War, ‘soldiers-internationalists’ and Anti-Terrorist operation) has taken place in Ukraine, particularly in rural settlements. Based on the analysis of over 100 pictures of the monuments and 15 in-depth interviews, the main changes are defined to include: 1) polychromy: initially monochrome monuments are painted in different colors, which often has political connotations, 2) installation of sacred elements (crosses, candlesticks) together with conducting holy services and vernacular religious memorial practices 3) personification of collective memory stelas: setting of memorial plaques with personal data, photographs etc.). The transformation of memory spaces, thus, involves sacralization of previously secular memory spaces, their nationalization (Ukrainization), as well as integration of folk and mass culture elements. As a result, initially secular memory spaces turn into syncretic sacred-political complexes, with different components predominating in each particular case. The transformations are revealed to depend on the three main factors: type of settlement, distance to the administrative center and total number of inhabitants. The polychromy, sacralization, personification, and integration of the folk and mass culture elements are more typical for small and remote rural settlements, while the nationalization occurs in non-remote towns. The conclusion is that, in the context of the decentralization campaign in Ukraine accompanied by the weakening of institutions of ideological control, a memory paradigm in the peripheral Ukrainian regions is undergoing a cultural shift. Namely, it has been changing from the Soviet heroic tradition to a vernacular religious tradition of commemoration. Applying the ‘history of concepts’ methodology to this case, it can be argued that rethinking and sacralization of memory spaces in modern Ukraine advances from periphery to the center and from everyday consciousness to the creation of an intellectual product.

Rose Smith (Charles University), Identifying the Role of Museums in the Czech Republic in the Construction of the Global Memory of Communism 

This research explores the movement towards a global memory of Communism through experiential tourism. It frames the research within the concept of collective memory by recognizing the global collective’s perception of a shared global history as well as the concept of prosthetic memory by identifying the evolution of museums as experiential sites allowing non-local visitors to acquire their own memory of a past event. Due to the vast scope of post-Communist states, the research that will be presented in the workshop focuses on the memory of Communism presented in the museums in Prague, Czech Republic. The research analyses (1) how museums that present the Communist-era narrate history and how much of the exhibition corroborates and deviates from the globally promoted narration of the past, (2) how modern technologies of mass culture present the Communist-era and introduce the “experiential” as a mode of knowledge acquisition, and (3) how visitors receive the memory of Communism. It uncovers the implications of commodifying the memory of Communism and allowing one to forge their own memory of it based on an experiential site.

Melinda Harlov-Csortán  (Institute of Advanced Studies, Kőszeg, Budapest), Why you didn’t tell? Not-talking as a significant memory element about the previous political system in Hungary

Communist regimes, as non-democratic systems are almost unquestionably characterized by silencing. You are not supposed to speak-out freely, you are not supposed to tell the truth to your neighbours, you do not talk about the fact that everyone is stealing this or that from the workplace or do things “illegally.” It seems such silencing almost became part of our DNA as people even after the political change have this inner confidence rather not-to talk about, name or speak-out. Many authors and director address this issue by focusing on the realization that defines the post-communist memory. Even the „-in-between” generation who was born and raised in the previous area but became (young) adult after the change got shocked of the level and realization of this silencing feature of the period that were present at every aspect of life.

The presentation focuses on two novels written by sons of their fathers or parents. Péter György and György Száraz Miklós and one of the latest movies by Márta Mészáros. The film structured around the same issue but puts a mother and her daughter in the center. The investigation looks at those artistic elements and methods with which this silencing got realized and identified with a time period. The other part of the research looks at the represented characters and identify those techniques with the personal memory is analyzed retrospectively based on the new or lack of information to create a meaning about the communist regime after the political change. Besides the three main subjects of research the presentation aims to introduce the same topic represented in other artistic genres such as public art.

Panel 3: 3.40 – 5.00

Chair: Rose Smith (Charles University)

Vedran Obućina (University of Regensburg) & Domagoj Krpan (University of Rijeka), Communism in distress! Images of Communist times through the movies of Vinko Brešan

During 1990-ies Croatia experienced a lot of changes: fall of communism, Croatian War of Independence, transfer from planned economy to free market, etc. All of this shaped Croatian artistic scene in new waves. The central idea of this new way has been the de-communization and building identity in which last 45 years were just a bad dream. In time when national pride flown through all parts of society still cinema somehow kept their freedom and non-nationalistic movies get through it. Furthermore, they were well received both by public and by critic. How the War Started on My Island (Croatian: Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku) is a 1996 Croatian black comedy film and Marshal Tito’s Spirit (Croatian: Maršal) is a 1999 Croatian comedy film. They are both directed by Vinko Brešan. First movie tells a story of a father Blaž Gajski who is trying to get his son Zoran out of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) where he is a conscript. In the same time commander of the local garrison, on the island, is refusing to surrender the garrison or to evacuate. The situation is seemed as the Mexican standoff since everyone on the island seems completely engrossed by their own role in the events. Second movie is about the ghost of Josip Broz Tito that is seen during a partisan funeral. Police officer Stipan arrives on the island and decides to investigate the whole situation. The mayor is trying to build the brand from this apparition while local former partisans are preparing to take arms and control over the town, turning it into the communist-era shape.This paper examines how two comedies are reflecting on communist legacy in post war Croatian society.

Daria Chuprasova (Charles University), Immortal Regiment of Great Patriotic War

Russians are very proud of the victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. In Soviet and Russian historiography, it is customary to talk about the Great Patriotic War as part of the Second World War, which lasted from June 22, 1941, to May 9, 1945. Since 1995, the annual Victory Parade is held in the center of Moscow. In Russia, it is the main commemorative event devoted to WWII. Since 2013, the Immortal Regiment action has been held in Russia. This parade imitates the Victory Parade, but everyone may take part in it: the main condition is to bring a photo of your relative/ancestor who participated in the Great Patriotic War (it does not matter in what status: soldier, doctor, journalist, rear worker, etc.). Initially, the parade was held in the city of Tomsk, then spread to the cities of Russia. Gradually, other countries began to join the action, first the Post-Soviet country, then other countries (for 2020, the Immortal Regiment took place in more than 83 countries of the world). Mostly participating in the parades are the Russian-speaking population of these countries, most often – emigrants of different years. However, the project is open to citizens of any country and any nation. Participants in the parade, not only lifting photographs of their relatives above their heads, but also wearing a soldier’s uniform during the war, directly identify themselves with a generalized historical figure. We see a specific substitution: the carrying portrait becomes the “representative” of the deceased in the war, not only for other participants in the procession but also for those outside it. The self-identification that the members of the Immortal Regiment seek to demonstrate is confirmed by external observers. We can say that the participation of people in the action is due to the need to extend their memory, to make the personal part collective, to be sure that it will be preserved.

Elisabeth Kovtiak (independent cultural theorist, Belarus) The image of the USSR in Lithuanian and Belarusian contemporary art

This presentation deals with the image of the Soviet past in contemporary art in Lithuania and Belarus. In the presentation, I compare how the memories of the Soviet past are negotiated in these two countries, as Lithuania and Belarus are the two post-communist states that have very different official politics of memory regarding the Soviet times, although the vernacular memory does not seem to be very distinct. There are differences in the ways of addressing the Soviet times in contemporary artworks. In Lithuania the central topic is the de-communization and fading away of the past, contemporary art attempts to reconcile with the loss. In Belarus, on the contrary, contemporary art highlights the fact that the country has not moved forward since 1991. The Communist theme merges with Lukashenko’s regime and it is sometimes hard to tell apart the difference. Also, the ways of negotiating the Soviet past are more subtle, as there is censorship. In this presentation, I will explore the differences in representations using the works of Indre Šerpytytė, Deimantas Narkevicius, Arturas Raila, Darius Žiūra, Maknyte Aurelija, Lina Albrikiene, Andrei Liankevich, Ales Puskin, Velikzhankin, Tamara Sokolova, Moskaleva and Shakhlevich, Sergey Kozhemiakin and Igor Savchenko. Apart from discussing the differences themselves, I am going to address the potential of the artworks for forming the collective memory and bringing reconciliation with the past on cultural and individual levels.

This workshop is organized by the Institute of International Studies (Charles University, Prague), PRIMUS/HUM/12 research project Beyond the Hegemonic Narratives and Myths, (2017-2021) and the Interdisciplinary Research Center on Politics, Arts, Memory and Society (PolArt) of the Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest as a part of the project TE “Transregional remembrance of dictatorships: restoring human dignity through artistic practices in South America and Eastern Europe” (PN-III-P1-1.1-TE-2016-0346, UEFISCDI).