Sydney Shiller_CERES_MA
Europe, Russia & Eurasia, Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Master of European and Russian Affairs

CERES MA student Sydney Shiller's essay published in the Canadian Slavonic Papers

Could you share a brief summary of your study?

This study takes Russia’s memory war against Ukraine (in the context of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war) in a new direction by depicting the Putin regime’s use of Second World War memory against Ukraine as a method of counterrevolution. This is not just counterrevolution regarding the Euromaidan—after which the Putin regime launched a propaganda campaign against Ukraine in Western media, depicting Ukraine as a fascist, antisemitic state—but more about the fact that, by pursuing this kind of memory politics, the Putin regime is trying to revert to the world order that was established at the Yalta Conference in 1945 and proven defunct during Perestroika and the revolutions of 1989.  

Given this is a bit of a departure from your usual temporal focus, what inspired you to take up this topic?

Most obviously, the memories of the Second World War that Russia is manipulating concern the persecution of Jews and other peoples by fascist forces, including the crimes of the Holocaust. This piece is not just about memory as a historical tool, but also protecting the memory of those persecuted during the Second World War from negationism and misrepresentation for nefarious purposes. It is not just Holocaust denial or broader negationism of the crimes of the Second World War that should be countered, but the manipulation of history for political or otherwise ideological gain, which also disrespects the memory of the persecuted.

What is your main takeaway from this study and what do you hope readers will take away?

Many in the field of East European studies and neighbouring fields are aware that what the Putin regime says about Ukraine and Ukrainians during the Second World War is largely false. But what’s important to me with this paper is presenting that information in a way that is accessible to a greater number of people. My greatest takeaway in researching memory politics has been the sheer pervasiveness outside of Russia of myths that the Putin regime has been propagating for many years. Though these myths, as they concern Ukraine, at least, are increasingly losing currency, especially since the full-scale invasion, they received a great deal of attention in Western media before the fact. The fact is that many outside of Russia – in both Europe and North America – found it easy, for some reason, to believe the Putin regime’s anti-Ukraine rhetoric. It’s not that all of the information that has circulated about Ukraine during the Second World War is necessarily incorrect — wartime collaboration with fascist elements took place throughout Europe, including in Ukraine — but that those facts are being misrepresented and misunderstood, and it can be very easy to take misinformation at face value. There should be greater public awareness of the misuse and manipulation of history by political actors.

You say you engage with Kremlin discourse and Russian state sources, did this pose any challenges or surprises?

As someone who studies the history of the region and has been interested in memory politics for a while already, none of what I found was terribly surprising. What is interesting is the amount of research yet to be done on the kind of rhetoric that Russian media sources mobilize about given events in history. It’s not just about the Second World War; for example, war memory is often mobilized alongside myths of so-called Russo-Ukrainian unity, something the Putin regime frequently alleges, but also elsewhere. Such combinations of different – and often contradictory – narratives constantly produce new avenues of study.

What can you say about the Soviet dual narrative of victimhood and victory?

The victory complex and victimhood complex come from the same place. Russia is effectively alleging that “the West,” broadly understood, harbors an anti-Russia prejudice that predates the Second World War, but that a watershed in this antagonistic history took place during the war, when the Soviet Union was left alone to defend “the East.” This evolves into a civilizational battle as East vs. West narratives emerge—narratives that inherently come with value judgments about what it is to be either “eastern” or “western.” Russia’s self-portrayal as a victim comes from alleging that, while the West promotes itself as a champion of democracy, liberation of many kinds, and open-mindedness, it can’t do that with reference to Russia, despite the fact that Russia “rescued” Europe from fascism.

Does this serve Putin in any way?

Absolutely. In my piece, I cite Putin’s article on the 75th anniversary of Europe’s “victory” -- Putin’s word -- over fascism, in which he goes into greater depth about the debt that is owed to Russia not only by Western Europe and North America but, for example, Poland. He claims that, in the past, they have hindered or tried to obscure from memory Russia’s ability to protect its and other peoples against outside threats. This serves the dual narrative that I described earlier.

Could you describe the process of this publication?

This article was originally a course paper for Dr. Arthurs’ class on European memory politics. Throughout that semester we learned a lot about the emergence of diverse war and other memories in 20th century Europe. We did read some of Mark Edele’s work on Russia’s memory politics, which I later used in the article. My process for this was the same as writing any other term paper. That said, it looked very different than what was published. It was more of an overview of the situation than it was an argument. That emerged more in the publication process.

Something I added to the paper later was Ukraine’s stake in this “memory war.” That is, which points in its history are important to Ukrainian memory politics. Then I also read about French counterrevolutionaries, something that I think could eventually develop into additional work — perhaps a comparison of French counterrevolutionaries and the example of Russian counterrevolution.

Could you elaborate on the idea of counterrevolution?

At the end of the Second World War, its victors could carve up Europe as they saw fit. In the parts that the Soviet Union took (and those that it kept from before the war),  the state set to work on concretizing a civilizational alternative to the West, helped in part by its promotion of a unifying myth of all-Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War — so-called for having been fought together, consensually, as the myth goes, by the various peoples of the Soviet Union. The fall of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s shook that alternative, in no small part because those same people were revolting against it.

Since around 2010, Russia has become increasingly aggressive in its domestic and foreign policy. The state has since attempted to re-impose that same alternative civilizational model internally and on parts of the region that it lost after the collapse. What Russia is doing is counter-revolting against those huge changes that took place toward the end of the last century.

How does it feel to be published in this journal? 

Honestly, worried! It can be worrisome to open your work to others, I think, but I’d be glad to learn from potential feedback on the article.  

In general, I’m just very grateful for the opportunity to publish this paper, because I think it’s a very important topic. It’s by no means an obscure topic; memory studies is an already big and rapidly growing field, and many scholars are researching Russian memory politics. But I’m very glad to be able to contribute to discussions on the topic.