Collective memory: Gorbachev and me/you/us/them

My mother always told me that I was an ‘easy’ baby.  Neither fussy nor boisterous but placid, calm, and perpetually either napping or shortly due a nap.  A baby who rarely cried, and didn’t keep her and my dad awake most of the night.  A veritable golden child.

This clearly wasn’t the case. There may be the small kernel of truth there, but the reality, as always, was far more complex and layered.  Yet why is it, whenever we look back at it and reminisce, it is always that kernel shining through? Distorting the full, complete and nuanced remembering of how things were?

It’s easier and more comfortable to remember things how we wished them to be, to forge our narratives based on the selective remembering of those moments, thoughts or memories.  This view of reality doesn’t only extend to the near of distant past.  We are constantly accumulating new spins on events that shape our lives, whether that be in our familial and social lives, or as we navigate the wider world.  But all this hording of pleasant, unpleasant, painless, painful or confirmatory, contradictory information can hide a much deeper truth. 

We are continually creating a semi-fiction of the world itself, shunning or turning a deaf ear to clear injustices, intolerable excesses, and dire warnings, and at the wider level of identification, we reside within what political scientist Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities.  The socially-constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group.  There are many facets to which this collective understanding arises.  What we read (or don’t read) in the newspapers we choose and stations we decide to watch, what we see in museums and in popular culture, the nature and tone of our political discourse and even our social media feeds.  We see aspects of our imagined communities in such places as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Olympic games, and even the Great British Bake Off. 

This is why many view the British colonial past and its ongoing legacy as, if not a positive, at least a benign historical force, rather than the exploitative, extractive and deeply racist institution that it was.  And whilst work continues to draw attention to those uncomfortable and painful truths many of us still have difficulty seeing past our narratives. In Wales, we are making wide efforts to decolonise the New Curriculum to address exactly these issues.  Same goes for the Brexit referendum.  It’s fair to say that for many voters, the draw from an imagined age of ‘rule Britannia’ and an innate but deliberately vague sense of what Britishness is and what has been lost played an important part in which boxes were ticked.

A famous/infamous Americanconservative political commentator once said that ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ but does it not seem to be the opposite?

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Particularly when it comes to the climate crisis.  Scientific consensus, data backed studies, report after damning report, as well as the beaming directly to our televisions on an almost nightly. These are either dismissed as scaremongering, hyperbole or retorted with such asinine quips as ‘if global warming is real, why is it snowing?’ or ‘I remember the hot summer of nineteen seventy whatever!’. Yet even after governmental acknowledgement of the impending climate and ecological disaster, the worst effects of which we are unlikely to avoid, it’s easier to make pariahs of young Swedish girls or people who glue themselves to motorways in efforts to highlight the inconvenient truth. We know collectively, that action needs taking, that it needed to be taken long ago, but are unable to internalise these dire needs and allow those cracks in our narratives to propagate and show us the uncomfortable brightness of the totality of the issue. There will come a point at which the critical mass of overwhelming evidence will cause everything to be illuminated.

This brings us in a roundabout way to Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at the age of 91 last week in Moscow.  The first and last President of the Soviet Union, and the final general secretary of the Soviet Union.  The man who presided over the relatively peaceful disillusion of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and the non-violent political revolutions of the Eastern-bloc countries.  Not to mention the key instigator in the cooling of the cold war and pushing for nuclear weapons control between the USA and USSR.  He won a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts. 

Gorbachev may be feted in the West as a man who strove to reform the unreformable, using Perestroika to make the type of painful structural changes to the Soviet Union that would allow it to break the stagnation and low productivity that had plagued its economy since the 1970’s. These reforms were needed, but ultimately that critical mass had already been reached, everyone knew the dire state of affairs and the rot that had set in within the Soviet system. 

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The legacy of the disastrous Afghan war, Chernobyl, and the corruption and cronyism that existed at every level of society- It seems that everyone in the upper echelons of the Soviet bureaucracy (except for that band of reformers including Gorbachev) were blissfully unable to accept the state of affairs they found themselves in, or at least couldn’t bring themselves to implement the painful changes needed.  Ultimately the rest is history. 

But history from one side. 
Why is it then, that Gorbachev’s death and legacy receives a much cooler reception in Russia and several of the former Soviet states?  His legacy as a peacemaker may not be viewed so glowingly by Azerbaijanis or residents of Baku, in which Gorbachev sent Soviet troops to put down protests in 1990 leaving 150 dead.
What is it then that he is blamed for from his home country? To understand, we must look back at what Russia became in the years after 1991.

Russia in the 1990’s was akin to the wild west. Corruption, already endemic, became institutionalised, organised crime skyrocketed, life expectancy dropped by almost 15 years, not to mention an internal war with separatist forces in Chechnya.  It isn’t fair to say people longed for the good old days of really existing socialism, but there was a wish to have some semblance of order.  And thus, the collective distain for the person who presided over the slide into the 90’s became focused on Gorbachev.  But then it’s easier as we know, to choose not to see the complexity of an issue, to create the simple narrative, to build our collective semi-fiction in order to cope.

There are a couple of popular national myth amongst Russians that their wild spirit requires strong leadership and that, following the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Moscow inherited the mantle of ‘Tretyi Rim’ (The Third Rome).  As we trace the history of Russia, from Tsarist autocracy, to Soviet central planning and administration, to the idea of ‘managed democracy’ under Putin, there has always been more than a streak of imperialist authoritarianism in the political structures and national psyche, something further reinforced with selective and misleading teaching of history.

These imagined communities are constructed deliberately to obfuscate the richer narratives that lay beneath them.  To simplify complex issues into succinct and palatable concepts, to ‘manufacture consent’ as Chomsky put it.

These imagined communities are constructed deliberately to obfuscate the richer narratives that lay beneath them. To simplify complex issues into succinct and palatable concepts or “manufacture consent” as Chomsky put it. However, in a world where the truth is already made nubile by fake news and half-truths, it is essential that all sides of an argument are represented.

This article was written by Tom Weiser.

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