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The danger of memory

Off a metro stop on the red line was a walking avenue for people — large bricked, ascending gradually toward the Moscow Museum of the Great Patriotic War. As if to create the illusion of authority, on the outside this museum resembled a parliament or some legislative building. Inside were interactive exhibits that, between painted walls and automatic artillery noises, put you in the middle of some of Russia’s greatest WWII battles. In the midst of one such simulation, we were on a ridge in Volgograd as cannons fired across the river. I thought of this experience as a way to remember the past: a specific way to remember the past.

As much as our culture, food, socio-economic status, nationality and more are experiences that congeal into our identities, so too is memory a form of establishing who one is in this world. Memory is both personal and collective — those lucid summer nights at the lake, and the death of JFK.

In Russia, the Great Patriotic War (what Russians call the Nazi invasion of the USSR) to which this museum was dedicated — and other historic events — are significant components of a national historic identity. They are called upon in times of need. Leading up to Ukraine’s 2014 referendum, posters depicting the outline of Ukraine with a swastika or a Russian flag showed the supposed outcome of voters’ choices. A decision to stay as a part of Ukraine was a vote for fascism and a decision to relive the horrors of the Great Patriotic war, with NATO acting as the Germans.

It is important to see this for what it is, which is not the natural perseverance of memory, but the propagandized version of history. This forced recollection of memory to serve political aims is problematic — not just in Russia but wherever it is employed.

I’m reminded of George Orwell’s “1984” and its Ministry of Truth: a government organization whose job it was to rewrite historical events so they conform to the ruling party’s platform. The example is extreme, but it serves the point. When the meaning of a collective memory of an event is malleable, then the past is malleable too. The Great Patriotic War was a source of patriotism and rallied the Russians, but to say that it is comparable to 2014’s situation in Crimea and Ukraine is wrong. As a tool serving an agenda, that interpretation of history is morally corrupt.

America is not immune to this phenomenon, which sometimes manifests in public debate. We can’t think that a good argument against immigration reform, for example, is that America is a country founded by foreigners. We should not think of Russia as a geopolitical enemy because of the 40-year period when it was. Both of these are more present problematic views of the past because they assume equal conditions, that people and processes were the same back then as they are now.

Thankfully, Americans and most citizens of the world don’t live in a society where the past is constructed like it is in “1984.” However, sometimes the past and our collective memory are changed, their meaning reapplied in ways that serve an agenda or an argument — and these are the more subtle processes that we should be wary of and fight against.

When I think back to that museum in Moscow, I remember the large auditoriums, weapons used to defend the country, displays of old battle fatigues and the national pride that was so visible in every display and construction. But I also remember the propaganda posters, the ones that turn history into something marketable, their attempt to change the past.

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