Collective memory thrives on trauma. Lived experiences spawn myths which in turn build nations and destroy unions. That’s why there are fireworks in New York on the 4th July and parties in Paris ten days later. It’s why, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, people united by a shared history of empire wear a red flower to remember a century-old war. Yet the ways in which memory guides our present day actions are not always so obvious.
‘Modern Russia is full of inexplicit cultural trauma,’ says cultural historian and critic Irina Prokhorova. Irina founded the Moscow-based New Literary Observer in 1992 to promote Russian thought in international academic contexts and modernize the humanities after the censorship and ideological pressure of the Soviet years.
Today Irina challenges Russian conservatives who she alleges use the collective memory of Russian serfdom to ‘justify the repressive essence of the current regime’. Myths and ‘cultural fantasies’ recalling Imperial Russia and the Soviet Years continue to influence legislation, rhetoric and even our capacity for empathy but none, the critic argues, have a more pervasive effect than the experience of slavery.
When Imperial Russia looked to the West as a model, modernity meant liberté, egalité and fraternité. So in 1861 Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom – an institution which could no longer be associated with a modern state. However, according to Irina, ‘when institutions [such as slavery] disappear they still have their own tradition, they still influence the development of society,’ she says. Despite the passage of time, ‘we return to the same practices without realising it.’
In Russia she says the cultural legacy of slavery is expressed in ‘a strange tendency to rehabilitate serfdom,’ which has emerged within conservative circles. She fears that this ‘new trend,’ of re-casting institutionalised slavery as a form of social contract is a dangerous attempt to justify systemic inequality under the Putin government.
Yet such selective memory is not uniquely Russian. In liberal democracies around the world rhetoric of equality has always been ‘a denial of the facts, ’ since slavery, inequality and discrimination remain commonplace. Despite the passage of time, the tension between democratic commitment to equality and the fact of retained structures of inequality continues.
Propaganda always plays with the past and collective memory is a powerful tool. So, Irina argues, it is important that ‘we should know this tradition, and why we think.’ ‘We need to start openly speaking about the very complex nature of slavery as an institution and examine what is going on in society nowadays,’ she says.
As the principles of liberal democracy face up to a future of crisis, the legacy of slavery is more obvious than ever. In the American Declaration of Independence slaves were equated to property so that they disappeared from the public vision as people. For Irina, the legacy of slavery today is that when we speak about migration and immigration ‘we use the same cultural cliché.’ In short, ‘we dehumanize people’ to rationalize our failure or unwillingness to fulfil that central tenet of the modern liberal democracy – universal equality.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, thousands upon thousands of human beings fall on the door of Europe, waiting for their humanity to be recognised. By understanding that ‘we live in the same cultural constructs which were devised and formulated in the era of slave practices and modernity,’ Irina is confident we can be more vigilant in tackling our prejudices. ‘I believe in human wisdom,’ she says. ‘Otherwise we would not be human beings.