Best we forget? Commemorations and memorials today

Sunday 29 October, 16:0017:15, Cinema 2Debating the Past

The centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution is a propaganda headache for today’s Kremlin. The centenary year of the 1917 Russian revolutions throws up significant problems for the Russian state. While, revolutions are anathema to Putin’s ideology, contemporary Russia is inextricably tied to the Revolution, which gave birth to the Russia that won the Great Patriotic War and bestrode the world as a Cold War superpower. The collapse of the Soviet state in 1991 did not deliver a clear moral victory, Over two decades later, the question of contemporary Russia’s relationship to its past remains open and unresolved. Can Russia re-invent its troubled past as a positive, unifying narrative?

 Russia is not alone in recent years in struggling to mark an important anniversary. Last year, Ireland commemorated the centenary of the Easter uprising, but even though the event was seminal in bringing about Irish independence, modern political concerns made the event tricky for the current Irish establishment. The anniversary events were ultimately framed within remembrances of familial connections and an inclusive embrace of diverse Irish and British narratives.

Equally, the British government has had its own problems in marking the centenary of the First World War, with a marked reluctance to adopt forms of commemoration that might strike the wrong patriotic, nationalistic or chauvinistic tone. Rather than celebrating national victories or honouring sacrifice, the public was invited to come together to reflect on family and community histories and national heritage that connected them to the lives of those who fought and died.

Throughout human history, collective remembrances of past glories and shared sufferings have served as sources of unity, solidarity, solace and even hope of future greatness. Society’s relationship with the past is always complex, as each generation encounters, reinterprets and reappraises history from the experience of the here and now. While national histories have often been used by states to evoke a shared sense of veneration and pride, contemporary preoccupations with memorializing the past tend to focus on more troubling and even shameful events in history, which act as sources of moral lessons and cautionary tales – lest we forget – from which to build a better future. Far from offering a ‘place of historical refuge’, politically invented traditions, memorials and commemorations appear more and more suffused with our present sense of limitations, insecurities and uncertainties about our collective identity and future. 

Why should the past loom so large in the contemporary political imagination? How did we become entrapped in this seemingly unending cycle of commemoration? What role do political and cultural institutions play in channelling the energy of conflicted and contested narratives into a force for building a shared future?