Communicative memory through three or four generations of family

I love browsing through my grandmother’s photo albums, especially, searching for visual glimpses of her life before or during World War II, before and during the Soviet, then Nazi and then again Soviet regime. There are not many photos to find.. First of all, they were a simple farming family who did not have many photographers around their village. Secondly, the war, deportation of her parents to Siberia, confiscation of their family farm, scattering of family to all corners of Latvia and Lithuania, hiding in the post-war years… I am amazed that there are any photos left at all.

This is possibly the last photo of my great-grandparents Jānis and Margaret (sitting in the middle) and their eldest son Miķelis (on the far left) enjoying life, family and friends at their farm in Butinge, Lithuania. This territory belonged to Latvia until 1921 therefore most of the local population in surrounding area were Latvians. The photo could be taken circa 1942-1943. In the autumn of 1944 their village was again taken over by the Soviet troupes. In 1944 two of my grandmother’s brothers, including Miķelis, crossed the Baltic Sea as refugees and in 1948 my great-grandparents and great-great-grandmother (who was well into her 90-ties) were arrested and deported to Irkutsk region in Russia.

They were allowed to return to Latvia only in 1957, few years after Joseph Stalin’s death. They had nowhere to go since the farm was confiscated, except move from place to place to stay with their children who themselves were struggling to find places to live. Plus, anyone, who had been deported, carried the sentence of “enemy of the state” for the rest of their lives, making it very difficult to re-settle. You were discriminated and marked (as if with leprosy in Jesus times) and some avoided you for fear of the regime.

For anyone who follows the science of memory politics, social, collective and cultural memory, etc, you may be familiar with Aleida Assmann and her well-known  thesis about communicative memory which is limited to the recent past. “It evokes personal and autobiographical memories, and is characterized by a short term (80 to 110 years), from three to four generations. Due to its informal character, it does not require expertise on the part of those who transmit it.”

Here is my family. Almost 80 years since this photo was taken. Three to four generations that are connected with a particular memory, a particular story and this story tells of a very deep trauma. There is the first generation – my grandmother, her siblings, her parents – who experienced it first-hand. Often if the experience has been very traumatic, this generation becomes the “silent” generation, focusing on survival. In our family, this would be my grandmother’s generation. But there was an added layer of trauma – in the Soviet Union they were not allowed to talk about it. These memories were simply “erased” from public memory and official history because they did not match the ideology of the regime. When the memory is repressed, there is no chance for healing.

Then there is second generation which grows up with these “silent” parents. Even though my grandmother has never been the silent type, she was afraid to tell many details of her past to her children and grandchildren. Not until Latvia started shaking off the totalitarian Soviet regime and became an independent country again. Suddenly there was a flood of stories. Being the fourth generation in this chain of communicative memory, I now regret that I did not ask more questions before my grandmother’s memory got badly damaged by old age and before my mom passed away from cancer.

Recently I got a stark reminder how deeply this trauma still affects the older generation of Latvian society. My grandmother is the most cheerful, positive person I know but she started to complain about bad nightmares which she could never remember the next day. Only word she kept repeating was “mud” and “wading through mud”. One morning while I was staying with her few weeks ago, she woke up from another one of those nightmares. Only this time she could remember it and described it to me in vivid detail.

She dreamed of being arrested and taken from her home, loaded into an open truck together with a large group of other women (she told me there were no children and nobody had luggage) and driven through Siberian taiga. When I asked her what time of the year it was in her dream, she replied: “Oh, it was late autumn. There was no snow on the ground but there was mud everywhere. Very deep mud. The truck kept getting stuck in the mud and we had to wade through this mud. It was horrible.” And she kept repeating: “They were taking us to the death camp. They were going to kills us there and we knew that this was our last journey.”

The thing is… my grandmother herself was never deported (someone had warned her and she went into hiding). Her parents were and so were many of her neighbors and friends. This was a collective trauma which affected so many families in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In Latvia alone, on March 25, 1949, approximately 43 000 people were arrested and deported to Siberia. It took 31 train cars to transport them on the long journey across Russia.

I asked grandmother why she thinks she has these nightmares about camps in Siberia if she was never there. Her reply: “No, I was not there with my parents, but I have suffered as much. I have lived in hiding, I have slept in the forests… Those were terrible times.”

When I think I know something, I learn how much I don’t know. Only to realize that healing takes a long, long time and even at the age of 95, this repressed trauma can haunt. And to realize that these communicative memories remind me why we have to be on constant guard against any kind of totalitarian ideology and system. Left wing, right wing, atheist, religious, etc. … I don’t care. Anything that decides who is “in” and who is “out”, who lives if they obey and who dies if they disobey. (I plan to write a separate post on how I see the danger and deception of totalitarian  “seeds”)

Meanwhile my grandmother holds onto these words: “He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

Helpful or harmful to talk about painful national past?

This is a common and valid question. When do the wounds, losses and memories from time ago truly become things of the past? When does it heal and hurt no more? When does dwelling on the past become harmful and we get stuck in it? Increasingly many people in my global circle of friends are reflecting on these issues.

I was giving a lecture on principles of reconciliation and one Swiss student in Latvia asked me, “Why do we need to talk about these tragic things that people and nations have done to each other? Doesn’t this just stir the pain and keep it alive? Doesn’t it actually harm good relations and infect the present situation?” Again a very good question most often coming from the youth who are 25 and under. When I was 18 or 20, I would have asked the same thing as I often felt that the older generations talked too much about the past. I only had the future to worry about.

In my case, with time and experiences around the world came a desire to see the bigger picture and also a realization that actually we do inherit national memories from the generations before us. We claim that it is “not our problem” and that we are “not responsible”. But we look at the reality around us and see that ‘yesterday’ still has a strong effect on ‘today’. And then we start to take ‘tomorrow’ more seriously because it cannot be taken for granted.

I use the word ‘yesterday’ because in this part of the world we live in very young nations. I don’t mean cultures or ethnic identities because there is long history here but many of our republics are celebrating 100 year anniversaries. Republic of Latvia is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary on November 18, 2018 and Estonia on February 24, 2018. Lithuania has a much longer history of statehood but on February 16, 2018 it will celebrate 100th anniversary of the Restoration of the State.

100 years is not a very long time. I did not know it when I was a teenager but I understand it now because my grandmother is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. And her generation is still around with their memories and stories and things to teach and pass on. In this life span there have been exciting highs of free society, high achievements, big dreams and deep despair of war, bloodshed, holocaust, ethnic cleansing. 50 of those years Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania have been occupied by a Soviet regime and forced to live under a system which was foreign and destructive. Not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally and socially.

Metaphorically speaking, we still feel this Soviet system poison in our ‘veins’ and we need to flush it out if we want to be healthy. How? Part of it is calling things their real names. For example, the Soviet times taught people not to trust anyone and how to become hypocrites. Saying one thing but thinking another and then doing something else entirely. The private and public lives often did not match but everyone knew it and pretended. The system was good at pretending. And we still find it hard to trust anyone and we still struggle with lots of corruption because our psyche has been so corrupted.

Another thing we need to flush out is “us” and “them” mentality. Again, the Soviets were masters of this art and they had good disciples. “International” by name but “chauvinist” by nature. And history was so politicized and used for propaganda and brainwashing that we actually could not have an honest truth seeking, grieving, forgiving, apologizing and reconciling.

So, you see we are dealing with questions which should have been addressed before but were delayed. The first step in any reconciliation process is truth seeking. If there is a conflict, pain or resentment, it is a given that something happened. What happened? Why did it happen? How did it effect people? This part of the homework is super hard. Many people want to skip over it completely. One journalist asked, “Can we have reconciliation first and then try to find out the truth?” Sorry to disappoint but it is not possible. That would be called “avoiding the topic” or “sweeping things under the carpet”. And that is exactly what most people and societies do because it seems much easier.

(I am not talking about situations where there is real violence and war and brutal conflict. Of course, you first need to have a ceasefire and stop killing each other and let things calm down before you can even address these deep issues. The basic need is always to preserve people’s lives and take care of their basic need like food, shelter and safety. You do not hold Truth and Reconciliation Committees in a battle zone.)

Last week I wrote about a Reconciliation event in Riga. There I had a conversation with a Latvian whose ethnic background is Russian. He is 21 years old and he was completely convinced that “if we truly want to have better relations with each other, we need to start by apologizing. If we only come together and talk about the facts but take no personal responsibility, we will get nowhere. When we come together, we need to ask each other for forgiveness.”

He wants a good and long future for Latvia and all people in Latvia and for those who will come to live here. So do I. The same for Lithuanians, Estonians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians… and you can add your country to the list. This is exactly why we need deep and honest reflections about ‘yesterday’ if we desire a good ‘today’ and better ‘tomorrow’. And start apologizing and forgiving where needed.

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Spring time in Rīga (photos from personal archive)