Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Leaving the House of Memory: Post-Soviet Traces of Deportation Memory

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Leaving the House of Memory: Post-Soviet Traces of Deportation Memory

Article excerpt

Drawing on Pierre Nora's contribution to memory studies, this essay examines the mediation of history by deportation memory. Literary texts and ethnography are used to illuminate the historical experience of two Muslim peoples of the Caucasus: the Chechens, deported to Central Asia in 1944, and the Hunzib, who remained behind.

If the initial decades of the twentieth century witnessed a turn to individualized memory, by the twentieth century's end, archives are saturated memory's collectivization. In the words of Pierre Nora, who regards the modern transformation in memory as a testimony to the replacement of milieux de memoire by memorial lieux, memory's "new vocation is to record; delegating to the archive the responsibility of remembering, it sheds its signs upon depositing them there, as a snake sheds its skin" (7). The normative account of modern memory, proposed by both Nora (15) and Paul Connerton (How 26), argues that memory was psychologized and thus individualized by Bergson, Freud, and Proust at the beginning of the twentieth century. A century of memory studies scholarship teaches us that, in modernity, memory ensures survival, whereas forgetting can imply a compromise with atrocity, or, more frequently, acquiescence in defeat (see Connerton, "Seven").

Whereas early-twentieth-century memory was a privilege for Europe's literati, mid-twentieth-century memory enabled resistance to a diversity of state coercions. The early twentieth century's quest for reconstructing the shards of past selves into coherent entities became a late-twentieth-century quest to make meaning from catastrophe (see Nichanian, Entre and Historiographic). The middle of this century witnessed a series of deportations and genocides--including the Holocaust, the Nakba, the partitioning of South Asia, and the lesser-known deportations of the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus to Central Asia--that challenged early-twentieth-century memory's individualizing orientation. But even the Nakba was not the Nakba until the 1990s; prior to that date, the Palestinian catastrophe was regarded by Palestinians themselves as anything but final (Allen 253). Just as the Palestinian tragedy was finally assigned a name only in the 1990s, so too does the deportation of the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus to Central Asia still await its taxonomy. In the post-Soviet Union, particularly among Muslim peoples, the process of extracting memory from history has only just begun.

Within the framework of the late twentieth century, as memory became the primary medium of collective identity, it was absorbed into history to the extent of constituting history's subject. The historicization of memory, or, conversely, the memorialization of history did not by any means result in an isomorphism between these two categories. To invoke Nora again, describing memory's relation to history at the tail-end of the twentieth century: "Memory [remains] open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer" (8).

Nora goes on to argue that whereas memory is a "perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present," history represents the past (8). In spite of the apparently intimate association between memory and history in modernity, divergences between the two narrative structures are as salient as the grounds for their convergence. "Memory," in Nora's account, "attaches itself to sites," to lieux de memoire, whereas "history attaches itself to events" (22). In Connerton, whose work is heavily informed by Nora, the history-memory dialectic, also called "place memory" (How 7), oscillates between the "memorial" and the "locus" (10). In representing the past, history alone cannot speak meaningfully in the present; it requires the artifice of memory to take root in social realities. …

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