Contested Memories – or Where does Nostalgia Lead us?

The transition dialogues are about experiences and memories about the very recent  history. For Ukraine, the communist past is a taboo issue, only fragments appear on the surface, but trigger conflicts in families and entire regions. Clashing beliefs about the past are not new and and have become an obstacle to mutual understanding within society – as you can read from the voices below. We were diving into the see of thoughts of the Ukrainians about Soviet times.

Voices below are taken from are discussion on the eve of 2017 in the Kiev “Museum of Dreams” – a museum that is exploring how the dream meets reality in human life. Could there be a better place to talk about the time of change since the end of communism?

How to Remember Communism?

Tatyana (born 1957): Communism was only good because we were young

“It scares me speaking with people who are 20-30 years old, and they tell me how cool it was in the Soviet time, how lucky it was, not such a cannibalistic time. I studied in Leningrad, and went through Moscow [in the time after the end of communism]. And I remember I saw happy people on Gorky Street. […] And when I hear of this young nostalgia, I ask again: “Wait, you are 30 years, how do you know what it was like back then?” I had a conversation yesterday. And one woman told me, “I understand everything, I understand, but in that time I was young!” – “Of course, that’s great, but the youth does not return. Do you want to get back to those circumstances instead?”. So go back to youth, yes! But it would be good if there was also a thing like the internet back then (all laugh). Because now I can go to any museum, walk around any city online.”

Victoria (1981): Things would have changed anyway – with or without the Soviet Union

“But imagine if it was the Soviet Union, but with what we have now. Perhaps the Union would rethink itself as a country. We are simply different, as a whole […]. Perhaps the Union would now have the same challenges, the Union would also change.”

Victoria (1970): You were not at the elections in the Soviet Union.

Elena (1982): I remember – caviar, music. Everybody went to eat there.

Tetyana (1957): Suddenly election results depended on the people’s choice

After 1985 my  first impression – a congress of deputies. I was in Kherson and was walking along the Ushakov’s street. There were no mobile phones, but  small receivers, that shouted out to the whole Ushakov’s about the  candidates. People listened. They wanted change. Then they were all waiting. We then first realized that something now depends on us. We realized that the election would not be approved by a district committee member. It was great what happened that time. People listened and turned around.

We all love to believe in illusions

What would happen if people in 1914 would have been prepared for what would be in 1917? If people would have anticipated this terrible transformation [the tough time of revolution, shortage of food and civil war]? They probably also would have thought that this would be over eventually and all would be all well in the end. I also once had this illusion . Now I know that there is no stability – history never ends. Ludmyla spoke about absence of ideology. But there is a humanist ideology, we all believe in people. We all want a good world, warm and well for everybody. It’s also an ideology, but it is good.

Clashing values, clashing generations

During the discussion, a conflict evolved between two women – Victoria, born in 1970, and Ludmyla, born in 1981 – about the question, if there was a freedom of choice even in the Soviet Union. Was there really no choice in life (says the one born in 1970) or was it just convenient to deny the fact that there is more than one possible way to go (says the one born 1981).

Victoria (1970): “There are things that unite us with the European Union, but there are also our personal changes: changing of values, transition from paternalism to justice.”

Victoria (1980): “You talk about changes of values. What kind of values did Soviet people have?”

Victoria (1970): “First, this is Paternalism. The question of choice for them did not exist.”

Victoria (1980): “This is not a value.”

Tatiana (1957): “The value of the military communism and stability.”

Victoria (1970): “I mean the paradigm of paternalism. Nothing depended on you, they [Soviet power] could give something to you or not. You lived in set frames and they said that you should be comfortable within. This imposed value, which raised more than one generation. Now these people do not have these frames anymore and it’s not comfortable for them. For us however, the main sense is in that change. The more people accept free values, not the values of the Soviet Union, the faster our country will develop.

Ludmyla (1981): We did not just move out of a closed, capsular existence. We actually have changed the ideology [the whole framework of values, the political ideology]. I have no personal experience of living in the ideological space of the Soviet Union. I have not had time to put forward some unwelcome ideas that could be suppressed.  I was too young, just 9 years old. Now we can choose freely. Our mission is to carry this memory.  People are now developing a collective  consciousness [on the past] and this can be dangerous because it can be manipulated.. We must remind people how it really was. The only task I see for the transition generation is this explanation.

What also makes me angry is when people say, that the Soviet people had to act like they did because they grew up with these values. That people had no choice. That is not true! It was just convenient. And even now, people choose what is more convenient – no influence on policy, not affecting anything. This is perceived also normal.  This is a dangerous narrative: to tell people that they have no choice.

Victoria (1970) You have such a position, because you have not lived in that time. Today you said that at the age of  nine you did not have to make a choice. You just did not see that the scope of available information was so  very narrow, as you may not have been aware of the choices that you could theoretically have made.

The time of the 90s that you have experienced is a very different time. When you lived in Soviet Ukraine, you did not even know what was going on in other countries. There was no choice.

Ludmyla (1981) I think, that you just liked to live like that. Sit and wait that someone decides for you. It was comfortable for you.

Victoria (1970) You had no expectations, because you just lived in this system. You just didn’t know any other varieties of existence.

Tatyana (1957): Luda [Ludmyla], if you did not like the government and the system, you simply went to a psychiatrist.

(Ludmyla laughs) Yes, Luda, this is serious, you lived and you had to be happy, because how can a normal person do not like the Soviets? You were considered crazy if you did not like it.

Dividing Memories – on a Generation

For Ukraine, the issue of knowledge communist past is a taboo topic. While only fragments of the issue appear on the surface, it divides families and entire regions in conflict. Dealing with beliefs about the past has become an obstacle to mutual understanding within society. We therefore propose to dive into the thoughts of the Ukrainians about Soviet times.

This post collects thoughts, memories and statements taken from a discussion that took place on the eve of 2017 in the “Museum of Dreams” in Kiev that is exploring how dreams meet reality in human life.

The quotes explore the memory of communism as well as the time that succeeded communism and lasts until today: The time of transition. But what exactly is transition?

transit – an attempt of a #defintion

Transit – this is where you don’t stay long. A transit passage is something temporary, moving from one point to another. But the transition we speak about, is not temporary – it is the life that we live. Generally speaking, life is a constant transit, it moves from one state to another. But in some periods we move faster. [from many voices]

Tatiana (1982)

“I think transit should be considered through acceleration. Stability can’t be detected, we find it only in the memories. When we remember – we fix a certain time. Get a different decade of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s – very different Soviet times. We summarize these periods. This generalization suggests one thing – it’s time for respite. The analyze possible when you are not in action. When you’re in a revolutionary time – you do not analyze, you are acting. Transitiveness is the revolution and the education. Transition is not attributed to any generation. There were people who could spend five months on the novel by Tolstoy, do they believed that their time was changing? Do they felt so these changes?”

Talking about our #generation

Artem (1976): a broken generation

“We are a broken generation. I was 15 years old when it happened. In Germany it is about unification. But here we called this times – the collapse of the Union. […] My generation – it’s the guys who became the criminals of the 90s. We are the separate generation – a transit and broken one.

This is a generation whose socialization time, 14-16 years, coinciding with the collapse of values. In adolescence, there was a complete breakdown. We grew up on the values, believed in honest, fair, good. And suddenly we found ourselves in a vacuum. In this Nietzschean «nothing».

We are the generation who can self-sacrifice themselvs for those children who are growing up now. They grew up in other picture: independence, freedom, liberalism, access to information and so on. I felt very homeless. Of course, I tried to flip this feature to advantage: the ability of quickly re-education, a willingness to change. All of these events: Maydan and the war – for me it was very natural. I quickly found myself like a fish in the water. Therefore, I perceive us as a broken generation. At the front are lots of guys of my age and my generation […]. They try to protect the future and they think their lives were broken anyway. This generation is the core bone of the war with Russia now.”

Lyudmyla (1981): need to move

“We are really romantic generation. But if we see something stable, we for sure need to change it (smiling). Well, at least we move the furniture.”

Sergiy (1972): nothing special

“Wandering through our lives, we change the world. Generation change itself brings something new. Over the past 50 thousand years this happens. It is not right to say that this is some special generation of transition. The time change occurs every forty years, as global change of everything. Technical progress give the fast opportunity to share the information, your idea spreads by second. To check the information on social networks simply is not possible. And future generations will have to learn how to control and filter the information.”

Alexandra (1987): We can make a difference

“It reminds me of metamorphosis of a butterfly. […] I think that every generation is a cluster of individuals of a certain age and that creates the understanding of a “generation”. Living this metamorphosis is not a goal, no purpose or process. I feel that the metamorphosis happens faster: We have more faith that we can make a difference and a willingness to do something. Transit isn’t an understandable word, but it speaks about the process. This is a motion vector. That I’m going in this direction.”

Alexander (1987): At a t urning point

“I do not remember the Soviet Union. I want to change the world, I want to act. I constantly desire to do something, run forward. That turning point for country, I do not remember. Now we also are at such a turning point, maybe it would be analysed later. Now I just want to do.”

Stories of Change from Kyiv

For many in the Ukraine, the Chernobyl-disaster marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Olena Pravilo from Congress of Cultural Activists talked to people, who were children back then, about the moment when they realised that everything started to change.

Transition stories from Dnipro, Ukraine (Part II)

Transition stories from Dnipro, Ukraine (Part I)

Transition story from Serhiy Oliferchuk, Kiev, Ukraine

Transition of Ukraine

Jaroslav Belinskiy interview, Kyiv

As a child, Jaroslav won a trip to Switzerland in the Red Cross drawing competion, that was announced in the Pioneers Newspaper. But still in 1991 authorities tried to hide the victory from him in order not to let him travel… A story of change from Ukraine.

Deutschlandforschertagung 2016 – Children of Transition

“The good, the bad and the Eastern Europeans – refugees and the communist past.”

Under this headline, Iva Kopraleva and Rafaela Tripalo from Transition Dialogue Network presented research results from Bulgaria and Croatia at the conference “Deutschlandforschertagung 2016 – Children of Transition, Children of War” in November in Vienna. Together with Louisa Slavkova, they have exeamined the link between transition experience and today’s attitutes towards migrants.

The results are resented in the research paper.


On the same conference, Olena Pravylo presented findings from inter-Generation Talks and Interviews with the “Children of Change” from Ukraine, Russia and Germany.


The Changes since the 80s and the war in Eastern Ukraine

Transition Dialogue Panel on the Conflict in Eastern Ukraine

9. November 2016 at Böll-Foundation Berlin, DRA Autumn Talks on Conflict Resolution in the Donbass Region

The war in Eastern Ukraine widely disappeared from from press coverage and international notice. But the conflict goes on and the Minsk peace process is shaky. After discussing prospects for conflict resolution for two days, this panel tried to shed some light on the issue of transition experience as a factor in the conflict in the Donbass.

Indeed, thesis and sides taken by theherbstgesprache-1 panellists and audience happened to present the conflict setting in a nutshell. A heated discussion revealed the long shadows of the past.

Igor Semivolos from the Crisis Media Center Kiev argued there was a certain mind set of Donbass people that triggered this conflict: Firstly, because the Soviet culture was mainly a culture of violence with its emphasis on the eternal struggle of communism against its enemies. Secondly, the Donbass was suffering from a cultural poverty. People there preserve the “paternalist attitude that someone will do it better for them”, say Semivolos. Individual identity was not welcome here, there was still a culture of collectivism. In this region, that is the ‘most Russian one’ of all Ukraine regions, there were social tensions before the conflict broke out.

Valentina Cherevatenko, Union of the Don Women, lives in a Russian region close to the Ukraine boarder. Here, it happens that one part of the village is Russian and one part is Ukraine.

We had a clear picture from films of who is the enemy, she remembers her childhood in the Soviet Union. The problem is, that certain “buzzwords” proof to be longlasting and are reframed and reused in the current conflict – without reflecting what we are actually talking about. “If you told me, what you understand with fascism, I can tell you, if we have it or not”, says Cherevatenko.

“Everything we experience today is related to the way that history is presented to us.” We must talk to each other, we must understand what we mean with the words we use. “Future needs remembrance and remembrance needs future.” Valentina Cherevatenko

The audience of about 50 people was eager to contribute to the discussion, as for instance Valentina from Ukraine remembered, “When I was in the first grade my belief was that I would live in Communism forever. But then the Soviet Union collapsed.” Especially for history teachers the situation was difficult: history was rewritten and changed, and now herbstgesprache-4a completely different history was teached.

Then a competition of history startet with the election of Juschtschenko and goes on since then, she says. “In the region where I live, the situation after Maidan was not accepted, it was not just in the Donbass.” She remembered the summer of 2014 as a moment of breakdown of public infrastructure, that people could only manage because of mutual collective help organised by citizens.

Olena Pravylo from the Congress of Cultural Activists took a different stand: “As a person who was on the Maidan from the first day, I can say, that there are obviously different positions. But I don’t want to argue to about this.”

Instead she drew the attention on the research and interviews she did as part of the Transition Dialogue network. From the research, she understood that the different generations have a very different remembrance and perspective on history.

“My generation – in 1991 we were children. For us Tschernobyl meant vacation.” After the explosion, many people were moved to different regions to escape the radio-active pollution. “But the interviewed people born in the 70s and 60s said: We were born and went to school as Soviet Children. After the Soviet Union was just banditism. They say, the best time was only after 2000 when things finally stabilised”, she recalls from her research. Transition doesn’t end. “What we need is a transition generation dialogue, to discover how differently we understand history.”herbstgesprache-3

She referred to the resume from research done in Germany, suggesting a role swith between children (born in the 80s) and their parents. “The children understood new rules of the game. But the parents still live in the past, they did not manage to adjust to he changes and find their position.”

“The boarder of Soviet thinking is moving eastwards but it is still there”, says Olena Pravylo. “Through the Transition Dialogue network, I understand that there are many Russian people who want a dialogue, who want to question the patterns of thinking and overcome the conflict.”

“I am happy we have now changes in Ukraine after Maidan. Let’s see, were it leads. I liked the answer of a person I asked, how he would understand that transition ends: He said, ‘then clerks in public service will smile like normal people’.” Olena Pravylo

Aleksei Tokarev from MIGMO University switched the topic saying he wants to address the stereotypes. “I try to tear down this wall.” He said, he would not deny that Russian troops went to Ukraine twice. But “it’s the problem of Europe that they think, the problems lie only in Moscow.” He insisted the voice of people in the Donbass wasn’t heard. Far not everyone there would agree to the politics in Kiev.

Here the question, if the conflict in the Ukraine was a civil or international war was on the table again. “It has both elements”, says Igor Semyvolos. “It’s also a civil conflict.” After collapse of Soviet Union, people in the Donbass had not developed a new common identity like most people in Western Ukraine. As the conflict was triggered, they were in the midst, “forced to take side between Ukraine and Russia”.

Voices from the audience jumped back on the issue of transition: “The transition from communist time hasn’t finished, and that is the reason for this conflict”, one woman said. She quoted the artist Dragovic’s: ‘how to lead into conflict in three easy steps’: First; raise level of acceptance for violence in society – e.g. activists were confronted in a cruel way, that was to serve this purpose. Second, create stereotypes – first victim of war is truth.

Another women said, “we grew up having been teached, that Ukraine identity would not exist if it wasn’t defended with blood. It’s a culture of self-defence. But it is not one of tolerance. So you in Germany do not understand: How could you support a war? But that is why.”

“We need to ask ourselves who we are? We are children of Soviet union and live now 20 years without identification.” Statement from the audience

The discussion showed that issues of identity arising of the break up of Soviet Union and ongoing instability indeed contribute to the conflict setting in the Donbass. Mental lines of conflict run deep through the population within the Ukraine and and beyond, they are not only between regions but also generations.

Actually, narratives of the past long before the break up of the Soviet Union are framing and impacting on the attitude to the Ukraine state and the Donbass conflict now. Also in this discussion participants called on historical events and actors – like the 2. World War – to make their point. As stressed by panelists and audience, it would need a lot more dialogue to sharpen the senses for the fact that there are different perspectives on history and the current conflict in the Donbass. Indeed, when people find it hard to talk to each other, is is probably the clearest sign that they should talk.