Remembering Communism: Methodological and Practical Issues of Approaching the Recent Past in Eastern Europe

Remembering Communism: Methodological and Practical Issues of Approaching the Recent Past in Eastern Europe

Project owner / organizer
Institut für Slavistik der Universität Leipzig ()
Hosting organization
From - Until
01.07.2006 - 30.06.2009
Stefan Troebst

From July 2006 to June 2009, VolkswagenFoundation finances the research project “Remembering Communism: Methodological and Practical Issues of Approaching the Recent Past in Eastern Europe“ directed by Maria Todorova (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Stefan Troebst (Institute of Slavic Studies of the University of Leipzig). Project partners are Dragos Petrescu (Romanian Institute for Recent History Bucharest), Petya Kabakchieva (St. Kliment Ohridski University Sofiia) and Krzysztof Ruchniewicz (Willy Brandt Center for German and European Studies of the University of Wroclaw), project coordinator is Augusta Dimou (currently University of Ioannina).

The general goal of this interdisciplinary and international project is to lay the foundations for a comparative study on the processes of remembering communism. It brings together two very diverse bodies of theoretical and historiographical literature: the one on memory, the other one on communism. Although the project has been motivated by a critical stance toward existing assessments of communism, especially the transitology enterprise, its emphasis is on the processes of remembering rather than on providing a definitive study on a past period. This attention to the processual aspects of memory lays stress on the constant and consecutive reassessments of the communist experience, and emphasizes lived experience but one inflected by the exigencies of the present moment at which the act of recollection (remembering) takes place.

The ultimate practical project goal aims at creating an elaborate and widely accessible database. This database is supposed to serve as a basis for and promote further comparative study within the whole area where the processes of remembering communism are relevant. In consequence, it will be both a tool for processing the accumulated sources for the present project, as well as a future template for expanding research. At this stage the project is conceived as a pilot study with a comparative research component between two relatively understudied core cases -- Bulgaria and Romania--, and two control groups – the relatively better studied cases of Poland and the German Democratic Republic.

The research goal is broadly comparativist: to address the problem of how communism is remembered today in view of contributing to the better understanding of the legacy of a past system which had shaped the everyday lives of considerable numbers of people in several generations around the globe. While the project intends to pay due attention to the institutional aspects of memory, its primary focus is on subjectivity and how it can help pluralize the experience of socialism among separate nations, both the ones who experienced it in practice, and the ones where it was present as a strong but unrealized alternative. The comparative component is meant to complicate the understanding of communism both by introducing specificities on the level of the nation-states and their societies, as well as within these societies along categories such as region, class, gender, generation, or ethnicity. Chronologically, while the project naturally covers the whole post-Second World War period, for practical purposes, given the generations that are the object of study, it will focus primarily on the period after de-Stalinization. This was the period that saw not only the rise of national(ist) versions of communism but also an enormous amount of diversification of the system, ranging from liberalization to neo-authoritarianism.

The project comes out of the basic premise that there is no single idea and practice of communism. The communist experience was extremely diverse not only geographically and diachronically, but it was pluralized across national, ethnic, social, professional, gender, and generational borders. As a long-term endeavor, it could cover the whole communist and postcommunist world in a global setting. This task, however, is so enormous that it is practical to start with smaller pilot-studies. By elaborating the methodology in one or two cases, as well as in a comparative framework, we would gradually extend the number of comparable and exportable case studies, with the view of creating a framework for comparison and future coordination.

Bulgaria and Romania are excellent candidates for the preliminary pilot study for a number of reasons. Traditionally, Eastern Europe has been synthesized on the basis of the Central European regimes of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We not only question that this generalization is not necessarily applicable to all the rest of Eastern Europe. We believe that due attention to the understudied marginal cases will enrich and rectify our general assumptions of the systemic phenomenon. Not only have both Romanian and Bulgarian communism been far less researched than other East European (especially Russian and Central European) ones; they offer an excellent opportunity for comparison and contrast of both systemic and locally specific characteristics. After 1989 the two countries have been coupled together, especially in the ongoing process of European Union enlargement, which they are supposed to join in 2007. Yet, a comparison between these two Balkan countries will additionally serve as a corrective to the recent tendency to essentialize the Balkan region by reducing it to the characteristics of the disintegrating Yugoslav case.

One of the reasons that Poland and the German Democratic Republic are selected as control cases are that they are relatively well researched and have developed an elaborate methodology. On the other hand, we are driven in this comparison not only by motives of the historiographical state of the art. In a way, Poland and the GDR represent two poles of the spectrum: on the one hand, the Polish case being characterized by almost open resistance to the regime from a very early point on, especially the workers movement and labor organizations culminating with ”Solidarity,” the institutional weight of the Catholic church, etc.; on the other hand, the GDR, which after an early resistance spurt in 1953, proved to be the most static and regimented case, mostly because of the special geo-political circumstances. We believe that by approaching the GDR from ”the East”, i.e. within the Eastern European framework, we are contributing to an innovative shift in the usual contextualization of the country’s history within an exclusively West German-East German comparison.

Several teams of researchers will be organized in Bulgaria and Romania along thematic and methodological lines. At the center of the project is the existential urgency to collect data from generations with living memories of the recent past. The teams will accomplish a research program employing diverse methodological approaches, and covering different types of sources: archives, oral life histories, sociological interviews, analysis of memoirs, biographies, autobiographies and diaries, the press, visual materials, etc. One of the central aims of the project is to collect and process primary documentation, and organize an elaborate database that can then be accessed by team-members and future researchers. We intend to organize and manage a permanent website consisting of a freely accessible section with general data, as well as a restricted one with personalized data.

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