June 22, 2020

The Challenge of Distinguishing Own From Alien

Choir singers wear traditional dresses as they walk during a parade to mark the 150th anniversary of the Song Celebration festival in Tallinn, Estonia July 6, 2019.
Choir singers wear traditional dresses as they walk during a parade to mark the 150th anniversary of the Song Celebration festival in Tallinn, Estonia July 6, 2019.

For the Baltic states and Ukraine, national resilience, among other things, means rejecting (but not forgetting!) the Soviet heritage as utterly alien, retrograde and mind-intoxicating one.

As a very complex phenomenon, national resilience consists of several mutually dependent components, of which one is particularly fascinating: How important is the part played by our current perceptions, present thoughts, memories from the past and projections of the future in shaping resilience on a collective level?

I always compare resilience with the human immune system—a structure that keeps our bodies protected from various damaging alien actors. Although someone’s immune system is highly individual and unique, it functions similarly in all human bodies: specifically, inductively and adaptively. These characteristics are also common to national resilience—a phenomenon used to describe how vigilant, strong, learning, remembering, adaptive and enduring our societies are.

Naturally, there is still the intriguing challenge of quantitative measuring those parameters and other factors that might also contribute to strengthening or weakening national resilience, but let us focus here on the qualitative part.

Powerful palette of shared memories

I am tempted to agree, at least in part, with those who suggest that historical background and past experiences determine how societies develop in many nations across the world. The remarkable advances that have taken place in many Eastern European countries during the last three decades indicate that, in spite of notable differences in demographics, economies, quality of governance and even perceptions of democracy, there is one very similar feature, which supposedly united many nations in their struggle for freedom.

Various research articles, expert analyses and comparative studies have confirmed my personal observations, leading me to the conclusion that Eastern European countries’ recent success was, generically speaking, largely based on memories. But not just any memories; first and foremost, on those shared widely across a society and those shared continuously and rigorously through several generations.

In terms of content, these may have been happy memories about personal achievements in life or sad stories about economic or political difficulties. In terms of context, they could have been tragic memories about unimaginable brutality and drastic casualties caused by the Second World War. Maybe some almost-vanished memories about societal challenges for a nation during the interwar period, or perhaps some insightful memories about the targeted cruelty of the communist regimes. Or even some inspiringly nostalgic memories about freedom fighters and resistance movements, or some unspoken recollections of survival during the occupation and many encouraging memories about revolutions in the 1990s and the long-awaited liberation.

Every country in Eastern Europe has the uniquely colourful palette of its shared memories as a patchwork coverlet of times. There might have been hundreds of thousands of other exceptional memories that, in essence, were personal stories shared within society, among families and friends, across generations, and then naturally embedded into one leading national historical narrative. This happened in Estonia and the other Baltic states, in Poland, Hungary and Romania, and it is still happening in Ukraine – in a country with very complicated national remembrance. Shared orally, visually or in written form, these memories also developed an emotional attachment for many citizens and therefore created in each society a distinctive mosaic of widely shared sentiments like interlacing patterns in the woven fabric of a nation.

Resistance to the interventions into the cognitive space

In every Eastern European country, this has happened in variously exclusive forms and materialised in many transformations, but this memory-based process commonly powered and contributed to the strengthening of a nation’s will to resist during the last century.

Any oppressive regime knows that simply physically occupying territory is not enough to establish a new stable order, as it will be challenged by the existing social norms and national system of meanings.

The recent history of the Baltic states and Ukraine teaches clearly that the common invader has been and still is seriously interested and motivated in reprogramming the collective consciousness by pre-planned long-term-oriented interventions into the cognitive space of the suppressed societies. This is aimed at establishing a set of new social, psychological and even physical determinants of behaviour patterns and societal meanings. In the occupied territories, injunctive norms are not introduced and enforced just to shape a new reality but also to rewrite history and replace shared true memories with constructed ones.

Such cataclysmic events always cause many long-lasting collective traumas as they cut to the moral bone of a nation and provoke a serious crisis of meaning. As a result, traumatised societies will long remain hypervigilant because of the imposed existential threat and, consequently, paralysed into being incapable of serious decision-making. This intoxication of will poses and culminates in a great danger to the survivability and endurance of a nation.

As the occupying force is by its nature incompatibly alien, it tries hard both to mimic the repressed citizens and to invest in a severe transformation of their behavioural patterns and social construction of meaning. This goes beyond replacing some local habits or symbolic practices as it intrudes into the cognitive space with a transgenerational effect on shared memories. This is what the Kremlin has done in the occupied Baltic states and what it is still doing in Crimea and Donbas.

Raising awareness of self-identity

What are the most imperative lessons learned for the Baltic states from using the historical momentum and benefiting from the impulse of freedom?

The preserved culture of societal resilience contributes significantly to the revival of a nation seized and captured through treachery. On its way to a post-traumatic world-view, it acquires a strong sense of self-acknowledgement, adaptive vigilance and practical, non-declaratory, willingness to recognise and eliminate alien and incorrect memories from the cognitive core of the nation.

Unlearning wrong habits, imported traditions and culturally harmful customs can help the nation to erase artificially constructed memories and perceptions shaped by propaganda, as well as minimising the unwelcome effects of malicious foreign influence. This is clearly a very challenging undertaking for several generations as it is followed by much heated domestic debate, politicised manipulation, unprofessional journalism and various speculations, but also scrupulous research and stalwart bravery to stand up to a former or present aggressor in its desperately panicked attempts to deny true history, minimise its culpability and deny its responsibility.

Our storytelling is sad in content but compulsory if justice is to prevail, and it begins by eliminating dissonantly alien imprints from the behaviour patterns of our society and restoring the previously valued system of meanings.

In the case of the Baltic states, this was unconditional belonging to the West and ultimate sharing of its true democratic values. While doing homework on collecting, documenting and resonating the shared memories of the nation, Baltic states and Ukraine have to continue spreading their narratives internationally by telling the true history to their friends and allies in like-minded countries around the world. Failure to do so would be an unforgivable injustice to numerous victims of the past and a disappointingly unfair destiny for future generations who must be prepared to avoid the mistakes of the past. The story must be heard comprehensively around the world because, to paraphrase Sofi Oksanen, “If nobody knows you, no one will notice when you disappear”.

Boosting immunological memory

While numerous attacks against democracy, freedom and human dignity are taking place globally, it is easy also to witness ever-growing attempts to capture our cognitive space through irresponsible manipulation of the news, policy debates and, of course, historical discussion. Not all of these are foreign-led information operations; some are inspired and driven by domestic forces. What makes them similar is the cruel intention to impinge on our national narrative and potentially rewrite it by falsifying memories of the past.

On the subject of national resilience in Eastern Europe, there is a greater danger in societies’ diminishing ability to withstand and resist these attacks as they collectively do not protect the shared information space or treat cognitive blindness of citizens. As has been proved, shared memories can enhance the cognitive resilience of a society, while erased memories cannot. Shared memories can support a nation’s will to resist and our will to defend its values; erased memories cannot.

Our immune system is able to quickly and specifically recognise a harmful foreign agent that our body has encountered before. It enables the proper immune response to start. That ability is called immunological memory. It is based on memory cells, and their development is crucial for our healthy life.

Citizens of free societies who cherish democratic values and human dignity, must not underestimate the importance of cognitive resilience for our well-being, security and endurance. They must take care to maintain shared memories or even become one of those “memory cells” in our societies. There is an urgent need to relearn collectively how to distinguish between potentially dangerous foreign and our healthy own.