Our fathers and grandfathers fought and sacrificed themselves in wars so that we could live comfortable lives. Often expressed amid the festivities on Finland’s Independence Day, this traditional assertion reinforces feelings of citizenship. At the same time, it forms a concept of citizenship that is tied to ancestry and a sense of community forged by the past. The same rhetoric and discourse of memory are also strongly present in modern Russia.
“Finnish politics of memory cherishes the remembrance of heroic sacrifices in the Winter and Continuation Wars. In Russia, a similar model of remembering the past through monuments and museums dedicated to war heroes and sacrifices is promoted heavily by the state and its funded organisations. War heroism and sacrifice have become a central part of Russian identity politics. They are emphasised in rituals, and citizens are also expected to take part in this type of remembering,” says Olga Davydova-Minguet, Professor of Russian and Border Studies.
Davydova-Minguet has seen first-hand how the memory of war is given centre stage in her birthplace of Petrozavodsk. According to her, an interesting development is underway in the Republic of Karelia in Russia as memories of the Finnish occupation and concentration camps during the Continuation War are again being brought up.
“Citizens in the Republic of Karelia have active and frequent contact with people living over the border in Finland. It is one of the most transnational regions in Russia. Now, however, the official politics of memory of the Republic of Karelia follows the model that has developed between Russia and the Baltic states. It is interesting to observe which people and organisations are involved in the process, how Russian speakers living in Finland respond to the situation and how the development will influence Finnish politics of memory.”
Open politics of memory as a safeguard of democracy
The nationalist model of remembering past wars in terms of heroism and sacrifice in Finland and Russia differs from the European norm. While the memories of guilt and the Holocaust are emphasised in Germany, in Russia, they are only peripheral.
On the contrary, the politics of memory of the Russian state seeks to forget controversial chapters in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, such as Stalin’s persecutions. The memory of the Gulag and the remembrance of national heroism and sacrifice form two extremes of the politics of memory – one critical of the supreme authority of the state, the other singing its praises. In Finland, meanwhile, debate has arisen over the Civil War of 1918 and the sidelining of the memory of the Reds.
“Russia has for long had a dichotomy in which the state cherishes the remembrance of a great triumph while memories of a bloody war have passed on families. It was thought that the two would never be reconciled but in 2010s, the so-called Immortal Regiment marches, which emerged as a grassroots initiative, have succeeded in bringing family memories as part of state-run activities. The Immortal Regiments are made up of children and relatives of war heroes who march through cities on Victory Day carrying photos of war veterans to demonstrate that their memory is cherished by those living today. As generations pass, the memory of war loses the first-hand experience of human suffering, while the state-sponsored remembering of a great victory acts as a way to bring families and the state together.”
European debate on memory has long stressed the need to discuss national histories not only in terms of triumphs, achievements and unity but also through abuses, contradictions and divisions. In the 21st century, a discussion has also arisen about how immigrants and minorities embrace the memory model of a nation state.
“It has been seen as important that immigrants join the national memory community in order to safeguard the future of democracy,” says Davydova-Minguet.
While the perspective of immigrants and minorities challenges us to look at a nation’s history through the eyes of an outsider, critical scrutiny of history is not part of the nationalist memory model. Open debate about the politics of memory is complicated by the fact that populist rhetoric and simple explanations thrive in a polarised public discourse.
Media as a creator and transformer of memory in Russia
How do you control a nation's memory? Davydova-Minguet has studied media use among Russian speakers in Finland and understands the importance of the media.
“In Russia, politics of memory are practiced first and foremost in the media. The media system is designed to repeat and recreate material and viewpoints that conform to the state’s politics of memory. While there are channels through which different views are expressed, they lack the resources of state-centred media.”
Davydova-Minguet realised the importance of the media in Russia when Alexei Navalny, critic of the ruling elite, published the hugely popular video Putin’s Palace online. After the video was published, nearly all state-controlled media channels began a smear campaign of Navalny.
“Many who live in that world of TV media are left with feelings of doubt and mistrust that influence their thinking. Still, there is hope in that the media universe is no longer restricted. Those who embrace a different truth can also be found on social media.”
Cross-border perspectives of death an area of research interest
Davydova-Minguet began her tenure as Professor of Russian and Border Studies at the Karelian Institute in early April 2021. In addition to research, the professorship involves supervision of doctoral dissertations and teaching at the Philosophical Faculty on themes related to diversity, multiculturalism and the politics of memory in society.
Davydova-Minguet is also interested in studying death from national and cross-border perspectives, particularly in Finland and Russia. Unlike in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, death is a scarcely studied topic in the context of immigration in Finland.
“Death unites us as human beings. It also has many other interesting aspects. How do people arrange for care for a person in the days preceding death? When death occurs, how is the body taken care of and what shared experiences are formed by the event and the remembering of the deceased? Ideologies and historical and cultural memory related to death. What meanings are given to death in a diverse society with many cross-border relationships?”
Professor of Russian and Border Studies, University of Eastern Finland, 2021-
Doctor of Philosophy, Folklore studies, University of Joensuu, 2009.
Licentiate of Philosophy, Folklore studies, University of Joensuu, 2005.
Bachelor of Arts, Finnish and Russian Philology, Petrozavodsk State University, 1990.
Key positions held
Associate Professor of Russian and Border Studies, University of Eastern Finland, 2017-2021.
Deputy Director of the Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland, 2021.
Member of the Board of the Cultura Foundation, 2016-
Assistant Professor, Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland, 2014-2017.
Project Researcher, Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland, 2010-2014.
Vice Chair of the Advisory Board for Ethnic Relations of Eastern Finland, 2005-2016.
Researcher, Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland, 2002-2009.