Minna Suikka

Minna Suikka studied comparative literature at the University of Helsinki and received her Master of Arts Degree in 2013. She is currently a student in a Master’s Degree Programme of European Studies at the University of Helsinki majoring in economic and social history and will receive a Master of Social Science degree. Her master’s thesis project deals with the collective memory and image of Russia in the Czech, Finnish and Polish upper secondary school history textbooks. Minna Suikka is interested in questions regarding collective memory, history of historiography, history theory, comparative history and nationalism studies.

Memory of Them in Our History

Minna Suikka

The purpose of my research project is to examine how the image of Russia in the historical period between 1815 –1922 in the upper secondary school textbooks, published in Czech Republic, Finland and Poland during the years 1993–2013, reflects and constructs Czech, Finnish and Polish collective memory. I have chosen to study the textbook portrayals in relation to collective memory and national identity in these three countries because Czech, Finnish and Polish historical experiences are similar but yet different in a way that they fit into the bigger picture of European history. There are many parallel paths, but yet there are many differences as well that distinguish the countries from each other.

During the last twenty years, European identities have been experiencing turmoil when the old borders of the Cold War era have crumbled down and the EU has expanded towards the east. As a result it has become very important for European self-understanding to re-evaluate what “us” and “them” means in a world of multiple identities. Our relation to the world is changing and this drives us to reconsider the past from new perspectives. For this reason scrutinizing how identities construct themselves in terms of collective memory and how history is used to define who we are evolves into an intriguing question. This change forms a background for this study that tries to illuminate the issue by promoting a comparative approach on contemporary European memory and identities.

The theoretical framework of this research is connected with the discussions regarding national identity and collective memory. The methodology of this study consists of the comparative approach together with qualitative content analysis. I am interested in uncovering what are the national differences and similarities between the Czech, Finnish and Polish textbooks are in terms of portrayals of Russian history. The results of the analysis will determine whether the narrations in the textbooks regarding Russian history are burdened by the fears and traumas of losing independence in the national histories of these three countries.

The collective memory is in the constant movement in terms of the relationship between “us” and “them”. All these countries carry the memory of unstable times in their past when they did not so belong among the independent nation states. Deep down lurks the experience of being governed by others accompanied by the fear of losing their distinct nature and becoming the other. What all these countries have in common that during a certain period of time they have had problematic relations with Russia: Finland and Poland during the Russian Empire and after becoming independent and during the Soviet Union their relations have been at least ambiguous if not hostile and Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia) has had at times problematic relations in terms with the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

In terms of identity politics, Czechs have participated in the Central European project proclaiming their place as a part of Mitteleuropa (from the 20th century until today) and Finns similarly participated in the Northern European project Norden (especially after the Second World War). Interestingly enough, Poles have aspired to belong both to the Central and Northern Europe, while still standing on their own without either of them. In addition, the Polish people identify with the Catholic world, which makes them to be connected with the Southern Europe as well. Czechs, Finns and Poles have all during different periods of time experienced being the Europe between German and Russian culture (Finns perhaps more or less between Sweden and Russia). This also reflects to their collective memory in the process of how their identity develops.

The reason to study especially the image of Russia in the Czech Republic, Finland and Poland is the problematized and ambiguous relations that these countries have had during the late modern period with Russia (or Soviet Russia/Soviet Union). Russia’s contribution to today’s international politics is undisputed. However, it is important to study the image of the “former enemies” of these counties who have participated in “Europeanizing” themselves from a comparative perspective. The message of the Russian Federation has been that it wants to be recognized as a “Eurasian power”, its influence being equivalent to that of the EU as such. However, the crisis in Ukraine that broke out in 2013 –2014 indicates that the old spheres of influence thinking and the distrust connected to all parties still continues to have an impact on the international relations. Therefore, examining the collective memory and textbook images of the former enemies becomes important. Revealing mechanisms that legitimize national superiority, collective victimhood or hostility in the textbook portrayals is the first step to mutual understanding that can be used as the basis of friendly relations.

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