Author: Anna Fratsyvir. It seemed impossible to survive the war and return to the routine. However, Irpin, Bucha, Izium, or Balakliia proved that life goes on even in spite of tragedy. But how can you ride a bike through the forests of Bucha, remembering that the Russians shot at everything that moved? How do you go to the theater, remembering the bombing of the drama theater in Mariupol? "Svidomi" spoke with a psychologist and cultural scientist about the policy of memory and its importance.
Turning the page of occupation: returning to normal life
Bucha and Irpin became one of the first cities that the Ukrainian military liberated from the Russian army. It was then that the world was horrified by footage of the basements where people were tortured, mass graves, and destruction. With each part of Ukrainian territory being liberated, new terrifying events were revealed, which have a significant impact on the collective psychology of Ukrainians.
"When we talk about large-scale catastrophes, such as war or natural disasters, this is a psychological trauma that requires a response, first of all, grief. It includes certain stages: shock, denial, aggression, depression. Then there is a turning point of acceptance and formation of a new identity," explains Maryna Bielinska, a psychologist and social pedagogue of the Psychological Service of the Taras Shevchenko National University.
Besides, life is reviving in the de-occupied cities. For people who have survived the occupation or lost loved ones, adaptation is difficult but inevitable. Over time, social and cultural life in the city will be restored. Therefore, during various events, it is important to speak correctly and remember, so as not to traumatize even more.
"During collective grief, society experiences anxiety, fear, and powerlessness to change what has already happened. For example, after the events of 9/11, Americans felt helplessness and anxiety and lost a sense of security for a long time. After World War II, Germans bore the burden of collective grief, responsibility, and guilt. Currently, we are all experiencing collective trauma: both those who remained in Ukraine and those who were forced to leave," says the psychologist.
What is the policy of memory and how does it arise?
History plays one of the key roles in shaping society and the state as such. What we remember speaks of us as a nation. A culture of remembrance is about values, guidelines, and commemoration.
Khrystyna Rutar emphasizes that the policy of memory is the formation of collective memory by political actors. The legislative apparatus and state institutions play a decisive role. At the same time, civil society is included in the formation of the culture of memory in democratic countries.
"The policy of memory is not only about the state because there should be a spectrum of different agents. In a democratic society, this is society and public organizations, which create discourses about how we will remember," the expert explains.
An important feature of the formation of the Ukrainian people's memory is its European vector. Ukraine is gradually moving away from the discourses and images imposed by the totalitarian Soviet system. Decommunization is one of the largest projects of the Ukrainian memory policy.
"The policy of memory in Ukraine was heterogeneous: for example, we make an act of European society, and then we commemorate the "Great Patriotic War". However, Ukraine jointly chose the option of inclusive memory, in particular, the memory of the Holocaust is returning — an important shared traumatic memory, around which the mechanisms of memory in Europe are being built," comments Khrystyna Rutar.
The policy of memory in Ukraine: from the Holodomor to the Russian-Ukrainian war
Reflection is an important aspect of memory politics. A telling example is Ukraine's legislative departure from honoring "Victory Day" on May 9 to marking May 8 as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. Holodomor was also one of the important tragic events of the past, the commemoration of which is a valuable date.
"The policy of memory regarding the Holodomor in Ukraine is complex and has been formed for a long time through forgetting and taboos. In my opinion, the official introduction of the ritual of "lighting a candle in the window" was an important and good way of remembering. Everyone can join at home and take an important action. And here a performative function is included, which involves the entire society in remembering," notes researcher of memory and trauma studies Khrystyna Rutar.
According to Khrystyna Rutar, there is a claim that trauma can strengthen or create a community. And the Holodomor, to a certain extent, unites Ukrainians in memory.
Today, when history is being written here and now, the question of landmarks and cohesion of the policy of memory arises again. Torture chambers in the Kharkiv region, rape in the Kyiv region, and the bombing of the drama theater in Mariupol have already become part of the collective trauma of Ukrainians. However, sooner or later these cities will return to normal life, and celebrations will take place there. It's hard to imagine now, but understanding the culture of later remembrance is key for this and future generations.
“Let me refer to the practices of commemorating the memory of the Holocaust, in particular to Auschwitz, a place of murders as well as a place of remembrance. A space for commemoration and education. Studies, programs, and events are held here. In particular, at one of these programs, after historical explorations, the victims' memory is honored: the program’s participants have a musical program on the last day. It was a celebration of life, a victory of memory over death. An unprepared person may experience dissonance because people were killed here, and now they are celebrating. However, this is a comprehensive program that aims to leave a person with a projection for the future," said Rutar.
Psychologist Maryna Bielinska shares a similar opinion. According to her, during the restoration in Ukraine, certain social rules should be introduced, in particular, regarding sounds.
"For example, shooting, sirens, explosions: we woke up and went to bed to these sounds. They scare both adults and children. The sounds of fireworks can cause a serious fright," explains Maryna Bielinska.
On the emotional level, it is important to remember that the energy of life can defeat any energy of death, the psychologist adds.
"We have to build a proper image. The victims or the winners? Are we the ones who lost or the ones who did everything to win? We should focus not only on continuous mourning but also on victorious moods, shape it as an experience that made us stronger," Bielinska emphasizes.
Forms of remembrance today. How to study and commemorate events in schools?
The policy of memory today is happening largely online.
"On the one hand, these photo-testimonies and the speed with which they spread are even more traumatizing. On the other hand, social media has changed memories, particularly before the full-scale invasion, people were putting [Facebook profile] frames, which is a form of community building. Social media is shaping the way the youth remembers. Social media and digital space open up new ways," says Khrystyna Rutar.
The depiction of modern events in school textbooks will be a significant challenge. The difficulty is that a large part of schoolchildren is directly related to traumatic events.
In Ukraine, initiatives have already begun to develop ways of communicating and working with sensitive topics, such as remembering tragic events from the time of occupation.
"Of course, the commemoration will be in the school curriculum, but I am afraid that it will be forced lessons. Such an approach is not the best, because it is a totalitarian approach of compulsory memory. Therefore, it is a challenge for teachers, school psychologists, and civil society. As an option, it is a conversation in an environment open to the exchange of memories and thoughts. Children know, see, and worry a lot, that's why they have questions. And we have to give answers," says Rutar.
Bielinska also talks about the importance of such conversations with children. According to the psychologist, working with children will be determined by their age.
"To build a complete identity of the generation, we must rely on the principle of "ecological" information, that is, we need to minimize negative impacts. At the same time, children should know everything and should have access to all information, even traumatic information. Suffering and experience, however paradoxical it may sound, contribute to the development of empathy. However, the role of an adult is important here: teachers, parents, guardians," the psychologist said.
In psychology, this is called a "significant adult,” who must be responsible for timing: is the child ready to receive information? According to the recommendations of Maryna Bielinska, it is advisable to transfer experience to children under 7-8 years old through fairy tales. In high school, it is best to use communicative role modeling. Teenagers perceive such tragic information more easily, so they can create joint projects and collages.
At the same time, memory is not necessarily tragic. Tragedy in the perception of one's history is an endemic problem in Ukrainian society. Over time, the events of a full-scale war may be viewed in other aspects.
"When we talk about traumatic memory, there is the concept of "post-memory" — when we are not witnesses, but we are so concerned with the memory of those who suffered, that we try it on ourselves. This concept is important too. Because we not only think about memory but also build a projection for the future, how to preserve this memory in a way that does not traumatize the next generation. Everything that will happen to them should not be based only on trauma," emphasizes expert Khrystyna Rutar.
In particular, we must remember and think about Ukraine's victories.
"We must focus primarily on healing the trauma. We can say that trauma treatment should be aimed at building society and unification," says the psychologist.