Post-catastrophic urban text and memory in post-war East Central Europe

Photo of Uilleam Blacker during his public lecture in Kyiv

Uilleam Blacker studies the historical and cultural memory in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. He is the Program Coordinator and Lecturer at the Faculty of Comparative Culture of Russia and Eastern Europe at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London. Blacker worked in a Cambridge research project “Memory at War”. In London, Uilleam defended a dissertation on ideas about space in contemporary Ukrainian literature. Currently, he is one of the translators of Oleg Sentsov's collection of stories.

On September 11, 2019, Uilleam delivered a public lecture during the urban history workshop “Kyiv — city for / without state”. Mistosite Journal — a project of  CEDOS think tank published a synopsis of this lecture, and we share it with you.

City and memory form a complex symbiosis that requires a multidisciplinary approach to memory studies. This approaсh may include historical, sociological, anthropological and literary research. Literary studies perspective on cities in post-war Eastern and Central Europe may be particularly useful for understanding memory in an urban context. The first thing that comes to mind when talking about the connection between the city and literature is the representation of the city in literary texts. And that is important indeed. But you can also talk about the city itself as a text or a set of texts. Thus, the city is not just a metaphor for literary text, but also a physical space in which narratives of the past are written. So there are two dimensions: text about the city and text of the city.

Urbanisation of late 19th early 20th century introduced a metaphor of text into academic circulation. Rapid urbanization and development of cities required the adequate tools that would allow to control it. Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Karl Marx and others wrote about it. In particular, literary scholar Mark Brosso, in particular, noted: “the analogy between landscape (or city) and text emphasizes the possibility and legitimacy of the hermeneutical analysis of the former”. Founder of the theory of collective memory Maurice Halbwachs argued that the city is not a board from which you can simply erase texts written in the past. In the 20th century, the metaphor of the text of the city was expanded and the attention focused on the city man, who is both the reader and the author of the city. From this perspective, all city dwellers have the potential to write and rewrite the city text.

Yuri Lotman suggests the notion of the semiosphere, where the city emerges as a complex mechanism that is a cauldron of different texts and codes. Let’s consider our experience of living in the city. Indeed, we constantly read texts, symbols and signs — ads, signs on shops, road signs, political slogans, graffiti, house numbering. Therefore, a city is not just a text, but a whole space with many texts.

However, urban space is not only a text in the literal meaning of the word. A city with its monuments and architecture creates a visual imagery through which we can read the past. Even urban planning gives us information about the culture, norms and way of life of the society that lived here.

For example, in Kyiv at the Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, the past appears before us in the images on the walls and the inscriptions inside the cathedral. The colonial subordination of Kyiv to Moscow and the imperial politics of memory can be read in the monuments of Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Volodymyr the Great. Absence in space is no less important than presence. For example, traces of Euromaidan are reflected, in particular, in the notable absence of the Lenin monument on Shevchenko boulevard. The chaotic facades of Kyiv's buildings can be read as the loss of tight control over public space in the post-Soviet period, the emergence of "wild capitalism" and the lack of a well-functioning management of urban space during the independence era.

Photo of Uilleam Blacker during his public lecture in Kyiv

Texts about the city are an important part of the semiosphere. Halbwachs, working on defining the concept of collective memory, noted the important role of novels by Dickens in shaping the image of London in the imagination of its inhabitants. English historian Michael Sheringham views literary texts as an integral part of the city's “archive”. Sheringham writes that “the metaphor of the city as an archive works not only because of the constant interaction of internal and external topography, but because of the interaction of various archival layers, including literature and cultural allusions”.

Thus, the symbolic landscape, architecture and literary image of the city, created by Mykola Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Valerian Pidmohylny intersect in Kyiv seen as "archives". We can also add here traces of the Maidan, as well as poems and films dedicated to these events.

"Icons of the Revolution" on Hrushevsky Street in Kyiv

Typically, the word “archive” is perceived as referring to something recording and cataloguing the past, but Jacques Derrida emphasized that the archiving process is not so much a record of events of the past as their creation. The archive is shaped by people, which is why subjectivity, selectivity and access to space and resources are important.

Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that in every historical context the literary text is re-read and its meanings and interpretations are changed according to the new context. This statement is also true of an urban text that is never finished and complete. German researcher Aleida Assman has shown in her works that the memory archive is dynamic. On the one hand, what is not used at the moment is erased and forgotten. On the other hand, the distinction between what is used and what is forgotten is constantly changing depending on political, social and cultural factors.

During and after World War II, the cities of Central Eastern Europe suffered physical destruction, forced resettlement and mass extermination of inhabitants. All this has fundamentally changed the urban landscapes and social connections of residents with the city. These changes are most noticeable in borderland cities such as Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, Gdańsk and Wrocław in Poland, and Kaliningrad in Russia. We may also add cities that lost their Jewish population during the Holocaust to this list, such as Kyiv and Warsaw. There are many small towns in different parts of Eastern Central Europe that have also experienced border changes and mass resettlements.

A necessary question arises: how this traumatic history affects the links between memory, urban space, and literature. Paul Connerton, one of the most well-known theorists of cultural memory, believes that modernization, urbanization and traumatic experiences of World War I and II have had a negative impact on collective memory in Europe.

Indeed, after the war, most of the population of Lviv, Kaliningrad, and Wrocław were cut off from their places of birth and previous residence. In particular, there were many displaced people from the present Western Ukraine among Wrocław residents. They did not want to know about the past of their new city. The new inhabitants of Gdańsk or Kaliningrad simply built their lives in difficult post-war circumstances.

Old stone tile painted with a spray can

In Poland, a new state institute was created to oversee the transformation of previously German cities into primordial Polish lands. At the request of the authorities, historians have emphasized the ancient medieval history of these lands when they belonged to the Polish Piast dynasty, and the traces of German presence were erased together with the corresponding toponyms. In Lviv, the processes of Sovietization and Ukrainization took place at the same time: Polish names and monuments disappeared from the streets, while new ones emphasized the “correct” Soviet version of Ukrainian history. Throughout Eastern Central Europe Jewish cemeteries were rebuilt and synagogues converted into gyms or warehouses. The Soviet government in the USSR and the communist government of Poland deliberately erased the history of the Holocaust from memory, although it changed cities and towns significantly. For example, Babyn Yar in Kyiv, one of the key sites of this tragedy, had no monument for a long time. For the Soviet authorities, the reminder of the particular fate of the Jews was a manifestation of “bourgeois nationalism” and Zionism, which diverted attention from the narrative of heroism of the entire Soviet people. On the other hand, it was also a reminder of the collaboration of the local population with the Nazis, which also did not fit into the canon of heroism of Soviet person. Thus, the city's text or “archive” was heavily controlled, censored and distorted.

In the late 1970s, the memory of the complex history of cities began to return. Initially, thanks to the efforts of local history enthusiasts, but writers also played a major role in the process. In Poland, Tadeusz Konwicki, Czesław Miłosz, Hanna Krall, Paweł Huelle, Stefan Chwin, Olga Tokarczuk, Andrzej Stasiuk, Adam Zagajewski started writing about forgotten or half-forgotten German and Jewish histories of cities and towns. In Polish literature, this turn to local identity has been called “literature of small homelands”. Here the local narrative, which includes elements of the lost past – Jewish, German or Lemko — comes to the fore. This trend was particularly popular at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s.

A similar phenomenon existed in Ukraine, albeit on a much smaller scale. It is reflected in the texts of poetic group Bu-Ba-Bu, writers associated with Ivano-Frankivsk, and the works of young writers such as Sofia Andrukhovych. There are also writers in Kaliningrad who can be considered as a local version of the phenomenon of “literature of small homelands”. These are Yury Buida and Alexandr Popadin. In Kyiv similar processes have been linked to the return of the forgotten tragedy of Babyn Yar and the Holocaust. Anatoly Kuznetsov, Viktor Nekrasov and Ivan Dziuba played a key role here. Kuznetsov's document novel “Babyn Yar” became a worldwide sensation.

Today, all the cities mentioned above use forgotten stories to promote their image among inhabitants and foreign visitors. For example, the German past is used in Wrocław at all levels — from the official to the tourist. Although today's Wrocław is largely monocultural, the local authorities positions it as a “city of encounters", emphasizing past multiculturalism. Similar processes can be seen in Lviv, where the municipality emphasizes that the city is open to the world; and even in Kaliningrad, which also is rediscovering its German history slowly. Now these trends can be called mainstream.

But it was the writers who played an important role in shaping new memory and local identity. They discovered the forgotten history of the streets and houses in which they lived. Literary scholars of Eastern Central Europe have drawn attention to the complexity of the metaphor of the city as a text. Polish critic Przemysław Czaplińsky writes about the city as a palimpsest, where contemporary residents “write their narratives over the narratives of those who have lived here before”. In the Ukrainian context, Igor Pomerantsev discussed this interestingly: for him Chernivtsi is a “city-quotation” from the poems of outstanding pre-war Austrian and Jewish poets. The writer admits that he knew little about this lost city and its literature. Pomerantsev learned about German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan from Mykola Bazhan. This prompted him to co-organize the annual international poetry festival “Meridian Czernowitz”. Now every year Chernivtsi turns into the center of literary dialogue and the space of discovery of the multicultural past of the city.

Old, almost obliterated, wall lettering

Literary festivals, such as the Bruno Schulz festival in Drohobych and Stanislav Lem festival in Lviv, are an important step in recovering the history of Central Eastern European cities. They foreground the creation of relevant monuments and museums. Thus, a small museum of Bruno Schultz exists in Drohobych, and museum of Sholem Aleichem functions in Kyiv. Exhibitions dedicated to writers also take place at central local museums. Shmuel Yosef Agnon Literary Center was established in Buchach and a small monument to this Jewish writer was erected.

However, not everything is simple and straightforward in these processes. In 2017, an exhibition dedicated to German poet Johannes Bobrowski opened in Kaliningrad. Shortly after, a photo from the exposition where Bobrowski was portrayed in a Wehrmacht uniform hit a local newspaper and caused a scandal. The local government demanded to close down the exhibition and to fire the curator for extremism. The explanation that Bobrowski, known for his anti-fascist views, was mobilized into the army and even was published in the USSR, did not help. Another striking example is the attempt to name the local airport after the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant. As a result, the Kant monument was doused in paint, and a video appeared on the Internet where one of the Baltic Fleet Vice Admirals called the philosopher a traitor to his homeland. However, Russia is an exception rather than a rule here.

Photo of Uilleam Blacker during his public lecture in Kyiv

An important aspect of bringing back local history from oblivion is translation. Not only do writers write texts about cities, they also translate texts written before the war to bring back the lost image of the city to contemporary readers. Over the last two decades, several translations of Bruno Schultz into Ukrainian have appeared. Yuriy Prokhasko, translator of the texts of the Jewish writer Deborah Vogel from Lviv and the Jewish writer from Brody Joseph Roth, describes them as “our” writers: “they belong to us, they are one of us and so we ought to translate them”. It allows contemporaries to re-discover their cities to residents, to see them from a previously unknown point of view. Thus, the texts about the city and the texts of the city are not separate worlds, but only different aspects of the urban “semiosphere”.

In this context, it is appropriate to mention an example from the history of Kyiv, namely, the erection of a monument to Anatoly Kuznetsov in 2009. It was designed by sculptor Volodymyr Zhuravel and funded by an anonymous donor. The monument was unveiled on the 68th anniversary of the murder of Jews in Babyn Yar. It recreates a scene from Kuznetsov's novel, where the boy – author himself – reads the Nazis' order to Jews to gather in Babyn Yar for alleged deportation. The sculptural composition features a text element - the Nazi order. The unveiling of the monument was accompanied by a historic reconstruction, where actors, playing the role of soldiers and Jews, followed the same route as the Jews in 1941. This is a striking illustration of the intersection of the various levels of the urban semiosphere, where literary text, monuments and performances tell about Holocaust events.

Monument to Anatoly Kuznetsov in Kyiv

Halbwachs argued that memory is a social phenomenon, and therefore one can remember only in a group. However, more recent studies have shown that memory exists beyond that – in various forms of cultural heritage: literature, monuments, museums, films. The key question is access to this “archive”: who and how uses it.

The “archive” of the city itself — our physical environment, or, in Yuri Lotman's definition, the semiosphere — not only reflects what we think of the past, but also shapes our perception of urban history and memory of it. After all, Halbwachs also noticed this:

“Each collective memory exists in a spatial framework. Space is a continuing reality: as our impressions rush one by one and leave nothing behind, we can understand how we restore the past, only by understanding how it is actually stored in our physical environment.”

Since the text of a city is made up of different layers, urban memory is also difficult. A profound reading of the multilevel text allows the reader to better understand him or herself as a city dweller in spaces that connect him or her to other cultural strata and people who have lived in the place before.

The city as a cultural phenomenon is never written in one language, because it is formed by different people and groups. This is true of all cities, but the cities of Eastern Central Europe have encountered a specific extreme experience of change of power, mass relocation and murder, as well as the forced oblivion of their history under communist rule. This explains why certain pages of the past disappeared. But history is still remembered and communicated in many ways. There are always writers and readers for whom this past is important. This gives hope that comprehensive urban memory is possible, after all.

A public lecture by Uilleam Blacker took place in during the urban history workshop “Kyiv — city for / without the state”, organized by a team of NGO and the magazine "City: History, Culture, Society" in collaboration with the Center for Urbanistic Studies, Center for Urban History, Kyiv National University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, the Institute of History of Ukraine of the NAS of Ukraine and Zabolotny State Scientific Library of Architecture and Construction.

The workshop was held with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Kyiv Office — Ukraine.

All photos from Uilleam Blacker public presentation are available here.

Photo: main, first and fifth images — Mariya Matyashova; the second, third and fourth images are by Uilleam Blacker; sixth image (Monument to Anatoly Kuznetsov in Kyiv) — Myzhanyu, Wikimedia Commons.