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A Review of "Contested Past, Contested Present: Social Memories and Human Rights in Post-Communist Europe"

A Review of "Contested Past, Contested Present: Social Memories and Human Rights in Post-Communist Europe"

An international symposium on "Contested Past, Contested Present: Social Memories and Human Rights in Post-Communist Europe" took place at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities on March 4-6. It was organized by the IAS Collaborative "Reframing Mass Violence", and sponsored by the Human Rights Program and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, among other supporters.

The symposium opened with a keynote lecture by Prof. John-Paul Himka, who spoke about the reception of the Holocaust in post-Communist Europe, especially its legacies in Poland and Ukraine. On Thursday and Friday, sessions covered different aspects of contested memories in post-Communist European countries, from depictions in theater, museums, and film, to transitional justice policies, and the current conflict in Ukraine. The symposium also held a session on the Ukraine conflict, where professors John-Paul Himka, George O. Liber and J. Brian Atwood addressed the different aspects of the current events.

Himka spoke about the role of the regional specifics of Ukraine, and historical differences between them, while Liber addressed Vladimir Putin's response to the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013-2015 and Russia's current aggressive foreign policy in the region. Atwood provided an informative view on the current crisis from a U.S. perspective, based on many years of experience in various state institutions, including USAID. The presentations and ensuing discussions illustrated that the past of post-Communist states remains, indeed, a contested space, negotiating narratives of rising nationalism, victimhood, responsibility, retribution and rehabilitation.
Overall, the event foregrounded issues of how long a transition lasts, what are ways contested pasts are conceptualized and dealt with, legally, commemoratively, and artistically, and how memories can be and are at times used for political purposes. The symposium also highlighted a need to balance contested memories, interpretations of the past with long-term policies that are not merely cosmetic and mechanistic, but often demand a true reevaluation of a country's history. However, this demands interest and a willingness to do so by the communities in the states themselves. Arguably, the race for EU accession and externally shaped Transitional Justice policies may have resulted in speedy formal establishment of institutions to this effect, but equally seems to have in some instances created a space for hegemonic and reductionist narratives to take hold.