War, Migration and Memory: An Introduction
By Viktoriya Sereda
The unprecedented Russian full-scale attack on Ukraine brought the recent conflicts over memory in East Central Europe and in Ukraine to the attention of an international audience. Mass displacement also exposed millions of Ukrainians to new challenges that triggered intensive reinterpretations of the past – both the distant and the very recent – and a reevaluation of their memory through new experiences.
Extreme events such as war and displacement create ruptures in sense-making narratives and, as suggested by Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline, “tend to strip people of identity, leaving them no sensible narrative to enact.” People need plausible accounts of events to understand what is going on and how to respond through both individual and collective action. Sense-making is an ongoing retrospective process grounded in personal past experiences and often linked to identity construction. In this process, history/the past turns into an important interpretive resource for one’s attachment or alienation. The imagined past may consist of the memory of recently experienced events (e.g., ‘after the beginning of the war’), which is later linked to selected symbolic markers, events, or figures from the past that help explain current events or legitimize individuals or their actions.
This series aims to reach beyond the dimension of the politics of history and examine how collective and individual memories and people’s sense of belonging are reshaped when used to interpret the shocking realities of the current war. Additionally, it studies how memory is mobilized on a personal and collective level to deal with the ruptures and threats posed by this war and in an attempt to explain what is happening. The main research questions of this series are not new. Scholars have been working with similar issues for a long time and have developed several explanatory schemes. For example, Peter Gatrell’s work on refugees during the First World War illustrates how the outbreak of war can dramatically change the established landscape of social and national identities. He argues that the new category of ‘refugee’ created by the war suddenly became an important social category and a factor of identity. For millions of people, it outweighed many of their previous statuses and identities, influencing not only their perceptions of themselves but also their destinies.
Other studies – like Martin Evans and Kenneth Lunn’s War and Memory in the Twentieth Century (1997), or Friederike Pannewick, Stephan Milich, and Leslie Tramontini’s Conflicting Narratives: War, Trauma and Memory in Iraqi Culture (2012) – look at different media used to collect or commemorate memories of war, ranging from the construction of memorials to film, fiction, poetry, and playwriting. They discuss the complex identities of war memories and their social, cultural, and political significance, constructed from a multitude of perspectives and representations, as well as the struggle for representation and tensions between those inside and outside the war-torn country. The case of Ukraine, however, may provide a basis for further examination of the subject and a reconsideration of the prevailing memory narratives and practices in the region.
Scholars working on the topic often simplified the complex transformations in Ukrainian society after 1991 and after 2014 (including the functions of memory and attitudes toward the past) into a binary of East-West divisions, a conflict of two identities (ethnic vs. civic), or two models of historical memory (national vs. Soviet). A more complex analysis of the variety of Ukrainian experiences in different parts of the country and on the national level could result in a more accurate picture. Accordingly, this series considers how we can differentiate between models of nation-building in Ukraine before the war (for example, in ethnic and civil regards) and how they interact in 2022. Similarly, it approaches how discourses of decommunization and decolonization figure into this interaction.
Changes of memory can be studied in various contexts: for instance, the local, national, regional, and global. At the macro-level, war and war-induced migration influence discussions on the politics of memory and identity in academia and in media outlets in Ukraine, in the region, and internationally, marginalizing some issues (e.g., the Polish–Ukrainian ‘memory wars’), and rearticulating others (e.g., frameworks for understanding and commemoration the Second World War). At the community level, sociocultural aspects of refugees’ adaptations and the reactions of the receiving communities and changing collective memories play a role. Temporal dimensions of belonging and symbolic markers present in the public space become important factors of social in/exclusion and othering. They can provoke conflicts or create new lines of solidarities.
Family memories and attitudes towards the past can also be utilized in creating a sense of belonging to a community. Participation in such activities underscores the agency of the displaced. At the personal level, the study of memory changes includes exploration of how time is experienced (interruptions in, for example, the natural flow of biographical time, such as the time before and after beginning of the war). Individual communicative and cultural memories also fall under this category. Through references to certain symbolic markers, events, or historical figures, people redefine their identities, legitimize or explain current events, or make a nostalgic escape from reality. References to the past might also help overcome the traumas of the present.
Meanwhile, the historical past can become a part of new forms of social activism. For instance, before Russia’s full-scale aggression, many Ukrainian cities searched for new possibilities to reproduce European practices of the revitalization of historical and industrial heritage and turn these into tourist sites. This activity also required the ‘discovery’ of existing historical assets and the ‘invention’ of a city’s new identity, one that would be attractive both to Ukrainian and Western visitors. Other examples could be the creation of digital archives and museums of resistance or wars experiences comparable to, for example, the Syrian Digital Memory Archive, the Prison Narratives of Assad’s Syria: Voices, Texts, Publics, the War Childhood Museum in Bosnia and its branch in Ukraine, the Museum of Civil Voices, or the oral history archive “My war: Real stories about the war in Ukraine”.
This series aims to address these issues and put them into new perspectives in the context of the current war and overlapping global issues. It stems from the research project “War, Migration and Memory” conducted through the Prisma Ukraïna program at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Contributions will include texts written by the project’s current fellows, which have been workshopped collectively by the group. The texts mean to address a wider audience in a meaningful way and be challenging for readers outside of Ukraine. In addressing the topics of war, displacement, and memory, the authors aspire to not simply offer new empirical data but also to outline novel concepts, especially taking into consideration that the Russian invasion of Ukraine poses challenges to the international community regarding its attribution, labeling, and explanation. We also invite further contributions that touch on these issues, or open them up from a comparative perspective. Please send proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Quinn, R.W. & Worline, M.C. (2008), “Enabling Courageous Collective Action: Conversations from United Airlines Flight 93”, Organization Science, 19(4), 497–516.
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 Gatrell, Р. (1999), A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War I, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
 Evans, M., & Lunn, K. (1997), War and Memory in the Twentieth Century, Berg Publishers; and Pannewick, Milich, & Tramontini, Conflicting Narratives.
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Viktoriya Sereda is a sociologist, who is currently Senior Fellow and Director of the research group PRISMA UKRAÏNA: War, Migration and Memory at the Forum Transregionale Studien. Prior to this, she was a fellow at the Imre Kertesz Kolleg, University of Jena. She has been a senior research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine since 2020 and a professor in the Department of Sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University. In the spring semester of 2021, she was also a visiting lecturer at the University of Basel. Sereda has either led or participated in over 30 sociological research projects on Ukrainian society and its regional dimensions. From 2011 to 2017, she was the head of the sociological team for the project “Region, Nation and Beyond: An Interdisciplinary and Transcultural Reconceptualization of Ukraine”, organised by the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. In 2016–17 and 2019–20 she was the MAPA Research Fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, where she developed a digital atlas of social changes in Ukraine after the Euromaidan.
Citation: Viktoriya Sereda, War, Migration and Memory: An Introduction, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.01.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/44549