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New trauma looms if traumatising past is not dealt with

Two months before Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, Memorial, the Moscow-based non-governmental organisation, was banned. The two events were inherently linked.
Detail of the Holodomor victims memorial in Kyiv. Detail of the Holodomor victims memorial in Kyiv.

Memorial’s mission was to inform people about the history of totalitarian rule. In the eyes of President Vladimir Putin, telling the truth about the horrors of Stalinism was basically nothing but western propaganda. In his paranoid world view, Russia is a glorious nation with only one problem: permanent rejection by the west.

His nationalism does not worry about the nation’s welfare. Young men are used as cannon fodder, but are not allowed to express their views as free citizens. Russian leaders since Peter the Great 300 years ago, have thought along similar lines. They equated themselves with the state, tried to expand their power and ignored the suffering of their subjects, denying them any say in public affairs. Fear of suppressive government permeates Russian culture because the nation has not systematically grappled with the impacts of traumatic despotism.

Individual lives do not matter to him, the authority of the Kremlin does. That is why he is killing so many Ukrainian civilians and sacrificing so many Russian soldiers. He does not want anyone to acknowledge the deadly famine (“Holodomor”) Stalin caused in Ukraine 80 years ago, but is committing genocidal war crimes himself. He insists Ukraine is – and must always be – Russian.

Past suffering all too often leads to new suffering

When collective trauma lingers on, new trauma is likely to follow. In 2022, the Ukraine war was the worst example. Sadly, historical wounds keep festering in many places. That will not change until societies acknowledge the pain, assess the causes and achieve a minimum level of reconciliation. Where things are hushed up, conspiracy theories abound, with identity politics emphasising the suffering of one’s own community and scapegoating other communities.

Things tend to be particularly difficult in formerly colonised countries. After victory, the leaders who fought hard for independence were prone to considering the young nation their personal fiefdom. The typical pattern is that they avoided accountability and used repressive means. They only freed their nation from colonial rule, but not the authoritarian attitudes it fostered.

International cooperation is the way forward

In the current polycrisis, resentful identity politics is harmful. To safeguard and provide public goods – such as peace, environmental health, food security, stable financial architecture, pandemic preparedness, to name only five  – we need international cooperation. Governments that mistake their undisputed power at home for the common good, cannot be expected to contribute much to the global common good. Moreover, no one who prevents a full reckoning with the historical truth deserves trust.

In most cases, destructive impacts of historical trauma only affect the nation concerned. In the worst cases, they amount to an attack on humankind as a whole. The Nazi response to the perceived humiliations of Germany in World War I, for example, was to start the even worse World War II.

In Putin’s war of aggression, military action is so far limited to Ukraine and, to some extent, Russia itself. The impacts are global nonetheless. Global energy markets are in disarray, which is an important reason for the climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in November not delivering stronger results. When governments must focus on short-term fuel provision, they find it hard  to commit to the mid-term switch to renewables on which our common future depends.

Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.

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