My current visit to Ukraine brings to mind the philosopher George Santayana’s famous aphorism, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and its commonplace misrepresentation, that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Let’s start with the fact that these two statements are completely different. Santayana is talking about a capacity or facility. That is, if we lack the capacity or facility to remember—i.e., if we cannot remember—we will suffer certain consequences. In contrast, the misrepresentation asserts that, unless we remember—i.e., if we forget—we will suffer certain consequences. To possess the capacity to remember does not mean that we must always exercise it, that we dare never forget. It means only that we are able to remember the past if and when we want to and, by logical extension, that we are able not to remember the past if and when we want to. According to the misrepresentation, we have no such choice. We must remember, we may not forget—ever—without suffering the consequences.
“Remember, if you desire or need to remember,” is the polar opposite of “Never stop remembering!” The former is future-directed; the latter is past-directed. The former is about living one’s life “in the moment” and in the moments to come; the latter is about living in the past. The former claim says that there may be lessons in the past that we may want to heed. The latter claim insists that the only lessons worth knowing are the lessons of the past. Santayana’s injunction is liberating: it is premised on our freedom and on our freedom to choose how we live, what we remember, and how we cope with the future. The misrepresentation is confining: it is premised on our inability to remember wisely, to exercise choice, and to prepare for the future.
Santayana is right to say that the ability to remember can be useful in avoiding mistakes. Put that way, of course, the claim is hardly as profound as it may at first glance strike us. After all, who would dispute what is ultimately little more than an assertion of common sense? In contrast, the popular misrepresentation is likely to produce the very opposite of what it claims. If all we do is remember and never forget the past, how can we possibly live in the present and anticipate the future? Ironically, never forgetting and always remembering probably dooms us to repeating that which we never forget and always remember.
Which brings me to Ukraine. In Soviet times, the country and its people lacked the capacity to remember. That right was appropriated by the Communist Party and its propaganda machine, which churned out usable versions of a past that rarely corresponded to anything resembling the “real” past. Independent Ukraine seized back that capacity and has been doing little but trying to remember since 1991. Those efforts have produced mixed results. The people who can actually remember the past are mostly dead, much of the documentary evidence of the past has been destroyed by the Soviets and the Nazis, the magnitude of Soviet distortions of the past far exceeds the capacity of Ukraine’s overworked historians to correct them, and the far more institutionalized remembrances of Poles, Russians, and Jews often reduce Ukrainians to bit players, voiceless Others, and brutes.
Has remembering kept Ukraine from repeating past mistakes? Hardly. If remembering were a panacea, Ukraine would be Switzerland, and not Zimbabwe. If we accept as true the claim that non-remembering leads to repetition of mistakes, it does not logically follow that remembering leads to non-repetition of mistakes. So what good is remembering? It may be a great way to build identities and to settle political scores, but remembering is only marginally useful when it comes to solving problems. Look at the Israelis and Palestinians: the more they remember, the less capable they become of solving their problems today. Look at Germany: its commemoration of the Holocaust hasn’t prevented it from being supremely indifferent to human rights violations in Russia. Look at the United States: its obsession with the Founding Fathers offers little guidance to fixing the American economy and polity.
These examples suggest two conclusions. First, that remembering and problem-fixing are very different things and the connection between them is hardly as obvious as misrepresentations of Santayana suggest. And second, that the state, as the key problem fixer, should keep a low profile when it comes to remembering.
For one thing, the state is a clumsy and inefficient instrument for remembering the past. If it can’t pick economic winners, how can it pick historical winners? More important, the state—and, above all, the profoundly corrupt and self-centered Ukrainian state—has its own interests, and these are, after all, to live well at popular expense. When the state promotes remembrance, cui really bono?
This is not to say that, as the Regionnaires insist, the Holodomor should be erased, that World War II should forever remain the Great Fatherland War, that Ukraine should not accept the historical validity of the anti-Soviet nationalist resistance movement, and so on. After all, the Regionnaires want to turn back the clock and reintroduce Stalinist policies of enforced misremembering. But it is to say that the best form of remembering is societal remembering.
Let people remember. Let historians remember. Let people tell historians what they believe is important. And let historians tell people what they think really happened. And let the state remember to fix the country and itself.