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Morality and Law
Keeping the 'Spirit of the Elbe'
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On Friday, May 8, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet and allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, the Valdai Discussion Club held an online presentation of its new report, titled “Forgive but Not Forget? The Image of War in Culture and Historical Memory”.

In his opening remarks, Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for the Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, raised the question of why the images of the Second World War are so rooted in our culture and discourse, and noted that its consequences have not yet been overcome.

Oleg Barabanov, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club and moderator of the discussion, formulated the main themes of the dispute, describing historical memory as one of the key values ​​of our society and posing in this connection the problem of resolving value conflicts related to historical memory contradictions. He also noted that the memory of the war should be connected with the memory of reconciliation.

Konstantin Pakhalyuk, a member of the Russian Association of Historians of the First World War, co-author of the report, outlined the main points of his work, paying particular attention to the dichotomy between heroic and post-heroic societies and, accordingly, of the heroic and tragic narratives about war in popular culture. Matthias Uhl, Researcher at the German Historical Institute in Moscow, co-author of the report, wished the participants a happy Victory Day and discussed the problem of how this day is perceived and how the memory of the war is being altered in Central and Eastern Europe. He emphasised that the underestimation of the Soviet contribution to the liberation of Europe is due to the reduced influence of Russian historiography in the West. “If we do not support scientific research, we will not be able to influence the structuring of mass culture,” he said.

Mikhail Shvydkoy, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cultural Cooperation, and Member of the Board of Trustees of the German-Russian Forum, pointed out the importance of the human dimension of historical memory. The narrative of war should be anti-war and humanistic, he noted, and the tragic essence of war should not be replaced by heroic mythology. Mikhail Myagkov, the scientific director of the Russian Military Historical Society, spoke about the activities of the RMHS in the field of preservation of historical memory and once again returned to the issue of values, urging the preservation of the “Spirit of the Elbe” in relations between the allies in the Second World War.

Alexey Miller, Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, in turn, stated the need for a critical analysis of war narratives and a critical approach to sources. The historian’s task, he emphasised, is to help get out of the state of memory wars and move towards a dialogue. During the discussion, the speakers spoke about the problem of the correlation between objectivity and a clearly expressed moral position in a historical narrative.