From divergence to dialogue about historical memory
Almost 140 years after the Russian-Ottoman War, an EU-funded project aimed to bridge the divide between contradictory national memories of the conflict that continue to stir political, social and cultural controversy across Southeastern Europe and the Caucasus.
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The EU-funded MEMORYROW project was an unprecedented attempt to address contradictory interpretations of the 1877-1878 conflict. It brought together researchers from Armenia, Austria, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Turkey to create a shared narrative that rests on a science-based review of historical events.
“The politics of memory about the Russian-Ottoman War of 1877-1878 has been part of the formation of national narratives for generations, and continues to this day,” says project manager Dominik Gutmeyr, a historian at the University of Graz in Austria. “Symbolic commemorations, the building of new monuments to idolised historic figures, celebration of jubilees all this contributes to sustaining divergent national memories that are the basis for conflicting interpretations of the war and its consequences.”
The initiative has generated a large number of academic papers and research articles, as well as alternative teaching materials for schools that elaborate on the dangers of ethnocentric historical interpretations. In addition, new sources of information and interpretations in languages such as Georgian and Armenian have been translated into English and made public for the first time.
MEMORYROW built on new trends in regional and memory studies such as the re-interpretation of Franco-German relations in the wake of World War II focused on stimulating international dialogue to compare, share and relate disparate national memories in order to generate a multi-perspective interpretation of events.
For example, the peace treaties that ended the Russian-Ottoman War have been interpreted in different and often opposing ways by the nations that were directly involved in the conflict. This has led to the emergence of contradicting official cultures of memory that have served as the foundation for strengthening national identities.
A case in point was the conclusion of the preliminary Treaty of San Stefano, which though never implemented is celebrated as Liberation Day, a national holiday, in Bulgaria. In Greece, however, it is seen as a tragic event because the accord stipulated the integration of most of Macedonia into Bulgaria.
In the Ottoman Empire, the war, subsequent preliminary Treaty of San Stefano and definitive Treaty of Berlin were regarded as the peak of nationalist separatist movements aimed at the destruction of the empire an interpretation maintained in modern-day Turkey.
Giving the overlooked a voice
The MEMORYROW project has helped overcome the predominantly military-centred interpretations of the Russian-Ottoman War in favour of an interdisciplinary approach that sought to question historical, political and cultural contexts of the conflict’s aftermath. In this sense, the research network focused on giving alternative memories a voice, such as those of ethnic minorities, migrants and women, who have been overlooked in dominant national narratives.
“Minorities, such as Kurds, Yazidis and Adyghe, among many others, are often excluded from narratives spread under the official politics of memory, which not only affects their place in modern state and nation-building but also their role in contemporary society,” Gutmeyr says.
The politics of memory and memory cultures were examined at various stages throughout the project, leading to new insights and a fruitful exchange among researchers.
“MEMORYROW stimulated an academic discourse on a mostly neglected topic and deepened communications between EU member states and associated countries in Southeast Europe and the Caucasus region,” Gutmeyr says. “Cooperation between scholars of leading institutions has contributed to further research to answer common questions, thereby fostering dialogue in place of conflict.”