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Postmedia in the gutter

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Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

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The vexed politics behind Ottawa’s monument to victims of communism.

Antanas Sileika

Not only is Canada a mosaic, but many Canadi­ans are mosaics within themselves. Given this complexity of identity, what does it mean to remember and to memorialize? Why do we commemorate some events and not others? What events should be memorialized?

At a Canadian embassy office reception in Vilnius some years ago while I was on a research trip, I was chatting with the chargé d’affaires while waiting to meet my son, who was on leave in the middle of deployment with the Van Doos Canadian infantry regiment in Afghanistan. Now there was an example of a mosaic: a Lithuanian-heritage Canadian deployed in the French language in a foreign country.

The chargé d’affaires was interested in my son, but he was also interested in me. He wanted to know what a Canadian like me was researching in Lithuania. I told him I was working on a novel about the anti-Soviet post-war resistance in Lithuania.

He did not exactly bristle, but I noted a subtle change in his tone, a sense of disappointment, as if I should have chosen another story of suffering in Lithuania, perhaps the Holocaust, which had been particularly brutal in that country. At the time, there was intense discussion going on about Eastern Europe’s failure to deal with its Holocaust past.

Raz Latif

It was hard to tell precisely what the problem was because we were speaking polite code. Finally, the chargé suggested that, unlike Canada, there was altogether too much history in Lithuania and the rest of Europe.

And now it seems that there is too much history in Canada too. Conflicting memories clash in the controversy surrounding the plan to build the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Ottawa.

A lingering left bias sees the monument to the victims of communism as an extension of the old politics of the right.

This memorial has been attacked vigorously in many places, among them in the The Globe and Mail by journalist Roy MacGregor. He and other commentators have derided the project on several grounds: as ugly, as misplaced in a location, as an example of government’s currying favour with particular groups of ethnic voters and, finally, as an unnecessary and even lamentable example of a memorial that has nothing to do with Canada’s history.

I catch a whiff of disingenuity in all this opposition. I concede the site on prime Ottawa real estate may be a mistake. The design may be bad. But why should an officially sanctioned monument to the victims of communism offend so many? Here are a few hypotheses.

Many progressives hate anything the Harper government does. Because his rule is deemed deplorable, everything he turns his hand to must be deplorable. Indeed, when Harper upbraided Vladimir Putin before reluctantly shaking hands with him, many of my Facebook friends, a progressive literary lot if ever there was one, vilified Harper, claiming he was just playing up to ethnic voters. Critics further left who are apologists for Russia even claimed Putin was forced into defensive actions against the hegemonic West. When I attempted to defend Harper’s upbraiding of Putin by writing that sometimes people you do not like do the right thing, I took a firestorm of derision.

As an aside here, since I have a rather strong connection with events going on in Eastern Europe, I was called by a radio show in Lithuania and asked how it was possible that Harper had the courage to say to Putin what other western leaders did not. After all, millions of Poles, Balts and Ukrainians breathed sighs of relief at Harper’s words, and still the harpies in Canada sneered. Interestingly, at least one Lithuanian columnist speculated that Harper, as the ruler of a middle power, was designated spokesman for the western point of view, permitting Canada to say what larger powers could not.

For immigrants to this country, Canada is a kind of benign island for those who were lucky enough to survive the worldwide shipwrecks of politics and war

To recap, some of the opposition to the memorial lies in ad hominem attacks against Harper. The Harper government supports the memorial to the victims of communism. Ergo the memorial must be bad.

Second, during the Cold War, communism was the enemy of the old post-war right of America and Canada. At the time, my leftish generation and those older than me preferred to focus on issues such as apartheid in South Africa, the plight of grape pickers in California and the revolution in Nicaragua. Back then anticommunist sentiments were uncool, to say the least. For many contemporary progressives, these sentiments continue to carry whiffs of fusty conservatism. Indeed, the preferred progressive narrative of the Cold War seems to focus upon those who suffered under McCarthyism, when Hollywood screenwriters and others were losing their jobs, rather than upon those who were in slave camps or being executed by communist regimes.

Thus a lingering left bias sees the monument to the victims of communism as an extension of the old politics of the right. But progressives are a relatively small minority of Canada’s population. Others have views on the proposed monument too.

For immigrants to this country, Canada is a kind of benign island for those who were lucky enough to survive the worldwide shipwrecks of politics and war and have washed up upon these safe and wealthy shores. Those who end up here, or their children, eventually reflect back on what happened, and they begin to memorialize. This is particularly true of East Europeans who believed they were betrayed by the West and abandoned to the tyranny of the Soviet Union. Since no one else seemed to know or care about what had happened there, Eastern Europeans had to do their commemorating for themselves.

It takes a long time for memory to assert itself and spur memorialization. It took decades for the well-known facts about the Holocaust to open the subject to vast coverage in the media and in new history books. Yet although we may believe we have heard much about the Holocaust, historian Timothy Snyder says we have only now begun to understand how woefully unknown so much of the Holocaust remains because most of it occurred not in Auschwitz, but further east in the killing fields in the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine.

Similarly, a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union and decades after the revelation of the horrors of Cambodia and the extent of deaths under Mao, the profundity of the outrage of communism has begun to sink in, and people have begun to memorialize. It takes time to assimilate the knowledge of tragedy and to respond to it. Sometimes it takes a very long time.

An example of this delay can be seen in the Canadian reaction to the destruction of Native culture in Canada. It is only now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is revealing the full horror of the attempt at cultural annihilation. It is only now that the Supreme Court is beginning to recognize the full extent of Native rights over vast tracts of Canadian land. We always knew that the land had been taken from the Native people, but in some way we did not fully grasp what that meant. Truth has been revealed, but reconciliation is still a project that will take decades to understand, let alone implement.

So it has taken time to memorialize the victims of communism, but this particular commemoration raises other sorts of issues.

Some of the most moving memorials in the world are Holocaust memorials and, indeed, a Holocaust memorial is being built in Ottawa and neither the design nor the placement of it has caused any kind of controversy in the press, although the comments sections below newspaper articles online echo some of objections raised by journalists against the victims of communism memorial.

The success in broadcasting the news of the Holocaust may have motivated others to publicize their own sufferings, such as the Ukrainian Holodomor and the murder of the Armenians in Turkey. The term “survivors,” once applied solely to Holocaust survivors, has now entered the lexicon to cover survivors of cultural genocide, sexual abuse and other crimes. And so, controversially, has the term “genocide,” which in initial negotiations over the genocide convention in 1947 was intended to include mass murders of non-ethnic or religious groups such as intelligentsia, until the definition was narrowed due to Soviet objections. The Soviets had to object because they would have been guilty of the charge of genocide in, for example, the attacks on kulaks. As well, had the Soviets not objected, their attempts to destroy local intelligentsia would have been called genocide too, such as the Soviet murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest.

And this brings us to another problem with a monument to the victims of communism, at least those who died in Europe. We like clear narratives, but history is sadly short of such stories. The Jews who survived the Holocaust in Eastern Europe did so mostly thanks to Soviet armies, which were the main actors in the defeat of Nazism and the only ones in the East. Those same Soviet armies went on to rape and pillage much of Eastern Europe and helped to install tyrannies throughout the region, as depicted so well in Anne Applebaum’s justly celebrated account Iron Curtain.

So were the Soviets liberators or invaders? It depends on which victims you ask. Furthermore, were the victims of communism sometimes those who did not help Jews, or, in some cases, those who actively participated in the Nazi-inspired atrocities? How are we to tease out those who suffered for their crimes versus those who suffered for no other reason than falling under the sway of a tyrannical regime?

This particular problem is acute in Eastern Europe, where there have been accusations that the attempt to remember the victims of communism is a ploy to disguise the actions of Nazi collaborators. Further aggravation in some circles came from the Prague declaration of 2008, which sought to memorialize the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Some Holocaust interpreters have called this a form of moral equivalency and have stated that the two tyrannies must never be compared. But as has been noted by several commentators, if you say Nazism and communism should not be compared, you have already done so.

In short, the story of the victims of communism, at least in Europe, potentially collides with the Holocaust story. There is no easy way to avoid this collision.

Memorials and memory are often anathema to historians. The late Tony Judt said that memory cannot substitute for history. In his words, “official commemoration … does not enhance our appreciation and awareness of the past. It serves as a substitute, a surrogate. Instead of teaching recent history, we walk children through museums and memorials.”

But most people are bored by history. In my experience, Canadians know little history, but everyone seems to have an opinion about it: at worst, the past in the popular view was less enlightened than we are, a kind of horror show. As well, many Canadian writers, in particular younger ones, deplore historical fiction because it romanticizes the past. As implied in the title of Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, maybe we should forget in order to laugh, because otherwise, history is a terrible place.

If practically no one reads history after high school, what is left but memory and memorials?

I recently stood in the Dawn Gate of Vilnius, the last remaining portal in the medieval defensive walls of that city. Through that gate, German prisoners of war were marched to show them off to the war-weary inhabitants. The city had been freed by the Soviets, but also by Polish Armia Krajowa soldiers who intended to seize the city for Poland. Rather than thank the Poles, after the liberation the Soviets killed or deported those who did not escape. Before that, near the beginning of the war, thousands of Jews must have passed through those gates on the way to being butchered in the Ponary forest. Before that, local residents were marched through by the newly arrived Soviets to be shipped off to the gulag and almost certain death among the early Soviet deportees. And if we keep on going back, we find the remains of Napoleon’s Grand Armée ran through those gates to be hunted and hacked to death by czarist soldiers.

If one small place has so many layers, is such a palimpsest of history, how are we to determine what needs to be remembered and what needs to be forgotten? To return to Kundera in his novel Life Is Elsewhere, “How sweet it would be to forget history!”

Yet Kundera can also be quoted again to illustrate what we are about when we build memorials: “The novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel.”

Novelists are not the only ones involved in this act. Societies demolish the house of history and use its bricks to construct another house: that of memory as expressed in memorials.

While we know that memory is selective, it remains a powerful force in shaping us as individuals and in determining what we do as societies.

Canada has more than a million citizens of Polish heritage, and even more Ukrainians, a scattering of Balts and many tens of thousands of Vietnamese. For many of them, memories of sufferings under communism remain vivid, whether the suffering happened to them or their parents. Why should we deny their suffering and their right to remember it?

If there are other events that need to be memorialized, let those who want to do so go ahead and lobby the government to do so officially. We can object to design, we can object to placement, and we can object to the use of taxpayers’ dollars. But to dismiss the need to remember and memorialize is to trivialize the suffering of others.

As to the detractors who say we should only remember events in which Canada played a role, those millions of immigrants and their children are indeed Canadians. Their memories are the memories of this country too. As with the memory of what happened and is happening to Native people, we are coming late to an understanding of the past, however imperfect that understanding may be. We should now make up for lost time.

Antanas Sileika’s 2004 novel, Woman in Bronze (Random House), was set in jazz-era Paris. His most recent novel, Underground, was released by Thomas Allen in 2011. He is the director of the Humber School for Writers.