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The Museums of Afghan War and Collective Remembrance Strategies icon

The Museums of Afghan War and Collective Remembrance Strategies

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НазваниеThe Museums of Afghan War and Collective Remembrance Strategies
Дата конвертации02.01.2013
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The Museums of Afghan War and Collective Remembrance Strategies

Elena Rozhdestvenskaya

First important thing about the museums of Soviet War in Afghanistan is that all of them are grass-roots: they have been organized by the survived veterans and relatives of the perished soldiers. None of them were established by any authorities (besides the small exhibition in the State Military Museum) and only one now receives financial support from the state budget.

According to the interviews with the founders, their most important motivation was to commemorate their comrades killed in this war. That means the necessity for two things (or objectives): mourning and grief but also giving sense to their deaths as well as to the War in Afghanistan. But the very nature of a museum assumes appeal to an audience broader than members of the particular mnemonic community; it seeks for public attention. So the second objective transforms into the “mission” of younger generation patriotic breeding. The discourse of patriotic breeding has long tradition in Soviet Union and even more popular now in contemporary Russia.

So the organizers actually bear in mind two audiences: Afghanistan war veterans and their relatives - and teenagers (usually secondary school and college students) and some museums are even located in schools. Schoolchildren usually visit museums in organized excursions accompanied with their teachers. Visitors not from those two groups are rare in such museums.

It is not as easy to give any meaning to the Soviet war in Afghanistan and in this context there are hidden tensions between the objectives of commemoration and patriotic breeding. This is somehow resolving by proposing the idea of sacral duty of serving to the State and Motherland. But this is also uneasy task because now we have another state (and strictly speaking another Motherland which is Russia not Soviet Union). This is reflected in the museum’s exhibition: the Soviet Motherland is represented rather distantly mainly as the space of official Soviet symbols. (слайд 1 с Лениным). There is the symbolic boundary between that mummified Soviet political space and the space of the war which looks much more lively.

But what is interesting about this war that there are no images of enemy as it is. You only can find couple of anti-Soviet leaflets in English, some printed matters in Pashto language (you can only guess about meaning) and unnamed photo of Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the Afghanistan military warlords. But all these documents are overwhelmed by obviously pro-Soviet Afghan posters and various ethnographic and cultural materials such as beads, cotton flower and enormous Holy Quran. So the war looks like abstract military events in some exotic country. You can’t receive any information about motivation, ideology or military losses of the opposite party in the war. (слайд 2-3).

So far, the Museum fails to answer the question of what was the reason of war. This is the museum made for the remembrance of people who performed their duty participating in a tragic event. That event had no personal meaning for them and their state didn’t care to create any clear frame of explanation. That’s why popular modern Russian journalist Grigory Revzin called this place the ‘Museum of the existential amateur performances’. So the task of giving sense is performed as the formation of the sequence of participation in the wars and with the help of the emotional rituals.

As far as war has not been won (though we can’t say that it was lost by Soviet party either – it just was rather a draw), heroes of the war are in the same time its victims. This topic of heroes-victims is very strong in the museum, but at the same time it creates one more hidden source of internal tension. Restoring the collective memory about tragic past such as collective suffering, hardships, traumas usually connects with the determination not to allow the repetition of such suffering (by the way, this attitude always was very strong in Soviet memorization of the Second World war – as it was put in well-known Soviet song ‘Do the Russians want a war?’ – with strongly articulated answer ‘no, never again’). And if the task of ‘pure remembering’ is more embedded in functioning of such institutes as archives, the second task – ‘never again’ – always connects with feelings and emotions and supposes to be performed by the museums. In her work ‘On Revolution’ Hannah Arendt connected ‘people’s suffering’ with the goals of public politics. But the politics of memory in the Afghanistan war museums complicate these traditional discourses which are also intertwining the experiences of suffering and losses with pathos and (these discourses) are also connected with the desire for a sort of ideological revenge.

The important frame of the Afghanistan war museification is the succession of military losses theme in the context of Russian history, also in its sociopolitical and cultural contexts, in which individual deaths and collective fate are interpreted. Discursive set of justifications for this subject - duty to the Motherland, the international duty – has been diluted in a generalized concept of patriotism, obtaining their new meanings in the still viable for the postwar reality idea of military brotherhood. The role and the responsibility of state is unquestionable, but in this case it reveals the scarcity of ideological justification. Respectively this task lies down on the those people who are personally concerned with the public symbolization of army losses, by the public construction of semiotic context, capable of giving the loss of soldiers social and personal significance – mostly the veterans and the mothers of those been killed. We can see here attempts of the posivitivisation of loss (how Slavoj Zizek put it) - the transformation of negative, dramatic experience into some form of positive activity (solidarity inside the mnemonic communities, mutual aid, charity, search for social connections with other generations and so forth).

What is important for setting the intra-museum space of Afghan theme are the things which represent it – discursive somatizations, which localize, describe and personify military experience. These representations find their expression in the images of individual or collective body. The personal belongings, collective photos and the diorama of battle all work as projection of experiences and hence act as somatic mediators, making possible to transmit and to intermediate emotions incorporated within them.

(слайд с личными вещами).

Tony Bennett in his work ‘Birth of the Museum’ describes museum as the disciplinary machine embodying the general standards of social behavior via the enlightenment tasks. In the galleries, according to Stephen Bann, narrative of the development is built by the sequence of the halls. This dimension of visual culture development serves for the translation of knowledge constructed in the walls of gallery, but at the same time it executes the power of interpretation of very certain way of development and selection of significant landmarks (of knowledge). But on top of the task of pathos transmission, a contemporary museum must be attractive, entertaining. When we balance these tasks, we also can trace the interplay between different politics of memorization and representation.

Exposition is made not in chronological order (though director of the museum has dreamed about the creation of really huge museum where every year of the war and every military unit could be represented). The space is divided into several areas: there is an area of wounded soldiers - mannequin in the paratrooper T-shot and blue cap, with the prostheses on his arm and his foot and with the guitar; an area of the military operations, where the sand is poured and dummy mines are placed; the memory zone with the photographs of perished soldiers from Moscow district Perovo (where museum is located) and finally oriental zone with clothing and weaponry of Afghans. There are also land mines, machine guns, bayonets, guns hanged at the ceiling, the models of tanks and armored troop carrier, Soviet “checks” – special quasi-hard-currency paid in USSR for the foreign missions, the death notices, the military awards, the trophies – in total about 550 units of storage. And this is virtually all what we can find here about Afghanistan War – which in fact has taken nine years of military operations so been the longest war ever conducted by the USSR.

Some parts of exposition obviously address to younger museum visitors, presumably boys, who supposed to go through the military service in the future and who should be interested with military devices (слайд с машинкой). There is also possibility of watching films and video clips and standard excursion usually begins with such small video with popular song about Afghanistan war. Boys are encouraged to take weapon in the hands and make photos with it. (слайд)

But the central part of the museum is devoted not to entertainment but to commemoration of the perished once. To some of them special small exhibitions are devoted, but most of portraits are put in the single row at a special room of mourning. Effect of involvement is reached by very simple and emotionally strong stance – in the very centre between the portraits is the mirror by the same size. So a visitor receives very clear message – you could be one of them. (слайд)

Due to this emotional depth the scarcity of this small museum is partly overcome. Director has told in the interview that it is very difficult to find exhibits for the museum: ‘Here are simply the things which we had been able to get from mothers of passed away soldiers. Now whole families (of perished soldiers) already passed away, they have donated awards and photographs of their boys… Even not all of mothers had their belongings. He has been killed suddenly – and all what a mother had after were the death notice, a military award and one photo in uniform, ‘cause it was no time to make photos, and soldiers had no cameras that time’.

So this is unique military museum where we can find neither image of an enemy nor the image of a hero who performed the visible heroic deed in the name of Motherland. What makes victims of the war the real heroes and brings the meanings to their deeds (and somehow elevating them to acts of sacrifices) is deliberate placement of them (and their war) into the context of other wars and local conflicts. As internet site of one small museum says:

‘In the museum hall there is also a memorial to soldiers from Odintszovo district lost their lives at the battle fields of Afghanistan, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Beslan – in total 55 persons. Here come mothers of perished boys, who died so young, in the very beginning of their lives… For their mothers this memorial is a place where they can commemorate their sons and thus temporarily relieve their grief which will be always suffered’.

By this the war in Afghanistan along with its heroes-victims are placed in the potentially endless sequence of military actions mostly without any visible goal and sense, but somehow inevitable and even necessary. And nobody from the visitors when seeing themselves in the mirror can be guaranteed from his actual photo being placed in the row of perished – so there is some invisible but intended mechanism which regularly sends people to a war.

To summarize, the museums of war in Afghanistan are neither militaristic, aiming to support the military spirit, nor pacifistic, blaming somebody for the fact of war and daring to say this ‘never again’. Actually, there are museums of fatalism, telling their story about the inevitability of war which harvest souls and bodies young and innocent victims, who should be ready to participate in any war where will be send to.


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