Una Bergmane on memory, myth, Russia, Trump, and the power of words

Una Bergmane by the sea

By Jonathan Miller, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies

Una Bergmane has been plugged into history from a very early age. Seven weeks before her fourth birthday, she recalls joining her parents in an enormous anti-Soviet demonstration – a 420-mile, two-million-person human chain across Estonia, her native Latvia, and Lithuania.

“I remember it the way a child remembers,” she says. “I was very excited, and I was aware of what was happening, but I was also thinking about my new dress.”

The “Baltic Way” of August 23, 1989 – also known as the “Chain of Freedom” – was held on the 50th anniversary of a secret agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet government of Josef Stalin to divide Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence.”

Soviet officials had always denied the existence of the protocols, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, despite their publication in the West as early as the 1940s. Bergmane says the official narrative held that the Soviet Union had occupied and then annexed the Baltic states during World War II to support a working class revolt.

“In the Soviet Union, the government said, ‘This is the truth, this is what to believe in.’ Everyone knew what the words meant, so the words had power. When those narratives were found to be built on lies, the words lost that power."

When it became widely known in the 1980s that the Nazis and Soviets had in fact colluded over the fate of the Baltics, activists like Bergmane’s parents were not so much outraged as hopeful. Unlike many independence movements, theirs was based less on a claim to some mythical ethnic identity than on Latvia’s legal right to exist.

“You know how the Bible says, ‘Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free?’ That’s what the Latvians thought about this. Once the lie was revealed, they knew they could prove that the Soviet occupation was illegal and illegitimate.”

Put another way, official memory was forced to give way to the actual memories of individuals and communities. “For Latvians, it was as if our past was returned to us,” Bergmane says.

In December 1989, after a nationally televised debate, the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies voted overwhelmingly to acknowledge and denounce the pact. The vote was an important milestone in the break-up of the Soviet Union. By 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were independent nations.

History lessons (and their limits)

Today, Bergmane researches and teaches this history as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. She also probes it for lessons about today’s world. She is particularly interested in areas where memories, stories, and words compete for influence.

“In the Soviet Union, the government said, ‘This is the truth, this is what to believe in,’” she says. “Everyone knew what the words meant, so the words had power. When those narratives were found to be built on lies, the words lost that power.

“In the United States right now, it’s more complicated. There’s this notion that the truth doesn’t exist. You hear this in public discourse, but also directly from the government – alternative facts, denying science, denying things that clearly happened. Nothing is true, so everything is true. As a society, we can’t be sure what words mean.”

Bergmane, who received her PhD in hirstory at Sciences-Po in Paris, has spoken in public forums at Cornell about current Russia-U.S. relations, including the role of the government of Vladimir Putin in the November 2016 presidential election.

“I don’t think Putin ever expected [Donald J.] Trump to win. I think he wanted to discredit the legitimacy of the American political system,” she says.

She observes that Putin and Trump have traits in common. Both are unabashedly nationalist, and both use myth and memory to their political advantage.

Putin, a former intelligence agent, has built his domestic popularity in part on nostalgia for the Soviet past, when the state provided social protections and the country was feared as a world power. Trump, who has expressed his fondness for Putin’s authoritarian style, ran on the similarly nostalgic (and many would say similarly disingenuous) slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Bergmane notes that Trump has used terms that Soviet leaders used to use, for instance when he refers to the news media as an “enemy of the people.” But she says there are limits to the value of those sorts of comparisons, and to the lessons one can apply from one society or era to another. History, geography, economics, demographics, and many other variables are important.

“Political scientists like to look to history for patterns and find an elegant explanation for why contemporary events happen,” she says. “Historians like to find the multiple causes for a specific event.”

Indeed, each class in her 13-week course on the collapse of the Soviet Union (GOVT/HIST 4967) examines a different contributing factor.

Still, Bergmane believes historians can help the public make sense of the present, precisely by emphasizing that the details matter. “It’s not, ‘Look, look, Trump did this, he’s a fascist.’ It’s ‘Trump did this, fascists have done this in the past, and you need to pay attention.’”

The Einaudi Center postdoctoral fellowship program is made possible by the generosity of Phil, Henry E., and Nancy Horton Bartels.