• History repeating in Russia and Ukraine

    On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, I was halfway through In Memory of Memory by the Russian Jewish author Maria Stepanova.

    I was reading the letters that her relative Lyodik Gimmelfarb, a 19-year-old at the Siege of Leningrad, sent to his mother. They were matter-of-fact and uncomplaining. Shortly after his 20th birthday, he was killed.

    War. What’s it good for?

    The following chapters turn to another branch of her family, the Gurevichs, in particular Isaak Gurevich, a well-heeled businessman who opened an agricultural machinery factory in Kherson in the early 20th century.

    I had never heard of this southern Ukrainian city, and suddenly I was reading about it in the news, falling to Russian forces, as I simultaneously read about this successful Jewish family who built a fine mansion and owned the first English Vauxhall car in the region.

    In 1907, Isaak Gurevich had been there to welcome the railway to Kherson. He and his family had also witnessed the pogroms that swept across southern Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a reminder of the fact that the Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism.

    Brave new world

    With the Russian Revolution, Gurevich had his factory taken off him and given to the workers. Soon it wasn’t simply a case of losing your wealth, but losing any trace of ever having had wealth. ‘Social background’ had to be filled in on government forms, and a hint of bourgeois ancestry spelt trouble.

    At the conclusion of her family saga, Stepanova visits the Jewish New Cemetery on the outskirts of Kherson. It’s a desolate, windblown spot where the scrub is slowly reclaiming the gravestones. There are no Jews left to tend the cemetery.

    More serendipity? How about Afghanistan Then and Now

  • Think you’ve got a good memory?

    Hourglass with sand running through it on a pebble beach
    (Photo by Aron Visuals)

    Our memory isn’t as good as we like to think it is. I’m not talking about the dementia epidemic. I mean collective memory. Societies are built on the stuff. What we remember makes us who we are.

    But I have a theory. It’s this: our collective memory is only ever 4 generations old. Even the things that appear older are only the products of the last 4 generations – appropriating older stuff for their own ends. 

    Tell me about your great-grandparents

    On a personal family level, this is about when memory peters out. How many of us even know who our ancestors were beyond our great-grandparents, let alone anything else about them?

    It’s nice to think of our own selves as somehow stretching back to George Washington, King Arthur, Aristotle, Suleyman the Magnificent, Confucius, Muhammad, Jesus – or whichever historic figures and movements you identify with. 

    It’s nice to think that our traditions and preoccupations have vast root systems. Our way of seeing the world is time-tested. In reality, our own lives are much more limited. Our sense of the ancient past is informed by the last 4 generations.

    Who do you think you are?

    When Scots wear tartan, they are communing with Sir Walter Scott. When Englishmen sing folk songs, they sing through the prism of collectors like Cecil Sharp. When Swedes revel in whitewashed pine floors with pops of colour they are heirs to Carl Larsson

    You might say, well, it’s easy to unpick popular culture and folk tradition, but not the great foundational movements of the ages – the monotheistic faiths. Yet even there, the Christian or the Muslim from Birmingham to Malmo is channeling the revivals of the past 150 years more than the time of the prophets. 

    Go back more than 4 generations and our nations and people were often living in a way that would surprise us now. We’d find them doing things we don’t see as traditional to our countries and our communities at all. 

    The rule applies around the world. We are prisoners of unreliable memory, and short-term memory at that. 

    Talking of unreliable memories, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be