Per Rudling: “It is a sobering thought that ‘memory laws’ was originally a West European invention”
Photo courtousy of the KAW, and Marcus Marketic is the photographer
Per Anders Rudling is Wallenberg Academy Fellow, funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, between 2019-2024. He is an associate professor of history at Lund University. In 2015-2019 he was Visiting Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore, in 2015 Visting Professor for Eastern European History at the University of Vienna, Austria. He was a post-doctoral fellow at Lund University 2012-2014 and at the University of Greifswald 2010-2011. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta (2009), MA degrees from San Diego State University (2003) and Uppsala University (1998). He is the author of: — The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. 436 p. (Pitt Series in Russian and East European Studies). The book received the Kulczycki prize in Polish history from ASEEES in 2015; — The OUN, the UPA and the Holocaust: A Study in the Manufacturing of Historical Myths. Pittsburgh: University Center for Russian and East European Studies, 2011. 71 p. (The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies; vol. 2107); — Long-Distance Nationalism: Ukrainian Monuments and Historical Memory in Multicultural Canada. In: Public Memory in the Context of Transnational Migration and Displacement: Migrants and Monuments. Marschall, S. (ed.). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. P. 95-126.(Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies Series); — Eugenics and Racial Anthropology in the Ukrainian Radical Nationalist Tradition. In: Science in Context. 2019. 32, 1. P. 67-91; — The Khatyn Massacre in Belorussia: A Historical Controversy Revisited. In: Holocaust and Genocide Studies. 2012. 26, 1. P. 29-58; — “They Defended Ukraine”: The 14. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Galizische Nr. 1) Revisited. In: Journal of Slavic Military Studies. 2012. 25, 3. P. 329-368.
Dear Prof. Rudling, to verify the Jan Assmann’s concept of three generations span (80–100 years) of family memory, we often ask the authors of our journal how deep their family memory is. The deepest family roots revealed a recognized specialist in Slavic Studies Richard Tempest, his presumably ancestor came to Britain in 1066 as a member of William the Conqueror’s troops (https://istorex.ru/richard_tempest_perviy_tempest_pribil_v_angliyu_vmeste_s_druzhinoy_vtorzheniya_vilgelma_zavoevatelya). Majority of interviewed academics are able to trace the origin of their families from the nineteenth century, and only a few of our interviewed authors confirmed the concept of Jan Assmann. Could you tell how deep your family roots are?
I suppose that depends on that you mean by family memory. My great-grandfather’s cousin was an avid genealogist, and so is my own cousin. We had a family reunion in 1985, for the occasion of which a compilation of the family history was put together, all the way back to 1632. Sweden is a paradise for genealogists, trumped only by Iceland. Many Swedes can trace their family back through church records back to the reformation in the 16th century. So has my relatives. The trace goes back to 1632, and then to Martin Rüdling in Saxony in Germany. That line of the family came to Sweden in the early 18th century. My great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Johann Georg Rüdling came to Sweden in 1722, as the period of Swedish great power ended and the so-called “Time of Freedom” (Frihetstiden, 1718-1772) began. He was a scholar in the humanities, and three of his books are preserved in the Lund university library. https://lubcat.lub.lu.se/cgi-bin/koha/opac-search.pl?q=au:%22Rüdling%2C%20Johann%20Georg%2C%22 The first, published in Swedish in 1731, is entitled “The Flourishing Stockholm, or Shortly authored description of the nowadays widely renowned royal Swedish residence, capital, and entrepreneurial city of Stockholm, all from its beginning until contemporary times, out of several reliable history books and old monuments, with diligence and through much hard work compiled to the benefit of lovers of history and antiquities, by their servant Johann George Rüdling. With the most merciful privileges by His Royal Majesty” (Stockholm: Joh. Laur. Horrn, 1731). It was followed by a biography of king Frederick I of Sweden and Hesse in 1742, in German. Johann Georg Rüdling’s son Anders removed the Umlaut, and the name was “Swedishized.” I believe Johann Georg Rudling came to Stockholm via Swedish Pommerania; until 1814 - and even more so before 1721 Sweden was a multiethnic and multilingual state. Until the treaty of Nystad in 1721, Riga was the largest city in the Swedish empire; Greifswald until the treaty of Kiel in 1814 the oldest university in the realm. King Frederick I, hardly learned a word of Swedish. Then, there is the matter of what is documented history. My ancestor’s books are in the special collection at the Lund University Library, literally across the street from my office. I still aim at reading them. But other than that in terms of quasi-“living” memory, I suppose that this goes back to my grandfather’s great-grandfathers, born in 1806 and 1825. I heard stories about them from my own grandfathers and grandmothers, what they did, where they worked, and about their lives. In our living room we have a grandfather clock and a chest of drawers, with the years “1796” and “1809” painted on them. These were furniture that passed through their hands, and they will be passed down to my children. Though the furniture remains, their exact whereabouts get blurry prior to the 1850s. So in my case, “living" memory in any meaningful sense - other than merely antiquariate interest, goes back four or possibly five generations.
Your field of research is related to the former Soviet Union. We had interviews with many Western Slavists and I noticed that there are two extraordinary events of Soviet history which motivated their choice of the Slavic studies. Those among so called Boomers, who entered universities around the year 1960, were impressed by Sputnik and Gagarin. So called X and partly Y generations were admirers of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. What reasons motivated you to get involved in the Slavic studies? What mostly encouraged: family, high school teachers, friends or books and so on?
I can’t remember what letter they attribute to my generation. Is it X? (And don’t ask me what that “X” is supposed to stand for!) But I was born under Nixon and Brezhnev - and in Sweden during the final year of the old Swedish constitution of 1809. So you are absolutely right that my choice of Russian - indeed even the option to study Russian was conditioned by the time. I grew up in mid-sized city of Karlstad in Western Sweden, and happened to attend the only high school in the county that offered Russian. At least in theory. No Russian had been taught since 1979, in the late zastoia. The invasion of Afghanistan, the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and the 1981 U137 (or S-363) “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident in Karlskrona are among my first political memories. To put it mildly, the Soviet Union was not particularly popular in Sweden at the time. I remembered Brezhev’s eye brows, the pale Andropov and the wheezing Chernenko. I suppose, they were the epitome on un-cool. At the same time, this world was fascinating; remember my grandmother, who was an avid crossword connoisseur, got the question in one of her crosswords: “Live in Estonia. Five letters. “Bor i Estland.” “Ester!” (“Estonians!”) She cried out. (Which is also a name, of course.) I must have been eight or nine. “Grandma, what sort of country is that?” I asked, dumbfounded. I knew all the flags and capitals in Europe, I thought. And suddenly I learned about something I had never known. “Well, there was such a country when I was young,” grandma said. “Was? What happened to it? A country cannot just disappear?” I objected. “Well, there was such a country,” she insisted. “Then the Russians took it. It no longer exists.” I was totally perplexed. For my eyes I envisioned something like an Atlantis or Pompeji or what not, which I had read about and watched documentaries about on TV. We looked it up in her old encyclopedia in the living room. Sure enough. Reval, Pärnau, Dorpat, Narva. (Today Tallinn, Pärnu, Tatru) And Ormsö. (Today: Vorsmi) There even used to be Swedes living there. Ilon Wikland, who drew the illustrations for my favourite Astrid Lindgren books, was from Hapsal (Haapsalu). “And there was two more countries that the Russians took. Latvia and Lithuania.” Now, I really thought grandma was pulling my leg. Estonia (Estland) and Latvia (Lettland) were plausible names, but “Litauen” (Lithuania)? Did not even sound like a real country. And the flag in the old encyclopedia looked African! To me, this was a new world! How come I’ve never heard of this before? I did English and German in school - what they call “A” and “B” languages. If you did German as your “B” language in junior high, the common choice was then French as your “C” language, in high school. I was offered to learn Russian. If we only managed to get a group of nine the school was obliged to offer it for three years. We were nine – though three soon dropped out. But we did Russian for three years. Along with Political Science, German, and History it was my favourite subject. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the Warsaw Pact on its last leg, the GDR had adopted the D-Mark. Very interesting discussions on the Stalinist past took place. I read all that I could. Wanted to become a high school teacher of history, political science, Russian and German. After graduating from high school I moved to Uppsala, which had the best Slavic department, and offered not only Russian, but also Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Croat, Bosnian and Bulgarian. I did my undergraduate degree in Russian language and literature, with a minor in Ukrainian and Serbian. Then I wrote my MA thesis, on Yeltsins’ doing away with the constitution and his violent dispersal of the parliament in 1993, for which I did my research in Moscow in 1994 and 1995. I later did my teaching credentials, in Russian, history and political science. Then a second MA, in East European Jewish history, this already at San Diego State University in California - which had a strong Jewish studies program. I was fascinated by Ashkenazi culture, in particular Soviet Jewry, and Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the early Soviet era. I was baffled by the “black hole” – the absence of scholarship on these borderlands, in particular on Belarus. In the late 1990s there was literally a handful of books on Belarus in English. The standard work was from 1956. One, or possibly two specialists had made Belarus a primary focus of their research - and then the late Soviet period. There was virtually nothing. To me, this was the most fascinating corner of Europe; the meeting of Eastern and Western Christianity, the scene of geopolitical clashes between Poland, Sweden, Germany, and Russia. The heartland of Ashkenazi high culture, of the Misnagdim. And, tragically, ground zero of the Holocaust. A topic which similarly received minimal attention in these areas. (This was before Jedwabne, Yushchenko’s histrionics.) Perhaps a little bit an echo of that eye opener over my grandma’s crossword in the early 1980s - why does not one write about this? Why is this assigned to a historiographical black hole? So I decided to write about this myself. When offered a dissertation fellowship from the Department of the History and Classics at the University of Alberta I moved to the Canadian prairies and wrote my dissertation under the supervision of David Marples at the University of Alberta, with John-Paul Himka and Timothy Snyder as the external on my committee. To me, the most beautiful languages remain Russian, Norwegian, and Italian, in that order.
As the university professor you teach future researchers. What could you say about their motivation? What is common among young and older academics and what differs the “startupers” from your generation?
There is a paradox here, in that on the one hand, the world is so much more interconnected and open now than only during my time as an undergraduate. We still needed visas to Estonia in 1997, and to Ukraine until 2005. Flights were almost too expensive - I went by ferry and train to Moscow, and stood in line at the Estonian consulate to get a transit visa. Now (or at least before the pandemic!) You can fly from Malmö to Wroclaw for € 5 - I actually paid more for the bus out to the airport. There was no internet when I did my research in the early 1990s. I got my tickets via Intourist, picking up the Telexed documents at a travel agency. Saved my work on floppy disks, Word 3.1. My first papers I even wrote on an electronic type writer. Now, everything is accessible. I follow the Belarusian protests live via Telegram. At the same time, in Lund they have done away with all the Slavic languages, save Russian. Even Polish is gone. I.e. you fly there for the price of a lunch, you hear Polish every day in the store and on any construction site, but the language is no longer offered, and our students no longer learn foreign languages. We have perfectly intelligent, refined and sophisticated doctoral candidates writing their theses about media discourses in Hungary or Gomulka’s “anti-Zionist” campaign of 1967 - without reading knowledge of Hungarian and Polish. My 20-year something students speak English when they are in Copenhagen, some 40 km away from Lund. There are often sarcastic jokes if I assign a reading in Danish or Norwegian. “What if we don’t understand Danish? Giggle.” This is a world away from my generation, only 25-30 years away. Swedish relates to Danish and Norwegian roughly as Czech does to Slovak or Russian to Belarusian and Ukrainian. Effectively, there is a trilingualism in place in Scandinavia. Or was, it sometimes feels. To my generation, if a Dane answers you in English, I almost take it as a snub. To the twenty-something, that’s often the norm. I suppose it would be like a Russian speaker being answered in English by a Belarusian-speaker in Hrodna, or a Ukrainian-speaker in Zhytomyr. Some may think of this as “internationalization” - to me, doctoral students who work on European history without German, is the opposite - it is parochialization and glubokaia derevnia. That said, I still have many excellent and brilliant students. But the student body is much more diverse today; the background knowledge is generally more shallow, and much of what I regarded as common knowledge as a university student, regretfully, no longer is. But of course, the “western" world is diverse. My students in Singapore, where I taught 2015-2019, where significantly more dedicated and generally take their studies incomparably more seriously than many students in Sweden, Canada, or Austria. Paradoxically, my undergraduates at the National University of Singapore generally had a better background knowledge of Napoleon, Bismarck, Churchill and Stalin than do their Scandinavian counterparts.
During the Cold War the American government invested a lot in the studies of language and culture of its potential adversary, I mean the Soviet Union. The positive side-effect of the “Russian threat” was a fast growth of the East European and Slavic studies where a few thousand scholars were involved. Now we can see a kind of repetition of the Cold War. How do you think that politics affects the Slavic studies?
I belong to a generation which grew without much sense of a “Russian threat.” Gorbachev, by and large, appeared sensible to me. I spent over two years in the 1990s in Yeltsin’s Russia. To me, it was difficult to perceive the Russian Federation in 1994, 1995, or 1997 or a threat. If there was a threat it was state collapse, corruption, criminality. I wrote my MA thesis on Yeltsin’s coup d’état of 1993. Tanks were opening fire on the parliament. The new Duma was best known though the outrages of Zhirinovskii’s LDPR. During his state visit in Sweden in 1997 the ailing Yeltsin could barely stand on his legs, had difficulties finding the pulpit in the Riksdag. The Russian countryside was in a deplorable state. So I do not belong to that “Cold War” generation. To me, the problem was almost the opposite. I got my first MA degree in 1998, at a time the ruble collapsed. There was disarmament in Sweden and Europe, and little need for Slavists. There were cuts in the funding of Slavic languages. Soviet studies was a field in decline, seeking to reinvent itself, with mixed results. There were few career paths. In Sweden the focus was mostly on the Baltic Sea region, and then, mostly on its immediate Baltic neighbours, in particular Estonia and Latvia. Interest in Ukraine and the other borderlands east of the enlarged EU was limited. I did my Ph.D. in Western Canada for a reason. With the rise of Putin and the Russian aggression against Ukraine, this has changed, but it really is not something that has had more than an indirect impact on me. I have not been directly been doing research on Russia - but of course, the instrumentalization of history, the “double genocide” narration of history and so on, the rehabilitation of Shukheyvch and Bandera in Ukraine - or Lukashenka’s new “national ideology” in Belarus, for instance, have to be seen in the larger context of an assertive Russian Federation which disrespects the sovereignty and violates the borders of its post-Soviet neighbours. But in regards to my own research, this has not impacted the funding for my own research. I was a visiting professor of East European history in Vienna and Oslo, and coordinator of European Studies at the National University of Singapore. The positions and funding were not impacted by the crises of Georgia and Ukraine. In fact, at NUS I was teaching mostly German, Polish, Austrian, and Ottoman history, not least 19th century history. My research hardly had nothing to do with Russia - though I did work on Ukrainian nationalism - but then of the 1930s and 40s. But yes, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine the field was sharply polarised, and intensely politicised. The pressure was strong that those of us working on Ukraine actively should take the side of the “Maidaners” and protest Russia more vociferously. I did see – and do see – my role as trying to understand, provide tools and background for my readers and students to themselves form their opinions and rather help them contextualise and understand. My work on the Holocaust in Ukraine was never popular with the Ukrainian diaspora, and neither was critical inquiry on its instrumentalization of history. A number of collegial relations were severed, but not so much friendships. I never identified with, or felt part of the Ukrainian studies community. But I had some colleagues who did, and who were ostracised and had long friendships severed. But my work straddles Ukrainian, Polish, Belarusian and Jewish studies. I have good relations to my Polish colleagues, and always felt welcomed and included in the Belarusian and Jewish communities. I suppose it is easier, if you, like me, are an outsider with no family ties to either group, and little interest in identify politics of either of these groups - other than as an object of inquiry. I wish I could say that a “renewed” Cold War would have had more repercussions in terms of increased funding and resources. I am very happy and privileged to be most generously funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg foundation. They allow me to hire a doctoral student and post-docs, and to pursue my own research interests. But this funding is in the field of the humanities, KAW a private fund - though Lund University is generously matching their grant - so, other than, possibly indirectly, there is no “new Cold War” connection to my current research project. And it focuses on Ukrainian émigrés in the Cold War and their political use of history. The post-1991 Russian Federation plays a rather minor, and indirect role for my current research.
In many cases history politics distorts history studies in order to achieve pragmatic goals of governments. But there is a rare and perhaps unique case of the current memory wars between Russia and its European bordering states, when the Russian propaganda is based on archival documents. Glorifying the Nazis collaborators the Baltic States and Ukraine authorities voluntarily play into the hands of Russia. In that controversial situation many of the academic researchers of East European nationalistic Nazis collaborators, are blamed by local and diaspora nationalists as Putin’s agents. How can the international academic community cope with that ideological pressure which creates an obvious threat to independent research?
That is a very good question. I suppose one result of this is that many scholars desist from writing on these matters. It is a minefield – and often simply tiring. On the other hand, if you have a permanent position at a university in a country without history laws or regulations labelling scholars as “foreign agents” the historian has a duty to make use of that precious freedom. The list of historians facing different forms of pressure and censorship is long - in Russia the persecution of Iuryi Dmitriev, in Poland the process against Jan Grabowski and Laura Engelking. In Lithuania the pressure on Ruta Vanagaite, in Hungary the situation faced by Central European University. In Ukraine memory laws like 2538-1 which aim at policing memory and setting up constraints for what is permissible to say and write - and what is not. The experience of having worked and taught in an illiberal state with serious restrictions on freedom of speech has taught me not to take these freedoms for granted. One problem with many of these memory laws - the Ukrainian law 2538-1 is not limited to Ukrainians working in Ukraine, but is explicitly designated to apply to citizens of all countries. The Ukrainian case is the one I know the best. Books by Anthony Beevor and Swedish writer Anders Rydell have been banned there, after “expert advice” from a media committee led by the head of the Melnyk wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. A couple of weeks ago, OUN(b) activists from Canada again wrote my university chancellor and the Swedish government, alleging that I - and, by extension, my employer, Lund University, be involved in "hybrid warfare,” “defamation” of Ukrainians, even “hate speech” that has put Ukrainians in Canada in harm’s way, by stirring up hatred that would endanger lives of Ukrainian nationalists in Canada. The latter following a rather bizarre case in which a tax-funded memorial to Roman Shukhvych in Edmonton was vandalised. A cenotaph to the veterans of the 14th Galician Waffen-SS division in Oakville, Ontario was similarly defaced by graffiti, with the text “Nazi monument.” The League of Ukrainian Canadians, a front organization of the Canadian Banderites, holds my peer reviewed research publications and myself personally responsible for this. I would imagine this interview, by a Russian colleague would all but confirm these radicals’ conviction of me being a “foreign agent.” But I am aware that I am privileged. This is not 1937, and compared to colleagues in Belarus and Russia I am very fortunate. To me, this organised attempt at character assassination is mostly a nuisance. I suppose the best way of dealing with it is by treating it as an object of inquiry. Which is what I am doing. It also confirms history and the humanities matter. I regard it as a case for reaffirming the commitment to freedom of inquiry - and calling for the revocation of memory laws everywhere. It is a sobering thought that the concept of “memory laws” was originally a West European invention. France went first, banning Holocaust denial in 1990. Germany followed suit only in 1994, with Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and a whole row of countries following suit. France then went ahead and banned denial of the Armenian genocide. So Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians, and what not merely expanded on a trend started, ironically, by the “old” EU-15. Only a week ago, the Swedish minister of the interior announced his intention to introduce a similar law in Sweden, banning Holocaust denial. Nevertheless, only days later, after president Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, the Swedish foreign minister refuse to use the term genocide to describe what happened to the Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Pontic Greeks in 1915 as genocide. Letting historians work on these matters, and giving academics freedom of inquiry, free from memory laws, would, in my opinion, be much preferred. Unfortunately, there is, in many countries an increasing gulf between what historians know - and what politicians and their memory agencies would want people to believe.
The editorial board secretary of our journal Elena Kachanova lives in Sweden and said that the recently released book of Henrik Berggren “Landet utanför. Sverige och kriget” (The country outside. Sweden and the war) has a big resonance in your country. If you have read it, could you tell us about that book? Maybe it changed somehow your perspective regarding Sweden involvement in the Second World War?
I have the book - or rather the first volume of it. I have not had a chance to read more than sections of it. Henrik Berggren is one of our better historians, and I am looking forward to read it. I am reluctant to comment on a book I have only skimmed through. My understanding is that there is not so much that is new, per se, other, perhaps than its holistic perspective. Sweden had a very ambiguous attitude and relation to the Axis powers, very much determined by what the authorities thought would be the outcome of the war.
And the last question is what your academic plans are?
For 2019-2024 I am Wallenberg Academy Fellow, funded by Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. This generous funding has allowed me to hire a fully funded Ph.D. student, and will facilitate hiring two or more postdoctoral fellows working on my project on memory, migration, and history production. My own research is centered on the Ukrainian Canadian nationalist community, in particular the followers of the largest nationalist emigre political group, the far-right Bandera wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Tens of thousands of its activists arrived in North America from 1948. They came to have a particular influence on Canada, where they infiltrated and increasingly took over Ukrainian community organizations. Following the introduction of official, normative multiculturalism in 1971, significant amounts of money were transferred to their organizations, and they have come to have a significant influence on Canadian foreign policy in regards to Ukraine. I am particularly interested in their memory culture, centered on what a colleague refers to as the “Holodomor”-OUN-UPA narration of Ukrainian history. That is, a narration centered on the centered on the claim that the defining feature of modern Ukrainian history was a Muscovite-engineered genocide of the Ukrainian nation, in which at least seven, or ten million Ukrainians were exterminated in the Ukrainian SSR – and on a heroic narration of the OUN(b) and UPA’s heroic resistance fight against the “eternal enemies” of the Ukrainian people. I am particularly interested in the competitive victimisation narrative and the silence on the OUN and UPA’s involvement in the Holocaust and the 1943 Volhynian massacres. And yes, how this narrative was re-exported to Ukraine proper. And how the absence of a proper Aufarbeitung - to use a German term - has opened for multiple instrumentalization; by Yushchenko and Poroshenko and their legitimising historians, but also been instrumentalized by activists in the Russian Federation, such as Alexander Diukov and others, and come to be invoked to legitimize the Russian invasion. It is a metahistrory - or “metahistoriography” putting the instrumental use of history into a larger context. But also asking questions about normative multiculturalism, emigration and long-distance nationalism. During the duration of this project I hope to be able to get my study of the “decommunisation” and the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, but also my political biography of Mykola Lebed, the war-time acting leader of the OUN(b) finished. Thank you very much for the interview!