Heritage claims and heritage rejection: from Irish-British relations to Ukrainian-Russian relations and back again

[This is a re-blog from David Harvey’s ‘Geographies of Heritage’ site]

I have previously posted a few items on issues of national heritage, and of how heritage becomes a potent weapon in proverbial battles within the Atlantic archipelago – with relations between Ireland and the UK, or the experience of a sense of Scottish nationhood within the polity of the United Kingdom. Indeed, mirroring the Queen’s heritage-heavy visit to Ireland in 2011, the Irish President this week has been visiting London with both ‘sides’ keen to construct and support a singular heritage narrative that emphasises a cordial partnership between a diversity of flavours, amid a broader sense of common inheritance. With more dissonant overtones, this summer will also see the commemoration of the Battle of Bannockburn as a centre-point of claims to a Scottish heritage that is distinct from and perhaps antagonistic to a sense of Britishness. But this is a ‘heritage battle’ in which no shots will be fired, and no-one will get hurt.

In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, recent weeks have witnessed an altogether more serious and troubling confrontation over issues of heritage; between Russia and Ukraine. These recent experiences can be related to heritage issues on two levels. Firstly, these events have displayed the very real contemporary power of purposefully conjured and deployed heritage images: from the calculated use of notions of the Peoples’ will and democratic mandates for political circumstance, to the conscious use of terms regarding fascists, and revolutionaries. Heritage provides a deep rhetorical resource that has tremendous affective power. Secondly, however, the Post-Soviet heritage experience has long provided fertile ground for such metaphorical and increasingly real conflicts.

One of the key elements of Post-Soviet experience over the last 25 years has been the rise of seemingly cut-and-dried senses of nationhood. Indeed, a sense of national identity has long been one of the key axes through which change in the 1980s and 1990s was prompted and occurred – arguably, it was a crucial element in the break-up of the old system and the expansion of social freedoms. But this also left a residue in the form of heritage being seen as easily categorise-able into supposedly stable and homogenous national units. In trying to account for and manage the numerous elements of Second World War and Soviet-era sites and artefacts that litter the region, many heritage resources in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe have been categorised – implicitly or explicitly – as heritage that is not ours: German cemeteries, Cold War era bunkers, Soviet buildings and institutions. Whether military installations or collective farm buildings, this has become a category that is specifically not of the nation state in which they are located, be it Estonia, Moldova or in the Crimea.

Such a narrative places the nation at the heart of all heritages and as the key axis of identity that all citizens should recognise as their primary loyalty. On the face of it, the question of what we should do with these items of Soviet heritage – a heritage that is not ours – seems fair: another group of people left it here and we don’t want it. But there are pitfalls. Should Scotland deny its Norse heritage on the basis that it represents a group of raiders that we would rather forget? Should Britain deny its Neolithic heritage on the basis that the builders of Stonehenge would not have known the words to the national anthem? The temporal proximity, specific power relations and rawness of feeling of the events in Eastern Europe gives a different quality to the issue in comparison with the Neolithic in Britain, but there is still a lesson to be learnt, in terms of how heritage is categorised and claimed – or specifically not claimed.

The process of delineating a category of heritage that ‘is not ours’ seems to invoke heritage as something to be rejected. One could argue, however, that the act of rejecting the heritage as specifically ‘not ours’ is actually a powerful means through which to claim it as being most definitely ours: ours to interpret and present in a certain manner – through a process of rejection. And of course, the act of rejecting heritage tacitly invites another group to claim ownership. Indeed, the act of rejection – whether of physical artefacts and buildings, or languages, practices and customs – arguably paves the ground that legitimises a set of practical ‘rescue’ procedures by whoever is making this claim of ownership. They perhaps may even send in a gang of hooded militia-men to undertake this rescue operation.

It has taken the best part of a century for the Irish and UK Governments to agree on a common ‘heritage message’, and many thousands of people have died in the process. As the Irish President Michael D Higgins put it, during a speech in Westminster on the 8th April 2014: “[A]s both our islands enter periods of important centenaries we …. must reflect on the ethical importance of respecting different but deeply interwoven narratives. Such reflection will offer us an opportunity to craft a bright future on the …. common ground we share and where we differ … to have respectful empathy for each other”. President Higgins was referring to the on-going and up-coming Centenaries of the First World War and the Dublin Easter Uprising, both of which have often been used to cement the building of boundaries in the intervening 100 years. Rather than laying the foundations for yet more walls and boundaries, let us hope that heritage might be used in a more creative and peaceful means for the sake of people in Eastern Europe.