Memory is a great gift but, in some ways, it can also be a burden.
For millennia memory has helped our species avoid danger from wild animals, poisonous plants, starvation, and other types of deadly and sophisticated enemies. Memory has helped our species travel by land and water to visit seasonal hunting grounds or places to gather food or to discover and colonize continents. Interpersonal connections and cultural memory have allowed for the development of societies. The use of tools, the development of the idea of numbers and how to use them, of language, writing, culture and religion, agriculture, medicine, and all the resulting benefits that we hold dear, but take for granted, are dependent on memory. Memory has kept alive family connections but also cultural feuds that have caused individual pain and great national and international chaos. In our present time, it is a potential device to initiate and legitimize international war, which could destroy modern life and survival in the northern hemisphere of our planet.
Memories of family history often include both the joy of new family events and pride in achievement but also the sadness of loss and in some cases, the actual danger or disappointment by association with past crimes of which we may know nothing. Family history and memories may also shadow or pressure following generations in ways that impede and restrict their life choices. Memory is always with us. It gives us the impetus to achieve great things and to make discoveries.
Always, however, memory reminds us on a personal or national level of unfinished “business,” regret for what might have been, the annoying challenge of “If only.” For some, it is a reminder of a so-called glorious past, unappreciated by modern generations. This loss of power or reputation may be interpreted today by some leaders as a challenge to revive that former status. To others, who are constantly looking forward, who have little regard for history, former glory and power may seem irrelevant in today’s world.
Memory is personal. Even though many people may experience the same historical period or events, their memories and accounts of the time or happenings will differ according to their citizenship, their position in society, and how the event impacted them personally. We, who were not physically present, can only learn about a historic period or event through extensive research. As a child, I always wanted to Time Travel. Not to the future or Outer Space as kids do today, but to the past. I wanted to know what historic events were like and how people lived from day to day, how their world differed from mine.
We remember events through the lenses of our own lives and the accounts of individuals who lived through them. There is a great difference between a memoir and a factual historic account of the same period which usually depends on many different sources of input. One format helps the other to put a broader perspective on the time and the events. Examples might include retrospective official war memoirs compared with the letters between soldiers in action and their families and friends at home. Or on a different level, how Charles Darwin’s description of the voyage of the ship, Beagle, to the Galapagos Islands might differ from that of a sailor on the same voyage. I think of the potential messages between the soldiers fighting today on the ground in the cities of Ukraine and those of their wives with children and elderly relatives sheltering with strangers in surrounding countries. Many differing memories of a major event all add to a more complete picture of what happened.
Some pundits have speculated that one reason for the Russian attack on Ukraine is a desire by Vladimir Putin to restore the Great Russian Empire of 1791-1917; a kind of violent political reshuffling of an enormous landmass that today occupies 6.6 million square miles. In the heyday of that Empire, its landmass was 8.8 million square miles in Europe, Asia, and America (Alaska). We know from accounts from the times of Peter the Great, Tsarina Catherine, and others who followed after, and the writings of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky that Russian society was very deeply separated into the nobility and the serfs, with no significant middle class in between. The nobility was highly sophisticated and wealthy as demonstrated by the remaining stunning palaces, churches, estates of former nobility, jewelry, and other artifacts. French and German, as well as Russian, were spoken at the Court. No doubt a serf of those times, with no access to formal education and no chance to move up a ladder of success, would have had very different memories of life in the Great Russian Empire than an aristocrat.
The idea of such a restoration in the modern world seems beyond comprehension and for what purpose? The human ego knows no bounds! Modern life on Planet Earth has little time to waste or interest in great empires in the old style. Feeding, housing, and caring for the ever-expanding modern populations and for the planet itself are challenging enough.
Memory is a very important gift. Through it, we know how far we have come as a species, as individuals and nations, but we also know the challenges that lie ahead for our planet and our species. Cooperation, not Empire building should be the goal.
Isobel P. Swartz is an archivist at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.