A reflection on Professor Gerber’s Lecture “Divided Historical Memory among Youth in Estonia: Sources of Ideational Cleavage.”

On February 21, Professor of Sociology Theodore P. Gerber (University of Wisconsin-Madison) gave a lecture titled “Divided Historical Memory among Youth in Estonia: Sources of Ideational Cleavage.”  He explored how and why recollections of World War II and the Soviet period in Estonia are understood and interpreted  differently.  Professor Gerber undertook a unique method to study historical memory through the application of latent class modeling.  This method surveyed data taken from Estonians and Russians in both nation-states.  His objective was to develop an understanding of the factors that determine conceptions of Estonia’s past.

For Gerber the past is “important in a post-conflict” setting  because it helps determine “accountability,” and to establish a sense of agreement about events that have transpired.  The concept of historical memory is especially relevant to a country like Estonia where issues relating to World War II and the Soviet era created varying conceptions of the past.  Professor Gerber provided some background information on the demographics of Estonia and the important historical events which served as the basis of his study.  Following World War II, Estonia once again became part of the USSR before declaring independence decades later.  Estonia is a country with a large Russian minority population, and many of them are not Estonian citizens due to restrictive naturalization policies of the post-communist period.  This created the potential for a divided memory regarding the Soviet past and what it meant.  His main research questions addressed the structure of historical memory, and how perceptions of the Soviet past related to ethnicity, gender, citizenship, and language knowledge.

Based on the survey data Gerber collected, Estonians were more likely to harbor critical views of the Soviet past.  Estonian Russians who were non-citizens and were lesser educated held a positive view of the Soviet past.  The ones whoEstonian citizenship held views more moderately situated between the polarized viewpoints of  ethnic Estonians and non-citizen Ethnic Russians. This study surprisingly pointed to the conclusion that the differences in socioeconomic status did not have a large impact on the conceptions of historical memory.  Professor Gerber concluded his lecture by stating that issues pertaining to citizenship, ethnicity, and country “shape divisions in historical memory,” and that the methodology used for this study was effective to answer his research questions.

Prof. Gerber with Prof. Zsuzsa Gille (Sociology, University of Illinois)

Prof. Gerber with Prof. Zsuzsa Gille (Sociology, University of Illinois)

As someone with a strong interest in post-communist life in Eastern Europe and Russia, attending this lecture was profoundly insightful.  Above all, Professor Gerber’s highlighted for me how varied and complicated conceptions of the past can be.  Additionally, I have a new found understanding of the importance of studying historical memory in order to truly grasp the complexities of a society.

Ryan Eavenson is a first year MA student.  He is particularly interested in democratization, human rights, and European integration in the post-Soviet world.  His additional interests include Imperial and Soviet Russian history.  He received a AB in History/Russian and East European Studies from Lafayette College in 2010.  After completion of his MA, he hopes to find employment focusing on international affairs or continue his education.

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