People’s sense of history differs. Aside from being a tall order, trying, of late, to write up some of my thoughts about Ireland in the era of the Second World War throws up a couple of different perspectives. First, the fact that this is not a research speciality of mine and, therefore, whatever I “come up with” will, no doubt, be more akin to review essay material. Second, what on earth is my actual sense of the Second World War in the first place?
A question like that brings to mind an old frequently occurring thought: the difference between a) those for whom history is an endless source of fascinating questions and b) those for whom history is a memorable record of chronological events. I tend to fit into the former category. Why exactly, I am not sure. But the idea of history being an endless narrative of wars provides a mental clue.
My late father was one of those individuals who could probably recite a chronology of the names of all Popes and English kings in history. He read many history books, but was more interested in reading a chronological description of events like the Second World War than he was in analysis, which he found tiresome. My mind tends to work in the opposite direction. Narratives of wars and battles are to me like quintessential boring TV documentaries or the immediate mental turn off of seeing yet another war movie on TV with men strutting about the place in black uniforms and coloured armbands. The problem with my type of outlook, however, is if someone asked me what I thought of the siege of Leningrad, I might actually have to stop and think, as if trying to remind myself, what actually was the siege of Leningrad? It is shocking to think that, right now, I can’t remember any real details or context, even though I was actually “on the spot”, so to speak, with my father, on a brief holiday back in the late 1990s.
The open-air monument and underground museum is an incredibly impressive site, but my memory of the visit is this: my father walked around every square inch of the museum, reading every detail on every plaque on every wall, while I walked around the place in a complete daze, reading nothing and seeing nothing, feeling like I was in one of those 1950s Ray Harryhausen movies where giant statues come alive and the human ants start running away, screaming in all directions, with some inevitably getting crushed under the statue’s feet in the process. The sheer scale of the place I was standing in was all I could think about, thinking with my senses rather than my brain, making it impossible for me to read, and possibly still wondering why the proportions of a photo I had recently taken had come out in equally confusing proportions.
My dad walked away from the museum feeling that he learnt some new interesting details. I walked away from the museum with my head full of impressionable or incoherent nonsense, even though it was I who had recently done a history degree, including sitting through a seminar conducted by a medieval history lecturer who played us excerpts of Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony in order to give us a sense of what “war and society” is all about. I had heard it before (my parents were fans of the music), but all I could think about on hearing the symphony again in class was that it involved no mental association for me with a perpetually repeating snapshot of what Soviet Russia “was all about” in my mind: the end scene of The Mother (1926), where a rebel flag turns red in a black-and-white film as the mother gets cut down by soldiers on horseback, carrying sabres, as she stands alone, on a bridge, at the tail end of the 1905 rebellion. More impressionable nonsense, perhaps, no better and no worse than all those quintessential TV history documentaries or films, where the presentation indicates that if no cannons are being fired, nothing interesting in history really happens.
And what do Russians themselves think of all these things? Should we ask Sting? (!) Well, I remember, years later, talking (as in internet message-boarding) with a Russian jazz guitar player from Saint Petersburg about, well, music and “vibes” mainly…but I also mentioned about my brief trip to Saint Petersburg and my memory of the siege monument and museum, and his response was: “yes, that commemorates what was really a great war”. That comment gave me a mental flashback to standing on the square ten years previously and what sense I had of the place, and it strangely seemed to fit. A monument and museum to 900 days of suffering and hunger and hardship exists, almost like an Irish famine monument, but the first and last impression I was left with, standing in the spot, was a militaristic one, represented by the two fifty-foot or more soldiers standing under that gigantic pillar, as if representing, first and foremost, a great military victory rather than the end of a siege. Sometimes lasting impressions, even if they are at first incoherent, can later help us fill out a picture.