In May of 2019, I was in Berlin to attend the European History Forum – ‘30 years after 1989: Freedom from What? Freedom to do What?’ The forum centered around the legacy of authoritarianism in Eastern and Southeastern Europe and how “1989” is interpreted today.
As a winner of the ‘1989: History Competition’ announced by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Tbilisi office, I had an opportunity to meet other young scholars and, alongside them, reflect on the history of Eastern European countries, listen to their assessments, as well as discuss the related historiographic challenges, thirty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
My research focused on the protest rallies that took place on April 9, 1989. Today in Georgia, on the 30th anniversary of the 9th of April, many associate this day with the restoration of Georgia’s independence. In fact, it is undeniable that the sequence of the events that transpired that day, coupled with all the other circumstances unfolding in 1989, created the preconditions for the restoration of Georgia’s independence.
As such, my quest was to find out how and when the 9th of April began. The work I carried out with the assistance of a small research grant, showed me that the 9th of April had several beginnings, which included the March 1956 protest against Stalin’s cult, the 1978 campaign to protect of the Georgian language, as well as the dissident movements of the 1980s.
Moreover, after delivering a speech at the European History Forum, I sought to answer two important additional questions: How Georgian history is understood in the broader context of world history and how world history interprets and reads the events happening in Georgia.
Sources play a vital role when we speak about history. Consequently, archival issue played an important part in the discussions that took place at the European Forum. It was mentioned how problematic it is to work with closed archives. However, not every country faces this constraint. For example, a participant from the Czech Republic informed us that closed archives are not an issue in the Czech Republic.
The well documented repressions of the Soviet Union and the publicity of the archival materials associated with it, were also among the topics discussed at the forum. We used Germany as a case study. Ana Lolua, a student, currently living in Germany, attempted to explain why the case of the Soviet Union differs from that of Germany. There is an expectation that one can discover the records of one’s own family members or their ancestors in KGB archives. This was not specifically articulated. However, one could read between the lines: the overall attitude was that “not enough time passed”.
After attending these discussions, my personal opinion is that it is crucially important to begin open and public discussions, before we actually achieve our aims and open the closed archives. It requires nuanced prior considerations. For example: How we are going to do it? What are we going to do with the materials? Who will be in charge of the work on the archives? How should the data be used? Why do we want to open an archives? What are the risks and how are we going to reduce them?
Before the opening of the forum I was very excited. I was questioning myself asking: “Am I a representative of Georgia or a representative from Georgia?” At the end of the meeting, this question was no longer important.