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PhD: Russia's Nationalist Mobilisation of the Holocaust on Screen: Sobibór

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The Wiener Library

29 Russell Square

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WC1B 5DP

United Kingdom

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PhD and a Cup of Tea: Russia's Nationalist Mobilisation of the Holocaust on the Screen: 'Sobibór' (2018)

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Until recently, neither the Soviet Union nor an independent Russia sought to highlight the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a phenomenon. For a long time, it had very little visibility; when acknowledged, it was ultimately subsumed within a wider nationalist narrative of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, and the specificity of Jewish suffering was not emphasised. Yet since 2012, this has changed, not as a result of Holocaust memory activism from below, but rather in order to complement the needs of the most recent presidency. Since Vladimir Putin's return to power in 2012, for the first time the Russian Federation has started to develop a specific Holocaust memory which emphasises Soviet heroism, the fascist leaning of former republics, and contemporary Russia’s supposedly tolerant, multicultural society in which the most painful periods of history are confronted.

This presentation addresses one of the most recent developments in this nationalisation of Holocaust memory in the Russian Federation, through an examination of Konstantin Khabensky’s 2018 film Sobibór and its engagement with the theme of Soviet heroism. It argues that the film should be considered a product of state-directed culture, both created and financed by the Russian state, and that it employs the Holocaust story in an attempt to vilify Poland, the latest development in hostile Russo-Polish relations since the Smolensk plane crash in 2010 and the Polish decision to support the Ukraine following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. The narrative of the film relates to Putin’s broader nationalist narratives by highlighting the role played by its predecessor, the Soviet Union, in saving Europe from the so-called yoke of fascism. This tactic has been employed by the Russian state as part of a broader move to establish the idea of a distinct Eurasian civilisational space with different values to the West, and note Russian strength as a Eurasian superpower, thereby defending its claim to rewriting history and restoring its international legitimacy post-Crimea.

(Photo of director, Konstantin Khabensky, who also plays the lead role of Soviet Jewish Prisoner of War and leader of the Sobibór revolt, Alexander Pechersky).

About the speaker:

Issy Sawkins is a second-year PhD student at the University of Exeter and University of Aberystwyth, where her research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (South, West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership). Her PhD investigates the contemporary instrumentalisation of Holocaust memory in the Russian Federation and explores how the Holocaust has become a far more explicitly politically instrumentalised memory, represented primarily in those spaces – namely museums, film, political speeches, whether in Russia or outside – where production has been closely controlled by the Russian state. She has tested her research’s preliminary findings at national and international conferences, co-founded the South West Holocaust network for PhD students, and has written for the BAHS Blog, the Wiener Library Blog, and the University of Exeter Centre for Imperial and Global History Blog. Issy is also co-editor of the University of Exeter’s Journal, Ex-Historia. Issy has just finished a placement at the Summer Research Laboratory at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Centre at the University of Illinois, and in October will be moving to Kraków for two months of language training and fieldwork.

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Date and Time

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The Wiener Library

29 Russell Square

London

WC1B 5DP

United Kingdom

View Map

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