Healing War Trauma in Ukraine
29 July, 2018

Can an entire society be traumatized? According to Professor Cathy Caruth of Cornell University – whose research focuses on the languages of trauma and testimony – the answer is yes. But what does this mean for countries like Ukraine? 

Historical events such as the Holodomor and Holocaust are just two examples of what Caruth describes as events that are traumatic in part because they have been denied.

Hromadske talked to Caruth about the consequences of war trauma on a society.

Reading your book and when there were discussions about the Holocaust or war specifically, is it possible for a whole society to be traumatized? What does it mean to deal with that? I'm speaking of course as a Ukrainian in a society, which lived through a revolution that was very unexpected, and a war which we've never experienced in the last 50 years.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko

So you're asking whether it's possible for an entire society to be traumatized? I think yes, it is quite possible, and in fact likely, that when there are major collective events, especially events like the Holodomor, that was aimed at Ukrainians in general and not just some Ukrainians, but were really aiming at undermining the nation as a nation, as I understand it. Or the Holocaust, which was aimed at the Jews, or even things like incest or rape which seem individual but we could argue are aimed more largely at undermining women, that there is an effect that takes places not only for the people that went through it but for the society as a whole because you almost inevitably, especially in genocides, what is part of what makes them traumatic is not only the suffering, killing, dying, starving, but also the denial that surrounds it. So, in the Holocaust, the world for a large time, denied it. Many still do. From what I read, the Holodomor, Stalin, the Soviet Union denied it, and even recently, politically, when people try to make friends with Russia, they try to downplay the genocidal aspects of the Holodomor.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko

So what happens is that you get a society in which some people are suffering from trauma, which is in part created by the situation of denial. And the analysts, Francoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudilliere, [they are] are two French analysts who work on history, madness, and trauma. And they talk about societies that could be created around denial, perverse societies of denial. So it's very important to see the collective dimension of these events and to try and bring them out into the light and talk about them.

What are the indicators? If the society is in this situation, then somehow you need to admit that. Somehow, you need to talk about that. So what could be the indicators, what could be the next steps? Especially, there are different things. One thing is that society considers itself as a victim as one type of trauma, the other story is if we understand the society as a country or nation is acting not in the best way. So what are those indicators?

I think it's always a matter of each case and each interpretation. There is never one simple set of symptoms that holds for all people or all countries, it's specific. I give you an example from a woman who runs the Slobo house in Kyiv where there were literary writers who were imprisoned and some of them executed during the Soviet Union. And she said, when I asked her why she was doing this project that she created online to let people know about these writers, who they were and where they lived, she said that her mother had always been very nervous, very afraid of everything, and she felt that something was wrong because her mother seemed to be carrying this fear that had come from the period of the Soviet Union. One indicator for her that there was something to which she and others needed to bear witness was that her parents seemed afraid, they seemed to be timid people. That would be one, perhaps, in this case, that was one example where a woman recognized in her parental generation, the symptom of something like trauma, and she herself decided to bear witness to what they were not able to. So that would be one example, I think.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko

Can we also talk about the history books? Because every country in history is a victim, but now we're living in a different world and we can read the books of the others.

Many people have asked me since I've been here in Ukraine about this question because it's clearly so relevant here. I can take an example from when I was in Moscow where I got the same question by young people who said that Putin was saying that the Soviet Union was a trauma so Russians are victims, and then using that to justify all sorts of things including invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and so on. So it's very dangerous. The reason I think that trauma is a more useful concept than let's say "victim" is that again, trauma is not something I can ever possess. The experience of trauma, the flashbacks, the nightmares, I believe, say to each individual, say to a country, there's something here that you don't understand, you need to work on it, you will never fully possess it, and it is linked to others. It commands listening, and the action it commands is listening. It does not command revenge. The central symptom of trauma is the nightmare that wakes you up. The nightmare that wakes you up says "wake up, listen and see", and I think that's a very different message from "define yourself as a victim and go get revenge," and so I think that trauma calls out for listening to others and addressing others.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk