Silencing the Shame: Forgetting of the 1920s Syphilis Epidemic in Buryat-Mongolia as a Strategy of Post-Soviet Identity Construction
In the twentieth century the Buryats experienced two major stages of ethnonational revival. The first one reached its heyday in a period from May 1923 to September 1937. The second stage started in the late 1980s. Its characteristic feature was radical reconsideration of the Soviet identity and its replacement with a new ethnopolitical Buryat identity.
Failure of the official Soviet ideology in the late 1980s required urgent creation of new flexible forms of ideological content capable of mobilizing ethnicity by bringing Buryat communities together in a broad national revival project. Ethno-ideology was expressed in a colorful narrative with powerful imagery and broad historical associations serving as symbolic markers of ethnic and cultural collective memory. This narrative, often referred to as ‘ethnonational discourse’, was to a large extent a product of contemporary mythmaking. In this process past historical events, characters, phenomena of traditional culture, spirituality and ancient mythology were picked up, cleansed of unnecessary (or undesired) details, modified to fit the context of modernity and used as mobilizing frames for the Buryat ethnonational revival. Where possible invented traditions tended to establish an unbreakable connection with the convenient historical past.
The key element here was convenience. Not every historical event, character and phenomenon was selected. Certain moments in the ethnic history of Buryats were deliberately omitted from the ethnonational discourse. Some of them were “inconvenient” for the nascent narrative of new ethnic history since they evoked uncomfortable feelings of shame and confusion. On the other hand, their interpretation could lead to conclusions, contradictory to some recently actualized myths and therefore were detrimental for the ethnonational mobilizing frames.
This study seeks to make sense of a vivid manifestation of forgetting in the context of the post-Soviet Buryat ethnonational revival. The case study is forgetting of syphilis in Buryat-Mongolia in the 1920s. On the eve of Buryat nation-building it was a big problem that required coordinated efforts of medical, educational and executive Soviet authorities. Eventually syphilis was eradicated. However, surprisingly quickly this problem went into oblivion and, if in the 1920s it received significant attention of mass media, academics and communist functionaries, after 1930 it was almost totally silenced down. In the 1980s-1990s when the Buryat ethnonational discourse was formed this problem was carefully avoided. Slight references to it appeared in press in a context that was offensive to Buryat nationals and, thus, received angry comments by the ideologues of Buryat national revival. However, no objective interpretation of this problem ensued.
This selective use of facts in the context of the post-Soviet Buryat ethnonational discourse fits well into a conceptual framework of forgetting as a conscious, adaptive, and functional strategy. It is often used by individuals and groups to create coherent and convenient environment in which real memories, edited memories and invented traditions peacefully coexist to serve various purposes, including the development of ethnic awareness and ethnic mobilization. The concept belongs to Paul Connerton who singled out seven types of forgetting, each serving certain purposes and manifesting itself under various conditions.