James V. Wertsch introduced the concept of schematic narrative template in his book Voices of Collective Remembering published twenty years ago. The book provides a thorough theoretical discussion on collective remembering and an account of the continuities and discontinuities between the Soviet and post-Soviet collective memory in Russia. In this blog post, I focus on Wertsch’s notion of schematic narrative template and his illustrative example of the triumph-over-alien-forces narrative template that he uses to explain continuities in the Russians’ collective memory through the disintegration of the Soviet Union. By utilizing this template, I also analyze and assess the denazification narrative that Vladimir Putin has used in his attempts to legitimate Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Collective Memory and Collective Remembering
Collective memory is an ambiguous term that is used in different ways in different disciplines (Hirst & Manier 2008; Olick 1999; Wertsch 2002, chapter 3). I will not attempt to resolve these ambiguities here. Instead, I will rely on Roediger III and Abel’s (2015, 359) characterization of the core meaning of collective memory as “a form of memory that is shared by a group and of central importance to the social identity of the group’s members”. This account distinguishes collective memory from both historical research and idiosyncratic autobiographical memories of individuals.
Wertsch (2002) shares this understanding of collective memory. However, he prefers using the term collective remembering instead of collective memory since he wants to emphasize the dynamical and mediated nature of collective memory. In his view, collective remembering is a process that is distributed across many individuals and their cultural tools. He regards narrative texts about past events as the primary – albeit not the only – cultural tools that mediate collective remembering in literate societies. His book focuses on the processes of production and consumption of narrative texts in modern states by using Russia as an exemplary case.
Schematic Narrative Templates
The notion of schematic narrative template plays an important role in Wertsch’s (2002, 60-62) analysis of how modern states produce official national histories through state-controlled schooling and how these official histories are appropriated by citizens who consume these narratives. He describes schematic narrative templates as generalized forms that include abstract types of settings, actors, and events, and suggests that a specific narrative template may “underlie a range of narratives in cultural tradition” (p. 61) that fill in the template in different ways. The idea then is that narrative templates of this kind mediate collective remembering of past events in specific groups. Wertsch (2002, 62) also uses the term “textual community” to describe “imagined communities” (Anderson 1991), such as nations, that are “grounded in the use of a shared set of texts”. He illustrates the notion schematic narrative template by analyzing the history textbooks used in the secondary schools during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods and interviewing people who have consumed these books during their schooling.
The Triumph-Over-Alien-Forces Narrative Template
According to Wertsch’s (2002) analysis of the Russian case, the schematic narrative template of “the triumph-over-alien-forces” affects Russians’ shared understanding of those past events that are considered important for the national history of the country and the social identity of its citizens. This is his depiction of the basic elements of this template:
- An “initial situation” in which the Russian people are living in a peaceful setting where they are no threat to others is disturbed by:
- The initiation of trouble or aggression by an alien force, or agent, which leads to:
- A time of crises and great suffering, which is:
- Overcome by the triumph over the alien force by the Russian people, acting heroically and alone (Wertsch 2002, 156; also 93; cf. Wertsch 2022, 461)
The idea is that the nature of the trouble, aggression, alien force, alien agent, crises, and suffering as well as the ways in which Russian people overcome the trouble or aggression caused by the alien forces may take different forms in different narratives about different episodes in the national history of Russia. Despite its flexibility, the template incorporates a strict distinction between peaceful Russian people (“us”) and hostile alien forces or agents (“them”), which is an instance of the “Manichean consciousness” that allows no neutral parties (Wertsch 2002, 95).
Wertsch (2002, chapter 5) provides an analysis of how this narrative template is instantiated in the history textbooks’ accounts of the Civil War of Russia (1917-1923) and World War II (1939-1945) in the Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. He argues that both the Soviet and post-Soviet history textbooks’ narratives about these two episodes are based on the triumph-over-alien-forces template. In these narratives, Russians are depicted as victims of a threat or offensive by some alien forces or agents whose aggressive actions caused a crisis, forcing Russians to heroically defeat them without any help from others. In the case of WWII—usually termed as “the Great Patriotic War” in the textbooks—the alien force was, of course, Nazi Germany which invaded Russia and was, according to the textbook narratives, defeated by the Russian soldiers who fought heroically and without the help of others. The role of other allied countries in fighting against Nazi Germany is systematically downplayed in Russian textbook accounts of WWII. However, Wertsch’s analysis shows that specific actors and events mentioned in the narratives about different episodes are different, and the textbooks used at different times include slightly different narratives about both these episodes, with different points of emphasis and moral interpretations.
Wertsch (2002, chapter 5) also shows that his interviewees largely relied on the triumph-over-alien-forces template when they described these two episodes. However, there were some systematic differences in the agents and events that were named in their narratives and in the evaluations concerning the agents’ actions and particular historical events, depending on whether the interviewee’s schooling occurred during the Soviet era or after that. For example, the Communist Party played an important role in the narratives of WWII by the members of the former group while it was mostly absent from the narratives of WWII by the members of the latter group.
Putin’s Legitimation of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
Next, I will briefly address the question of the extent to which the triumph-over-alien-forces template was used in Vladimir Putin’s legitimation Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. It can be expected that Putin is familiar with this template since he went to school in Leningrad (currently known as Saint Petersburg) during the Soviet era when, according to Wertsch (2002), the teaching of the history of Russia largely relied on this template. My analysis is mostly based on Putin’s infamous speech preceding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (the English translation is available on the Kremlin website).
In Putin’s historical narrative, Ukraine was an organic part of the Russian Empire before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 after which the Ukrainian Soviet State was artificially created under the leadership of V.I. Lenin in the 1920s. However, since the Soviet Union was centrally ruled, Ukraine remained an integral part of Soviet Russia. According to Putin’s narrative, the crisis period begins with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, after which the Ukrainian people have been gradually suppressed by an allied set of “alien forces” consisting of nationalists, Russophobes, and neo-Nazis. In particular, he claims that these “alien agents” have occupied and corrupted Ukrainian political elite and state leadership with the help of Western countries and started planning all kinds of hostile actions towards Russia, such as preparing Ukraine’s membership application to NATO, planning to manufacture nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and making secret plans to invade Russia. Putin mentions these hostile developments as the main reasons why Russia was forced to start a preventive “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine. He has also declared that this operation is aimed to “liberate” the Ukrainian people and bring Ukraine back under Russian control.
It seems to me that the elements (1)-(3) of the triumph-over-alien-forces narrative template can be easily identified in Putin’s historical narrative. In line with this template, Putin probably expected a rapid defeat of Ukraine by the Russian soldiers which he could have presented as a heroic triumph over alien forces. However, Russia’s war against Ukraine cannot be described as a triumph in any sense and the actions of Russian soldiers in Ukraine have not been heroic but brutal and cruel. In addition, there are at least three problems with the denazification narrative if we assess it from the epistemic viewpoint. First, there are few neo-Nazis in Ukraine and the Jewish Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky is not definitely one of them. Second, there is no evidence about Ukraine’s plans to invade Russia with the help of their Western allies or plans to manufacture nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Third, as Putin has hopefully realized by now, Ukrainians do not want to be “liberated” by Russians. In other words, Putin’s narrative includes many demonstrably false claims.
However, as state control over media and history teaching at schools has again increased in Putin’s Russia and political opposition has been violently repressed, there seem to be no publicly available counter-narratives to this fictional “denazification narrative” in Russia today. Despite the lack of alternatives, it is hard to say to what extent Russian people believe this narrative because there is no reliable information available for estimating its support. However, Putin’s denazification story, as I tried to show above, relies on a familiar triumph-over-alien-forces narrative template many Russians seem to have internalized from their history textbooks and media representations. Likewise, It is possible that Putin, who, according to some media reports, has quite efficiently isolated himself from reliable sources of information, has become a victim of his own propaganda and no one in his administration dares to question his increasingly paranoid interpretations of history. If Russia ends up losing this brutal war, then the previous narrative template will hopefully be thoroughly questioned through open public discussion in Russia. However, this is not likely to happen as long as Putin remains in power.
Wertsch’s notion of schematic narrative template is a promising conceptual tool for analyzing collective remembering in modern societies. It also bears an interesting resemblance to Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn’s (1997) notion of cultural schema that has been influential in the so-called interdisciplinary tradition of cognitive sociology (e.g., Kaidesoja et al., 2022). Hence, it may be an intriguing project to compare these two concepts in detail since it seems to me that cognitive sociologists’ recent specifications of the notion of cultural schema (e.g., Boutyline & Soter, 2021; Hunzaker & Valentino, 2019; Wood et al., 2018) may help to clarify the notion of schematic narrative template. In addition, the latter notion raises similar issues regarding the degree of implicitness, internalization, and cultural transmission as the concept of cultural schema. Hence, cognitive sociologists’ recent analyzes of these issues (e.g., Cerulo et al 2021: Lizardo 2017; 2021; 2022) may prove useful in addressing the cognitive and social mechanisms through which schematic narrative templates are internalized by individuals and transmitted between generations.
The concept of affordance could also prove useful for investigating how exactly narrative texts mediate collective remembering in different contexts (see my previous blog post on cognitive artifacts, affordances, and external representations). Wertsch’s (2002, 119-123) distinction between mastery and appropriation of textual means is an interesting one in this respect. Mastery refers here to individuals knowing how to use a specific type of narrative text, such as history textbooks. Mastery of a specific type of text is reflected in one’s “ability to recall them at will and to employ them with facility when speaking” as well as in one’s skills for “reasoning about the actors and motives behind the events discussed” (p. 119). Appropriation in turn refers to the use of a particular narrative text as a resource for building one’s social identity by “making it one’s own” (p. 120). One of Wertsch’s (2002, 120) points in this context is that these two do not go hand in hand since a person may have mastery over history textbooks while resisting them rather than using them as identity resources (and vice versa). The concept of affordance provides an analytical tool for analyzing the possibilities and constraints that a particular text provides for its user with a specific degree of mastery over the text in a specific situation, although it may not help much in investigating the degree to which an individual has appropriated the text. The latter issue seems to be a bigger challenge for cognitively oriented social research.
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