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29 December 2016

Let us not fear history!

Russia is facing the urgent task of going beyond the “long 20th century”

In just a few days, the world will celebrate the arrival of the year 2017. On Victoria Harbour and beneath the Eiffel Tower, on Copacabana and Times Square, people will raise champagne glasses and enjoy celebratory fireworks. Perhaps the coming new year will only trigger complicated, painful thoughts by the Kremlin walls and on St. Petersburg’s Palace Square, the banks of the Iset, Yekaterinburg and Krasny Avenue, Novosibirsk, because Russia is approaching this symbolic date absolutely unprepared.

The arrival of 2017 cannot fail to evoke bad memories and contradictory parallels. Just like one hundred years ago, the country is entering the new year surrounded by imaginary enemies. And, although St. Petersburg has not yet been renamed Petrograd, it feels as though Zhirinovsky’s proposal to do so did not emerge by accident. The country is now ruled by a politician whose surname only lacks the three-letter prefix of the empire’s most powerful figure a hundred years ago. As in 1913, 2013 could be taken as a starting point, since it was the most successful year for decades and the following year saw the beginning of another imperialistic war. We have yet to see whether the events of the previous century will repeat in this one, however – albeit in a more farcical than tragic style.

Meanwhile, our attention is drawn by something else. The history of many nations has included periods which specialists refer to as “long centuries”. Russia today is still living in a “long 20th century” which began over a hundred and thirty years ago. At the end of the 19th century, in what used to be our even-larger country, there were many similarities with the present state of affairs: the political and intellectual elite were dreaming of “spreading eastwards”, which resulted in Port Arthur and the Battle of Tsushima; being the main inspiration behind global disarmament, the emperor nevertheless became one of the main players in the global war; the economy was opening up to the outside world and becoming one of the most promising areas for investment from all over Europe, only to collapse terribly several decades later; Orthodoxy was turning into a fully-fledged state “ideological enterprise”, yet its “employees” were not even aware of how popular they were with the masses, who would begin dispatching hundreds of new saints to heaven just a few years later.

All this resembles the times we are living in at the moment – but it seems that we do not wish to remember the past the way it was. Instead, we paint idealized pictures of a country which fell apart seemingly completely at random and was resurrected in an absolutely different form. In the middle of the last century, the country (i.e. the USSR) – which was even more powerful than the current one – was ruled by an authoritarian, single-party system whose leaders enjoyed the formal support of almost the entire population. Its leaders were engaged in building nuclear missiles and submarines to compete with a country overseas (i.e. the USA), and naively believed it could carry out a rapid, effective military operation in a remote Muslim country. Of course, if talking about the Soviet system, one should also not forget the state corporations which dominated an economy which was becoming increasingly dependent on industrial imports and outside funding. Once again, the giant empire fell, just as it had many decades before; this time collapsing in such way that, unlike previously, almost no one stood up to defend it. The “third phase” of this “long 20th century” is the new Russia, which combines all the illusory achievements of the two previous formats, but has absorbed almost nothing of significance from what was created in the past.

As we approach the anniversary of one of our most dramatic historical dates, we are in a very unusual internal state. On the one hand, modern Russia seeks to utilize all possible symbols and connotations from the past. Guardsmen dressed in vintage ceremonial uniforms with two-headed eagles stand bolt upright to the strains of the Soviet national anthem at state receptions; churches demolished on the orders of those who are still buried by the Kremlin walls are now being rebuilt in central Moscow; the successors of the Cheka and KGB calmly speak of a state based on the rule of law, while promoting symbols that their own teachers were trying to eradicate. On the other hand, we are seeing more attempts to “clean up” the symbolic elements that the authorities are so persistently dragging from the past into the present: it is enough just to watch modern Russian films about WWII to discover that references to “Soviet” society and people are quickly being replaced with “Russian”; it is enough to read speeches, books and articles on the history of the empire’s collapse to understand the scale of the difficulties which have inevitably arisen during any impartial attempts to assess the historical peripeteia of eventful 1917.

I find this situation to be completely unacceptable for at least two reasons:

On the one hand, by using and remembering “only the best parts” of our past – and especially amending it while stressing the need to fight distortions of history – we are depriving ourselves of the most important thing that history has to offer: an opportunity to learn lessons that are applicable today. Any glorification of historical figures or events – endowing them with spiritual meaning they never had, or finding imaginary historical continuity in the continental divisions that actually took place – can only lead to one thing: the popular belief that historical turning-points of the past occurred at random. Of course, this would seem crucial for a leader who is ready to become a new lifelong ruler and to boost society’s confidence in his ability to prevent accidents like those which resulted in such turmoil in the past. However, this is exactly what makes society unreceptive towards the emerging preconditions for revolutionary change, and leaves it helpless when faced with them.

On the other hand, a collective consciousness focused on the past is a serious obstacle to exploring the future. Adopting conservative values not only shrinks the space for social communication significantly, but also pushes out all those who are unwilling to support such an agenda. A massive wave of clericalization poses objective obstacles to scientific progress and technological modernization. Developing production which is vertically integrated and subordinate to the state destroys the few genuinely new aspects that appeared in the country over the past decade, i.e. the market and competition mechanisms of the national economy. The fact that the new Russia’s development is gradually running out of steam only proves that it is impossible to move forwards while looking backwards.

In my view, the arrival of the year 2017 – which is as inexorable as history itself – should become a catalyst to form a totally new approach to Russian history, based on a mantra that has never been preached before: truthfulness. History should stop being regarded as an “ideological science” and be refocused, so as to provide as impartial an analysis of the facts as possible – whatever those facts may be. Nowadays, the destruction of history’s “single space” (which, on the contrary, the authorities have been actively promoting in recent years) would seem to be the most urgent necessity. Russian history should not “inspire the people to new achievements” but explain how “individual mistakes” of the ruling elite could (or, rather, could not) have led to the destruction of the country twice, or how “a few miscalculations” by the leadership caused the loss of almost half of its territory and forty million lives. Consequently, more convincing interpretations of the reasons underlying the historical events which contributed to making us who we are should be proposed. This task demands widespread, open discussion, the unsealing of archives, and the involvement of intellectuals far superior to the likes of Medinsky and Starikov, but in the end it is worth it, because society must have an understanding of who and what came before.

Russia needs to pay radically more attention to history, freeing historical science from dogma and speculation as much as possible. Social practices must also freed from symbolic rudiments of the past because, so far, no one has stipulated our country’s main task – to go beyond the “long 20th century”.

It is no accident that this article began with a description of the astonishing similarities between our times and critical moments in the “long 20th century”. In my opinion, the collapse of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were in no way random. These events were largely a consequence of the authorities’ exceptional overestimation of their country’s resilience, their desire for external expansion (generally for no valid reason), and their building of economic structures based purely on political rationale. It seems to me that the current glorification of abstract “imperial” and “Soviet” traits alike is largely due to the fact that the authorities have deliberately chosen all the flawed and destructive aspects of the past as reference points for the present. Instead of leaving the “long 20th century” back in the 1990s, the country has instead dived confidently into the “third round” while applying the previous paradigm, which is rather alarming.

Now is no time to fear our own history – after all, in the modern world, getting stuck in the past may result in tragedies which would make the current state of Russia seem excellent in comparison…

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