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Toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, Harvard professor Graham Allison and his colleague Niall Ferguson proposed creating a presidential council of historical advisers, which would follow the model of the Council of Economic Advisers. Its mission would be to analyze history to help the United States avoid future mistakes. Allison and Ferguson were not the first to suggest something of this sort. The renowned political scientist Richard Neustadt, who served as an adviser to several presidents from Truman to Clinton, had similar ideas. Neustadt even co-authored a book with Ernest May, Thinking in Time, subtitled: “The Uses of History for Decision Makers.”
The clock ran out before Obama could set up a council of historical advisers, and it would be ridiculous to even propose such an idea to Trump. Nevertheless, there is a lot to learn from history. The events in Charlottesville and the toppling of Confederate monuments throughout the United States show how effective a teacher history is. Trump is both the product and the victim of American history, from which he has yet to learn any political lessons.
The function of history in today’s Russia is fundamentally different from that in the United States: the Russian government promotes a simplified version of domestic and global history in order to manipulate the masses and indefinitely preserve its current model of state control.
The politicization of history serves as both a means of legitimizing the current regime and a method of governing the country. The regime claims to be the direct successor of all Russia’s glorious victories, chief among them the defeat of Nazism in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945, and thereby makes itself immune to criticism. It is easier to govern a unified society, so the government’s ideas about history, as demonstrated by monuments, symbols such as the orange-and-black Ribbon of St. George, and various mass events, all serve to unite citizens around an “official” version of history. But in reality, such policy based in history actually divides the nation rather than uniting it, as some are unwilling to agree with the government’s oversimplified, mythologized, and militarized interpretation of Russian history. Consequently, two types of memory, the official and the personal, end up at war with one another.
Despite their contradictions, the two types of memory often intertwine, and state historical manipulation is born at the nexus of official and personal histories. The government borrows (or steals, to be more accurate) ideas from the people. For example, the Immortal Regiment, a Victory Day march where participants carry photographs of relatives who fought in World War II, emerged as a grassroots movement and now has effectively been nationalized by the state. Today it serves to boost the profile of President Putin, who marches at the head of the Immortal Regiment. This noble initiative coming from the people has now been co-opted and desecrated by the state. The Ribbon of St. George has also been distorted. It was never intended to decorate supporters of the state. RIA Novosti news agency popularized the symbol in the mid-2000s simply as a reminder of World War II. However, the ribbon ultimately came to be a sort of “pledge of allegiance” to Russia’s current political regime.
States with painful histories and states that have not yet reconciled with recent troubling events predictably employ history for nation-building and governing. The resulting interpretations of history are not objective. There is nothing objective about proclaiming as heroes Ukrainian nationalists and Nazi collaborators Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, or championing as freedom fighters Latvian nationalists who bayonetted Jewish children in 1941. Such historical distortions are an abomination. It is unlikely that respected historians on either side of the border have any doubts about how to view the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, whether to consider Stalin’s 1940 “incorporation” of the Baltic States an occupation, or what to cite as the real cause of the Winter War of 1939. However, the situation with the Soviet Army’s movement through the Baltics in 1944 is more complicated. One cannot deny that it was liberation from Nazi occupation, but what followed is more open to interpretation. Thus, there is still more work to be done in parsing the various national histories of the region, and they will nonetheless remain contradictory and ambiguous.
There are not many formats where such contradictions can be resolved. The format of the Polish-Russian Working Group for Difficult Matters was relatively effective for a while. However, its effectiveness depended in part on the willingness of the two sides to meet halfway, as well as on which specific party was in power and how influential the individuals heading the commission were. In the current situation, the commission is virtually at a standstill.
The central problem in Russian historical memory is that it is essentially “Soviet,” and its heroes are “Soviet,” meaning they fit textbook Soviet models. This is tolerable for heroes like Peter the Great, astronaut Yuri Gagarin, or hockey star Valeri Kharlamov. The trouble is that the main hero, the man who personifies modern Russia, is Stalin. Today’s political elite has deliberately fostered an atmosphere accelerating re-Stalinization. Public opinion surveys suggest that this process began immediately following the takeover of Crimea.
So, Russian history is one of generals and state officials, of military and mobilization victories. There is no space for ordinary people. Furthermore, historian Vasily Zharkov has pointed out that this history has taken place primarily within the confines of today’s Central Federal District, comprising Moscow and surrounding areas.
The darkest pages in Russian history are whitewashed, while events Russians should be proud of, like the August 1968 demonstration on Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, are either disparaged or ignored in textbooks.
National history is equated with the history of the regime. This is the fundamental flaw of official and propaganda-ridden perceptions of history.
Russia’s pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet history offers many opportunities for division not only between the state and civil society but also within society itself. Public opinion surveys indicate that the 1990s and the Stalinist repressions are the most divisive issues in modern Russia. Where one stands on these two historical eras is the most telling sign of whether one is a liberal democrat or a traditionalist conservative.
Some view the 1990s as a painful but necessary transformation of state and society—a time of economic revolution and the founding of a new Russian state, as well as a time of political, entrepreneurial, and intellectual freedom. Others see it as an era of chaos. The latter view is promoted by today’s regime because such a view paints Putin as responsible for the restoration of order and economic abundance following the tumultuous 1990s. This worldview precludes objective perceptions of the period’s history, attributing economic growth in the early 2000s to Putin’s efforts and overlooking the importance of former prime minister Yegor Gaidar’s liberal reforms and high oil prices. Furthermore, the Russian ruling class, which fuels its reputation by downplaying the 1990s, is the product of post-Soviet Russia’s first decade. Putin rose to prominence in the 1990s, having been personally tapped by the Yeltsin “family.” Naturally, this fact is ignored in the propaganda version of history.
More so than the 1990s, the ultimate dividing line in modern Russia is Stalin. The official position on his era is ambiguous. In recent years, Stalin’s popularity as the embodiment of “order” has grown. It is no coincidence that the periods of liberalization in Russia’s history (Khrushchev’s thaw and Gorbachev’s perestroika) coincide with de-Stalinization, while the periods of retrenchment (stagnation under Brezhnev and Putin’s conservatism) coincide with re-Stalinization. Even if the official position remains unstated, “the Putin majority” is skilled at decoding his tacit messages: Stalin’s repressions were “politically justified”; under Stalin, the country experienced order and economic growth; and, most importantly, Stalin won the Great Patriotic War. This explains the torrent of popular initiatives to erect monuments and busts of the generalissimo.
It is easier for the current regime to ignore the October Revolution than to celebrate it, because it is not clear how it should be celebrated. The resolution of conflict between the “Reds” and the “Whites” is not a clear enough message, particularly since there are no longer any “Reds” or “Whites.” Russians’ attitudes toward Lenin are neutral. The state officials whom Russians unequivocally dislike are the ones who allowed destabilization (i.e., liberalization): Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and, in the aftermath of Crimea, Khrushchev. The ones Russians favor are the conservative empire-builders: Stalin, Brezhnev, and Putin.
Many contradictions surround this centenary. For example, the October Revolution resulted in the regime the current government supports, but the attitude of the regime toward revolution is negative. Yeltsin is effectively the creator of the new Russia, yet official propaganda has painted him as the destroyer of Russian imperial foundations and “bonds.” Meanwhile, Marshal Carl Mannerheim is both a hero of World War I, when he fought on the Russian side, and the antihero of the 1940s. Attempts to make him a state-approved figure backfired, and a plaque in his honor in St. Petersburg was repeatedly vandalized and ultimately removed.
Russian historical consciousness is irrational and erratic. This has some objective causes—after all, psychological consequences resulting from the collapse of an empire are to be expected—and some subjective ones—the continued politicization of Russian history. It is easiest to control a populace whose historical understanding is ambiguous and disoriented, so changes in the official historical narrative are unlikely.
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