Thursday, June 18, 2015

‘Russia’s Future Depends on Its Past,’ Moscow Museum Official Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, June 18 – Russians “poorly understand” that “their future depends on the past,” not so much in terms of scholarship, the specific evaluation of this or that leader, or “mythologized ‘matrixes’ and ‘civilizations,” according to Nikita Sokolov, deputy director of the Museums of Moscow and head of the Free Historical Society.


            Instead, he argues in an interview in advance of a meeting in the Russian capital on “What Past Does the Future of Russia Need?” that future depends on escaping from the almost universal assumption among Russians that they live in a society which “eternally” lives to “restore a vertically integrated power and a paternalistic state.”


            In fact, the historian suggests, if Russians and professional Russian historians as well adopt a different approach to their national past, they will be able to see that “our history contains sufficient bases for the creation of an entirely different and open society and state” (


            The textbooks the government has prepared for Russian schools offer an exclusively “statist” vision of the past. In them, “the state is the only acting subject in our past.” Merchants and businessmen are simply not mentioned – except in two cases, when one helped restore the monarchy in 1613 and another worked to destroy it in 1917.


            These books simply do not show any interest in “the ordinary life of the productive stratum of society,” and that absence contributes to a popular view about business and businessmen, small and large, Sokolov continues, not only in the future but in the here and now as well.


            What people must recognize, he says, is that “any project of the future will have its specific heroes and traitors in the past. If you are building a state of chekists, then Malyuta Skuratov is a hero. If you are building a Christian-Democratic society, then more probably [your hero] will be Metropolitan Filipp.”


            As Russians focus on their future, the government is increasingly turning to the historians to come up with the heroes and traitors the regime needs, but “scholars have begun to understand that they are being used dishonestly and incorrectly,” Sokolov says. And at least some of them are “ready to struggle for their professional dignity.”


            “When our bosses begin to say that the birthplace of Russia was in the Crimean Khersonese, scholars must go out in public and say that according to scientific data, this assertion is not simply doubtful but completely incorrect.” Unfortunately, he continues, up to now, most have been afraid to do so.


            Part of the reason is that the way Russian historians are trained means that most know only their own area and no other.  Thus, “those who focus on the Ancient East don’t know whom to believe about 20th century Russian history. What is needed, Sokolov suggests, is the creation of a corporate body of historians” who can support one another and speak out when they need to.


            That is what his Free Historical Society is intended to produce.


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