Monday, January 23, 2017

‘Russians Need an Identity Permitting Them to Exist Happily without an Empire,’ Russian Historians Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 23 – The Free Historical Society and the Committee on Civic Initiatives have released a 53-page report entitled “What Kind of Past Does Russia Need for Its Future” which argues that in recent times, arguments about history in Russia have become a surrogate for and even more important than political debates.

            Znak journalist Dmitry Kolezev summarizes its findings with a list of what he describes as the 22 most important propositions the liberal historians offer (; the full report is available at

            Below are the reports key conclusions:

·         “The language of history in Russia has become the only language of the present.”  As a result, “history in Russia is more than history;” it is the only way Russians can now discuss their present and future.

·         “Beginning in 2011, Russia turned from having an image of the future into having a cult of the past,” a shift that recalls “the re-animation of the Soviet theme in the 1930s.”

·         “Many historical issues in Russia remain unresolved.” Indeed, “the past of the country remains a place of civil war and there is no end in sight to this civil war.”

·         “The treatment of any historical events as invariably ‘great’ is a kind of political manipulation” because it leads Russians to believe that their millennium-long history is more important than “the economic successes of the country, a normal life without war, and the well-being of Russians.”

·         “The USSR in the eyes of its residents was ‘the chief country of the world.’” And that attitude has resurfaced among Russians. In the early 1990s, Russians talked about “’the Russia which we lost.’” Now, they talk about “’the USSR which we lost.”

·         “At the same time, in the USSR itself, world history at least nominally was treated as a movement toward freedom and against enslavement,” something that contributed to “the militarization of history” which survives to this day.

·         “In present-day ‘official history,’ the theme of the struggle for freedom is minimized. Heroes of uprisings are labelled rebels or misguided liberals.” And the official version of the past seeks to remove from the biographies of those identified as positive any evidence of conflicts with the powers that be.

·         “The history of the Russian powers that be is treated as one of their infallibility and good actions.” The state is treated as something “holy.”

·         “Everything connected with modernization has receded into the background. The main heroes have become conservatives and reactionaries.”

·         “The history of Russia’s relationships with the external world is being rewritten,” to stress Russia’s separateness from Europe and to create “a model of false patriotism.”

·         Official history now requires that there be only one interpretation of the past and that the mythologization of that past is not only appropriate but must be defended against those who question it.

·         “Dissidents and those who think differently have been excluded from the official discourse.”

·         “Fear about the growing crisis and images of the collapse of the regime have given birth to an intensive rethinking of history by officials.”  A major aspect of this is the treatment of all crises as the result of conspiracies especially launched from or connected with foreigners.

·         “In sum, the political regime and the archaic-authoritarian technologies of administration of the country are legitimated by the past.”

·         “Official Stalinization has not occurred,” but over the last decade, the powers have destroyed what had been the consensus about Stalin’s repressions and thus “the immune system of the majority of the nation” to their return. Znak publishes the section of the report on this subject for those who do not have access to Dropbox (

·         The regime’s ideology has reduced victory in World War II to a black and white pattern one in which no questions about its complexities are tolerated.

·         This “simplified cult of victory is ‘a means of legitimization of the present-day authoritarian regime.”

·         “National history is understood exclusively as the history of the state” and never as the history of the people or of their struggles for freedom.

·         This official history is being used to return the identity of Russians to “its former matrix: hypercenralization, the monarchical character of supreme power and the rightlessnesss of the broad popular masses which is compensated by growing imperial ambitions.”

·         “The absence of the empire” just now is temporary because ever more writers close to the Kremlin insist that “the existence of the Russian state outside of an imperial matrix is included.”  That prevents Russians from acquiring “an identity and a political structure which allows them to successfully and happily exist after the empire and without an empire.”

·         “Imperial history is the history of wars,” and its elevation into a national value means that “the peaceful future of the country is unthinkable” unless that reading of the past changes.

·         “An honest, free and responsible attitude toward the past is a guarantee that the future of th country can be chosen freely.”

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