Staunton, June 16 – Vladimir Putin has been promoting the idea of a single stream of Russian history, but he talks about only a few periods from Russia’s thousand-year past. As a result, most Russians at present know little or care about large swaths of their country’s history, something that represents a delayed action mine for the future, Olga Reshetnikova says.
On the one hand, Putin’s selective approach means that Russians know very little about Russian history, the Moscow historian suggests; but on the other, and potentially with explosive consequences, there are periods of Russian history which call into question his vision and that others may exploit (stoletie.ru/territoriya_istorii/o_razryvah_v_istoricheskoj_pamati_817.htm).
And while few may recognize it yet, what Putin is doing in disturbing ways reflects a repetition of what the Bolsheviks did when they took power, demonized all Russian history and history in general, and then tried to revive in selective and tendentious ways the history of Russia, only to have that vision ultimately collapse.
The current Russian leadership, as Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrusheva has observed, recognizes that “the future of Russia … depends on how the spiritual and moral traditions of the past are preserved and how memory about the historic past of their ancestors is handed down to the younger generation.”
That raises the question about just what kind of historical memory the Kremlin wants to promote and how its approach ostensibly at odds with the Bolsheviks in fact reflects much of their approach. After the 1917 revolution, Reshetnikova says, “history as a subject from driven out of schools and university education up until the mid-1930s.”
The tsarist past was presented as something without value except to the extent that it produced the conditions for the rise of the Bolsheviks. Those who had studied Russian history were either expelled or marginalized, and the country operated for more than 15 years without any real investigations of the past.
“Only in 1934,” she writes, were historical faculties restored in the universities of Moscow and Leningrad;” and only in 1935 did a Soviet textbook on history appear for schools. That textbook set the tone for historical research until the end of Soviet times; and only in the 1990s were restrictions on work in the archives and publications of studies largely lifted.
But because of Western influence on Russian education, what happened was not the appearance of a completely honest history but rather one in which everything that the Soviets held to be positive was declared negative and everything they held to be negative was declared positive, Reshetnikova argues.
“The authorities have been concerned about creating a single textbook of history” to end this back and forth, but “even today, many most important, even key problems continue to remain the subject of sharp public discussion.” Worse, those discussions are leading many Russians to ignore their history rather than to focus on it.
According to the historian, “in our society today, there is no real idea about the past of our country. Historical education of young people is at a stupefyingly low level. Graduates of Soviet schools at least knew most names and dates and would never say that Lenin w as a military leader in the Great Fatherland War.”
But today, many make mistakes like that or even worse ones because they do not know the history of Russia. Of course, it is appropriate to focus on positive figures in the past rather than on revolutionaries. But if that is going to happen, two other things must occur at the same time, she says.
On the one hand, the country can’t continue to have regions, cities and streets named for these criminals; and on the other, it must restore the standing of historians to explore all aspects of Russian history and promote historical knowledge as something important rather than allow it to remain a political football, something that puts Russians off rather than attracts them to it.