Monday, February 14, 2022

Russia Lacks a Well-Developed Political Language and So Uses History Instead, Kurilla Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Dec. 24 – In a new book, The Battle for the Past. How Changes History, St. Petersburg historian Ivan Kurilla argues that one of the distinguishing features of Russia is that “history is used for conversations about politics” because “in Russia, a separate political language has not developed.”

            Unlike in other countries with well-developed political lexicons, Russians use most political terms as terms of abuse, Kurilla says. And they stake out their positions on current issues by speaking about the past. Those who control the Russian government don’t have any other language (

            Of course, fighting over the past is nearly a universal phenomenon now, the historian says. Indeed, one of the reasons he wrote this book was to show that Russia is hardly unique in that regard. But he stresses that Russia is distinctive in the way in which politics is so infused with politics on almost all counts.

            This approach is “very bad” not only for historians but also for the population at large. For historians, it means that many issues can’t be examined because an honest approach to them will be seen as an attempt to make political points. And for the Russian people, it means that their rulers want them to view the past in only one way rather than as a set of possibilities.

            Despite Moscow’s attempts to impose this commonality, however, Russians are increasingly discovering the diversity of their pasts. People who live in one part of Russia don’t have the same past with the same heroes as those who live elsewhere, and there is a growing interest in local history.

            There is also an explosive growth in genealogy which by its very nature shows people just how varied their pasts were. In Soviet times, people were afraid to talk about their ancestors because many of them suffered at the hands of the authorities; but now people are researching their family trees, however many branches may have been trimmed off.

            What Russians like all peoples need is a past which gives them a choice, which shows that there were many possibilities and that they must learn about various narratives even as they make choices. What no one needs is a past that is defined by those in power and imposed on everyone else.

            In the future, Kurilla says, an ideal school textbook “should not offer only a single narrative but rather show the possibility of various views on the past, that events in the past can be viewed through the eyes of the state and at the same time by those the state may have destroyed.”

            But many Russians and especially those in power are afraid of such a situation in which there is more than one truth, and that is a tragedy, the historian suggests.

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