A Historical Commission without Historians

history052309.jpgIrina Filatova has a new comment piece over on the Guardian about Dmitry Medvedev’s formation of a new commission to fight back against the “falsification” of history.  She points out that despite some seemingly noble endeavours of the council (such as declassification of Soviet-era documents from the War), most observers and academics are quite leery of the proposal – beginning with the fact that there are only three historians on the 28-member commission.  Filatova predicts that by early June the legislation will sail through the Duma, and the Kremlin will have a new instrument to imprison journalists and place sanctions on individuals in foreign states, such as the Baltics.

Every historian knows that history as an academic discipline can only exist when its contents are contested, challenged and renewed – it is a process of getting closer to the truth, but it can never be “the truth” itself. The moment the informed debate stops and one version is proclaimed to be “the truth”, history dies, and what emerges in its place is either ideology or “heritage”, or both. It is often called “the official history” – but this, of course, has got nothing to do with real, proper academic history. Russia is all too familiar with the notion of “official history”: in the Soviet era it was the only one allowed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union historical debate and research blossomed, but recently the government again started to take a great interest in history, prescribing textbooks and attempting to return to “the official history”.

Inthis light Medvedev’s commission looks much more sinister. Was, forexample, the Soviet army a liberator of the Baltic states or was it anarmy of occupation? Was Stalin’s collectivisation the reason for the Holodomor faminein Ukraine? And if Mededev’s commission does not allow one to debatethis issue, then would it allow historians to debate the nature ofStalin’s policy at all? Would it allow them to discuss Stalin’s terror?And what would be the punishment meted out for those who do, despitethe prohibition?