“The attitude towards the past is the central element of any ideology,” Yury Afanasyev, a Russian liberal historian, has written in Novaya Gazeta. Indeed, in Russia arguments about history often stir greater passions than do debates about the present or future. What kind of country Russia becomes will depend in large part on what kind of history it chooses. And that is why the Kremlin has decided that it cannot afford to leave history teaching to the historians.
From the Economist:
Russia’s pastThe rewriting of historyNov 8th 2007 | MOSCOWFrom The Economist print editionThe Kremlin uses its version of the past to forge a new ideology for the present“RUSSIA’S past was admirable, its present is more than magnificent and as for its future—it is beyond anything that the boldest mind can imagine.” Thus Count Alexander Benckendorff in the 1830s, on how Russia’s history should be viewed and written. This advice from the head of the country’s first secret police is now being heeded in the Kremlin, where a new Russian history is being forged.The decade after the collapse of communism was notable for the absence of any official ideology. Weary of grand designs, the Russian elite preferred pragmatism and enrichment. Asked about his national dream in 2004, President Vladimir Putin said that it was to make Russia competitive. But Russia’s new oil-driven strength and its aspirations to be a world player have once more created a demand for something more victorious and uplifting. And as Mr Putin looks for ways to stay in power after his second presidential term expires next March, his ideological comrades are placing him in a gallery of Russia’s great leaders, a quasi-tsar.“The attitude towards the past is the central element of any ideology,” Yury Afanasyev, a Russian liberal historian, has written in Novaya Gazeta. Indeed, in Russia arguments about history often stir greater passions than do debates about the present or future. What kind of country Russia becomes will depend in large part on what kind of history it chooses. And that is why the Kremlin has decided that it cannot afford to leave history teaching to the historians.Earlier this year it organised a conference for history teachers at which Mr Putin plugged a new history manual to help sort out what he called “the muddle” in teachers’ heads. “Russian history did contain some problematic pages,” Mr Putin told the teachers. “But so did other states’ histories. We have fewer of them than other countries. And they were less terrible than in some other countries.” His message was that “we can’t allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us.”This is the thrust of the manual, entitled “A Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006: A Manual for History Teachers”. Were it not for the Kremlin’s backing, it would probably be gathering dust on bookshelves. But Mr Putin’s endorsement has made it one of the most discussed books of the year. New textbooks based on it will come into circulation next year. Russian schools are still free to choose which textbook to teach. But the version of history now proposed by the Kremlin suggests that freedom may not last.The manual’s choice of period is suggestive: from Stalin’s victory in the “great patriotic war” to the victory of Mr Putin’s regime. It celebrates all contributors to Russia’s greatness, and denounces those responsible for the loss of empire, regardless of their politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is not seen as a watershed from which a new history begins, but as an unfortunate and tragic mistake that hindered Russia’s progress. “The Soviet Union was not a democracy, but it was an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society.”The manual does not deny Stalin’s repressions; nor is it silent about the suppression of protest movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It does something more dangerous, justifying Stalin’s dictatorship as a necessary evil in response to a cold war started by America against the Soviet Union. “The domestic politics of the Soviet Union after the war fulfilled the tasks of mobilisation which the government set. In the circumstances of the cold war…democratisation was not an option for Stalin’s government.” The concentration of power in Stalin’s hands suited the country; indeed, the conditions of the time “demanded” it.As Marietta Chudakova, an historian of Russian culture, puts it, for the manual’s author totalitarianism “is a warm bath. He splashes in it and enjoys it. The book tries to convince the reader that there was no other way, and most importantly that there was no need for one. Everything was motivated and clear in that social structure.” The book backs its assessment of Stalin by citing recent opinion polls that give him an approval rating of 47%.It is less kind to Mikhail Gorbachev. It was his policies, not the Soviet system, that “led to the slowest economic growth in the 20th century.” He is blamed for giving up central and eastern Europe. “Thus the Soviet Union lost its security belt, which a few years later would become a zone of foreign influence, with NATO bases an hour away from St Petersburg.”Rabid anti-Westernism is the leitmotiv of the new ideology. In return for Russia ending the cold war (“we did not lose it”, the manual insists), America pursued an anti-Russian policy and fomented colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, turning them into springboards for possible future attacks. “We are talking about the failure of the course started by Peter the Great and pathetically continued by pro-Western democrats after 1988. We are talking about a new isolation of Russia.”How should Russia respond? The manual’s answer is a new mobilisation of resources and a consolidation of power in the hands of a strong leader (no prizes for guessing who). “If the national economy is dependent on foreign capital, on imports or the terms of the world market, such a country cannot defend its own interests,” it argues. And it justifies Mr Putin’s attacks on the oligarchs and the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “Don’t put yourself above the state.”The manual’s final chapter, on “Sovereign Democracy”, reflects the views of one of the Kremlin’s chief ideologues, Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, who invented the phrase. Mr Surkov argues that Russia needs a political system to suit its national character and that it should disregard international norms of behaviour as “foreign pressure”. In a lecture to the Academy of Sciences, he suggested that such a system was predetermined by the national character and an instinctive longing for a strong hand. Centralisation, personification and idealisation of power drive Russia’s political culture. A strong and wise leader is more important than institutions—in fact, he is in Russians’ eyes the most important institution.The problem with such an ideological construct, says Andrei Zorin, a professor of Russian culture at Britain’s Oxford University, is that its sole purpose is to preserve the status quo and keep Mr Putin in power. “But a conservative ideology demands respect for institutions, while an ideology of a charismatic leader requires a grand vision. They have neither.”