Russia is a country with a suspended and unresolved historical memory. Therefore, life is now becoming more ideological, while ideology is becoming more historical. It’s time to set the trend upside down. To understand what kind of the past is needed for Russia’s future, at first it is necessary to understand what kind of future we want, argues Alexander Rubtsov in his reflection on the ‘What kind of the past is needed for the future of Russia?’ Part three in an ongoing debate.

by Alexander Rubtsov

Two interrelated trends are being observed in recent Russian politics: first an ‘ideologization’ of the public life and second a radical increasing role of history in that ideology. In other words, life is becoming more and more ideological, while ideology is becoming more historical.

The first trend has been largely determined by increasing difficulties in the socio-economic and socio-political life of Russia. The worsening of the situation on the commodity markets and, above all, the decline in the oil prices, has in Russia called into question the existing views on the epoch of prosperity and stability. Since then, the growing problems in reality are being approached on the symbolical level, primarily, in the sphere of ideology and propaganda.

The second trend has been caused by the failure of the Russian modernization project, which had been planned in the middle of 2010. This unsuccessful campaign for a bright future has rebounded in an expedition to the glorious and majestic past.

This tendency is in obvious way connected with the political consciousness in modern Russia, of the masses as well as the elites. In the center is a syndrome of political narcissism, caused by phantom pain of imperial consciousness, by resentment and by an inferiority complex related to the de-evaluation of the post-Soviet, post-Communist developments in Russia.

A mania of grandiosity and all-powerfulness is becoming malignant in certain zones, while narcissism is relegating the real life problems and the need for their solution is fading to the background. When there is practically nothing to be proud of in the present and the future, the main subject in the complex of narcissus self-adoration becomes history: the glorious, great and mighty past of the 'Great State'.

Memory culture: Russian specifics

Russia is considered to be a country with a special attitude to history, a sort of ‘historiosophical nation’. Symbolic is the title of one notable book in this genre: The past interprets us. If we put aside metaphors and stay closer to life, we are in fact often tending to ‘interpret ourselves through the past’. There are a number of explanations for that. To paraphrase a poetic revelation during Khrushchev’s period of ‘thaw’ more than half a century ago: history in Russia is more than history.

Cover of weekly magazine Time, nine months after the death of Stalin.

Such an attitude towards the past does not exclude the oddity of combining the anxious and the instrumental. Rather, on the contrary: the more cherished is the object, the stronger is the desire to use it politically, sometimes quite cynically. Therefore, we treat the past in a quite utilitarian way. That is typical not only for Russia. But this Russian tradition has its own peculiarities. For example the following three.

1. The immaturity of professional philosophy, social theory and political thought in Russia has led to the fact that history, like ‘great Russian literature’, to some extent has compensated for these gaps. At present too, historical narratives and interpretations are often called upon to overcome the inadequacy of the language of politics: to overcome the fuzziness of its semantics and syntactic, the lack of principles and the ‘perforated’ character of its vocabulary that does not have adequate means of expression for many essential meanings. Because of the inferiority of the politics as such, and therefore of the actual political language (namely, in the context of its semantic deformations and rigidity), the language of history as a narrative of the past often becomes the predominant and sometimes the only language of self-expression of the present and the presentation of the future (idealized history as latent project). In such a situation, the language of history is also convenient, since it allows speaking indirectly about the forbidden.

2. Russia is a country with a suspended, unresolved historical memory and therefore with many extremely sensitive issues, that split the society. Unlike nations that somehow have achieved a certain consensus and stability in assessing their own past, we in Russia constantly make our (even not only our) past dramatically problematic and ‘fundamentally unpredictable’. The scale of conflicts and revisions here is clearly above average level, often on the verge of frustration.

The past remains a field of cold civil war. The end of this war is not visible. This is why our own history is ‘always topical’. In problematical areas there are practically no solutions, only tasks. It is not surprising that in the recently adopted educational standard the so-called difficult questions are brought to the periphery of the text, leaving them for future discussion. This is better than getting ready-made answers of a given orientation, but it should also be stressed that almost all the fundamentally important things are left for future discussion.

3. The history of Russia is invariably interpreted as ‘great’. In each new complex or dramatic crisis this ‘great past’ is brought to light and is used as a construction that holds together the nation when other bonds are missing. The moral insights of the authorities on the value of the Russian history are a banal kind of ideological manipulation.

When Stalin turned before the Second World War to the Russian history, he did not at all in order to return to it its significance and dignity. He merely cynically used it. Thus Stalin admitted that the authorities already had no other integrative and mobilizing resources at that time. However, his speculations fall on the fertile ground of the mass consciousness those days. And now, as before, our glorious past allows the Russians to consider themselves again to be a great nation, even when they turn over also the far not best pages of the nation’s long-suffering biography.

Soviet-experience: the past in a ‘society of the future’

Historical narratives and concepts were an important component of the Soviet ideology, with all its project pathos directed to the future. At the same time, the key ideologies of the Bolshevik revolution and the communist construction left a clear imprint on the interpretation of the historical process in general and also of specific periods and episodes of the country as well as the world in particular.

1. History as a whole was regarded as a large and logical process, subordinate to the logic of an inevitable historical progress. The country was inscribed in this global process as a world leader and the main driving force. The citizens of the USSR felt themselves to be a people on the crest of history and at the peak of the moral and political evolution of mankind. That gave ground for deep and positive experiences. In addition to the ‘great history’, decorated with fateful victories and impressive material and cultural achievements, we had no less great present and future. In its ideology, propaganda and mass-experiences, the USSR was ‘the main country in the world’.

Such sensations do remain in historical memory. They are being reproduced as something faithful we lost. If the way out of the Soviet project spawned the topic ‘the Russia that we lost’, now this topic is transforming into a new object of nostalgia: ‘the USSR that we lost’.

Ivan Ilyin MichailNesterov
Ivan Ilyin, painted by Mikhail Nesterov (1921). Wikicommons.
2. Although the political system of the USSR was based on ideological control and preventive repression, nominally the Soviet ideology was an ideology of freedom: it should cumulate in growth and historical triumph. Accordingly, world and domestic history appeared as a great and global struggle of progressive humanity against the enslavers for the liberation of the oppressed. On this pathos was built the entire pantheon of historical personalities and events. Various liberation movements, including the so-called national liberation movements, were supported. In this ideology, history was treated as a progressive linear process of individual emancipation. The USSR, therefore, was not just the locomotive of the world historical process, but also the focus of human freedom, the leader of the struggle by all progressive mankind. It is significant that now this topic is practically falling out of the nostalgic complex of ‘the country that we lost’.
3. Despite the inescapable logic of the historical process, as it was understood in Soviet ideology to give a significant role in the historical development to the active driving forces: to individuals, to political classes and to their party-vanguards. And despite the ‘scientific’ character of Marxist philosophy of history, the actual process was ideologically described as the history of great events and political geniuses. This view in popular and in many ways even in academic history, was the basis for all sorts of cults: in revolutions and wars as well as in personalities. This lead also to an intensified militarization of history, as it was understood in Soviet social sciences and ideology.

Till now the need to demilitarize the history and to liberate it from those cults, is far from being solved, neither in the public sphere nor in mass consciousness. Therefore it is not surprising that for many people there is nothing more important in history than the Great War and its winner, first of all Stalin.

Latest revision of Russian history

For the same reasons, key episodes of struggle and liberation are now being removed from the official history. What was central in the official and the popular ‘historiosophy’, even in the Soviet period, is being excluded. Heroes of uprisings are thus becoming robbers and bandits or naive, stray liberals, incapable of anything, except for their deconstructive and purely symbolic protest. The portrait of the people as iconoclast, created in the Soviet times despite the ideology and the practice of totalitarianism, in nowadays Russia is redone in the spirit of conformism and serf-like devotion.

And in the biographies of the pillars of Russian literature, their conflicts with the authorities, the state ideology and morality, the official church et cetera are also skipped. In the public relations of the government the descendants of such great apostates, as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Lermontov, are included.

B.N. Chicherin by L.Pasternak 1905 GIM
Moscow-mayor Boris Chicherin, painted by Leonid Pasternak. Wikicommons

In the meantime mainly conservatives and statists are retrieved from the Russian philosophical heritage. The conservative philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) is closer to this ideology than even the aristocratic liberal Boris Chicherin (1828-1904), that icon of the Russian philosophy of law, who occupied the post of city mayor of Moscow. Although inclined to anarchism Nikolay Berdyaev (1874-1948) is transformed into dull supporter of the state. There is a clear desire to rewrite history in such a way that a kind of personal independence could be interpreted in a spirit of servility. The history of protest and dissidence is also practically withdrawn from the latest political biography of the country.

Against this background, the history of Russian authorities is presented in a blaze of glory and infallibility, acts and achievements, feats of leadership and nourishment of people. The failures and crimes of even the most heinous are pushed to the background. In this logic riots and revolutions had been prepared exclusively by attackers and revolutionaries, but in no way by those who were in power and lead the country to revolutionary situations. The State is presented in a halo of sanctity. This sanctity applies not only to history but also to the power itself, including the current one.

In the history of the country everything related to socio-economic and political modernization is also sliding into the background, if not withdrawn at all. Key episodes that cannot be ignored, off course, but they are understood primarily critically. Even among the prominent figures, the heroes are not reformers but conservatives and reactionaries. And ambiguous personalities are getting new interpretations. It seems that Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), killed in Kiev during a celebration in honor of the abolition of serfdom, did nothing in his life and was famous for nothing, except for the maxim of ‘great distresses’.

This conservative version of history does not explain how Russia yet has become such a relatively modernized country. Even in the history of the Soviet Union almost all positive achievements are increasingly confined to military mobilization and solidarity, whereas the history of scientific and technical modernization on the other side is bashfully not mentioned. In the daily ideology everything, that was something to proud of yesterday, now slowly but consistently and methodically is being muted. Thus cutting short the majestic, though very rough history of Russian modernization.

Also the history of Russia's relationship with the outside world is being rewritten. The European vector is neglected. The painful but productive westernization, the powerful cultural, intellectual, creative, sustainable linkages and contacts, the philosophical, scientific, artistic, spiritual and religious succession, even matrimonial dynastic relations – all these is being shyly hidden. The real ambiguity of the European, Western orientation of Russia is now being replaced by a straightforward, flat, primitive anti-westernization. The absurd and illiterate thesis ‘Russia is not Europe’, which is basis of the cultural policy of the state, is a striking example of such a false patriotism, hastily following the fluctuating political conjuncture. There is no doubt that if this attempt would be successful, we could see a thorough rewriting of the foreign policy, cultural and economic relations of Russia, including some personal biographies.

All the above mentioned exists at present in the form of trends, not yet predominant, but distinct. Literally, within a few years we experienced a sharp reversal from modernization to tradition, from modernism to traditionalism, from progressivism to conservatism and even a reactionary bias.

Nikolay Berdyayev, philospher. Wikicommons

Discussing the future instead of the past

The requirement of an unbiased objectivity of historical analysis does not negate the need to react at past deformations, as well as to what is called ‘historical tasks’ or ‘challenges of the time’. The changing voices in politics and ideology cannot but affect (directly or indirectly) the research of scholars as well, starting from the subject priorities and ending in unconscious, not always reflective, self-censorship.

To exclude and neutralize this influence, the historical science must have considerable resilience. In this regard, the actual problem and subject in the fields of research should be emphasized by taking into account the deformations of the past and the challenges of the future. Among the major contenders for the primacy in this work is the dispute about the notorious ‘historical rut’ of Russia. On the one hand, an analysis of the bifurcations and dead ends of Russian history is intended to show how the traditional historical canon has been reproduced for ages both the scheme and the ideology of such a special ‘rut’. On the other hand, it has to show how the country has tried to escape from it and how even in this ‘rut’ Russia could gain relative cumulative and irreversible modernization.

So to understand what kind of the past is needed for Russia’s future, at first it is necessary to understand what kind of future we want for our country. And the other way around what future we categorically do not want.

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