History is a Full of Opportunities for Discussion
This year has been called the year of history. As the joke goes: all the philologists just sighed in relief. But in all seriousness, for a people like ours, their history is their greatest achievement and their heritage.
This year could take various forms. It is necessary to make a certain effort, so that it will encourage education and the study of history, which promotes the consolidation of society, its peaceful development, rather than confrontation. Lessons are rarely drawn from history. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to look back at the experience of the past, in order to define our positions today, where the specter of revolution and upheaval has appeared.
There are several problems connected with deciding how to understand the concept of history. It is well know that alternate history, as opposed to official or academic history, has existed for a long time, and that it enjoys some popularity.
Counterfeit documents are created, which are the basis for a mythical history, created to exalt one people or another. These things are more popular than scientific analysis and even wind up in school textbooks. At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with that. What is going on in reality is an erosion of scientific criteria, and a tendency to set people against each other.
Here are a few historical and political examples. We have recently started celebrating a state holiday on November 4th - National Unity Day. It gives birth to Russian marches, surges of nationalism and clashes among people. They chose a date close to November 7th in order to replace the holiday that people were already accustomed to. They settled on the event of 1612, when the militia, under the leadership of Minin and Pozharsky, drove the Poles out of Moscow, and they left the Kremlin. That’s historical fact. But as a result, the history of the Troubles has been reduced to a victory over the Poles. Today, when there is a very real threat of another Time of Troubles, it is worth remembering that the guilt for the tragic events of the past lies not with the Poles of Swedes, but with Russians themselves. Afterwards, of course, they thought better of it, united, and selected a Tsar. This is a reminded of the fact the clan interests contradict those of the country.
A great deal of mythology has been created around the Time of Troubles. Recently, the remains of Susanin were supposedly discovered. This is clearly impossible. The excavations were very real, but the very existence of Susanin has yet to be proven. It’s understandable that this is an interesting topic, and that’s why these inflated claims are being made. One might say, let Kostroma take pride in its Susanin. But once we go down that road, it will become possible for other myths to arise.
As a result, we live in a country full of myths. They include the story about Russia’s absolute corruption. This is a myth born of reality. It comes from an unserious attitude towards many things, including history.
We might refer to a positive example instead; the decision to mark the 1150th anniversary of Russian nationhood put an end to the academic argument on whether or not Ryurik arrived with the Vikings, whether or not the Scandinavians brought nationhood to our land. This wasn’t just an argument where people ground various axes; it led to people losing their jobs or going to prison. Being a normanist was nearly considered a crime. There is nothing wrong with the fact that foreigners participated in the emergence of our national sovereignty. We must peacefully acknowledge that a foreign element played a role in the establishment of Russian nationhood; afterwards, it followed its own path. This is a proper attitude towards history.
There is no way to remove the political concerns from history. We simply find a way of making sense of them peacefully. There are many examples of how history can be manipulated.
Everyone remembers how a monument to Russia’s 1000 year anniversary was erected in Veliky Novgorod. It depicted many historical figures. Only Ivan the Terrible was absence. According to the wishes of the city’s people, he was removed from the list of significant participants in Russia’s history. For all of his negative traits, there are very few figures in our history as significant as Ivan the Terrible. Whether he was good or bad is an eternal debate. But when Karamzin published his volume dedicated to him, many remarked on how he had managed to finish it on time.
There are some events in history that can be conceptualized in different ways. The French consider the battle of Borodino a victory for their army, but so do we. They describe the battle identically, but interpret its last stage different. The French hold that, since we retreated, they won. From our point of view, that was a devious maneuver. The events are well known, but can be evaluated as a particular people wishes. This is perfectly acceptable. We cannot indulge the wishes of certain segments of the population that strive to make their own history “more ancient”, make themselves more significant, correct their biography. It is important to remember that everything in history is valuable; the good and the bad, the booms and the crises, tragedies and festivals. It is precisely this that makes up the sense of our own worth that we must strive to cultivate in ourselves.
There is currently an exhibit dedicated to Lomonosov open at the Hermitage. For many years, we have heard about how great he was. He was indeed a very intelligent person, invented many things, including the Russian scientific and literary language. At this exhibit, Lomonosov is presented more as an artistic figure. He conducted chemical experiments in order to invent porcelain, mosaics, and glass beads. All of this had to be produced in Russia. At the same time, he worked on fundamental things that were documented in books and preserved forever. He furthered the development of the Academy of Sciences and of artistic taste as a whole.
Our exhibit has a different tone, and not everyone likes it. In many ways, it is more about the Empress Elizabeth. This exhibit describes Lomonosov as a product of the Elizabethan Era.
During the Elizabethan era, the Petrine beginnings were built upon. More and more, Russia adopted everything European, both science and aesthetics. Fe^te galante and rococo emerged. At the same time, it was under Elizabeth that the realization that we, Russians, are not worse, but better than others, appeared. We have everything: our own Academy of Sciences, our own porcelain, beads... And we have Lomonosov. It is no accident that so much attention was paid to his struggle with the Germans in the Academy. There was no great struggle. That is nothing but ideology. The Germans were hardly bothering him, and he was brought up in Germany, after all. Everything Russia, including piety, was emphasized. Lomonosov was born as a phenomenon, a native Russian genius from Kholmogory.
As I see it, the most important item in the exhibit is a hat that belonged to Fredrick the Great. Under Elizabeth, we defeated the Prussian army. Fredrick ran, and lost his hat, and we entered Berlin.
Perhaps this is a provocative approach to Russian history. But it is based on the facts.
Power, its structure, and the people, who represent that power, reflect the development of the country. Peter the Great was full of a tremendous impulse to turn everything upside down, to make everything like it was in Europe. That was his Perestroika. Catherine the Great created an enlightened Russian empire. The groundwork for this empire was laid by Elizabeth. We went on to defeat Napoleon and create the Russian empire style…
It is essential to inspire people not only to be proud of their history, but to think more about it. The older history includes bloody crises and Times of Troubles. The newer history consists of revolutions, further Troubles.
Here is something worth thinking about: is what we are experiencing now revolution or Perestroika? I am certain that the country cannot even survive Perestroika alone, without speaking of revolution. Nor can the museum community that safeguards the country museum assets survive it. A new Perestroika will include a new wave of privatization. When making political, it is essential to understand who and what can prevent that. What political forces are capable of preserving that which has escaped privatization? To do that, we must evaluate everything that has happened in our country.
It is clear to everyone that privatization was unjust. Those who got rich during the process of privatization began to rule Russia. Oligarchy means “rule of the few”. They took control of politics, the television channels, the media... And what are we to conclude from all of this? People often say that we should nationalize everything. A new class has appeared today - property holders, large and mid-sized. The people who go to the middle are mid-sized property holders. They appeared during a smooth reconsideration of the privatization process. The major oligarchs acquired a significant number of their assets “gently”. That’s what they call equal distribution. They received huge sums of many, and now they can sue however much they like, insisting that they haven’t been paid enough. They were removed from the political arena and a significant portion of their assets were put back under the control of the government by various means.
It is, of course, bad and undemocratic when governors are appointed, and not elected. But it is well known how many gangsters came to power by democratic means. That’s what happened. We can observe echoes of the past in the legal proceedings. But now the situation has changed. It is possible to restore the elections for the heads of the regional governments. We can see the fine gestures that the authorities are making, rather than taking the bull by the horns.
It is worth remembering that the freedom of expression that we have received has been fostered by the current regime. One can talk as much as he wishes about hypocrisy, about how the same people are always in power. But those people didn’t stay in power when it could be done easily. They demonstrated respect for the law and the democratic process. When I hear what they say on television and in the media about the heads of the government, I am simply dumbfounded. One can see what the Republicans write about Obama in the opposition press. They are full of deathly hatred for him, and it is class hatred. There is no comparison between their statements and what our people feel they have the right to say about the power of the well-to-do, and about their political opponents. There is nothing extreme about the actual difference in positions and convictions if we approach it on the basis of careful thought and not emotion. Furthermore, emotion is the last thing we need in our public squares.
It seems to me that these demonstrations often turn into rock concerts. There’s a stage, and loudly shouting stars get up on it to solo. People go to concerts to hear music. There are places where it’s appropriate, and not in our public squares. The same thing applies to political theatre; society needs it to promote healthy self-criticism, and not arouse people’s passions.
It is appropriate to remember the pre-revolutionary years and the beginning of the revolution. Back then, it was fashionable to vilify the government and the authorities. The discussions that are underway now are often unintelligent. It was the same in the early 20th century, when the anthology entitled “Vekhi” was published. It printed many brazen historical documents. Intellectual suddenly understood that along with the freedom to vilify the government, they had stirred up every sort of vulgarity. The country spent a long time paying for that. Our illness was diagnosed in “Vekhi”, and that diagnosis states that the development of Russia is more important that ambition and political disputes. One of the most striking examples is the fate of the elections for the Constituent Assembly. They were held in a revolutionary country and produced, as we now understand, a fracturing of Russian society. The Bolsheviks, declaring the elections illegitimate, dissolved the Constituent Assembly. The country was left high and dry.
Now on to Putin’s article; rather words we might expect from Stolypin, some form of “it is you, gentlemen, who need great convulsions - what we need is a great Russia”, was titled with the words of Gorchakov: “Russia is collecting itself”. This was Chancellor Gorchakov’s directive to the Russian ambassadors on how to explain the country’s position after the Crimean War. This was Russia that had just suffered a humiliating defeat, which it was struggling to escape from by various means. One of them was Gorchakov’s policies, which clearly showed everyone how strong Russia was. This was the correct diplomatic approach. This flexible policy led to our country being more respected. I don’t know who thought up that phrase about rising from our knees. We were never on our knees. If you respect yourself, then others will respect you.
At the time, it worked. But today, the results of what is going on in our country are reflected in the rest of the world’s attitude toward us. There is fresh agitation about the history of the art that was removed from German, the claims against the Russian government for this property. Reminders of the fact that we lost the cold war are appearing.
When thinking about history, it is useful to consider what happened in similar situations. The defeat in the Crimean War led to the reforms of Alexander II. However much these reforms were reproached for being half-hearted, they were radical, and they created the country that was destined for defeat in the Crimean War. By the way, they gave birth to a class of “new Russians” who “started fires” all over Europe, organizing all sorts of Courchevels there... At the same time, Alexander II was despised by the progressive Russian intelligentsia. They hounded him, tried to kill him. Terror for the people. A shameless hunt for the Emperor, a psychological explosion and fracturing of society.
Everyone saw what came of the Time of Troubles, what came of Catherine the Great’s reforms. She wanted to create something in our country that might remind one of England. But Pugachyov “laid into her” so much that she rejected the idea. As a result, Russia wound up with a harsh autocratic government, harsher than it might have been.
There are many lessons like that. We must try not to write a single textbook and establish a single view of history, but rather make history a subject of thought and discussion, even that discussion winds up getting heated.