Can History Be Saved?

Richard Cohen

Nostalgia for the USSR has led to severe restrictions in the treatment of history by the Russian state, and Vladimir Putin.
Xi & Putin meet in 2023
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Can History Be Saved?

Vladimir Putin is not only presiding over a massive invasion of a neighbouring country, he is dictating how Russians should understand past events—not just over Ukraine but long before, ordering huge revisions in what history is taught in schools and liquidating the research group that documents the Gulag prison camps.

‘History’ has a double meaning: ‘history’ is the past but also a description of that past, so every author of a work of history is an interpreter, a filter, with his or her own input. At present the past is under attack, by the very people who shape our understanding of it.

In February 2020 an American historian, Matthew Connelly, wrote how under President Trump vital information was deleted or destroyed, so that no one—neither the press and government watchdogs today, nor historians tomorrow—would have a chance to see it. And in the last few months President Xi announced his plans to rewrite China’s history. Throughout the world would-be dictators have set about changing how their people perceive the past.

Such revisionism is hardly new. Tacitus begins his Annals about ancient Rome: ‘The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime, out of dread—then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.’

Barely a single nation or country has not molded its history to advantage. From the recounting of the Spanish Armada (valiant small British ships against massive Spanish ones) to heroic tales of the battle of Britain, British history is crowded with myths— what the military historian Michael Howard called ‘nursery history.’ The French thought themselves the decisive factor in the outcome of the First World War; many in the United States have only a hazy notion of who helped them win the Second.

The late-nineteenth-century French historian Ernest Renan is famous for his statement that ‘forgetfulness’ is ‘essential in the creation of a nation,’ his positive gloss on Goethe’s blunt aphorism, ‘Patriotism corrupts history.’ This is why nationalism often views history as a threat. What governments declare to be true is one reality, the judgments of historians quite another. ‘History always emphasizes terminal events,’ Albert Speer complained sharply to his American interrogators just after the end of the Second World War. He hated the idea that the achievements of Hitler’s government would be eclipsed by its final disintegration.

Even democratic countries like Japan are charging their historians to promote false versions of their history, in the name of a greater patriotism. Nationalist historians began to question whether the 1937 Nanjing Massacre ever happened, and in October 1999 an alternative textbook for schoolchildren, Kokumin no rekishi (The History of a Nation) was released, extolling Japan’s wartime record while vehemently attacking those who publicized its outrages.

One might argue that all wars require a heroic narrative, to inspire soldiers to risk their lives (look no further than Putin’s recent pronouncements) and, after the conflict has ended, to ensure that they and their survivors believe that they have not suffered or died in vain. However, such a comforting comes at great cost. John Carey here: ‘One of history’s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly, and painfully, past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.’

Another distinguished historian, the Canadian Margaret MacMillan, goes further, writing before the U.S. became split in two over the 1619 Project and the issue of the country’s founding: ‘It can be dangerous to question the stories people tell about themselves because so much of our identity is both shaped by and bound up with our history. That is why dealing with the past, in deciding which version we want, or on what we want to remember and to forget, can become so politically charged.’

Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. Joseph Conrad.

In the brief period that the Soviet Union opened up its archives under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, Antony Beevor was one of the foreign scholars who travelled to Moscow to undertake research, in his case into Russian military archives. He had to promise to submit material, aware that if the authorities disagreed with what he finally wrote he would not be allowed back. When his award-winning Berlin: The Downfall 1945 appeared in a Russian edition it was criticized for focusing on atrocities committed by the advancing Red Army. His Stalingrad (1998) was also published in Russia, with a foreword (not even known about by Beevor) warning readers that much in the book was wrong. But this was not enough. In 2015 the Russian army announced it was forming a special commission to open up its archives to refute the ‘lies’ Beevor had perpetrated, and in the same year the regional education ministry in Sverdlovsk, near the Ural Mountains, issued a decree telling school and university libraries to ‘check the availability of works’ by Beevor and to ‘take measures to remove them from access by students and teaching staff.’ The criticisms were taken up in 2015 by the upper house of parliament in Moscow, which set forth a list of ‘undesirable’ organizations recommended for banning. Neither Beevor’s nor other suspect historians’ books (for instance, those by John Keegan) can now be bought in Russia.

Such official diktats continue; the Russian edition of Yuval Noah Hahari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) had whole sections rewritten without the author’s knowledge to eliminate criticisms of government behavior. Yet that same government has declared censorship illegal.

By 2015 the Laissez-faire policies of Boris Yeltsin had long been revised by the controlling hand of Vladimir Putin, who took over as prime minister in August 1999 and is now in his fourth term as the country’s president. His views of his country’s recent history have been made clear. The Soviet Union was the last, not the first, European country to sign a deal with Nazi Germany: Western deals with Hitler were the real disgrace. In 1939 the Soviet Union did not attack Poland; it merely protected territory abandoned by the collapsed Polish state. And so the defense of Stalin’s diplomacy has continued, on and up to the present invasion of Ukraine.

From the start, Putin appreciated the effectiveness of historical rhetoric for his nationalist agenda, particularly if it played to popular nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the collapse of which was a humiliation for most Russians. This was a point emphasized by Orlando Figes in a recent article on Putin’s approach to controlling the historical record as far as Russians are concerned. As he summarizes their situation: ‘In a matter of a few months they lost everything—an empire, an ideology, an economic system that had given them security, superpower status, national pride, and an identity forged from Soviet history.’

Polls in the year that Putin came to power showed that threequarters of his people regretted the breakup of the USSR and wanted Russia to win back lost territories. As Figes argues, they were resentful about being told they should be ashamed of their history. They had been raised on the Soviet myths: the great liberation of the October Revolution, the first five-year plan, the collectivization of agriculture, the defeat of the Trotskyites, and Soviet achievements in culture, science, and technology. Why should they feel guilty? Today even Soviet-era secret police uniforms are on sale. Putin promptly created his own version of history, combining Soviet myths (sans their Communist baggage) with stories from the Russian Empire before 1917, and when the centenary of the revolution came his government ignored it.

Putin has not denied Stalin’s crimes (on the contrary, on several occasions he has publicly acknowledged them) but urges that they should be set against Uncle Joe’s achievements, above all victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45. It makes for an odd balancing act. In 2015 a gulag museum was opened in Moscow, but most labor camps and mass graves have not been commemorated and are gradually being destroyed or removed.

In June 2007, during a nationally televised conference of high-school teachers in Moscow, Putin grumbled about the confusion he saw in the way that Soviet history was taught. The following then took place:

Conference participant: In the past two decades, our youth have been subjected to a torrent of the most diverse information about our historical past. This information [contains] different conceptual approaches, interpretations, or value judgments, and even chronologies. In such circumstances, the teacher is likely to . . .

Putin (interrupting): Oh, they will write, all right. You see, many textbooks are written by those who are paid in foreign grants. And naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them. Do you understand? And unfortunately [such textbooks] find their way to schools and colleges.

Four days after the conference, the Duma introduced a law authorizing the Ministry of Education to decide which textbooks should be published and which used in Russian schools. Not long after, a chapter was added to textbooks about Crimea’s glorious return. In theory, competition in the school textbook market exists, but in reality the Kremlin is motivated as much by avarice (an approved book may have print runs of up to a million) as by ideology and has heavily promoted an educational publisher called Enlightenment, whose chairman is a friend and onetime judo partner of Putin’s; meanwhile the administration has shut down rival companies or banned competing textbooks. It has also turned out that one of the leading textbooks, The Modern History of Russia, 1945–2006: A Teacher’s Handbook, had been commissioned by the government itself, which had issued the following guidelines about how authors should evaluate the national leaders of these years:

Stalin good (strengthened vertical power but no private property); Khrushchev bad (weakened vertical power); Brezhnev good (for the same reasons as Stalin); Gorbachev and Yeltsin bad (both destroyed the country, although under Yeltsin there was at least private property); Putin the preeminent ruler (strengthened vertical power and private property).

According to Figes, the main author was Alexander Filippov, deputy director of a think tank connected to the administration, but the chapter on “sovereign democracy” was written by Pavel Danilin, a Kremlin propagandist reportedly without a history degree or any teaching experience. Danilin explained in an interview:

Our goal is to make the first textbook in which Russian history will look not as a depressing sequence of misfortunes and mistakes but as something to instill pride in one’s country. It is precisely this way that teachers must teach history and not smear the Motherland with mud.

The first use of actual violence in the service of Putin’s control of history came on December 4, 2008, when masked men from the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office forced their way into the St. Petersburg offices of Memorial, a civil rights group that since 1987 has pioneered research into Stalinist repressions. The men confiscated the organization’s twelve hard drives containing information on more than fifty thousand victims of repression and other documents from 1917 to the 1960s. In September the following year a Russian historian researching German prisoners of war sent to Arctic gulags was arrested, his apartment searched, and his entire personal archive confiscated. He was told he faced up to four years in jail. Russia’s FSB intelligence agency also arrested a police official who had handed over archive material to the professor. A human rights campaigner in the Arkhangelsk region where the gulag was situated commented: ‘What we are seeing is the rebirth of control over history. The majority of Russians don’t have any idea of the scale of Stalin’s repression.’ In January 2018, the Culture Ministry withdrew the distribution license for The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s black comedy about the Soviet leader and his immediate circle.

Putin, who doesn’t care if his critics think he is ‘on the wrong side of history,’ has become ever more intent on a single narrative, controlled by the Kremlin, about what Russia was, which means he will continue to deny the full complexity of its history, molding a collective memory through propaganda, the media, and officially sanctioned books. But whatever the intentions of Putin’s campaign, the current regime’s attempt to alter the historical record is hardly realistic. The opening of the archives, the publication of their documents, and the work of organizations like Memorial have made that infeasible. Although the archives are no longer as easy to consult as for a short time they were, they cannot return to their former shut-off state. However, as long as the government promotes self-serving patriotic myths, bad history will continue to be written and propagated.

‘I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,’ wrote George Orwell in 1942, reflecting on pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. ‘I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.’ The problem continued to trouble him. Three years later he went further: ‘Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.’

And the cost of living with a false past? As Ryōtarō Shiba, one of Japan’s foremost novelists who lived through the Second World War and its aftermath, wrote: ‘A country whose textbooks lie . . . will inevitably collapse.’

There is a real danger that the world will forfeit a true account of its past, and unless we unite to stop it history will be the loser. A recent cartoon has a king on his throne addressing a courtier. ‘I’m concerned about my legacy,’ he says. ‘Kill the historians.’ We have been warned.

Richard Cohen is the author of How to Write Like Tolstoy, and his new book, Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past.