A good measure of a nation’s present political culture is the way it regards its past. This is true if one considers social attitudes to historical events or the rhetoric and actions – or inaction – of a country’s politicians faced with the challenge of reshaping historical belief.
It is most relevant and revealing when a country is undergoing a transformation from authoritarian rule.
So, we may judge a country’s present condition by evaluating the nature, and variety, of the ways in which it seeks to apprehend the past; which historical events are remembered, perhaps commemorated, and integrated into a narrative of national continuity, which are forgotten, perhaps deliberately suppressed, and disappear from accounts of rebirth and new beginnings.
In Russia, it has traditionally been said that the past is unpredictable. Certainly, successive Soviet leaderships harnessed history for their own benefit, rewriting school textbooks, reshaping the form and content of ritual remembrance, and pressuring the professionals who ‘construct’ history – not just historians, but writers, film-makers, museum curators, architects, artists and others – to revise their accounts of the past – to ‘deconstruct’ history, so that it might be rebuilt in a manner more suited to propping up present-day power and promoting social cohesion and orderliness.
So it is that many western commentators believe that they know Putin by what he says with regard to Soviet history, and present-day Russia by the degree to which society seeks solace in a retreat to the past.
Yet their analysis is flawed.
Many outside observers have a tendency to see and hear only what they are already looking and listening for – evidence of a Russian post-imperial chauvinist nostalgia, a yearning for superpower status abroad and stability at home.
But they overlook the diversity of current political and social opinions in Russia about history and the nuance of what is said by all but the most hard-line adherents of one or another view. They also ignore the significance of this diversity and nuance.
Putin himself is ambivalent about the Soviet past. He is much quoted as stating in his 2005 Presidential Address that the collapse of the USSR was the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century’. Yet a moment later, in the same speech, he announced that Russia’s ‘young democracy’ of the post-Soviet era ‘was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life’. He has frequently articulated this position, that Russia must strive to preserve elements of its identity – even its Soviet identity – in order to change into something different.
It is clear that Putin rejects the Soviet centrally-planned command economy, while believing that the state must play a role in regulating private enterprise to curb its perceived excesses. He denounces Stalinist mass repression and terror while standing for the authority of the state over society. He understands the futility and cost of the Cold War, while rejecting the terms of the ‘peace’ that followed.
Of course, it is not clear precisely where Putin stands ideologically or in practice between these poles of historical interpretation – he has not unambiguously articulated his stance, and even if he has a stable, consistent and coherent position, there are good political reasons why he does not say so. His appeals to history are often hedged. ‘Anyone who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart,’ he is quoted as declaring, ‘but anyone who wants it restored has no brain.’ In any case, as Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy argue in a recent essay, Putin – like all politicians – is more concerned to ‘use’ the past to ‘make history’ than he is to engage in historical argument. But his ambivalence creates space for, and stimulates, debate.
So, while Moscow city planners reinstate inscriptions praising Stalin in a refurbished Stalinist-era metro station, Russian schools introduce Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago – the most damning indictment of Stalin in world literature – into the core curriculum. Most recent textbooks similarly reflect official ambivalence.
Medvedev, on the other hand, has spoken out unambiguously for renewed de-Stalinisation. But he has failed to translate this rhetoric – like his repeated promises to end government corruption and modernise the economy – into effective action. This is one reason why respect for him, even amongst erstwhile supporters, is fading fast.
Russian society demonstrates the same variety of views about its past as any ‘normal’ country – a construct that is itself, of course, shaped by cultural assumptions. To be sure, there is greater tolerance in Russia for views that in many Western countries would be considered intolerable, but that is a difference of quantity rather than quality. It would be wrong to speak of an inherent Russian chauvinism, or an in-built predisposition to strong leadership or authoritarian rule, even if currently much of society seems to displays both traits.
Different social strata and different generations demonstrate varying orientations towards the past. According to the Levada Center, which conducts regular opinion polling among the Russian population, since 1991 the figure of Lenin has become ‘less significant’, while ‘attitudes towards him have become more positive’. The increase in positive assessment of Lenin’s role comes, curiously, from the youngest generation, those aged 25 years and under.
Polls by the Public Opinion Foundation support this. Sociologists of this organisation suggest that today’s 20 year olds assess Lenin more positively than those who left school between 1978 and 1985. School-leavers’ attitudes towards Stalin are similarly more positive than those of their parents, although today’s youth – like most of the Russian population – generally evaluate Stalin more negatively than Lenin.
Do these statistics signal a desire among those who never knew the USSR to return to the authoritarian past? Or are they more an expression of this generation’s rejection of present-day politics? Indeed, what do Russia’s young people actually know about their history? How has their ‘knowledge’ of the past been transmitted or created? Who are the ‘Lenin’ and ‘Stalin’ invoked by opinion pollsters?
These are the crucial questions for understanding the role of history in contemporary Russian political culture.
Nick Baron, Associate Professor in Russian History, University of Nottingham