Sunday, 9 May 2010

Rewriting Russian History to justify “Why Russia is Great”

There is a significant historical debate taking place amongst Russian historians and writers over differing interpretations of Russia’s 20th century history. It must be said this debate is far from healthy.

A reinterpretation of Russian history is being used to justify the current governments ‘great Russia’ policy. The writer Elena Godlevskaya has written a mild attack on this type of history called “Russian History Doesn't Explain Why Russia is great” in order re-examine Russian history albeit again from a right wing perspective.

In 2007 Vladimir Putin called for a more patriotic history. Putin said teachers had “porridge in their heads”, attacked some history textbook authors for taking foreign money — “naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them” — He then went on the call for new history textbooks. He then passed a new law which gave the state sweeping powers to approve and to cancel history textbooks for schools.

While some new textbooks provide some opposition to this falsification they did not go very far and certainly very few Russian historians will uncover the real history of the Stalin period. Igor Dolutsky, the author of a history textbook of “positive history”? “It’s an appalling idea which hinders proper teaching in schools. School history should not create patriots, it should teach children to think. Putin’s task is to rule a state edging towards totalitarianism.”

It is certainly extremely worrying that what is being taught in Russian schools is largely also superficial and false. When the BBC journalist John Sweeney went into a Russian classroom it was clear that many of the students had a low level of understanding of their own past. This is not a fault of their own.

Aleksandr Filippov is a typical example of the “Positive History Man”. He defends this type of history “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. A generally positive tone for the teaching of history will build optimism and self-assurance in the growing young generation and make them feel as if they are part of their country’s bright future. A history in which there is good and bad, things to be proud of and things that are regrettable. But the general tone for a school textbook should still be positive.”

Godlevskaya applauds the fact that “educationalists are working to solve a task of national importance – how to use the past to glorify the present”.

While the years of Stalinist falsification, lies distortions and slanders have taken a toll on the consciousness of the Russian and international working class she complains that “ Soviet people were taught that the history of any nation is the history of class struggle, the crowning glory of which was the Great October socialist revolution.

Then there was continuing conflict with counter-revolution, capitalists, kulaks, wreckers, cosmopolitans, Western ideology etc. – until the last enemy, in the form of low oil prices, brought about the collapse of the USSR”

While not agreeing with entirely the above statement it does sum up the predicament of the present Russian revisionist historians. While they would like to forget about the history of the Russian Revolution under conditions of a massive global capitalist crisis this history is assuming a greater significance than at any time since the last great depression of the 1930s.

Godlevskaya criticises the current Russian historiography as far too simple and not complex enough she says “The ideology of textbooks today is different: Russia is a great country. We really do have something to be proud of. But as you read paragraph after paragraph, you start to think that you’re missing the most important thing. There are plenty of victories, no problem with that. The facts which before could only be read about in samizdat or discovered from reports by Western radio stations, which were jammed with enviable consistency, – they’re all here: the destruction of the peasantry, the repressions and the undemocratic nature of the one-party system. Names have appeared which were previously unmentionable. So what’s missing? Reasons and arguments. Russia is a great country simply because it is great”.

Godlevskaya in her articles also fails to touch upon an important part of this campaign to rewrite history is the attempt rehabilitate Stalin and his political methods. This is also an expression of Russian capitalism's attempt to achieve its place history and in order to defend its growing nationalist ambitions.

The Russian capitalist class is unable or wants to solve the problems of Russia's population of mass unemployment and social inequality. It is attempting to gain a modern legitimacy by invoking a past period which according to any objective source was “dark period “.

Godlevskaya makes some correct points when she examines why the population in general has a so little understanding of its own history and quotes French historian Lucien Febvre when he complained: “…universities don’t require their students to have a critical understanding of the text. They teach them to make do with mere words – dates, names of historical figures and places…”While this sentiment is to be applauded it leaves a lot of the past untouched.

In fact the ‘ignorance’ for want of a better word of the general Russian population of its own history lies not only with the falsification of national history by the Stalinists and their historians but also international historians have complimented this glorification of Stalinist historical falsification.

For want of a better explanation, in the west the failure of a number Russian and international historians to comes to terms with the role of Stalinism in the former USSR has been severely debasing. This is not to say that all historiography on the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath is bad far from it. See Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record edited and translated by Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido. (Brill, 2009). See also David North who has written numerous good works on the subject. A good historian could also examine the work of the foremost authority in Russia on the purges Vadim Rogovin. Vadim Rogovin in his numerous books has said that the main aim of Stalin’s terror was the destruction and annihilation of any kind of left wing of opposition inside the Soviet Union to his bureaucratic regime. At the centre of his work was Stalin’s chief protagonists Leon Trotsky. Trotsky represented the best traditions of the Bolshevik Party and Marxism in Russia.

But in general it seems that that Russian historiography is dominated by a very right wing cable of historians who intend to first rehabilitate the memory of Stalin but also to denigrate and slander Leon Trotsky. While it is impossible to go into every single historian of this genre I will deal with the most recent. Robert Service has recently written a biography of Leon Trotsky.

David North one of the world’s leading authority on the Russian Revolution has recently given another lecture on the book by Service said this “Returning to Mr. Service’s biography after a hiatus of several months, two things became clear to me. First, the book is even worse than I had remembered it to be. Second, I had not identified all the factual errors, half-truths, distortions, falsifications and outright slanders that are to be found in Mr. Service’s biography. Indeed, the work of identifying all the errors in his book is a job that could keep a number of Oxford history department graduates busy for months. What I wrote in my initial review was not an exaggeration: the refutation of every statement that is factually incorrect, lacks the necessary substantiation and violates accepted standards of scholarship would require a volume almost as long as Service’s book. There are statements and assertions that are completely unacceptable, from a purely professional standpoint, in every chapter”.

If Robert Service book is not bad enough he is backed up by a coterie of writers such as the poet Ian Pindar who does occasional small reviews for the Guardian newspaper. Having a look at his blog he apparently holds no specialised knowledge of the subject i.e. the Russian Revolution. While not being against this it is clear that he cannot recognize bad history when he sees it and unless he wants to refute it he must share to same right wing proclivities that are buzzing around the head of Mr Service. His review of Comrades: Communism - A World History, by Robert Service (Pan, £9.99) back this up and I quote him

“Communism is hard to define, largely because of the "confusing legacy" of Marx, says Robert Service in this superb history. There are many communisms, he argues, but roughly the same Marxist-Leninist model has been employed, with variations, around the globe. Marx argued that under communism, the state would cease to exist. But as Service shows, the exact opposite happened, the state becoming a bloated monster, squashing indigenous cultures and religions and intruding into private lives. The first communist state was a genuine innovation, he admits, although the Bolsheviks were never very popular. Winning over working people has always been a problem for communist leaders, the solution usually being a dictatorship in their name”.


In conclusion I am not saying that anyone who writes on the Russian Revolution has to agree with a Marxist perspective. But what I must insist is that basic professional standards have to be upheld. It is only when this is done can a new audience which is studying this controversial period can be given a choice based on ‘good history writing.

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