The Problem of Forging Post-Soviet History
Shlapentokh, Dmitry, The World and I
While the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet regime took place in 1991, and new generations of Russians are entering adult life without any personal experience of living under Soviet rule, the new Russian state is still in search of its identity. This is manifested, among many other things, in an endless search for the appropriate historical backdrop for the regime. The abolition of the November 7 holiday--the official Soviet holiday related to the Bolshevik Revolution--and its replacement with November 4--the day of the supposed Russian victory over the Poles in the seventeenth century and the end of what is called the "Time of Trouble"--is one among recent changes in the writing of Russian history. And, while the regime has assumed that these changes would bring about more stability to Russian society, the end result could be quite different.
The end of the Soviet regime and collapse of both the regime and the country has led to the attempt to find a different historical backdrop for the emerging society. During the first years of the Yeltsin era, the regime had regarded Soviet rule as a horrible zigzag in Russian history and tried to shed the memory of its Soviet past. The effigies of Soviet leaders were removed, the streets and squares received their old pre-revolutionary names; and there was the beginning of talk that Lenin's body should be removed from its mausoleum where it had been placed since his death in 1924. November 7, the day the Bolshevik Revolution began, an official holiday during the Soviet era and preserved as a holiday, was transformed into a "Day of Reconciliation."
At the same time, by the end of Yeltsin's second term (1996-2000), there was increasing dissatisfaction with the post-Soviet rule. The Soviet regime had increasingly re-emerged in the minds of Russians as a positive force: It became related with a strong and internationally respected/feared state and safety net. There was also the feeling that there were no irreversible losses of Russia's strengths and that the benefits of the "good old days" could be brought back. As a result, in the late Yeltsin era and the early days of Putin's regime, the images from Soviet history once again started to creep back into official discourse. The Red banner had returned to the Russian army; and by Putin's time the music of a new Russian anthem was actually the same as before, with, of course, different words. The restoration of some aspects of Soviet history, i.e., those related with the might of the state, went along with a continuous increase in the promotion of images of Imperial Russian history when the might of the state had been the most important aspect of its image.
Peter the Great, the Westernized ruler and the first Russian ruler to take the title of emperor--was prominent as part of the historical backdrop of the early days of Putin's regime. In 2003, the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg had been celebrated with great pomp. And the images of Imperial Russia as a mighty state had been implicitly merged with the images of a reinterpreted Soviet history. Still, this appeal to the Soviet legacy, even limited, did not work. The point is that Russians had been nostalgic for Soviet history not just because of nostalgia for imperial might, but also because they related the Soviet era with a security net. And from this perspective, Putin had provided little hope. The income gap between rich and poor had not diminished. Moreover, in the beginning of 2005, Putin had actually abolished the old Soviet privileges for pensioners, war veterans, etc. These benefits included free medicine, free rides on public transportation, etc.
Putin's action had led to demonstrations by pensioners; however, they were limited in scope and were not supported by the non-elderly. Still, even these protests scared Putin's regime for they were implicitly connected with several post-Soviet revolutions, usually called "orange revolutions," which had led to the replacement of regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The Putin regime feared the same events could be repeated in Russia. And it was here where Soviet history could hardly help Putin. Indeed, Soviet history is related not only with the image of a mighty Soviet state but also with revolution.
Moreover, the disturbances of early 2005 had corresponded with the centennial of the 1905 Revolution, which in official Soviet historiography was regarded as the precursor of the Bolshevik Revolution. And this had pushed Putin towards the end of his original flirtation with the Soviet legacy. There were increasing rumors that Lenin's body should be removed from the mausoleum; and in 2005, November 7, the start of the Bolshevik Revolution had finally been replaced by November 4 as a national holiday, sort of a Russian equivalent of Americans' July 4 or the French June 14. According to reinvented history, November 4, 1613 was the day of victory over the Poles and other foreign invaders who, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, had occupied a large part of Russia. This is what was known as the "Time of Trouble"--a time of occupation marked by general instability; in fact, the very existence of the state was at stake. And November 4, 1613, had supposedly marked the end of these misfortunes and the stabilization of the country, which finally had a new czar and dynasty--the Romanovs.
Putin's ideologists had assumed that events would fit well in Putin's plan to drive people away from dangerous memories and instill them with a sense of order and patriotic duty and pacify the country in general. The very proximity of November 4 to November 7 seemed to insure a smooth transition from one holiday to the other. Still, the move could hardly be seen as the best way to accomplish the government's goal. It actually revealed the meaning of the regime--a meaning that Putin hardly liked to see--and provided the ideological foundation for a new span of upheaval. To start with, the appeal to seventeenth-century traditions implies that Putin's Russia is closer to the seventeenth-century state than to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Imperial Russia. At that time, and then especially in the beginning of the twentieth century, Russia was seen by at least some Europeans as a strong European state, an important ally or a formidable foe that one should take seriously.
And it is this image of the late Imperial Russia that Putin, while discarding the legacy of the Soviet era, had no intention of erasing from public memory. As a matter of fact, he saw his Russia as a strong Western state, a part of a global concert of great power. The image of seventeenth-century Russia hardly corresponded with this Putin dream. Still, paradoxically enough, the appeal to seventeenth-century tradition was a sort of "Freudian slip" of the regime. It revealed the very essence of present-day Russia, which, indeed, was closer to seventeenth-century Russia than to Imperial Russia of the late eighteenth-early twentieth centuries. Indeed, present-day Russian borders, especially on the West, are exactly where they were in the beginning of the seventeenth century before absorption of Ukraine in 1653. The country's almost official ideology--Russian Orthodoxy--was self-centered and foreign to the messianic zeal of nineteenth-century Russian Slavophiles, who believed that the Russian form of Orthodoxy should be the key to global salvation. In fact, they are the ones who coined the philosophy that, in the future, would be called the "Russian idea." Finally, there is the social/economic design of present-day Russia, where not law but connection with the huge body of corrupted bureaucracy is what defines success or failure and where almost pervasive corruption permeates all segments of Russian society, despite Putin's assertion about "dictatorship of the law."
Finally, the local governors would themselves be the big proprietors of the banks, factories, etc. located in their provinces and would regard these possessions, either a direct or indirect bribe, as their major source of income. All of this is quite similar to the way Russia was governed in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries.
All of this makes present-day Russia closer to feudal seventeenth-century Russia than to the Russia of the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries. Present-day Russia is, indeed, more pre-modern than modern. Thus, the harkening back to the seventeenth century is more revealing about the country's real condition than the appeal to the memory of the Soviet empire or even Imperial Russia. Still, it is not the fact that by turning to seventeenth-century native history the Russian authorities exposed themselves as the rulers of a provincial and self-centered state; the danger is of a much more serious and different type.
The point here is that the authorities had actually unleashed nationalistic animus and had indirectly sanctioned xenophobic sentiments that could be seen in thousand-man strong demonstrations in Moscow celebrating the new holiday. While the Communist demonstrators, a motley throng of "red to brown" with all of their nationalistic sentiments, still appealed to the legacy of the USSR, a multi-national empire, the new demonstrators openly proclaimed racist, even Nazi ideas. Their admiration for Nazism could be seen by their characteristic salute and other symbols from the Nazi era. Still, it would be wrong to see the rising Russian nationalism, for which the new holidays provided additional justification, as placing Russia on the eve of a new edition of Nazi Germany. This sort of prediction has been made for more than a decade, and notions of a "Weimar Russia" have been quite widespread among pundits. One should use the terms taken from the West with a grain of salt; in fact, most of the terms taken from the West can hardly be applicable neither to Russia nor to most of the other non-European countries.
German Nazis had proclaimed the expansion of the Reich. They were also not against the presence of foreigners in Germany, except for possibly Jews. In fact, million of foreigners were brought from the East to work in Germany. The situation is quite different in present-day Russia. Those who participated in the demonstration in Moscow on November 4, 2005 had quite a different design. Their slogan was "Russia for Russians," implying not just the expulsion of non-ethnic Russians--mostly people from the Caucasus and Central Asia--but even shaving from Russia ethnic enclaves, such as Chechnya, or, possibly other former autonomous republics inside the Russian Federation, where ethnic Russians could not dominate completely.
In harkening back to early seventeenth-century history, the nationalistic message could well be understood by the ethnic minorities as well. The old Soviet idea was an imperial idea; it appealed to all ethnic groups of the empire, even when it hammered the idea of ethnic Russians' leading role. Putin tried to preserve this imperial ideology of the past; and, it is emphasized, it was not just ethnic Russians but all ethnic groups of the state who participated in defending Russian in seventeenth century events. Still, the nationalistic ideology enmeshed in prior Russian nationalism and orthodoxy would further alienate the minorities of the present Russian state who, in any way, feel increasingly alienated. Moreover, seventeenth-century bygone events are absolutely irrelevant to the people of Siberia and the Far East who also look more and more upon Moscow as an imperial power that just pumps resources from these areas to benefit the few nouveau riches and bureaucrats in the center of Russia.
Thus, Putin's plan, replacing Soviet history with the seventeenth century in order to solidify Russia by expunging the memory of social conflicts related to the Soviet legacy, actually promotes the forces of self-centered Russian xenophobic nationalism, ethnic separatist nationalism and regionalism. And this--potentially quite dangerous process for the country's future--is hardly what Putin and his entourage had in mind when they decided to discard the Soviet legacy.
Dmitry Shlapentokh is a professor in the History Department at Indiana University at South Bend.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Problem of Forging Post-Soviet History. Contributors: Shlapentokh, Dmitry - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 21. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2006. Page number: Not available. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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