Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Wanted: A New Language

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Wanted: A New Language

Article excerpt

After ceasing to toe the Marxist line, some Russian historians are still searching for a fresh approach to thier country's past

HISTORY is a language unto itself that allows historians to speak simultaneously about the past and about themselves. It is not enough to say, like the great historians of old, that history is written on the basis of sources: no less important is the fact that it is written by historians.

The rewriting of history therefore does not, in my view, mean "simply" the reappraisal, however radical, of historical events. It means changing the language of history, which in turn calls for a historian of a different cultural and anthropological type, and for a rethinking of the relationship between history and society.

Thus defined, the rewriting of history has not yet been undertaken in Russia. We go on speaking the same historical language as before. The only difference is that we now speak it much less often and more reluctantly, the main reason, in my opinion, being that historians have not changed as much as society.

A blurred picture of the past

Perestroika brought about radical changes in the Soviet public's awareness of history. The major offensive against communist ideology took place on the battlefield of history, but it was not waged by historians. It is no wonder that politicians took such an interest in history, since history, more than anything else, was the source from which the Soviet regime drew its legitimacy. In the period that proved decisive for the overthrow of communist ideology, the years between 1987 and 1989, discussion centred mainly on an assessment of the role of Stalin. The democratic press scored a decisive success when it managed to link the name of Stalin, in the popular mind, with the gulag, the Soviet regime and socialism.

It did not, however, succeed in completely overcoming the traditional idealization of Stalin's rule. Apart from the fact that there were still a number of convinced Stalinists, large segments of the population had lost their moral bearings as regards their attitude towards the country's past. While some rejected the Soviet historical experience out of hand, others did not know what to think about it. For many Soviets, the idealized image of Lenin continued to counterbalance the image of Stalin and to lend moral credibility to the Soviet regime.

By 1990, however, everything "Soviet" had been discredited to such an extent that Lenin's image too was gradually tarnished. In June 1991, a majority of Leningraders voted for a return to the city's former name of St. Petersburg. However, the image of Lenin had not yet become such a powerfully negative symbol as that of Stalin by the time that history, quite simply, ceased to interest people.

The political events of 1991-1993 removed history definitively from the forefront of public concerns. The Soviet regime's loss of legitimacy became complete, and the democratic ideology that came out on top looked elsewhere for legitimacy, primarily to an idealized image of Western civilization, the market economy and parliamentary democracy. But if that image had a "historical dimension", it was that of a history alien to Russia.

On the other hand, the communists and nationalists who joined forces to form the opposition could not agree on an assessment of the Soviet period because of the deeply held anti-communist views of some of the nationalists. The opposition's own forays into history have in the main been limited to the extolling of Russia's military exploits.

The reawakening, in connection with the nationalist movement, of interest in the Orthodox church and its history and in the history of Russian religious thought is of relatively minor importance, owing in part, perhaps, to the fact that the Russian church adopts an extremely cautious stance and plays only a modest role in social life. There are no grounds for believing that a plan for the rebuilding of society attractive to the majority of the population can be worked out on the basis of an "Orthodox renaissance". …

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