Russian Students and History

By Ball, John Donald | Contemporary Review, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Russian Students and History


Ball, John Donald, Contemporary Review


'REVISIONIST' history appears to have achieved widespread currency in Britain in recent years. History, we are instructed by several representatives of the intelligentsia (intelligentsia is not an English, but a Russian word, invented in the era of Lenin's youth), is not an objective discipline, and is therefore subject to undisciplined revision, superordinated by subjective political concerns. The revisionists' premise, of history not being objective, is largely true; but their normative conclusion is a non sequitur, because the subjective element in history is what mandates the strictest discipline in humbly striving toward an approximation of truth, superordinate to politics.

Look to the condition of History in Russia, as an exemplar of the consequences of chronic revisionism: all British historians, revisionist or otherwise, will be surprised to learn, as I did while lecturing in Russia, that Britain entered the war against Germany in the year 1944.

I learned this, while I was a visiting lecturer in International Law, at Ural State University of Economics, in the city of Ekaterinburg, Russia's 'Third Capital'. I received the lesson while I was instructing my Russian students about an American legal case from 1942, involving the possible deportation of a Hungarian immigrant. I said, 'Of course, in 1942 America was at war with Germany, and technically at war with allies of Hitler's empire, including Hungary'. My entire class demurred, passionately, shaking their heads at this absurdity, instructing me: 'America wasn't at war with Germany. America entered the war in 1944'.

And so, they argued, did Britain enter the war in 1944. They entertained no counter-argument. This is the traditional, authorised Stalinist history of the 'Second Front' which opened in Normandy in 1944, prior to which America and Britain were not really at war with Germany. It is still received wisdom in Russian schools, taken as an article of faith by these students, who have lived most of their lives after the 'fall of Communism'. The red flag is gone; the unhistorical doctrine lives on.

Of course, Russians will tell you, it is all a matter of interpretation. In the Russian language -- reflected in Russian habits of thought -- there is no distinction between 'argument' and 'evidence'. It is almost impossible to explain the difference to any Russian, even those who are fairly fluent in English. The Russian language does not premise argument upon evidence; it conflates the two. That conflation is then articulated through the very Russian presumption that motivations can be assumed -- motivations can simply be known, through some mystical medium -- and the knowledge of these motivations is then conflated with evidence. One knows a person's motivations, and then reasons from that knowledge toward an interpretation of his deeds. This becomes evidence and argument, at once. Thus: Russia did not collaborate with Germany in launching the Second World War. Why is this true? Well, I instructed one class on the laws of war, vis a vis the Nuremberg Trials of 1946. The law of Nuremberg stated simply, tha t it is not legal to launch a war of aggression against a passive, non-belligerent country. Hitler did this in 1939, when he invaded Poland; my students agreed, and they agreed that Hitler violated the law. Stalin simultaneously invaded Poland in 1939; my students agreed that this happened. But, did Stalin therefore violate the same law? They said, 'No, because it is well known that Stalin wanted to protect Russia's interests when he invaded Poland'. (In fact Stalin compromised Russia's interests by launching the war, but never mind.) Therefore, historically, they argue, 'Stalin did not help to start the war.' But he did start the war, you will argue, and my students did admit, that he invaded Poland. But because they, as mystical Russians, know what was in Stalin's heart, they know he did not violate the law in spirit -- even if he did in history -- and therefore . …

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