Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Struggle For The Past Continues

Washington, 2 December 12998 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts to write new national histories in the post-Soviet states are exacerbating ethnic tensions across this region, undermining national unity in several countries, and increasing cynicism about the value of history itself.

Each of these three developments threatens not only the possibilities for intellectual understanding of the complicated pasts of these states but also their prospects for evolving into stable, open, and democratic societies.

And consequently at a time when most historians there had assumed they could focus on correcting the distortions of the Soviet-era history, many of them are being forced to address post-Soviet challenges that may prove equally fateful.

These were the unexpected and unsettling conclusions of a remarkable conference of young historians from seven of these countries that took place in Moscow earlier this fall but was reported in the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" only last week.

This meeting was unprecedented in one way and unusual in a number of others. It was unprecedented in that it attracted scholars from so many of these countries to discuss their current common problems.

And it was unusual in that it was sponsored by private groups rather than state institutions, attracted junior researchers rather than senior scholars, and focused on the ideological problems for historians in the post-Soviet period.

While there were significant differences in emphasis among the participants, all agreed that efforts by national leaders to use history to bolster their authority and that of the countries represents an extremely serious threat.

First, these efforts to create new national histories are exacerbating tensions among the countries of the region and in some cases among the peoples within those countries.

That happens in several ways: Sometimes these historian-recruits to the national cause simply put a minus sign in front of Soviet views.

Sometimes that approach seems reasonable. Many North Caucasians, for example, no longer celebrate the actions of the Russian generals who conquered them.

But sometimes it is questionable. One speaker noted that some Georgians refuse to commemorate Hitler's defeat because a few historians there had suggested that the Georgian soldiers involved had fought in a foreign -- that is, Soviet -- army.

And in every case, it offends many people even as it affirms others. But this "change of signs" is far from the worst aspect of these new national histories.

According to Tamara Guzenkova of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, new national history textbooks give little attention to anything except military history and enemies within and without.

And that in turn has the effect of creating an explosive cycle, not only building up the image of the enemy that all the participants said was an integral part of nationalism but also infuriating the nation whose heroes are denigrated.

Not surprisingly, several participants blamed this new history for the recent cycle of ethnic violence. In the words of one, "many contemporary ethnopolitical conflicts have their roots in the pages of history texts."

Second, these attempts to foster national unity in some cases are turning out to be counterproductive, destroying the very social cohesion that the political sponsors of such histories hope to achieve.

Efforts to create national histories, several conference participants said, often prove self-defeating. Many of the post-Soviet states are divided along ethnic and regional lines, and what some groups approve, others find offensive.

And in every case, there is a generational problem. Older people tend to hold on to the heroes and enemies of the past, even the Soviet past, while younger people tend to fasten on new post-Soviet ones.

Finally, because national histories can be either ethnic or political, historians and their political sponsors have to make a choice. In the Kazakhstan, for example, the new national histories emphasize ethnicity. In the Russia, the latest histories emphasize politics. Both approaches create problems at home and abroad.

And third, because many of these post-Soviet efforts are so blatant, they are discrediting history in the minds of many and thus limiting its utility as a means of overcoming the problems of the past and building a better future.

While the conference devoted relatively little attention to this problem beyond reporting a poll showing that fewer than one Russian student in three can now name the other former Soviet republics, this may prove the most serious obstacle of all.

But the meeting ended on a remarkably optimistic note -- precisely because these young historians are now focusing on this problem and talking to one another, something they could not have done in the past.