Enslaved by History
October 1, 2014
Constantly debating history and daydreaming of the past’s return, we shut ourselves off from the present and the possible future. By and large, we simply do not want to do anything, because everything is going to happen by itself at the next “stage of history,” in whose endless repetition we for some reason have come to sincerely believe.
Constitutional Court chief judge Valery Zorkin has caused the latest scandal in the blogosphere and the media by writing, “Despite all serfdom’s shortcomings, it was the main tie binding the nation together internally.” Even psychologists got involved in the ensuing commentary. I have the impression everyone was waiting for someone to say this. Chatting about serfdom’s possible return is timelier, after all, than discussing whether our country can develop modern technologies and a modern society.
If somewhere in America someone is talking today about the possible return of slavery, there is a good chance this person is a Russian immigrant. No one else is obliged to remember such things.
Of course, we all have good educations. We know lots of things. Unlike Barak Obama, we know for sure that Crimea was given to Ukraine not in the nineteenth century but in 1954. And we are, allegedly, the country that reads the most in the world. If the country’s president or a jailed oligarch finds himself with a free minute, the first thing either of them does is take a tome by nineteenth-century Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky from off the shelf. Because we need to learn, after all, and, that’s right, history the best teacher. And yet we do this without noticing that Klyuchevsky himself has long been history.
But there are no other historians for us nowadays, just as there is no nowadays.
Learning from history is easy and pleasant. The point is we don’t have to do almost anything: someone has done everything already. Saint Vladimir adopted Christianity from Byzantium. Let’s argue whether this was good or bad. It’s a debate with no strings attached, because Christianity was adopted long ago. It is what it is, and many folks have since then even managed to do stints as atheists. But arguing about the “right” Christianity or the “wrong” Christianity is definitely easier than fasting or attending midnight mass. And it’s all the more easier than comprehending the basics of rational philosophy.
We can argue about reforms that we ourselves had nothing to do with. All reforms were handled wrongly, of course. In some cases, they were hurried; in some other cases, they were confused; in still other cases, they were not followed through to the end. How nice it is to talk about it! As we criticize other people’s mistakes, we grow smarter right before our own eyes. It’s not just that we can explain to the late Alexander III or Count Sergei Witte in layman’s terms where and how they went wrong, but also that we are not going to repeat their mistakes in the sense that there are not going to be any more reforms. Otherwise, God forbid, everything will happen all over again.
Our principal horror also resides in the past: Russian revolts, times of trouble. Unlike Hobbes’s war of all against all, they have a habit of repeating themselves. That is what we believe.
17 and 37 are not just bus route numbers to us. The worst Russian revolt and time of trouble occurred in 1917, and the horseman that gallops alongside it, like melancholy and calm in the Brodsky poem, is “another 1937.”
To a large extent, our entire society can be divided into those hoping for another 1917 while fearing a repeat of 1937, and, vice versa, those sadistically and lustfully looking forward to a another 1937 while also realizing with horror that 1917 is inevitable.
What the heck, the twentieth century traumatized us badly. The past thus consists of wall-to-wall demotivators. Unsuccessful reforms and bloody revolution, followed by what an émigré writer of the 1920s described as “everything as it had been, only worse.”
And then “the revolution devours its heroes” altogether. By contrast, World War Two is the main justification of our existence. Victory in the war was our country’s only success, while the Brezhnev Stagnation was a brief blessed moment when we could reread Klyuchevsky again. The Stagnation has already been reprised again and has even ended. Our Russian wit tells us that everything else is now going to happen again, too.
“What is to be done?”: the question itself has long been a part of history. Diluting luminous Klyuchevsky with dark Ilovaisky, wholesome, ruddy conservatives-cum-historical reenactment fans suggest bringing back “the Russia we lost.” Would that things were like they were under Alexander III or Nicholas I: candies and baranki manufactured in Belarus, golden-domed Moscow, the peal of church bells, rosy-cheeked schoolgirls and muzhiks in sheepskin coats carrying portraits of the tsar, a sputnik for all people of good will, a pogrom and the Pale of Settlement for all liberals, and a big fat middle finger for Europe.
And would that Stalin were with us again, as in a happy childhood. Those who don’t agree with that picture choose between the Banquet Campaign of the liberals and the harsh underground of the Bolsheviks. But neither “conservatives” nor “liberals” nor “leftists” really have any doubt that 1917 is on its way, followed by 1937. Whatever you do! Because for a long while no one in Russia has done anything.
Of course, you can try and run away from it all, if you have money, to the Europe of our dreams, to the kapstrany (capitalist countries) dear to the Soviet individual’s heart, to the places we were not allowed to go, but about which we know so much thanks to books and films. This is the Europe of Poirot and La Dolce Vita: the Europe of corner cafes, tasty beer, Martini on ice, chrome-plated old cars, and gentlemen in bowler hats. Hang on a second! Tolerance, you say? Where did all the blacks and Arabs come from? Why are the jeans made in China? Where is the Paris that, in Soviet movies, was shot in Tallinn? Alas, disappointment awaits most of us in Europe. 1930s Europe is long gone, 1960s Europe is, too, and the 1970s have disappeared over the horizon. Even old man Depardieu is now an official resident of Mordovia.
The present, the real, holds no interest for us, wherever it is. Because only what we can buy at an antiques market is “genuine” and “real” to us.
Well, until the oil money runs out, we can indulge ourselves in antiques, domestic and foreign.
According to one commonplace, Russia is a literature-centric country. However, all the literature we studied at school and of which we used to be proud has long been history. History is now our everything. And the more everything revolves round history, the less we notice the present, while no one at all wants to see the future. Why, pardon me, should we, since history always repeats itself? But the question is, ladies and gentlemen, what if, suddenly, our future is not necessarily a repetition of our past? What then?
To paraphrase a famous historical metaphor from the century before last, after all the storms and disasters that have befallen it, Russia looks like the “sick man of Eurasia.” Тhose who were appointed to take care of Russia have immobilized the wounded patient without thinking twice and put it on a drip. And while the exhausted country sleeps its drug-induced sleep, its history drips down the tube.
Vladimir Putin excoriated the West in a speech on Thursday, comparing his foreign opponents to Adolf Hitler in their desire to destroy Russia while reminding foes that his armed forces were “polite but menacing”.
Speaking at the Kremlin in his annual address to parliament, Russia’s president defended his decision to annexe Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in the spring, saying that it was a place as sacred to Russians as holy sites in Jerusalem for Jews or Muslims.
He said that Russia faced a threat to its very existence from western states and accused the United States of manipulating Russia’s neighbours – in particular, Ukraine – in an attempt to subordinate Moscow to Washington’s will.
“If for many European countries, sovereignty and national pride are forgotten concepts and a luxury, then for the Russian Federation a true sovereignty is an absolutely necessary condition of its existence,” Mr Putin told MPs, ministers and regional leaders. “I want to stress: either we will be sovereign, or we will dissolve in the world. And, of course, other nations must understand this as well.”
Mr Putin said foreign foes of Russia had supported similar separatists “up to their elbows in blood” in the 1990s and early 2000s, but without success. “They would have been delighted to let us go the way of Yugoslavia and the dismemberment of the Russian peoples, with all the tragic consequences. But it did not happen. We did not allow it to happen.”
He added: “It also didn’t work out for Hitler, who with his man-hating ideas wanted to destroy Russia and throw us beyond the Urals. It would be good to remind everyone of how that ended.”
The Russian leader opened his speech by praising Russians for “going through an ordeal that only a united nation, a truly strong and sovereign state, could shoulder”.
In a clear reference to Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in the east of the country, he said: “Russia has proved in deed that it is capable of defending its compatriots, of honourably defending truth and fairness.”
Mr Putin justified the takeover of Crimea by saying that it was “where our people live, and the peninsula is of strategic importance for Russia” as well as it being the setting for the baptism of the medieval prince Vladimir the Great in the 10th century.
Crimea had “invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism”, he added.
—Tom Parfitt, “Putin compares West with Adolf Hitler in desire to subjugate Russia,” The Telegraph, December 4, 2014