For Russians, the 20th Century with Its Historical Shortcomings Hasn’t Ended, Kobrin Says

June 7, 2015
Sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov at work on a giant statue of Grand Prince Vladimir to be situated on the Vorobyov Hills near Moscow State University. Photo by E. Razumny/Vedomosti

Staunton, June 3 – Centuries do not always correspond to the period between years ending in 00. Most historians argue that the nineteenth century, for example, lasted from 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon until 1914 when World War I broke out. And now a Moscow historian is arguing that “in Russia, the 20th century has not ended.”

That is no small thing, Kirill Kobrin argues in Vedomosti, because in Russia that century and the ones before it are being “used as an inexhaustible resource for the self-justification of every kind of affair, large and small, as a mix of cocaine and anti-depressant.”

In Kobrin’s words, “a drunken peasant swears when he has nothing more to say, while a present-day Russian remembers ‘history’ every time when he has no rational explanations or proposals to make about something in his life.” And that has meant that history as some objective ordering of facts no longer exists or even can exist for many Russians.

That opens the way to errors large and small, often most noted when they are made by Russian leaders but most horrific when they are made by lower-ranking officials or ordinary Russians. “If the highest use history as a universal anesthetic with a certain care,” those below them act as if they can invent things from whole cloth.

One can and does laugh at some instances of this, but the phenomenon as a whole, Kobrin argues, is no laughing matter not only because it has deep historical roots but also because it has an extraordinarily powerful and negative influence on the future of Russia and its relations with others.

The current problems Russians have with history and indeed their “obsession” with it to a certain extent began with the 1917 revolution, whose leaders initially declared that history began with them and that there was nothing good in that past. Then, Stalin decided that there were parts of the past, such as tsarist statehood, he found valuable and wanted to stress.

That pattern, Kobrin says, has contributed to a schizophrenic view of the past among many Russians: for those who grew up in Soviet times, “there could not be anything good before 1917, but there was something good or even very good: a great power, the victories of Russian arms, the fears of enemies, beautiful palaces, the decrees of the tsars and somewhere near the tail end a great culture.”

As the USSR approached its end, “’the class line’ weakened” and the “’statist’ one,” with its “preservationist, nationalistic, and monarchist tones, very often with an anti-Semitic or even racist shadings,” came to the fore. Russia’s past was equated with the tsars, metropolitans, generals and promoted as a result.

“Perestroika consciously shifted all this into the mainstream,” Kobrin continues, “adding the fantastic notions of people who were total marginal, local fascists and Stalinists,” each of which promoted its own vision and version of the past in “’the historical sections’ of bookstores throughout the country.”

This “historiographic degradation” accelerated in the 1990s when the past became a consumer product or brand with vodkas bearing the name of various Russian leaders from the past or the products described as “being prepared according to the recipes of our ancestors” without any concern about whether this was true or not.

“Legitimation by the past, well-known in the marketing of the entire world reached its absurd apogee” in Russia at this time, but now the Russian authorities have gone beyond that, Kobrin says, and are seeking “to replace the customary means of producing and distribution knowledge about the past” by restoring their control over history institutes.

“In the rear of this front,” he says, “is to be found the classical Russian bureaucrat, the very same who sometime cited the three phrases of Lenin he had learned in a party school.” That is going to make “history” in Russia even more problematic, Kobrin concludes, and thus make Russia’s present and future more problematic as well.