Russian history professor: we've lost the taste for truth

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Photo: Jaanus Piirsalu

Mythologising history, loss of objective view, hindering learing lessons from history, is a problem with all of former Soviet bloc nations says Russian historian Andrei Zubov (64), known for his stand against Kremlin propaganda.

-Having compared annexation of Crimea to that of Austria and Sudetenland by Hitler, you drew fire from Russian public and lost your job as teacher at the MGIMO institute of foreign relations in Moscow. What happens with history when heads of state – I do not mean the Kremlin only – want to control it, to popularise the «right» and needed version?

Always, when becoming part of politics, history is mythologised. Sadly, this has happened in lots of nations, not in Russia only.

As science, history requires maximal precision in research and maximal amount of facts, to draw the conclusions. Always, genuine history teaches us if the steps taken were right or wrong, whether they led to healing of worsening of the situation in the land.

Mythologised, history has another goal – to justify one’s state, one’s nation, and that naturally at the expense of other nations. Like they say in England: our nation is always right.

Indeed, this is characteristic of the current Russian leadership. But there is a very important «but». Namely, that the current powers are successor of Soviet Union, and this is the official position that they talk. Not of the old Czarist Russia, but of the Soviet Union, and therefore it attempts to legitimise the Soviet rule.

This, however is relatively hard to do as the society is rather free nowadays and the materials freely accessible. Therefore, certain key things have been declared sacred, not subject to discussion. Like what in Moscow is called the Great patriotic War. Criticism of it is met very painfully by public, and generally not received. 

-How does it look; is the Kremlin building its «sacred history» for the people by half truths or blatant lies?

Well no, there are no false facts as this is impossible in free society. Only marginal historians do blatantly lie. The powers apply another tactic: not half truths, but rather opting to not talk about things.

Some things are talked about, some not. Of the  Molotov-Ribbentrop pact we are already willing to talk; but what Soviet regime, the Soviet Army did in Eastern Poland or in Baltics – like the deportations in Estonia, they prefer not to talk about it.

-Well but the very Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is presented as a brilliant and vital tactical move by Russia and Stalin, to gain time, not as  Stalin’s and Hitler’s deal to distribute territories.

Exactly! No-one in Russia wants to talk about that, tactics or no tactics, foreign lands were seized during that, and terrible things done there. They are talking about how useful it was for Estonia to join the Soviet Union, not that it was occupation.

The Bolsheviks never made any deals honestly and with honest intentions. Same now. They (Russian leadership – author) assess everything on the useful-not useful scale. They only talk about what is to their advantage. For them, the truth equals foolishness.

Look at all the lie produced by the Kremlin regarding Ukraine! Everybody knows they are lying. They know that everybody knows, but they keep on lying just the same!

-Last year, Russian national archives head Sergei Mironenko told me he was not sure the Russian people wanted to know their own history. By now, Mr Mironenko has for that very reason been dismissed, because he openly stood against the pseudo-historian culture minister Vladimir Medinski who did not like that he spoke about facts which failed to coincide with 28 myths by Panfilov regarding the Great Patriotic war times. What do you think, who wants to or prefers to see such a polished picture?

I think in any nation people above all want to know the truth. Meanwhile, it is easier to live with the sweet lies. As a teacher, I know that when putting things honestly as they were, the listeners – especially the youth – will be with you, supporting you.

We must tell the truth. Historians and journalists must get people used to the truth, not replace communist lies with nationalist lies.

-What do you think are the far reaching consequences of Russian powers, to be specific, trying to alter the vision of history, creating its own interpretation?

Indisputably, the awareness of the youth has declined a lot compared to the early 2000ies. They are inclined to believe the dogmatic treatment of history, to be shallow and superficial. In a word, more like the Soviet youth. That’s all because of what the powers are doing. Thankfully, unlike in Soviet times, one can fight this. I do it, lots of my colleagues do it.

-To what extent is your voice heard, in Russia?

Judge by yourself. Our two volume Russian History of 20th Century, first published in 2009, has a print run of 150,000. My and my colleagues’ lectures are very popular.  

By the way, I think the mythologizing of history is not Russia’s problem only; the inclinations are there in nations like Poland, Estonia – it’s an overall phenomenon in the post-Soviet system. It is our common problem. We have lost the taste for truth, in history!

We all have a great desire to create national myths, thinking that this helps. That’s a 19th century phenomenon, which has already led to two world wars. Indeed, therefore the Western European nations have given it up; but at the opportune moment in the wake of WW2 the European demythologizing trend passed us by, and now we are all back in national romanticism.  

This is dangerous for all. Dangerous for Russia, equally dangerous for Baltics as hindering an objective view on history. Only a sober view on history allows us to learn from it. Look at the French, with horror, discovering their colonial policy in Algeria and Madagascar. With total lack of passion, the Britons are investigating their own colonial history. That’s the right thing.

-In Russia, for that to happen, the regime should change I guess?

At least that. But in Estonia, the regime is totally democratic, yet in the heads not all has changed yet. So the regime must change of course, but that’s not all. Also, there needs to be a very deep work with the society.

The Soviet legacy is not mainly in statues of Lenin, and the squares; it is in people’s heads and mindset, where the truth is not an absolute value. Though the statues of Lenin should go as well of course, first thing.

-Seems like when each nation has their myths based treatment of history, long-term conflicts are inevitably programmed between neighbouring nations and/or the inhabitants. people. Take the youth even: very difficult to relate while having these totally differing understandings and attitudes towards the same events. For one, grandfather is a hero, for the other a Nazi henchman, and vice versa.

Sure, you are absolutely right! This is no longer an issue of religion and morals only, though that’s vital as well; it’s an issue of practical coexistence of nations and countries. Because of our Soviet madness, we have quarrelled with almost the whole world. And it’s only because we are cultivating Soviet myths.

-In my opinion, the other schizophrenic situation is inside the Russian society, where the executioners till this day are merrily living next to victims and are perhaps held even in greater honour! Thus, all are boiling in the same porridge.

That’s true, but what to do? This is a very complex problem. In Estonia, it was very clear – the Russians were conquerors and executioners, except the few decent individuals, and Estonians were the victims. As you restores tour nation state, all come into place. The executioners were thrown out, memorials were built for the victims.

In Russia, however, it’s all mixed up still. In many cases, executioners and victims are even in the same family. For with us the victims to be raised to honour, a difficult political process needs to be passed...

-And that would be?

Carry out a real and systemic decommunisation in Russia, after the Eastern European example.

-Why doesn’t the Russian orthodox church, which you have thoroughly researched, do something towards that? Why doesn’t the church call for real decommunisation in Russia? Seeing that the Orthodox church suffered terribly under Stalinist destruction.

It (the Russian orthodox church – author) is likewise a communist legacy. Stalin totally destroyed the Russian orthodox church and, in September 1943, basically recreated it, but already as a Soviet institution.

Regrettably, our current Russian orthodox church has turned out a successor of that church created by Stalin. Russian orthodox church ought to undergo the same kind of desovietisation as the Russian society.