Vladimir Putin’s Rewriting of History Draws on a Long Tradition of Soviet Myth-Making

From Smithsonian Magazine:

History has ever been a harbor for dishonest writing—a home for forgers, the insane or even “history-killers” who write so dully they neutralize their subjects. Direct witnesses can be entirely unreliable. The travelogue of the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, which he dictated while in prison in Genoa to a romance writer who was his fellow inmate, is about two-thirds made up—but which two-thirds? Scholars are still debating. Survivors of Josef Mengele’s vile experiments at Auschwitz recall him as tall and blond and fluent in Hungarian. In fact, he did not speak that language and was relatively short and dark-haired. The director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel has said that most of the oral histories collected there were unreliable, however honestly contributed.

Many of these instances can be ascribed to the quirks of human memory. Actual fakery, though, has a long history. As Tacitus begins his Annals, “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime, out of dread—then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.” In England in the 16th century, it was common to share made-up stories about your ancestors in the hope of achieving greater social standing.

Most countries at one time or another have been guilty of proclaiming false versions of their past. The late 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan is known for his statement that “forgetfulness” is “essential in the creation of a nation”—a positive gloss on Goethe’s blunt aphorism, “Patriotism corrupts history.” But this is why nationalism often views history as a threat. What governments declare to be true is one reality, the judgments of historians quite another. Few recorders set out deliberately to lie; when they do, they can have great impact, if only in certain parts of the world.

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“I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,” wrote George Orwell in 1942, reflecting on pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.” The problem continued to trouble him. Three years later, he went further: “Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.” Chief among the culprits were the falsifiers of the Soviet Union, in particular Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

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In her history of Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum writes of the “peculiarly powerful combination of emotions—fear, shame, anger, silence—[that] helped lay the psychological groundwork for the imposition of a new regime,” Stalin’s Soviet Union. The completeness of the state, the pervasiveness of every institution from kindergarten schools to the secret police, put an end to independent historical inquiry. In this brave new world (Orwell described Soviet commissars as “half gramophones, half gangsters”), historians were not just to do Stalin’s bidding; if, in his eyes, they failed to do so, their lives were ruined and often shortened. For instance, Boris Grekov, director of Moscow’s Russian History Institute, had seen his son sentenced to penal servitude and, in terror, made wide-ranging concessions to the Stalinist line, writing books and papers to order.

Another leading historian, Yevgeny Tarle, was one of a group of prominent historians falsely accused of hatching a plot to overthrow the government; he was arrested and sent into exile. Around the same time, between 1934 and 1936, the Politburo, or policy-making body, of the Russian Communist Party focused on national history textbooks, and Stalin set scholars to writing a new standard history. The state became the nation’s only publisher. Orwell had it right in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the Records Department is charged with rewriting the past to fit whomever Oceania is currently fighting. The ruling party of Big Brother “could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”

Stalin, too, wrote his own version of events, contributing part of a “short course” on the history of the Soviet Communist Party. In his teens, vozhd (the boss), as he liked to be called, had been a budding poet, and now he contributed verse for the national anthem, improved on several poets’ translations and even made changes to the film script of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. He was a master of what could be done with language; under him, the euphemism “extraordinary events” was used to cover any behavior he considered treasonable, a phrase that covered incompetence, cowardice, “anti-Soviet agitation,” even drunkenness. The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was to refer to Stalin ironically as “the Great Linguist” for his corruption of language.

“Uncle Joe” himself died peacefully, aged 74, on March 5, 1953, after three decades of bloody rule. Three years later, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, announced a special session in which he gave delegates a four-hour “secret speech” denouncing the former leader and providing a radically revisionist account of Soviet history that included a call for a new spirit in historical work. Practitioners were admonished to upgrade their methods; to use documents and data to explain rather than simply proclaim past Bolshevik views; and to write a credible account—one that would include setbacks, confusions and real struggles along with glorious achievements.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

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