Alexei Bayer: Russia, Captives of History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.]

While in Central Europe, I got a sense of how much work awaits the Commission to Combat Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests, which President Dmitry Medvedev set up in May. In Budapest, a Hungarian friend kept pointing out bullet holes and shrapnel scars where Soviet tanks fired on apartment buildings in 1956. Then, in Lithuania, I visited two museums. The first, Stalin's World near the resort town of Druskininkai, displays toppled socialist realist statues of local communists, Soviet leaders and World War II partisans. The other, called the Museum of Genocide Victims and located in the former KGB prison in Vilnius, documents postwar Lithuanian resistance, in which 20,000 perished by the mid-1950s.

Blatant falsifiers of history thrive everywhere around Russia's borders. Even in Finland, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited this month, there is hardly a church -- Protestant or Russian Orthodox -- where Finns who died in the 1940 Soviet invasion are not remembered as defenders of the Fatherland against a brutal aggressor.

In most countries, history plays the role of a national myth and a foundation of national culture. Such official history may not be accurate or even true. Gray areas, interpretations and revisions are left to professional historians, whose work may interest their peers and history buffs but is rarely challenged by the official establishment. For example, U.S. participation in World War II is celebrated by politicians who on the anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy and the day of victory extol the "Greatest Generation." Meanwhile, historians write articles and books criticizing the conduct, strategy and tactics of the war and even the purpose of U.S. entry into the European fray.

But Russia is different. In "1984," George Orwell famously satirized the use of history under communism, where every change of policy required a new historical narrative. Orwell wrote his anti-utopia 60 years ago, but even though the Soviet Union has long disappeared, history remains a living, breathing and ever-changing subject in Russia. At any moment in time, there is "correct" history and "falsified" history -- with falsifications invariably perpetrated maliciously and to the detriment of Russia's interests. The two histories periodically switch places...

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