Streetwise Professor

December 4, 2010

The Presentness of (Russian) History: State Department Edition

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

I have very mixed emotions–believe me–to learn that State Department cables on Russia often read like SWP posts.  (Or is it vice versa?)  This cable from Wikileaks (h/t Sean’s Russia Blog) in particular resonates: it describes the intensity, the presentness, of history and its interpretation in Russia.  I have written, only half in jest, that when I want to juice the comments, all I have to do is write a post on Russian history, and away we–or I should say, you–go.  And where you go is completely unpredictable.

The cable even has a section heading using a quote that I’ve used before, Faulkner’s line: “The past is not dead; it is not even past.”

This bit made me chuckle:

8. (C) XXXXXXXXXXX said he suspected that at least some of the pro-Kremlin bloggers who participate in these historical debates were professionals in the pay of the GOR (and perhaps special services).

All right, anybody feel in a confessional mood?  Come on now, fess up.  Ha!  No, I am sure that all of you are arguing in your spare time (at the 3:39 mark).  Which gives me a greater sense of personal satisfaction, actually.

Actually the main thrust of the cable is pretty optimistic.  Its conclusion is along the lines of the old Soviet joke, “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”  The conclusion could be phrased as: “They pretend to crack down, we pretend to obey”:

9. (C) The fact that Russia currently lacks such a “historical propaganda” institution has thus far prevented any widespread attacks on academic freedom in the name of “anti-falsification.” XXXXXXXXXXXX, told us October 27 that he had heard no reports from any of his MGU colleagues of any pressure on them to present teaching materials or name names in order to ferret out “falsification.” He attributed this at least in part to the fact that, in contrast to neighboring Belarus, Russia has no Ideological Department which examines all teaching materials in schools and universities. XXXXXXXXXXXX also cautioned against leaping to Orwellian conclusions, reminding us not to “underestimate the cynicism” involved in administrative requests like the one at RAN. “Everyone knows how to take such requests,” she said; the request from the government is “ugly,” but unlike in Soviet times, when professors all depended upon the government for their currently there is no way to enforce such decrees. As a result, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX, “people wink”; the administrators, while passing along the government’s request, make it clear to their subordinates that they themselves do not support it. XXXXXXXXXXXX pointed out that many historians may be outraged at the government’s heavy-handedness and its “real falsification of history,” but they don’t see themselves as a unified force. The simplest response is to use the power of inertia, and to stonewall passively.

The analysis argues that the main purpose of these falsification campaigns is to serve as boob bait for internal political consumption:

Goal of GOR rhetoric: score political points at home

10. (C) For the GOR’s part, it held a session of its Commission during the summer, and its director claimed that participants were “not here to censor, but simply to oppose” perceived attempts by other countries to gain at Russia’s expense on the geopolitical scene. Although the stated focus is on international disputes, the GOR’s primary audience for its hardline stance is domestic. Rhetoric defending Russia’s honor on the international stage scores easy political points for the GOR at home.

That said, the report does cite at least one disturbing instance of a crackdown:

More recently, on October 14, the Moscow Times reported that the German government had written a letter to President Medvedev complaining about an investigation into an Arkhangelsk historian, Mikhail Suprun, for “violating privacy rights” by researching deportations of Soviet Germans under Stalin. The police official who gave Suprun access to the archives is also accused of “abuse of office,” while Suprun could receive up to four years in prison, and has had what he called “a lifetime’s work” on computers and research data confiscated by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

It is well known that the imposition of a large punishment with a small probability can be an efficient means of deterrence.  So making of an example of a Suprun and his police collaborator can be a far more effective way of achieving the goal of limiting dissent and heterodoxy than a broad, Soviet-style crackdown: it is hard to measure the extent of self-censorship that occurs as a result of the prospect of playing, historical Russian roulette with “GOR.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Russia’s latest “plan” is to ban from entering the country any foreigner who does not agree with the state-sponsored version of Russian history. Putting aside the terrifying totalitarianism inherent in such a move, coming so soon after the same tactics brought he USSR to her knees, Russia seems unable to grasp:

    (1) How this makes it perfectly clear that Russians know the facts are not on their side, and don’t trust an open discussion of them, or
    (2) How foreigners can respond exactly the same way, meaning that Russians will have no chance to state their views and 95% of the world will go on rejecting the Russian version.

    It shows nothing but savagery and weakness on the part of the Kremlin. If only Russians could be one-tenth as accepting of their own atrocious history as the Germans are of theirs; then there might be some hope that Russia will not go the way of the USSR.

    Comment by La Russophobe — December 4, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

  2. Really? Is a history test going to be part of the visa application process? How, exactly, are the Russian Consulates and Embassies throughout the world going to ascertain applicants’ views on Russian history? How about supplying a link to the announcement of this “plan”?

    The Duma just approved a declaration acknowledging the massacre of Polish prisoners at Katyn was a direct order from Stalin. It also expressed its “deep sympathy for the victims of this unjustified repression”. What? Not enough? Should they bring out the sackcloth and ashes?

    One of the “Perils of Apology” cited by Jennifer Lind in Foreign Affairs Magazine (“The Perils of Apology: What Japan Shouldn’t Learn From Germany”, Foreign Affairs May/June 2009) is the inspiration of a nationalist backlash, which in this case would likely strengthen the Communists. Japan provides an instructive example – “Authors such as Yoshinori Kobayashi and Kanji Nishio, who reject what they call the ‘masochistic’ retelling of Japan’s history, have a wide following”. My, having the Communists in charge of Russia again would be a major step forward, wouldn’t it? At the same time, I cannot help but note the scarcity of scathing articles about Japan you have penned.

    It’s a fairly common viewpoint, if a little blinkered and even comical, to assume one’s own position is so unassailable that anyone attempting it must naturally be doing it for pay. In fact, being paid to write a particular viewpoint is a growth industry in the USA like nowhere else. Even so, Technorati’s 2009 “State of the Blogosphere” reported 72% of bloggers received no financial compensation for their work (although that still leaves almost 400 paid bloggers out of the surveyed group). The percentage of paid bloggers is significantly lower in other countries. I doubt any of the commenters here are being paid to agree or disagree. Hope that doesn’t detract from your sense of “personal satisfaction”.

    Comment by Mark — December 6, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

  3. I have very mixed emotions–believe me–to learn that State Department cables on Russia often read like SWP posts. (Or is it vice versa?)

    It’s both. This stuff comes form the same toilet bowl, just as the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s bulletins, Pravda articles, and the writings of Soviet economists and historians come from the same bowl.

    The American society is a very brainwashed one. This was understandable to me during the Cold War/pre-internet years. I even was one of the brainwashed ones. What choice did I have? All my information was coming form the US mass media.

    But it is very sad that even in this internet era, most Americans, including you, Craig, remain as brainwashed as ever.

    I know you take pride in your lack of knowledge of the Russian language, Craig. So, all your information about Russia and other countries comes from the US mass media. Sadly, this makes you as ignorant as a street sweeper in Nizhny Novgorod, whose only information about the world comes from Putin’s TV channels.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — December 9, 2010 @ 2:55 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress