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Nikita Sokolov. Justification of Violence in Russian History Textbooks

30 ноября 2011

On March 2nd, 2010, Nikita Sokolov, historian, presented a report titled ‘Justification of Violence in Russian History Textbooks. Violence and the Myths of Russian Modernization’ during the second part of the international conference ‘Democracy and Justice in Transitional Societies’. Here is a transcript.

What I’m going to talk about today is just some primary observations based on a very limited volume of data. I specialize in Russian history textbooks and I’m going to talk only about them. My knowledge of foreign history textbooks basically covers Ukrainian ones (which are absolutely symmetrical to Russian and similar typologically). My knowledge of other foreign textbooks is generally limited to some more or less detailed recitations, in particular «The use and abuse of history, or, How the past is taught» by Marc Ferro. Therefore, now I will be talking about the Russian data, and here are my observations.

First of all, one should bear in mind that historical violence is not a subject of reflection for authors of schoolbooks. Schoolbooks aren’t interested in violence in history. They don’t ‘see’ it because it is considered a natural consequence of wilderness and savage customs. At least it was so in the late XIX — early XX century until the institutes of international humanitarian law are established. Until the emergence of the first international humanitarian conventions the world is considered to be stuck in the evil, and thus no violence is considered excessive and worth mentioning.

The occasion when acts of some extraordinary or exotic violence are mentioned in school textbooks can be counted on one hand. The case of the Preobrazhensky and Rybakov textbook is revealing. This textbook caused a big scandal and even a discussion among the public in 1999 because it was the first one to mention that after defeating Kazan in 1552, Ivan the Terrible’s army ‘massacred Tatar population’. It was practically the first time when violence towards non-combatants during a military conflict was mentioned in an official textbook in Russia. It is impossible to find any notion of either Jewish pogroms by Bogdan Khmelnitsky or of the extermination of mountain villages in the Caucasus by General Yermolov, or the heroic deeds of ‘The White General’ Skobelev in Central Asia in any Russian textbook. None of that exists, it’s all perceived as not transgressing the moral standards of the time and not worth any special mentioning or any reflection.

The situation changes substantially when describing the First World War (in view of the use of asphyxiating gas), then radically in relation to the events of the XX century: after the Nuremberg Trials the society changes the perception of what’s socially adequate, in regard to the past particularly.

I must admit that as far as I know, such a flaw isn’t specific only for Russian history books. Yet again, my experience is limited. But I can affirm you that in this respect, Russian textbooks don’t differ from the most other textbooks in the most countries. Children are always taught history that is complementary to the society they belong to. It is always the one that experiences violence, it is never an actor performing violence itself.

All of that would be trivial and utterly boring if Russian history textbooks didn’t bear a very interesting characteristic that won’t be found in any foreign textbooks I know of. Just before my coming here, my colleagues supposed that something like that might be found in Latin America. However, I haven’t had a chance to test this hypothesis yet.

Now I am talking about one of the principal functional mythologems of the social Russian history. I want to underline that I’m not talking about academic, university history now, I’m going to talk about history as it functions in the public conscience, as it’s rooted in school textbooks, as it’s presented in the media by the main TV channels, as well as in literature and films.The main, structurally principal role in this mass, popular image of history belongs to just one mythologem (when actually any historic conscience is in itself based on myths), which falls out of world history, and I know nothing else of that kind. It’s a mythologem that justifies violence on the whole. It justifies violence for the sake of civilization. For the sake of modernization. Russian historic mythology is susceptible of violence if wavering the colours of modernization.

Of course, typologically speaking, that’s a myth. It is easy to show, for example, that in the past 18 months when the term ‘modernization’ became trendy in Russia once again, our politicians have been mostly using it the way it was used in the Soviet Union and, actually, the way it was defined in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. In this sense, machinery renovation is indeed modernization of the society.

Roughly speaking, rearming the guards of a leader of the Mumbo-Jumbo tribe with AK-47 instead of spears and machetes is indeed modernization from the majority’s point of view now. Therefore, Peter the Great’s reforms are quite justly a paragon for all modernizations in Russia. Difficulties arise when one uses the term in its strict academic sense. One should bear in mind that in sociology, modernization is a transition from a traditional culture to the culture of the Modern Age. It is rather a cultural anthropology term than a sociology term. It describes a shift of cultural paradigms. A shift from traditional society, based on tradition, on strictly fixed social roles, on the absence of social mobility and a very limited perception of success in life, to a radically new ‘open society’.

None of this is applicable to Peter the Great’s modernization; it wouldn’t even be modernization at all if examined from the point of view of cultural anthropology. In a traditional society, both teleological and decision-making systems are based on some sacred text, the Scripture, that can’t be subject to criticism.

In this context, Peter didn’t change anything. He only added the religion of a mighty state to a traditional Orthodoxy. To a large extent, Peter’s state substituted the Church, which is very indistinctly and rarely mentioned in textbooks. The monarch becomes the sacred college’s ‘ultimate judge’. Then the Church becomes a state agency. There is no confession anymore: if a priest learns about some anti-state intentions at a confession, he has to delate this information. Private life has to ‘bequeath’ to ‘public interest’, i.e. state interest. The state becomes the Church and the sacred object itself. It’s this very state that aspired to be the Church as a principal medium of tradition and the ultimate truth. In this sense, Peter didn’t do any kind of modernization.

The Soviet authorities performed no modernization in the very same way, substituting dogmatic Orthodoxy with dogmatic Marxism. It is impossible to raise research questions in such a society (which is one of the main typological features of the new open society culture): the truth is in the ‘scripture’. The truth is in the works of the founders of Marxism-Leninism, and our job is to simply find it through interpretation. It’s the same traditional society, just like in the times of Peter the Great or before. This isn’t a modernization.

It’s the same story with Peter’s attitude towards social mobility and the role of man; in a traditional society, someone’s social role is limited, it’s defined by their birth and social stratum. In this context, a medieval shoemaker’s success means to be just as good as his father and to drive just the very same 7 nails like his grandfather. If you drive 9 nails, the guild master will punish you for such novelty. Novelty is a swear-word in such a society, clearly, because if the world was created by God and everything in the world was made to serve man, there shouldn’t be any novelty; all new is evil. It’s a seamless link that exists in a traditional society.

In this regard, nothing changes under Peter again. Moreover, the estate structure gets even stricter. A person is strongly anchored within the framework of their estate, much more strongly than before Peter, but our textbooks don’t mention that. How do our history textbooks tell the story of Peter the Great? Here he’s born, poor thing; he had such a sad family situation, total confusion, which made him slightly ‘nervous’, which, in its turn, often made him float his bludgeon. What follows is the administrative, industrial and military reforms, foreign policy, — and that’s it. Where’s society here? As a result of such discourse, Russian school children have no understanding of the object of modernization itself. There’s no society there, not a word. One can only judge it by splintered fragments, which are often missing.

There is another popular mythologem: ‘Peter emancipated Russian society’. Peter enslaved Russia society. Before he came to power, there were nearly a hundred estate groups in Russia; people could shift from one to another and voluntarily change their status by both upgrading or downgrading. Obviously, they had plenty of room for ‘horizontal’ mobility. Peter’s tax reform strictly divided the country into 2 categories: taxable estates and non-taxable service class people. The latter serve, the former pay taxes — all the other distinctions aren’t important anymore. At the same time, the whole artisan class of ‘free people’ was extinguished. Soviet society was divided into several classes in the very same way, with the intelligentsia ‘layer’ in between, but in reality the only difference was whether you were part of the nomenklatura (governing establishment) or not. The rest didn’t matter. Peter doesn’t make the social structure more complicated (such a complication is a key indicator of modernization) but simplifies it and toughens it instead. Changing one’s social status becomes criminal offence. Just like objection to military service. Just like desertion.

In the terms of cultural anthropology, Peter the Great’s reforms aren’t modernization in any way. The functions of cultural improvement, modernization and civilization are  falsely attributed to Peter, the only reason for that being the need to justify his style of reforms. Vasily Osipovich Klyuchevsky described this style rather brilliantly: ‘Started and led by the highest authorities, the nation’s usual leader, it used the techniques of a violent upheaval, of a revolution, in a way. Judging by its goals and results, it wasn’t a revolution; but it was a revolution judging by the techniques used and the impression it left on the minds and nerves of the contemporaries.’ Violence, bludgeon — these are key words to describe Peter’s reforms. He bent Russia over the knee and destroyed all the institutes and practices that had existed before.

All that led to hideous, tragic consequences. Yet in Russian textbooks it’s Peter’s successors who are left to clean up the mess. It’s a classical scheme used in our textbooks to make up the mythologems of the great Peter, great Ivan the Terrible, great Stalin. They are all great; they all rule a great and mighty state. But they’re succeeded by little people, ‘jimmies’, half-wits who are unable to manage the legacy of a great person. Our textbooks sometimes mention the fact that Peter broke the back of peasantry but don’t ever mention the fact that he exterminated the merchants.

Let’s now discuss another wonderful act of modernization — the organization of private companies: before Peter, there were voluntary merchant associations in Russia, or ‘hundreds’. Peter bankrupted them by planting ‘companies’, which people were forced to join. Of course, there was no trust between such partners but they were forced into companies to accumulate certain capital. For example, to build a ship or an embankment in Saint Petersburg. All such companies proved unsustainable, and so did all of Peter’s industry, which was created by his order and didn’t have any internal stimuli for development. But that’s a whole new chapter. It’s Peter’s successors, the little people who won’t cope with this ‘great man’s’ legacy, ruin his ‘great industry’ and destroy all the results of the great reforms.

Stalin is a great hero just in the same way, while Nikita Khrushchev is to blame for the devastation of agriculture. Following the same model, Ivan the Terrible centralized the state, and the terrible Time of Troubles that followed had nothing to do with him.

The mythologem of a violent, ‘Russian’, ‘authoritarian’ or ‘overtaking’ modernization is still very important in our society, being a constructive and procreative one. It creates the lenses used to evaluate our life. It is just wonderful that these lenses were created by comrade Stalin himself to describe his own policy rather that the story of Peter.

This mythologem is now used by the presidential administration and the books it shoves into schools; this mythologem of Peter’s modernization and the idea the violence was ‘useful’ for the development of the country were put into Shestakov textbook for 4th-grade kids in 1937 by Stalin himself. Only 50 years later the Institute of History of the Soviet Academy of Sciences tried to provide academic proof of that, but in vain. However, the mythologem is still alive.

Just today morning I open ‘The New Times’, a modern analytic magazine, and read a liberal politician’s discussion of the wonders of Peter’s modernization. Yet, if you justify violence through modernization, you should be ready for the next turn. We already have a whole chain of textbooks published since 2002, one of them (by Zagladin and his team) actually having won a contest by the Ministry of Education. In this book, Stalin’s repressions are defined as a ‘natural result of the tense modernization period’. Apparently, the authors had some remains of a conscience, so they tried to depersonalise the unjustifiable repressions and present them as a kind of natural disaster. Repressions become a tsunami: they aren’t man-made, they are a modernizational convulsion.

5 years later, the authorities lost all their rags of decency and launched the textbook by Philippov (teacher’s manual at first and then actually the textbook), where repressions are fully justified as an efficient tool necessary to build the new elites, who ‘succeeded in the impossible’.

While our society is still sticking to the myth of the usefulness of Peter’s authoritarian modernization, it should be ready to face the next circle, when another opportunistic government decides to use Peter’s bludgeon ‘for the common good’, no matter whether the goal proclaimed is ‘chemicalisation’ or the implementation of ‘nano-technologies’.

Further reading

  • A.G. Vishnevsky. The Sickle and the Ruble. Moscow, 1998. [in Russian]
  • Russian Modernisation: Problems and Prospects. ‘Round table’ proceedings. // Philosophy Issues, Vol. 7, 1993. [in Russian]

Russian version

Ключевые слова: history textbooks, modernisation, point of view

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