15Lecture16 min

Inventing the past

From Penitence to Special Way

Experts: Yuri Saprykin

Text expansion for the Lecture

Inventing the past

From Penitence to Special Way

00:14 – 00:56 Inventing the past

On April 28, 2014 Moscow announces a monument to Prince Vladimir, who made Russian Christian.

A site for it was long sought: first they propose on the Sparrow Hills, but after protests they decide on Vorobitsky Hill, right at the Kremlin walls. This seems not just another monument, but a new version of Russia’s history, its basic values that the country long sought after the USSR’s demise. Now these values are declared in this way at the highest level.

00:56 – 05:05 Russia searching for its own history

In December 1991 when Russia became independent, we all knew we had taken a wrong turn historically. As for where we had to go back to, pick up from, opinions differed.

During Perestroika, maybe it was just fixing some historical errors, e.g. exonerating political prisoners, returning citizenship to expelled artists, unbanning books – basically, going back to Leninist norms, true socialism.

As soon became clear, it was more than fixing just some mistakes. After “The Gulag Archipelago”, people realized they couldn’t return to Leninism, for Lenin was a direct forebear of Stalin. One had to rewind to an earlier time and pick up from pre-1917 Russia. This began to happen in Russia in 1992. The old flag and old state seal were restored, cities and streets were renamed from Communist figures back to the old names.

The early ’90s was restoring what had been lost under the Bolsheviks. In 1991 the royal family’s remains in Yekaterinburg came to light. Now came an interesting historical twist, for the royal family was rehabilitated, officially recognized. Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, semiofficially heir to the throne, visits Russia. He is welcomed at the highest levels. When he dies in ’92, he is buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress royal cemetery with state honors.

The whole Soviet era is thought a huge mistake. You get this impression even from TV or popular film. Igor Talkov, an early ’90s ordinary pop star, starts hymning Imperial Russia: “I tried in vain to understand, how you could let yourself be torn apart by thugs”, went his popular song “Russia”. Television often aired the adaptation of Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog”; everyone gets what it’s about. The pre-1917 Russian intelligentsia made an unsuccessful experiment, they created a new mankind that was purely loafish, ignorant. They created Sharikov, the Soviet. This seems an apt metaphor for what happened to Russia in the USSR era.

The Communist Party goes on trial. This seems a turning point: the Soviet era will be condemned and clearly there was no going back. It remained only to bury Lenin and that’s that.

But now came October 1993, the president and the Duma opposed, the revolt around the White House. Clearly those who went to the White House didn’t consider themselves victims of a failed experiment. This idea seemed so insulting they were ready to storm Ostankino with weapons.

October 1993 is a turning point. Then it was clear that no one needed a civil war. The strife had to be gradually eased. Calling the whole Soviet era a horror, a crime that required condemnation, was no longer attractive.

05:05 – 06:14 A Russia for all

A Russia for all, for the Reds and for the Whites. All eras of Russian history matter equally. Yeltsin is the president of all Russians. For the Civil War fallen on either side, let’s erect memorials and see them both as heroes. The October Revolution holiday was now for national harmony; we thus celebrated November 7 as before, but not Red victory over the Whites, rather that we were all together again, in one country and inseparable.

Television gets a show with old Soviet themes. Now nostalgia for Soviet times is fully OK again. Talk of lower prices, less crime under Brezhnev is no longer boorish. Agutin, Angelica Varum and other new stars dress up like old Soviet films, sing old Soviet songs, amicably shed a tear at holiday time for that time.

06:14 – 09:05 The revival of soviet things

After Putin came to power in 2000, the revival of Soviet things becomes official. A key point is when the Stalinist anthem is restored. Sergei Mikhalkov writes new words, already for the third time. Now the anthem begins with “Russia – our holy nation…”.

Early 2000s thought itself a new country, which had remedied the mistake of 1917. Now the big mistake was put much later: “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”, said Putin. It was this wreckage that we now had to get out from. It wasn’t 1917 that saw horrible events but 1991.

A process unfolds in the early 2000s. Russia again feels successful, strong. It “rises from its knees”, as in its sporting victories: we win at hockey and volleyball, we beat the Dutch in the European Football Championship. Dima Bilan wins Eurovision. All these trifling symbolic victories join with sincere patriotism. For those feeling their country was defeated in the ’90s, it all has an extraordinarily uplifting effect. The celebrations after beating the Dutch were the biggest in decades. Since Gagarin nothing like them had been seen on Russia’s streets.

The November 7 holiday changed its name again and its date. Now it’s on November 4, the Day of National Unity. It marks the 17th-century defeat over the Poles.

The cult of victory becomes a key thing: Russia is a country that has always stood apart, its identity is based on defeating enemies throughout history. Of course, there’s a cult of victory in the narrow sense: the New Russia of the 2000s looks back not to an idealized 1917, but rather 1945, at the victory parade when Soviet soldiers piled up Nazi flags at the Kremlin walls.

09:05 – 11:48 The myth of Victory

The New Russia’s mythology is closely linked to World War II, to images of the Great Victory. This was a crucial historical event when Russia proved itself, asserted its global historical role.

St. George ribbons appear. First they’re a spontaneous symbol to celebrate the victory. Soon they come to mean more than that, a symbol of “true patriots” who truly love their country.

This victory cult grows to government-scale. It’s naturally linked with gently rehabilitating Stalin. This is never officially confirmed, never announced, yet Stalin is seen like in the late USSR, when we didn’t especially praise him, but neither did we deny his merits.

The key moment was the “Name of Russia” broadcasts on the Rossiya channel. Viewers had to pick the most important historical figure, the person who embodied Russia’s spirit and history.

In the last weeks of internet voting, Stalin was leading by far. He had 150,000 votes, while Vysotsky was in second place with 120,000. The voting involved no logging in, it wasn’t protected. One fine day its results were overturned. Alexander Nevsky was now in first place. Yet everyone understood what was going on. On the broadcasts around the voting, Nikolai Svanidze denounces Stalin and the whole USSR era. But Sergei Kurginyan draws ovation, claiming that USSR – and Stalin – was a time of greatness, perhaps the greatest glory for Russia in all its history.

11:48 – 13:21 The myth of a “special path”

In a New Year’s greeting, Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia’s a young country, only 20-odd years old, but this view becomes less popular. When Putin returns as president, Russia’s myth of its origins, its true age, changes completely.

What is the Russia we think of in the 2010s? It’s a country always on a special path, not the same as other nations. Plus, it’s a much more righteous path, based on real tradition values, than in wayward Europe or the greedy USA.

Russia is surrounded by enemies. They constantly try to undermine it, plunder its resources, but Russia always manages to repel them, sometimes gently, sometimes with arms.

Now Russia’s rise is not just winning Eurovision. Now it’s the ability to win a world war with nuclear weapons, which can turn any country to radioactive ash.

13:21 – 16.03 The new pantheon of heroes

Russia’s history is a series of great victories and great figures who worked to strength the state. It’s a pantheon of strong-handed men. It matters little if you’re Red or White, Soviet or anti-Soviet. There Stalin and Sergei Radonezhsky can stand alongside, Alexander III and Marshal Zhukov. They lived in very different eras, under very different values, but in the new eclecticism they stand side by side. They serve together to create Russia’s greatness.

History ceases to be open to debate. It is no longer seen as something one can know about or not, have different views on. Instead there must be one state ideology, sooner or later reflected in a single history textbook. The figures in this textbook are embodied in granite and stone, in the monuments the Russian Military Historical Society erects nationwide.

Its view of history is shown clearly at Romanov and Rurikovich exhibitions. They gather huge crowds at Moscow’s Manege, lines miles long. These show Russia’s rulers across history sharing common cause: making the great Russian state strong.

Those who tried to argue against them, even protest like the Decembrists, were just confused and under the evil spell of the West. Suddenly it’s not Lenin or Stalin who founded Russia, not Nicholas II or Alexander II, but Prince Vladimir, the nearly legendary baptizer of Rus’. Vladimir embodies all chief values of Russia today. Russia’s history thus goes back to prehistoric times. It’s inherently linked with Orthodoxy, the spiritual ties that bind of Russia. It’s inherently linked with Crimea, for due to Prince Vladimir’s story Crimea’s a holy place for all Russians, and naturally Vladimir represents Russia’s true self.