The Paradox and Dangers of “Historical Policy”
No. 3 2008 July/September

An unbiased analysis of foreign policy events and tendencies
often prompts the more or less well-versed observer to make
paradoxical conclusions. What happened on the eve of the 70th
anniversary of the outbreak of World War I – that horrendous war
that claimed millions of human lives, destroyed empires and created
bloody revolutions at its end?

Nothing special happened at all in 1984, except that some
elderly veterans laid wreaths on Trafalgar Square in London and
there was a slightly more pompous than usual military parade on the
Champs Elysees in Paris. As for the Soviet Union, the start of the
“first imperialist” war was not marked at all, as that war had sunk
deep into history.

And now let us look around and see what is happening in social
and public life in Russia and its European neighboring countries
now that the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II is
drawing nearer. The picture is completely different this time, with
the ghosts of the past emerging as full-fledged actors in current
political discussions and which have an invisible presence in
parliamentary hearings and even in daily diplomatic practices, at
least in some countries. But if your partner wants to discuss the
wounds inflicted by history, you simply cannot say no to him.
Otherwise he will not discuss with you the things that you are
interested in. Thus, the historical agenda draws ever more new

It is not accidental that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
devoted part of his speech at a conference of Russian ambassadors
at the Foreign Ministry to historical issues in politics. “We
simply can’t accept the attempts seen in some countries –
especially if they receive governmental support – to bring into the
light claims about the ‘civilizing and liberating mission’ of the
Nazis and their accomplices,” he said.


Indeed, the debates about the war often contain inadmissible and
even blasphemous elements. Yet the topic of the war also draws out
issues of a more conceptual nature, including the problem of the
role that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes played in the fate
of the 20th century.

It is true that many of those who raise such issues do so not
because of some scientific interest, but rather because they pursue
practical propagandist foreign policy aims – including with regard
to Russia. “Fighters on the ideology front” rely on a tough
algorithm, which implies that Soviet totalitarianism should be
denounced through a comparison with German Nazism as the first
step. As a second step, responsibility, including material
responsibility, should be apportioned to today’s Russia. Worse
still, those propaganda tricksters do not stop at that and try to
wrap the year 1945 in mourning banners and pass it off as the onset
of the Soviet yoke in Europe.

Frankly speaking, Russian society, and even the most politically
advanced part of it, has proven to be simply unprepared for such a
turn. It produces irritation and bitterness. The torrents of
accusations poured on our heads mostly by former friends from the
former “Socialist camp” and, more importantly, from former
fellow-countrymen living in the newly independent states do not
facilitate mutual understanding and good-neighborliness as a

The people who blame the past – and many of them shared it with
us – are reluctant to see the shades of colors or to admit that the
Soviet system had evolutionary elements. I personally object to
factoring out totalitarianism from the history of democratic
countries, since it is neither an exception nor a misfortunate
accident in historical development. It is rather a logical result
and a manifestation of concrete social and historical

After all, how could the leaders of, say, new Baltic countries
mature into full-fledged high-quality democrats in an absolutely
totalitarian Soviet society? How did it happen that former
functionaries of the Young Communists League and the Communist
Party, who used to collaborate closely with secret services,
eventually brought their countries into the lairs of liberalism –
NATO and the European Union? Could it be that history, including
Soviet history, and totalitarianism are more complex elements than
what the simplistic and biased interpreters present?

Discussions of authoritarianism and totalitarianism were
widespread in Russia at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of
the 1990s. As representatives of Russia’s intellectual milieu, we
would think then that we had rounded up the process of
conceptualization and that the shadows of the past had been “buried
in a coffin” as Stalin would say. Alas, our conclusions were

Many people – including whole societies – must have found
themselves outside the context of such discussions, as at that time
they pursued entirely different goals. For instance, the winning of
independence by the countries of the Baltic region and, partly, the
countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Perhaps this is why we
have to return to the problem now.

There exists another and highly disconcerting tendency – the
obliviousness of Russians themselves to the lessons of
totalitarianism that seemed to have been learned by heart. The
generation of Russians that grew up in the 1990s must have missed
movies like Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance or Alexander Beck’s novel
A New Appointment or Varlam Shalamov’s prison camp stories. As for
The Gulag Archipelago, those people just skimmed it – just the same
way they read War and Peace. Far from all of this generation can
discern the allusions that landmark Soviet-era bards such as
Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava made in their songs.
Remarkably, a young Russian will typically assign the same ranking
of popularity to Soviet-era bards and dictators.

The mentality of the generation of Putin’s “stability era” and
the generation that matured in the “frenzied 1990s” does not draw a
distinct line between the historical good and bad or between the
country’s grandeur and the crimes of a regime. This factor is
aggravated by the swelling primitive chauvinistic patriotism and
the popularity of radical ideologies among the youth. Nor should
one discard the fact that we often make use of extremely simplified
and blunt arguments in our debates with those who refashion history
and move Soviet monuments to other places. Mass consciousness
accepts these arguments as false ideological hallmarks. In the
meantime, this is not the case when an enemy should be crushed with
his own weapons. The response should be asymmetric, whatever the
banality of this statement.

That is why a willingness to attain absolute ideological
uniformity, which rules out differences in interpretations of the
country’s history, may become the cornerstone of a new totalitarian
ideology, even if we place motivations like “rebuffing the
libelers” behind this over-simplified uniformity.

Many people today perceive discussions on the issues of history
as a pain in the neck. The debating simply grates against their
teeth. Yet it does go on, and even on a pan-European scale, and we
cannot afford to stand aside. Otherwise the Europeans – or the ‘new
Europeans’ – will draw Russia’s portrait without us.

One cannot help becoming unpleasantly puzzled by the overblown
weight of “historical policy” in the context of European and
Euro-Asian international relations. The factor adds more ballast to
positive communications between countries and peoples, breeds and
replicates negative images of neighbors, and shapes a hostile
perception of other nations.


The discussion today has a multifaceted genesis varying from a
genuine, but over-stimulated willingness to settle accounts with
the heinous past to a trivial and often anti-Russian propaganda.
But we can gain consolation from not being the only “bad guys.”
Foreign policy propaganda based on history or, rather, the
“historical foreign policy” has an anti-Polish, anti-German and
anti-Ukrainian dimension as well. Everything depends on what notes
you can pick out of the general cacophony and what strings you

Making historical issues a matter of politics is a dangerous
thing and any historian can cite a dozen examples where the
“shadows of history” did their erosive work.

Look for instance at how the “historically-grounded foreign
policy” proclaimed by some members of the former Polish cabinet
added stamina to Erika Steinbach and her very controversial Bund
der Vertriebenen (Federation of German Expellees), or how it
complicated relations between Moscow and Warsaw for a period of
time. Today, such obstructions of the past are being cleared out by
a special Russian-Polish working group which deals with complicated
problems stemming from the history of bilateral relations. In this
case, both sides managed to depart from the past and turn their
eyes to a search for concord in the name of the future.

As I said above, it is counterproductive to ignore such
tendencies. So, Russian thinkers and public quarters should take
part in this discussion and fend off the things we find
unjustified, biased or false.
However, our participation in it should still be based on an
adequate perception of our own selves.

George Orwell’s classical maxim suggesting that “he who controls
the past controls the future and he who controls the present
controls the past” can be applied only if society controls itself,
its public debates and its mass consciousness in a worthy

The majority of society and experts in Russia recognize that the
Russians were among the largest victims of authoritarianism and
totalitarianism in the 20th century – of the homemade brand
(Stalinism) and of the exported one (Hitler’s Nazism). This
extremely bitter experience prompts many of them to think

However paradoxically this might sound, Soviet authoritarianism
bred a number of foreign policy problems, around which swords are
crossed – and sometimes shots are fired – to this very day.

Suffice it to recall the arbitrarily drawn borders between
ethnic republics in the Caucasus or the handover of a whole
peninsula from one Soviet republic to another without account of
the wishes of its population. Did anyone heed the will of people
amid all of these geopolitical exercises? No one did. And who is
suffering from it? Today’s Russia and its closest neighbors.

Sober assessments of totalitarianism and its legacy are not
synonymous with self-flogging. Everyone who joins historical
discussions about or with this country must understand that today’s
modern Russia condemned the crimes committed by the totalitarian
regime of the past in the last years of its Soviet-era

Russia today has conscientiously chosen a different path of
development, which has nothing to do with Stalinism or
post-Stalinist authoritarianism. Today’s Russia does not bear
responsibility for the crimes of the past and does not in any way
act as an ideological successor to the Soviet Union. For proof of
this one only needs to look at the preamble to the Russian


It is clear to any person who thinks realistically that any
nation state will seek to produce its own version of history. Even
the Socialist camp failed to produce a common version for everyone.
This history – or rather, its interpretation, will be slightly
different from that of one’s neighbors. Yet the writing of
“national histories” should not proceed from adversely directed
historical materials, from the philosophy of hatred or from
historical claims. Divergences of interpretation should not exceed
a certain percentage. We will not be able to build a future without
this kind of self-control.

What I have said above does not mean that politicians should not
remember history or that historians should not interpret policies.
They can and should do this, but with a positive result of some
kind. It appears that the postwar generation has showed special
wisdom in this sense, as many modern European institutions came
about as a result of a rethinking of the continent’s tragic history
and simultaneously as a recipe for stopping tragedies from
repeating themselves.

The drama of 20th-century European history is our common
European heritage, and we Europeans should manage it in a way that
will not generate new “hotbeds of historical tensions.” We should
build relations of good-neighborliness on the basis of lessons that
have been learned.