The Undying Echo of the Past
No. 3 2008 July/September
Alexei I. Miller

Doctor of History
European University at Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Department of History
Center for the Study of Cultural Memory and Symbolic Politics
Research Director;
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Leading Research Fellow


ORCID: 0000-0001-8139-0976
ResearcherID: Z-1451-2019
Scopus AuthorID: 56321369000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7 (812) 386-7634
Address: 6/1A Gagarinskaya Str., St. Petersburg 191187, Russia

The break-up of the Soviet Union took place amidst ranting about
the slide of the last empire into history. It would seem perfectly
clear some twenty years ago that the empire, as an outdated and
backward form of political organization, was giving way to the
nation-state. Explanations suggested that empires collapsed because
of an inability to change, adjust themselves to modern requirements
and withstand pressures from national liberation movements, which
ostensibly embodied progress and justice.

Today, the historical role of empires is undergoing a profound
revision involving both positive and derogatory assessments, and –
more importantly – appreciation of their place in the historical


Let us start by saying that there is no commonly accepted
definition of ‘empire.’ Researchers who try to describe this
phenomenon stress the heterogeneity of empires, the inequitable
relations between the center and the periphery, specific
structuring of the empires’ territory that resembles a wheel
without a rim, which implies a connection of all the provinces with
the center and weak – if any – connections among the provinces

Extensive attention is typically paid to the correlation between
direct and indirect rule over the periphery, with scholars
stressing that empires more frequently employ indirect rule with a
reliance on local leaders. Also, they underline the role of empires
as major actors in international – or more correctly,
inter-imperial – relations, and their ability to mobilize resources
for involvement in such games, as these features constitute the key
objective for them and the criterion of their efficiency.

The commonly used approach of regarding the Roman Empire as the
model and assessing all other empires through a comparison with it
and thereby revealing their deficiencies is now fading into the
past. Historians are discarding the view of empire as a pre-modern
form of political organization that is giving place to the

Putting the modern state in opposition to the traditional empire
has some rationale of course. The state was not conceived as a
universal structure but, rather, as something separate from
society. At the same time, the state – or, more precisely, a
regular police state – would most typically be based on direct rule
and control, unlike the empires that would operate indirect forms
of rule and control. It is a common belief that the current system
of taxation, monopoly over military mobilization, stable
bureaucracy, gradual replacement of the elites by virtue of birth
with elites by virtue of education, and the modern understanding of
the rule of law – all of these things were not typical of empires
and constitute the features of the modern state.

Paradoxically, the modern state was born out of the heart of the
empire and is – in many ways – a reaction to the problems emerging
in the context of imperial contentions, above all military ones.
Far from all pre-modern empires coped with the task of
state-building, but some of them – Britain, France and
Prussia-Germany – succeeded in it and did not stop being empires
because of it. This trio and their competitors seeking to catch up
with them – Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Spain –
each tried in its own way to tap an acceptable combination of
traditional imperial mechanisms with the forms and methods of rule
of the modern state.

Historians have considerably readjusted their ideas about
modernization as a process repeating the stages and forms of
development of leading Western nations and have shown that the
paths leading to modernity could be very different. Unsuccessful
modernization could mean a collapse, like the one that absorbed
Rzeczpospolita (Poland) as a result of the partitions in the 18th
century. The Ottoman Empire was too late to restructure itself and
was already doomed in the 19th century. It outlived Rzeczpospolita
for so long only due to a lucrative geopolitical situation.
Practically all empires in the 19th century differed from the
classical type of empires. They saw the essence of their existence
in “progress” rather than in self-maintenance or self-reproduction.
And they all went through a crisis of adjustment to new methods of
administration and forms of political organization. This was a
genuine crisis – a story with a yet unknown finale.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we are evidencing a
dynamic situation in historiography. The post-colonial discourse,
in which the ‘empire’ was an abusive notion, is still wielding a
strong impact, including in Eastern Europe, but its one-sidedness
has become quite obvious. Let us not forget, though, that the
one-sided approach was in many ways a reaction on the part of the
post-colonial school to the apologetics of the empires and the
hiding of the dark sides of their history.

In their efforts to legitimize themselves, empires experienced
as much falsity and hypocrisy as the nation-state. They, too,
claimed of being the carriers of freedom and progress. They, too,
positioned themselves as the guarantors of peace. As it often
happens, those claims were partly true and partly not. History
provides abundant grounds for defending imperialist and nationalist
ideas. And transition periods, when empires or nation-states would
assert themselves, would usually hit the common man the

A statement by Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler that unlike
the empire, the nation-state has occupied too much place in the
concepts of European history since the end of the 18th century
would sound quite justified fewer than ten years ago. Today,
however, claims about the key role of empires in history and the
view of them as a complex and ambiguous phenomenon having both a
deplorable and beneficial legacy, look quite respectable.

Relations between the empire and the nation-state constitute one
of the paradoxes as the project of building nation-states that seek
cultural and language homogeneity was born out of the empire.
France, a hallmark for the nation-state, used to be the core of an
empire. More than that, it had its own record of suppressing local
languages and cultures within its continental hexagon in favor of
the dominating language and culture of Ile-de-France. This project
was formulated by Napoleon I who considered the hexagon inherited
from previous monarchs as a foundation for the future pan-European

Similar projects to build nation-states in the heart of an
empire can be also seen in the British Isles and in Spain, although
they had specific aspects. Most continental empires, too, unveil a
number of similar traits, although the formation of the core inside
them around which a nation could be built was a somewhat knottier

In the Romanov Dynasty’s Russian Empire, the project of building
a nation comprising the Velikoruss (Great Russians, or ethnic
Russians), the Maloruss (Ukrainians), the Beloruss (Belarusians)
and the Finno-Ugric peoples of the Volga area took shape in the
1830s through the 1860s.

The Habsburg Empire had no Austrian-nation project for a number
of reasons, but the 1867 agreement to set up a Dual Monarchy gave
an impulse to the intense implementation of the plan to build a
Hungarian national state in the Hungarian part of

The achievements scored by empires facilitated the formation of
nations. In other words, it was not the nation-states that created
empires – it was the empires that created nation-states. It is not
accidental that the Spanish project witnessed a deep crisis in the
late 19th and the early 20th centuries – the situation arose from
the loss of Spain’s imperial status. The same reasons lie behind
the failure of the British and the French projects in the second
half of the last century. The formation of the Russian nation also
went through severe crises as the result of World War I, the 1917
revolution, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Thus, one can talk about two different paradigms for the
formation of nation-states. The initial Western European project
was implemented in the center of empires and was not aimed at their
destruction. France and Britain set up models for building modern
nation-states. Construction of nations in the core of empires
largely suppressed the peripheral projects of nation-building,
which re-emerged with redoubled strength in the 20th century – in
Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country, and other regions (the
Brittany and Provence projects in France never “fired” again).

In Eastern Europe, the projects relying on empires saw fewer
achievements at the beginning of the 20th century since the
regional countries had lost World War I. Instead, peripheral
national construction projects that tore apart the empire structure
were implemented there. Unlike projects conceived in the imperial
center, these suggested a stronger accent on ethnic motives. In
many ways, they not only rejected the empires but were the fruits
of imperial policies. For instance, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia
got independence before the Great War through a compromise achieved
among the Christian empires concerning control over the outskirts
of the shrinking Ottoman Empire. As for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,
Poland and Ukraine, they surfaced (for shorter or longer periods of
time) as a result of contentions between the empires during World
War I and support for peripheral nationalism in the opposite camp.
These contentions washed away former restrictions on playing the
trump card of nationalism in fighting with each other that the
empires, which had partitioned Poland, had adhered to. Thus the
empires were not only the backgrounds for or obstacles to building
nations and nation-states; they actually took part in it.

The evolution of empires and assimilation of new methods of rule
and control over the population had many other aspects as well. The
empires transformed and stopped resembling their traditional
models. The direction of their evolution changed dramatically after
World War II.

During the previous two centuries, empires sought to replace the
indirect forms of rule, which the U.S. political scientist Charles
Tilly has classified as their generic feature, with direct rule and
control methods being the characteristic of a modern state. In the
20th century, indirect control over the periphery moved to the
foreground again. The “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe were
not parts of the Soviet Union – they were definitely parts of the
“Kremlin’s empire.”

This form of government was far from new. Michael Doyle, the
author of an important theoretic work on empires, believes that
Athens played the role of an imperial center in the union of Greek
poleis. While the latter were formally independent, Athens could
control their external and, to a certain degree, internal policies
quite efficiently. The cases where ancient Athens, Communist-era
Moscow, or today’s Washington have had to resort to direct military
interventions for keeping their control signaled the failure of
regular policies of indirect control rather than the manifestation
of their might. In this sense, the Soviet Union was really an
anachronism and its disintegration as an empire employing the
direct rule over its periphery was quite logical.

In recent years, historians have given increasingly more
attention to the notion of ‘imperial power.’ It is broader and more
flexible than the notion of ‘empire,’ and embraces various
instances of inequitable relations between the center and periphery
regions – either formally included in the empire or retaining
formal independence. Incidentally, the word ‘imperium’ initially
had the meaning of sovereign power over a territory. It is quite
fruitful in this light to compare the problems of Russia’s
post-imperial development with countries that have a tradition of
an imperial metropolitan nation and the relevant interpretations of

The very fact that Russia was an empire in the past does not
explain the complexities it has been going through in the course of
modernization and democratization. Simultaneously, parting with the
imperial past, which creates new opportunities for the solution to
these tasks, does not provide a guarantee of success. Nor does
Russia’s imperial role fix its image of either a guilty party or a
benefactor in relations with its neighbors.


The Soviet Union ceased to exist more than a decade and a half
ago, but serious attempts to revisit the experience of Soviet
ethnic policy have been few in number so far. Quite possibly, the
distance we have covered since then is still too small, and too
great a portion of the Soviet legacy still remains part of everyday

One of the major achievements of historiography in the analysis
of the first decades of the 20th century was overcoming the
hypnogenic image of the year 1917 as a pivot that ushered in a
“different history.” The fruitfulness of this approach was
demonstrated by Peter Holquist in an article discussing the
mechanisms of control over public moods by the Bolshevik regime.
Holquist showed the irrelevance of comparing 1920 to 1913; as this
comparison presupposes that the cardinal breakup of 1917 is the
only landmark event lying between the two years. A rise of
attention toward public moods and the swelling of the agencies set
up to monitor them were not at all the specific products of the
Bolshevik revolution in Russia, they took place in all the
participant countries of World War I immediately after its

Holquist’s approach can be applied to many other aspects of
Russian history at the beginning of the 20th century, and it also
enables one to see the degree to which modern tendencies of the
latest imperial period were embodied in Soviet policy, albeit in
different forms.

Paradoxically enough, foreign – and especially émigre –
historiographies tend to draw no basic differences between the
Romanov empire and the Soviet Union in what concerns the
interpretations of imperial problems and national issue. Historians
have mostly come to a consensus suggesting that Word War I gave a
powerful push to the ethnic factor in Central and Eastern Europe
and the Bolsheviks naturally had to deal with that legacy, as well
as with the results of national liberation movement activity on the
outskirts of the empire during the final phase of the war and in
the first years of peace.

Nor should there be any doubt that many experts, whom the
Soviets invited to design their ethnic policy, had matured as
professionals before the revolution of 1917. The role of these
experts on ethnography was recently highlighted by Francine Hirsch
in the book called Empire of Nations. Ethnographic Knowledge and
the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca-London, Cornell University
Press, 2005). Although this book contains some really valuable
information, it has a conceptual weakness that vividly illustrates
the current tendency to overstate the role of the Romanov legacy in
Soviet policy.

In discussing the “evolutional” understanding of a nation by the
“imperial ethnographers” and their political patrons, the Soviet
Union’s likeness with other modernizing empires, and the absence of
elements of “positive discrimination” of formally subordinate
nationalities in Soviet policy of the 1920s, Hirsch argues with
Terry Martin, who describes the Soviet Union as a new type of
empire and underlines a radical breakup of Soviet-era ethnic policy
with that of the Romanov empire.

Martin’s position looks much more convincing since he shows more
than anyone else the marked difference in the Bolsheviks’ ethnic
policy with the Romanov policy. In his book The Affirmative Action
Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
(Ithaca, L.: Cornell UP, 2001), Martin traces the evolution of the
Soviet government’s policy from the early 1920s through the early
1930s, relying on a variety of sources. This decade included the
rise of the Soviet Union and the period of the so-called
korenizatsiya (nativization) policy [a gradual removal of the
Russian language from state and public life through its replacement
with native languages and through a resettlement of ethnic Russians
from the newly formed national republics – Ed.].

Martin offers a scrupulous analysis of “how it was done”
combined with the theoretic discussion of “what it was like.” He
singles out four major ideological prerequisites that underlay the
Soviet ethnic policy. By the time the Bolsheviks seized power, they
had reached a consensus on the dangers of nationalism as an
ideology having a huge mobilizing power, one that could form a
supra-class society in a struggle for national ideas. The
experience of the Civil War further convinced them that nationalism
was a major competitor to their own ideology addressed to social

Hence there came a simple conclusion – formulated by Georgy
Pyatakov – that nationalism must be declared an enemy and
resolutely fought against. Yet Lenin and Stalin proposed a
completely different tactic. They surmised that if the Soviet
government provides for some ethnic forms of state and public life;
i.e. partly meets the requirements of nationalism, it would be able
to split the supra-class unity of national movements, neutralize
the attractiveness of nationalistic slogans, and thereby create
better conditions for manifestations of class contentions and
acceptance of the Bolshevik ideology. Importantly, this policy
format highlighted the basically new, non-imperialist nature of the
political entity that arose out of the ruins of the Tsarist Empire.
The Bolsheviks believed – quite foresightedly – that the very label
of ‘empire’ might have highly deplorable consequences for Soviet
power at the beginning of the 20th century.

Furthermore, Martin analyzes the Bolsheviks’ modernization
concept. They believed that nations emerge in the course of
capitalist development and are transitory historical phenomena.
Also, they looked at national consciousness as an inescapable phase
of human society’s development, which all people must overcome as
they move along the path to internationalism. A future merger of
nations is possible only through the total liberation of suppressed

The Austrian-Hungarian experience and the intensity of
nationalistic movements after the collapse of the Russian empire
convinced the Bolsheviks that national consolidation is inevitable
under socialism, too. In his attempts to prove the unavoidable
Ukrainization and Belarusization of cities with a predominantly
Russian population in those two Soviet republics, Stalin pointed to
Hungary, where the German-speaking population dominated the cities
in the 19th century, but eventually gave way to the Hungarians. On
the eastern outskirts of Russia, where nationalism was much weaker,
“national construction” was declared to be a part of socialist
modernization and was widely seen as a positive part of the program
rather than a concession.

The third prerequisite of the Bolshevist approach was the
conviction that the nationalism of non-Russian peoples was a
reaction to their suppression by the tsarist regime and a result of
the mistrust toward ethnic Russians. Lenin insisted on the
importance of differentiating between nationalism of the oppressors
and nationalism of the oppressed. This presumption led to a
conclusion – quite natural for the anti-colonial discourse – that
the “chauvinism of the Great Russians” was far more dangerous than
the nationalism of the oppressed peoples. Stalin made an adjustment
to this principle, saying that the nationalism of the Georgians and
some other nations also suppressed and exploited smaller peoples.
He always combined his attacks against the chauvinism of the Great
Russians with a mention of the dangers, albeit smaller ones, that
came from smaller local nationalisms.

The fourth factor of Soviet ethnic policy was that it is closely
related to foreign policy. Following Nikolai Skrypnik, a Ukrainian
Bolshevik, Martin speaks of the ‘Piedmont principle’ of the Soviet
ethnic policy, which manifests itself in a patronizing attitude
toward people who had become separated by the western state border
of the Soviet Union at that time – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles,
Jews and Finns. Such a policy was meant to win over the hearts of
their compatriots on the other side of the border and secure
opportunities for Moscow to influence its western neighbors.
Similarly, calls for rebellions among the suppressed peoples of the
East were accompanied by references to the positive Soviet policy
toward the nationalities of the Soviet East.

As the Soviet government set up territorial entities according
to the ethnic principle, it denied the Austrian-Marxist principle
of an individual cultural autonomy – and simultaneously put up
obstacles against the assimilation of dispersed ethnic groups.
Instead, a vertical ethnic-territorial system was built to the
level of ethnic districts, rural municipalities and even collective
farms. As a result, a huge pyramid of ethnic Soviets (councils) on
thousands of ethnic territories emerged already in the

Martin indicates that this policy did not envision a genuine
federalization. Although the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist
Republic (RSFSR) and the USSR were federations in form, real power
was always concentrated in the center. Soviet federalism did not
imply devolution, i.e. the delegating of political and economic
power to federation constituents.

Another important factor of this policy was the closure of the
eastern peripheral territories for agricultural colonization by
ethnic Russians, which had been actively developed before 1917. In
the Caucasus, Kazakhstan and Central Asia as well, ethnic Russians
were in many cases forced to leave under the slogans of

On the whole, Martin proposes branding Soviet ethnic policy as
the “internationalist nationalism” or “affirmative action;” i.e.
positive discrimination that was applied to the formerly oppressed
sections of the population. In essence, the Bolsheviks took the
lead in solving ethnic issues that are typical of all stages of the
development of national movements. They fostered the ethnic elites
where they had never existed before or where they had been too
weak. They disseminated and supported in masses of people the
various forms of ethnic culture and identity where the problem was
high on the agenda. They helped territorialize ethnicities and
created ethnic territorial entities of various levels. Finally,
they solved the tasks inside those entities that would be typical
of the arising or already existing nation-states; they promoted new
ethnic elites and imposed new official languages. Neutrality toward
ethnic issues, the hallmark of Bolshevist policies before the
revolution, was rejected, as emphasis was placed on “affirmative
action” up to an overt hostility even to a voluntary

The policy of affirmative action or positive discrimination of
non-Russians would inevitably mean infringements on the rights of
ethnic Russians and their readiness to make sacrifices for the
interests of other ethnic groups. This showed up during the
delimitation of territories; that is, the drawing of borders
between the Soviet republics (of which the eastern border of
Belarus is glaring evidence). It is also reflected in the denial of
the right of Russians to have autonomies in the parts of other
Union republics where they lived in compact communities (ethnic
Russians received it in a few republics only in 1926). Nor could
they have proportional representation in the agencies of power of
autonomous republics. Moreover, Russian culture was castigated as
that of capitalists and landlords; the imperial culture of the

The proposal to define the Soviet Union as an “affirmative
action empire” is an attempt to find a new term for denoting a
specific and hitherto unknown type of political organization. This
highly centralized state that sought to interfere with all spheres
of life and that made use of extreme forms of violence was formally
structured as a federation of sovereign nations. It came into being
as a successor to the Russian Empire and seized back the bulk of
the peripheral provinces of the former empire, but then it embarked
on strengthening non-Russian ethnic groups and creating them in
places where they had barely ever existed.

According to Martin, the notion of the “affirmative action
empire” is meant to stress the novelty of Soviet ethnic policy as
compared to colonialism and imperialism of the past, on the one
hand, and the difference that the Soviet Union had with the empires
of the New Time, including the Romanov empire.

The pan-Russian nation project, which was the pillar of Russian
nationalism in the Romanov empire, was simply cast away; many of
its achievements were conscientiously dismantled, and the Ukrainian
and Belarusian ethnic groups got the institutional status of
separate nations with their own territories.

In Russia itself, the research of Soviet ethnic policy is just
making its first steps, and it appears that only one of its pages –
the tragic deportations – has been studied in detail. The role of
the ethnic factor in the repressions requires special scrutiny.
That the factor played an important role is not in any doubt, and
in some cases the Stalinist terror took the form of genocide. For
instance, more than 110,000 Poles out of a total number of 130,000
who were arrested in Leningrad in 1937 (and they were arrested just
because they were Poles) were shot within several months after
their incarceration. Incidentally, Polish champions of “historical
policy” who insist on listing the execution of Polish officers in
Katyn, Mednoye and other places in 1940 as an act of genocide –
which is an extremely questionable qualification of that crime –
pay far less attention to the unquestionable genocide of the Poles
in 1937.

The ethnic factor played a substantial role in the history of
collectivization and the famines of 1932 and 1933, which is
intensively discussed these days. Historians are having a serious
debate on its significance in high-rank decision-making in Moscow
in those years. Unfortunately, the works of some Russian authors
trying to join in the discussion are typical “paid services” and
fall short of standing up to professional criticism.

Meanwhile, a scrupulous analysis and profound public recognition
of the repressiveness of the Russian Empire and, in an incomparably
greater measure, of the Soviet Empire, including as concerns their
ethnic policies, is extremely important for Russia and for
relations with its neighbors.


Today’s mindset and the historical memory of ethnic Russians has
(or had until recently) a peculiarity that makes it drastically
different from the mentality and historical memory of neighboring
nations, both those living in independent states and inside Russia.
Hungarian philosopher Istvan Bibo wrote in The Distress of the East
European Small States that Eastern Europeans have a collective
existential fear of the real or imaginary death of an entire ethnos
through the loss of state sovereignty, assimilation, deportation,
or genocide.

Initially, that fear was caused by the Turks, then by the
Germans, and in some cases by the Poles, and later by Russia. The
perception of Germany as an immediate threat vanished after World
War II, while apprehensions about Turkey had dispelled much
earlier. This existential fear, which had been born out of hundreds
of years of unpredictable and often catastrophic development,
concentrated around the Soviet Union for the past half a century
and shifted over to Russia after 1991.

As for the Russians, the motive of ethnic victimization was not
typical of them until fairly recently. They have always had the
feeling that they were victims of repressions on the part of the
state machinery, which they did not consider as something
ethnically alien to them. The phenomenon described by Bibo is not
psychologically close to the Russians and therefore they do not
understand it. Collective existential fears can hardly be named
among the properties of a healthy psyche. It is not worthwhile for
us to breed the mentality of a besieged fortress or the atmosphere
of fear for the very existence of the Russian nation – and this is
what some of our publicists have been doing so actively in recent

There are forces in many neighboring states that quite
purposefully seek to turn history into a weapon for political
struggle (in Poland these forces invented the term ‘historical
policy’ to denote the tendency). They try to glue the “guilty”
labels to certain countries – Russia in the first place – in
international relations and to position themselves as innocent
“victims” in a bid to gain certain moral advantages. They call for
Russia’s repentance and reparations for real and fictitious sins
and they describe Russia as an incurably vicious imperial nation
and paint it in the grim colors of an institutionalized and hostile
alien. The proponents of “historical policy” still eye our country
as a handy instrument to shape their national identity. They also
find this instrument efficient in fighting their political
opponents and marginalizing some other groups of the population,
especially ethnic Russian minorities wherever they exist.

We will never make agreements with those who employ “historical
policies” for self-serving ends, but contrary to what many of our
publicists and politicians claim, this does not mean that the
recognition of our own historical sins and their public
denunciation “will play into the hands of Russia’s enemies.” The
thing is that a multitude of people in those countries do not have
any intention to turn history into an instrument of political
strife. They remember the traumas of the past but they are ready
for reconciliation. Nothing is more offensive for them in contacts
with the Russians than a lack of knowledge and understanding of the
dark pages of the past on the part of Russians.

The inability to discern the fears of neighbors and to
understand how serious their reasons are cannot be called a virtue,
especially if a nation dramatically needs a critical reassessment
of its own history and relations with other nations. This explains
to a large degree the crisis of understanding and trust,
characteristic of the relations between today’s Russia and its
neighbors. Each side will have to go along its part of the road
toward untangling the knot. The Russians will have to look more
profoundly at the repressiveness of empires, to which they are
successors in both the positive and negative sense. Our neighbors
will have to realize that the Russians, too, were victimized by
empires that had been built with reliance on their strength,
tolerance and talent and, second, that besides traumas and
tragedies the empires had other sides as well.

In Russia itself, an acute struggle is going on around the
interpretation of history, and the topics heard in public
discussions include the existence of ostensibly perpetual Russian
properties. For instance, the long imperial tradition is described
as a property of the Russian government that recurs along with
despotism. Russia’s history is then featured as an absolutely
unique and practically irremovable chain of reincarnations of this
despotic power. The country revolves along a vicious circle and the
possibility of breaking it either looks impossible or inseparable
from radical fighting with the state and a revolution that erases
the old system from the face of the Earth. This tradition can be
traced to the Bolshevist outlook on history and its version is
still alive in the milieu identifying themselves as liberals. The
only difference is that the Bolshevist version of history portrayed
the October 1917 revolution as a rupturing of the vicious circle,
while the liberal one portrays it as its continuation and
expansion. On the contrary, the proponents of the empire treat the
same features as a prerequisite for reverting to the “correct
path.” “Russia can only exist as an empire, or it cannot exist at
all,” or: “the Russian nation is tormented by the senselessness of
its existence in the absence of an imperial mission,” they

Other typical motives of this debate – the binary opposition
between the bad state and the good intelligentsia (or vice versa),
the bad nationalists and the good central government (or vice
versa) and so on – are also closely linked to it.

Another frequent issue is the willingness to “straighten out”
Russian history. Maria Todorova, who mentions the traditional and
continuing tendency to “normalize” history and the desire to
consider it as a unique one which rejects the application of
Western-European categories, makes a keen observation that the
polemics has a political content, apart from the scientific

The current tendency to “normalize” Russian history deserves
attention in as much as it implies dismantling of the tendentious
and degenerating “uniqueness” theory. At the same time,
methodologically well-conceived research that accentuates the
specificity of Russian history in one way or another makes up an
absolutely legitimate part of historiography regardless of whether
it is authored by Russian or foreign historians.

Todorova draws a comparison between the current debates on
Russian history and the recent debates on a special German path
(Sonderweg). The approach that treated the country’s history as a
deviation from the European model of development remained quite
topical until Germany embedded itself in pan-European
organizations. Now the same special features are viewed as a
version of European history. The accent is made on the common
traits and Germany’s historical development is thus “normalized.”
The same mechanism applies to Russia – the problem of its
historical uniqueness will remain topical (or rather, politically
topical) until it gets a place in European and international

This is a correct and exceptionally timely observation, as we
are seeing a change in the political context and the influence of
the factor on the scientific discourse of Russia’s history. There
is a great risk of getting mired in counterproductive discussions
about the frontiers of the European model of historical
development. References to the history of one region or another or
one nation or another as “European” or “non-European” are
unscrupulously used today inside the EU itself and along its
periphery when it comes to discussing whether the region or nation
deserves to be a member of a united Europe. A discussion that aims
to broaden our perspective on the European model of history (or
actually multiple and very different models) is quite useful, yet
it brings forth a new conflict between history and politics. The
rise of a historical myth about the unity of Europe, which serves
the European Community today, seems quite apparent.

There are other and more dangerous traps on the way to
“normalizing” Russian history.

Like it was in the case of Germany, normalization can be
achieved by the biased highlighting of some aspects and scripts of
history and blurring out others, which means that “normalization”
becomes as much a victim in the name of politics as the
“uniqueness” theory. The normalization of Germany history – in the
normal German discourse at least – does not imply a rejection of
the recognition of the exceptionality of Nazi crimes. It regards
the Nazi period as a breakdown and not as a logical result of the
centuries-long German history – in contrast to what German liberals
would say in the 1950s and the 1960s. In Russia, there is a
tendency today to interpret the terror of the 1920s-1950s as a
norm; an unavoidable byproduct of a speedy modernization in a
backward agrarian country, not as a deviation. This logic
eliminates the necessity for any moral assessments of the horrible
events of the past.

Professional history arose in the early 19th century as part of
nation-building ventures and it remains the same in many aspects
today. That is why the Russian authorities, which are apparently
concerned with the problems of national consolidation, give so much
attention to history textbooks and, generally, to society’s
historical memory. Yet a question arises: How is it actually done?
There is an obvious tendency toward construing “a glorious past” –
an inalienable part of any national historical narrative, no
doubt.  Yet the problem is whom are we trying to bring up – a
soldier or a citizen? As a civil community, a nation is formed not
only by the memory of glorious deeds, but also by the recognition
of the mistakes and crimes of the past.

Building an awareness of Russia’s tragedies of the 20th century
may be fruitful and help recognize the value of individual rights
and freedoms, as well as the value of the national community and of
an individual’s life. It remains unclear in this context whether
the visit that Vladimir Putin made last year to the Bitsa testing
range on the outskirts of Moscow, where thousands of innocent
people were executed in the 1930s, marked the start of a tradition
where the president would participate in the commemoration of the
victims of Bolshevist terror or whether it was a single episode in
the election campaign. State policy in the field of society’s
historical consciousness is still unclear.

Generally speaking, history does not provide clear answers to
the problems of modern life; nor does it predestine the future
development. Yet it sets before us many important questions worth
thinking about. How can one learn to respect the state without
falling into servility or piousness? Or how can one master social
and civic activity and overcome carnivorous individualism bred by
Soviet Communism and the post-Communist era of wild capitalism? Or
how does one combine tolerance and activity in a country where the
tolerant are often inactive and the active are intolerant? There
are no simple answers to these questions, but even considering them
through the prism of history could be very useful.