Putin & Medvedev 2008Just as the contribution of the Beatles to the downfall of Communism and the Soviet Union is being recognised (!), there’s a big row going on in Eastern Europe at the moment and two connected things have set it off: (a) Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian Presidential face of Vladimir Putin, has called for the teaching of history in Russia to reclaim the marvellous achievements of Stalin and (b) the Baltic states are lumping the Soviet Union together with the Nazis as invaders of their countries and oppressors of their people.

The last couple of months have seen (among others) the anniversaries of:

  • the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 24 August 1939 (which carved up Eastern Europe between the Nazis and the Soviet Union)
  • Operation Barbarossa which saw the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans on 22 June 1941 (which ended the non-aggression pact mentioned above)
  • the twin invasion of Poland (by Germany and the Soviet Union) that began on 1 September 1939 (followed by the declaration of war by Hitler in the Reichstag: ‘Seit 5 Uhr 45 wird zurueckgeschossen!’)
  • the declaration of war against Germany by Britain, the Commonwealth and France on 3 September 1939.

Medvedev and Putin are now a bit fed up that Stalin’s Soviet Union is being lumped together with Germany as joint launchers of World War II, maintaining that it was Stalin who had ‘ultimately saved Europe’. The USSR apparently had no option but to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalin bore ‘no responsibility’ for starting the Second World War. In this context – and following accusations by the Baltic states that Hitler and Stalin were equally responsible for the war – Medvedev and Putin have set up a commission in Russia aimed at re-writing the history to make it conform to the orthodoxy they wish to affirm. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, the commission appears to be dominated by members of the intelligence services and not by professional historians – 28-3, if you want precise figures.)

Stalin & ProvdaNow, before all the Commie-bashers’ eyes turn red and brains fall out, let’s remember that these guys won’t be the first politicians to want to re-write the history books. History is always (a) written from a particular perspective – that of the ‘winners’ – and (b) written to justify contemporary power concerns – in this case Russia’s claim to ‘privileged interests’ in its post-Soviet neighbours. As Jonathan Steele wrote in a useful corrective to simplistic interpretations of history:

History is too complex and sensitive to be left to politicians. First they manipulate anniversaries, then they move to textbooks, and the slide gathers speed.

What is interesting about all this is the wide debate it has sparked about history itself and who decides which interpretation is to be regarded as ‘orthodox’ rather than ‘revisionist’ (terms also bandied about in the Church to label dissenters from ‘my’ view as traitors to the cause). Irina Filatova says:

But history is a strange discipline – for as long as it has existed it has been pronounced dead. But it comes back with a vengeance, meting out its own sentences on those who try to silence it.

And, in an interesting reflection on the current debates about Afghanistan, Simon Jenkins impatiently states:

History is like the law. It offers raw material for anyone who wants to plead a cause or make some money … History is not bunk. It is a glorious seam of human experience from which leaders can seek guidance on their present conduct. But its parallels are never exact and are easy to distort, while its lessons are quarrelsome.

MonasThis is where the teaching of history becomes so important and why history teaching in our schools and universities is so vital. Like the monument to Soekarno in Jakarta, Indonesia, (described locally as ‘Soekarno’s last erection’ but officially known as Monas) – which has an exhibition of dioramas telling the story of Indonesia’s history, beginning with prehistoric boats sailing from Sumatra to Java flying the flag of modern independent Indonesia! – it is always tempting to tell the story from the present back to the past, giving it a thread of inevitability that justifies the present political reality.

But, history can never be reduced to a simple statement of facts. It will always involve interpretation by subjects and observers and will need to be treated with a certain scepticism as to the motives, assumptions and commitments of those who either write or authorise the ‘history’.

For example, it would be really interesting (and there must be a book in here somewhere) to tell the stories of the Bible from the perspective of the ‘losers’: the Egyptians prior to the Exodus or the Canaanites subjected to the ethnic cleansing of the Conquest, for example.