The following is a guest post by Paul Grenier:
People who care about Russia – its culture, its history and traditions, and, most importantly, its people – have had reason to feel fearful and frustrated in recent years. Among other reasons because the media in the United States has gotten into one of its by-now all-too-familiar campaigns of simplification and demonization of a foreign country and its leader. Such campaigns (remember Nicaragua? Iraq? Libya?) usually signal that the US government is getting itself ready for the attack.
It was in such a context, about a year ago, that Russia Insider came on the scene. Initially it shared lots of tongue-in-cheek articles, often ridiculing simplistic caricatures of Russia in Western media. It also included thoughtful analyses — some of them reprints from other sources, others by its own regular writers. Reprints of my own work have appeared there on a few occasions.
Here’s the thing, though. A recent article in Russia Insider, Nikolai Starikov’s “Why Russia Should Not Repent for Her Past” (Russia Insider, October, 2015), has got me wondering about, first of all, whether Russia Insider isn’t straying into dangerous territory; and secondly, whether we think clearly enough about what it is in Russia that deserves our respect.
Problems of History
We all know that ‘history is written by the victors.’ Readers of Russia Insider doubtless include many who accept this well-known saying and are therefore skeptical of official narratives. Indeed, I would include myself among the skeptical. And why not? After all, quite a bit that we have been told by ‘reputable sources’ in the United States over recent decades has turned out not to be true. And for some reason we tend to find out only after such knowledge is no longer of any practical use (Tonkin Gulf, Contra drug running, weapons of mass destruction, etc.).
Pervasive skepticism, however, raises its own difficulties, especially for those of us whose understanding of history boils down to being a matter of whom we can trust. How can the non-professional historian respond to the complex uncertainties of history? There is a temptation to conclude that the search for historical truth is altogether vain; that history is a game to be played for political gain, and nothing more. That what we need to do, instead, is accept whichever version of ‘truth’ is most advantageous to ‘our side’.
This latter course is the one chosen by Nikolai Starikov. Let’s take a quick look at his historical methodology — for example, as regards the once-controversial question about who was responsible for the Katyn massacre of Polish officers during WWII. Reputable historians in and outside of Russia have long been convinced that the evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt that it was Stalin’s regime that carried out the massacres. Starikov calls this “a lie.”
His reasoning (if the word ‘reasoning’ is warranted here) completely ignores the question of evidence. He is concerned only with political consequences. “Repentance” for Katyn, writes Starikov, “would bring nothing but problems.” Accepting “the lie” that the Polish officers at Katyn were executed on Stalin’s order rather than by the Nazis has had a bad influence on Russia’s relations with Poland, Starikov writes. The “lie” and the disadvantage, for him, are one and the same.
Indeed, his methodology is blatantly consequentialist. If “de-Stalinization” is harmful, then the right approach is to accept an extreme historicism which dismisses Stalin’s mass repressions as “triggered … by the realities of the period” in which he lived. For a ‘historian,’ Starikov demonstrates remarkable indifference to history. “Politics, especially international politics,” he writes, “is always a complicated matter. There is no objective morality here, just ourselves and our allies set against foreign and domestic enemies who wish to dominate and rob us [emphasis mine].” History is politics continued by other means, and an ugly politics at that.
It is true that Starikov is not the only one playing this game. Machiavellis in the U.S. are also quite capable of picking and choosing which aspects of history to focus on, which demons to demonize, and then using this selective history as a political tool.
Political power does ‘complicate’ the quest for truth. Does this mean that we cannot know who actually was guilty of the Katyn massacres? Does it mean we cannot know the truth of any of the various other controversial incidents in history? To an extent, it depends on luck. Sometimes the right documents fall into the right hands at a propitious political moment, and we find out. Such was the case with Katyn. We know that this massacre was perpetrated by the USSR. But at other times, as the pessimist Simone Weil once wrote, “ … according to the nature of things, documents originate among the powerful ones, the conquerors. History, therefore, is nothing but a combination of the depositions made by assassins with respect to their victims and themselves.”
The truth of history can only be known within an atmosphere that actually cares for the truth as the most important thing. It is only in such a milieu that the methods of professional historical inquiry can produce their results.
Without the Truth, Why Should We Care?
Is it possible that Starikov is right, then, after all? If all sides are playing political games, why shouldn’t Russia as well – and beat the others at their own game?
Well, for one thing, it is not true that other countries are always so eager to tell lies about their own histories. But let’s set all that aside. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the cynicism is just as rampant as Starikov and his supporters (including many on the comment thread of his article appearing in Russia Insider) suppose. What then? According to this logic, all we need ever say about the history of Russia, is what is to Russia’s advantage. And all we need ever say, by extension, about the United States (or any other country) is what is to the advantage of those countries. The ‘truth,’ such as it is, in such a world, can only ever be determined by the victors, in other words, by the strongest. And as the passage from Simone Weil suggests, such is sometimes the only ‘truth’ we get our hands on: the ‘truth’ of the victors.
The question to ask at this point, however, is this: why should we care about such a ‘truth’? Why should we care about a country concerned with nothing more than the extension of its own power? Is it possible to love such a country?
History, the truth of history, is not a game, after all; it is our only contact with reality. Starikov far too lightly discards the truth as a matter of any interest. (In this respect too, unfortunately, he is far from unique.) But as a consequence of this indifference, there remains no Russia left that a person can love. For as Simone Weil also pointed out, love and truth form a unity. It is impossible to love a Russia woven of a fabric of lies. “What one loves is something which exists,” wrote Weil, and about which, therefore, one can know the truth. Starikov’s project, by contrast, depends on building Russia’s future on a foundation of lies and the praise of force.
Ironically, Starikov’s brand of Russian exceptionalism flounders on this very logic. As I have argued elsewhere, to the extent that a culture is merely liberal, to that same extent it reduces the political idea precisely to self-interest and force. Starikov’s Russia, far from presenting an alternative logic, serves up the same old same old, only this time with a collectivist tinge.
I can only speak for myself. What I find attractive in Russia is something very different. The Russia I respect is not merely and impractically anti-liberal (self-interest, after all, is not something to be simply rejected); it is a Russia that remains devoted to the best of its own traditions, which are more than merely liberal. Russia at its best is capable of admitting its past sins honestly, without rejecting its Christian and, if I may put it this way, its Platonic heritage.
Happily, such honesty can be found in the stance of the Russian government itself. To Starikov’s great chagrin, it was the Russian government that recently declared that “Russia cannot fully become a state governed by the rule of law and occupy a leading role in the world community without immortalizing the memory of many millions of its citizens who were the victims of mass repressions.”
It is worth noting, in this same connection, that Russian president Vladimir Putin has a well-known high regard for Ivan Ilyin, the Russian legal scholar and philosopher. At a recent conference held in Moscow and attended by Russian senators, one of the organizers quoted Ilyin on the subject of patriotism:
“There is no person, and there is no nation, who can be the unique locus of the spirit, for the spirit lives in all people and in all nations. To fail to see this is to be morally blind and therefore deprived of both patriotism and legal consciousness. Such a path of spiritual blindness is truly a non-ethical path, one having nothing in common with love for one’s native land; because true patriotism is not a blind but a seeing form of love … ”