Russia: When History Becomes a Weapon (Englische Folge)

Geschichte ist Gegenwart! Der History & Politics Podcast der Körber-Stiftung

  • Ukraine
  • Geschichte
  • Politik
  • 40 min.
  • 34. episode

Podcast series: “The Empire Strikes Back”

Warum setzt Vladimir Putin Geschichte als Mittel geopolitischer Expansion ein – und schreibt sie um? Die Geschichte des Zarenreiches und der Sowjetunion spielen als Waffe nach innen und außen eine wichtige Rolle. Welches Bild von der Zukunft verbirgt sich hinter dem Rückgriff auf das Gestern und Vorgestern? Und welche Rolle spielt Diversität dabei? Darüber haben wir gemeinsam mit dem Historiker Alexander Semyonov diskutiert.

Why is Vladmir Putin using history as a tool for geopolitical expansion – and why does he rewrite history? The past in the context of the Tsarist Empire as well as the Soviet Union play an important role in Russia´s foreign and domestic politics. Which vision of the future is connected to these references to distant or less distant pasts? And what is the role of diversity in all this? We have discussed these issues with historian Alexander Semyonov.

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“We need to have a different attitude towards history. We need to look at the history with the idea of how do you change or make less hegemonic discourses that are inherited from the past.”

Historian Alexander Semyonov

Erwähnte Projekte und weiterführende Informationen

Journal Ab Imperio – Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space (Affiliated journal of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies): This is the site of Discussion forum of the journal Ab Imperio (open access)

Summary of the discussion of the crisis of the field of Russian, East European, and Eurasian history from Ab Imperio 2022 no. 1

Follow Ab Imperio on twitteror receive recent updates on facebook.

Please note this manuscript was partially created by automated software.

Gabriele Woidelko: Sasha Semyonov welcome to the history and politics podcast.

Alexander Semyonov: Thank you for the invitation.

It's very nice to have you with us. We are talking to each other as part of a series we have in our podcast which is about the legacy of empires. We call it the empire strikes back. It’s all about the repercussions of empires in the present. Today we are going to talk about the repercussions of empires in Russia today. I would like to start with a recent episode. A couple of days ago the Russian president visited an exhibition in Moscow. That was organised on the occasion of the 350th birthday of the Russian Zar Peter the Great. Putin paid tribute to the Zar and he said that both Peter the Great and Russia today share a historic quest to bring back land that originally belong to Russia. It was clear that he made a connection to the current war in Ukraine. Putin was using the connection between Peter the Great and current Russian politics, very recently. What do you think which aspects of Russia's imperial past are the major ones that are politically used or misused by the Russian president, currently? You are an expert on imperial history and diversity. What is your view? What imperial past is Putin using and why?

Terrific question. Thank you again for the invitation and I would like to start with an observation that in the past two decades Russian politics, political ideology and propaganda has been dominated by references to the past. This is not a healthy situation. We are replacing questions about the present and the future with this hegemonic all empowering references to the past. It reveals the fact that there is little imagination about the future. Everything is about the past. Empires strikes back but it's also as we wrote in our journal a period forward to the past. We're very quickly moving forward but we’re not moving into the future, we’re moving into the past. Many people commented on that. This is very strange. There is little positive agenda that the regime that was formed after Jelzin and inherited much of the post-soviet Russian political climate. It is very conservative. That means that it doesn't have a daring imagination of how to meet the global challenges of the future. This is the one point I want to underscore. The overwhelming presence of history, almost omnipresence of history, in the Russian official politics.

You mentioned Peter the Great. The theme of Peter the Great was with Wladimir Putin for some time, he's coming from Leningrad St. Petersburg. There's a sort of original identification with a history of the city. When we look historically at the period of transformation of the muscovite state into the Russian empire that is usually credited to Peter the Great. Many people forget how erratic the reforms of Peter the Great were, how much was done in the 17th century rather than in the 18th century that is before Peter the Great. Professional historians, who were writing in this period say that the real formation of the institutes, norms and the shapes of imperial cities in the 18th century they're all back to Catherine the Great, not Peter the Great. The famous one Peter built huge Russian navy. It all got destroyed and rotten in the course of the 18th century. Catherine the Great had to rebuild the entire navy to go against the Ottoman empire in the Mediterranean. Much more credit should be given to Catherine the Great for that.

This is interesting and I'm sure we come back to that because this goes into the legacies of different Russian Zars and empresses. Let me get back to the connection between history and politics. When you were talking about the omnipresence of history in the Russian political discourse, history has been present in the political discourse not only the last couple of years but almost two decades. What we are seeing now since the war against Ukraine started is that it's not just about ideology. It's not about presenting history or presenting a certain narrative of history but it's about politicizing history and it's about using history as a weapon. Let me get back to an essay, the Russian president has published one year ago in July 2021, where he talked about Ukraine not being an independent nation stage. Ukraine being founded because Russia helped to found Ukraine. I mean it's not just ideology. It's weaponizing history. How would you describe the role history plays for the Russian president and its political system, when it comes to legitimizing war and conflicts? Where do you see the connection?

If you look at the people who are around the official Russian policy, they're all products of the 90s. They believe in something but they're also manipulating a lot and even though they present themselves as historians I don't think they are historians or they don't understand what the historical profession is about. They're using the logic of the history of the Russian state. That's the narrative that is around Peter the Great. That's why all the Zars are important. There was an anniversary of 1917 revolution that was played down because the revolution is the dismantling of the state. The breaking of the state. This is the state narrative of history that ignores much of global entanglements, transnational history, genders, social history, economic history for that matter. That type of history, historians are not writing it anymore, is very much employed and weaponized in the official discourse. Coming back to the original question of what is the imperial sort of legacy? It's the legacy of the idea of the Russian state that is employed by the current regime and has certain purchase on the international market. Putin is formulating the narrative that is shared by many professors of Russian history around the world.

Political continuity and if I understand your correctly you are saying that the Russian imperial history is politically now used in a way that it tells the history of the Russian nation state. It's a Russian dominated narrative, which is politicized.

You're quite right. First you put the state as the collective subject, as the main protagonist in your drama. Who is acting? It's basically the state and when you go deeper than there is enough national narrative that underpins that state narrative. The narrative about the history of the state. It is characteristic, you mentioned this article about the unity of Ukrainian and Russian people. The Ukrainian independence as a result of World War One. The national movement as a very powerful movement in Ukraine in a 19th century. The existence of different political states in early modern history of Ukraine. They're all deconstructed as if they were superficial as if they were not real. In the same article when the Russian president is talking about the Russians there are no deconstructed, they were and had been real through the course of that history. Some national histories are deconstructed but others are more real than others national histories. The state, and the nation, they have no national narrative, the merger of them, produce the current reform. Therefore, after the annexation of the Crimea the commemorative politics of the Russian state was all around the late Romanows, who had the residents in the Crimea in the Livadia Palace. The monument that was erected was to Alexander the Third. Even in one of the articles I wrote that, as the monument to Catherine the Great, the Second in Odessa is now besieged and under the threat of deconstruction. The monument to Alexander the Third right next door in the Crimea newly minted stands and shining under the sun.

Could you explain to our audience what this is telling us. If there is a new monument to Alexander the Third erected after the annexation of Crimea maybe not everybody is aware of meaning.

There was a major rupture in the 19th century and the names of Alexander the Third and Nicholas the Second came down in the political history of the Russian empire as the emperors who engaged in a kind of revolution against the empire. That revolution was a national revolution. They wanted to get the Russian national project going. They wanted the Russian empire to be more like a strong Russian nation state with colonies and dependencies. They wanted to have that foundation based on orthodoxy, the religion, the language and the whole imagination that there are this Russian people usually rural people that is the foundation of the political architecture. It's not accidental that the current Russian president favours Alexander the Third as much as he favours Peter the Great. The monument in the Crimea quotes famously that Russia does not have any allies but the Russian navy and the Russian army. It's a kind of isolationist politics which was not true at the time of Alexander the Third but everyone sights that a powerful phrase from him and this is the idea that Russia needs to become a nation state.

You can hear a lot of this discourse over the current Russian war against Ukraine by saying the problem with Russia is that it is an empire not a nation state. Therefore, it has these imperial ambitions and aggression. But if you look carefully at this discourse this is a result of the advice and urging during the 90s. The real path Russia into the 21st century is to become a normal nation state. It’s a combination of unreflected legacy that was from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and the idea of a nationalizing project, of building a solidarity based on religion and language, which in the current version of the constitution it's not just the language, it's called the Russian language, and the Russian people. The collective, the group. is identified with particular language. I disagree with some of the commentators who say this is an empire. This is not an empire, this is a form of imperial formation, of imperial politics where you have a very lethal combination of nationalism and imperial designs regarding the space around the political borders and the idea that the political borders do not hold.

Wait a moment Sasha because there were lot of topics in your last remark. You say today Russia is a nation state that uses imperial designs, but if I look at the constitution it's the Russian federation, it's not Russia as a nation state. How do I make sense of that?

It is the federation and federal principal was introduced after the collapse of the Russian empire. It's in the first Bolshevik constitution of 1918, but in fact as Lenin famously said in 1918 it’s the spontaneity of the world revolution that brought as to the federation. The Bolsheviks were not federalists at the beginning. It was in the climate of all major political forces in the early 20th century that brought the idea of autonomy and federalism to the front stage. The Bolsheviks were subdued by that consensus. They followed it rather than shaped it. Then the history of the Soviet Union which was a union and a multinational state and the Russian federation formed as a result of the exit from the Soviet Union inherited many of these features. The idea of federalism is under reflected currently and because there was an urge to build a Russian nation state, the beginning of the first term of President Putin was associated with cutting down the rights of the federal units within the Bundesrepublik, within the Russian federation which is again not Russian in the ethnic sense not “russisch” but “russländisch”. It's very important and I always use German for that. It's not “russisch”, it's “russländisch”. It's “rossiyskiy” in Russian not “russkiy”. There wasn’t a sort of federalism there were much more centralization brought over the 2000s and in the decade of the 2010s.

Coming back to the very direct question, what about the constitution? The constitution of the Russian federation, last amendments 2021, is very contradictory. For instance, early on the constitution said the Russian language is the state language in the Russian federation. Now there is a clause that says it's the Russian people, you can translate it as the Russian nation. That is the state for me. People of the Russian state. You have a hierarchy. You have many nations and peoples in the federation, but one people is accorded a very particular role because it's the bearer of the state. There is a hierarchy. In the next clause it says that all the peoples in the Russian Federation have equal rights. How do you square that with the clause that says that the Russian people are the state bearing people? It's a contradictory project and a trend throughout this post-Soviet period was to form a national core behind the political project that it called post-Soviet Russia.

Thank you very much for mentioning post-Soviet Russia. You have been talking about the Soviet Union already as well. My observation is that in the public discourse here in Germany but also in another European countries there is a lot of talking about the legacy of the Soviet Union when it comes to try to understand what is happening with the war against Ukraine. What has been happening since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The frozen conflicts in the Caucasus or other issues. The quick explanation is the Soviet legacy and the Russian political system after 91 especially under the current president who's been ruling for more than 20 years. They have been obsessed with this Soviet heritage, they want to rebuild the Soviet Union. What do you think? Is it helpful to think about the Soviet Union and the Soviet legacy when it comes to the current conflicts or to the current war?

In the present there are always multiple legacies at work. It's like several slices in the pie. I do not believe in the direct transmission of certain patterns of history into the present. It's always people who pick certain elements, who think there are important and most importantly those who borrow the language and use the language from a different epoch for the present that is very different from the history and try to describe it for the future.

The Soviet Legacy. It's many of them. In fact, Stalin made a break with the early Soviet history by insisting on implementing the project of national territorial autonomy. Choosing territory is the defining element of the national autonomy that meant disrupting the larger impact of diaspora nationalities that populate this Eurasian space. Stalin's version is opposite to the version in the 20s. It’s a kind of hybrid revolution with lots of ideas about autonomy and new arrangement for this heterogeneous space. Stalin’s version is more like define nationality, cut all the ties, make it smaller in a way. This is very contradictory. When we are coming to the post-Soviet Russia, the most relevant feature of the Soviet legacy is the late Soviet legacy. The late Soviet legacy was a revolt against this multinational, political project. By that time, the idea of the world revolution, the idea of a cosmopolitanism, they all died out. As a result, with Andropow you have a Russian national project weaning in the hearts of former communists. We cover that in another publication, that's the UNESCO Commission report on the Russian humanities. In that publication we examine sociological surveys right after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Negligible percentage thought that the question about the restoration of the Soviet Union is very important. The nostalgia for the Soviet Union, for the borders and the institutions, is very late. It's when the generation that experienced this transformation of a global magnitude, the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is no longer there.

It's very interesting what you say about the generational change. That when once the generation that experience the Soviet Union is no longer there, we see the beginning of creating an image of the Soviet Union that doesn't have much to do with historical facts. Is it feasible to talk about the Soviet Union as an empire? I see this very often in the discourse in Germany and in other places and I’m always a bit uneasy because I'm not sure whether that is applicable. What would you say on the topic?

The category of empire, the word is very ambiguous. There are three meanings in the way we use empire. Number one, we imply a non-democratic form of polity. Not just non-democratic, it's the form of polity that introduces hierarchy and introduces kind of colonial, repressive and violent attitude towards peripherals. That's what the usual description of what empires are. Basically, when we want to say something bad, we call it an empire. Recently we have discovered that most of the states and most of the societies in history were empires. In the sense that being part of a larger space was better, more advantageous than being part of a local, very homogeneous, national or ethnic, pure space. Another theme that is associated with the category of empires is the idea of cosmopolitanism and universalism. Today, in the global age we like to be cosmopolitan without quite realizing that the trade routes, say out of Hamburg to colonial Africa, were created in the time of the “Weltpolitik”. They were created and based in with the idea that there is this kind of political agency, supporting the globalization and connections that we call global history these days. The third element is the idea of diversity. Diversity is still very difficult. Most of our societies today are very diverse. We deal with migrants. We deal with different religions. We deal with different races. We deal with gender and sexual diversity. That's part of all modern societies. When we talk about empires, we imply that this is the space where diversity is experienced. Not always for good because it creates a lot of conflicts.

But it is part of the empire.

That's part of it. If you want to be big, you have to experience that diversity. Coming back to your question, what people mean when they call the Soviet Union an empire. Sometimes they mean that it was completely illegitimate project. I don't fully share that because the Soviet Union was formed out of the crisis of the Russian empire and out of the crisis of World War One, when most of the states were empires. Decolonization happened just in the middle of the 20th century not in the early 20th century. When people say it's an empire, they mean it's illegitimate but it's very anachronistic, it's not true of the time.

The Soviet Union was not formed by the Bolsheviks, but by the people who experience the crisis of the empire in the early 20th century and wanted to build a reformed political state. I wouldn't agree that the Soviet Union was doomed from the very beginning, because it was multinational. Many of the states at that time were multinational. But it is true that with Stalin, with this kind of approach to diversity that centres on territorial unit and purely defined ethnicity that holds this unit, there was a break with the previous pattern of hybrid connections, intersectional diversity and many linkages across the space. That element makes it a kind of empire because it singles out the management of diversity in a way that enhances the control and precludes the development of other autonomous social forces in the space of heterogeneity or diversity. Many people say, well you see the Soviet Union lost the cold war, then it was illegitimate anyway, like an old building, which can’t hold together and collapse. But there was a perestroika and there was a movement of reform and a mobilization. I tried to think about that as a kind of revolution. Many forces coming together without a clear picture of what to be done. It's a very different time and society but still I wouldn't downplay the mobilization, the idea that you need to get a reform at that moment. Therefore, it's not a collapse but a very contradictory moment of the revolution with various ideas in circulation. Unfortunately, the ideas of nationalism and conservatisms were prevailing at that time. Get back to capitalism, don't invent anything, don't think much about the pensions and the social welfare state. Just get back to capitalism. We need to restart a century ago. That’s why out of this very creative moment none of the originally designs, none of the blueprints work to prevent the course of history that really put us forward into the past and forward into the past we are back to nationalism and we're back to wars. Now the war is legitimised. We’re facing the situation when we have a prevalence of methodological nationalism. Suddenly people are saying you deconstructed nationalisms, but in fact it is a very active force. This is the one that needs to be applauded. This is the one that is a movement towards the future. That is a misrepresentation of what is happening even in the current crisis.

Let's talk a bit about alternatives because you have been doing research on imperial history for a long time already. You've been looking into in depths into the past and the legacies of empires and you came up with quite an interesting concept. Sasha, our miniseries is entitled the empires strikes back, the empire stroke back also on yourself on your professional career. We have already mentioned that you left Russia. The war that Russia has started against the Ukraine has change your life as well. What does the current political situation mean for you as a professional historian? How does it affect your career and your personal life?

I was asked in 2012 to start a new department of history and a research institute to call the Centre for Historical Research. We've got wonderful team, a faculty, and researchers and when we look at people who are specializing in social history, in global history, in colonial imperial history, in cultural history, in diplomatic history, we all ended up saying that we are all brought under the umbrella of global comparative and transnational history. This was our project for 10 years. This October would have been 10 years of our work and we've done good things, good students and…

If you say we, you are talking about the higher school of economics in Saint Petersburg?

That is very right. The war up ended the core of our mission that is building international cooperation research and educational cooperation with world leading universities in EU, the UK and the US. That turn has made impossible for me to carry on the mission on which I was invited. I couldn’t agree with the use of history that is in the Russian official politics. With this sort of political imagination that centres on rebuilding the Soviet Union 2.0. It's very autarkic. It's cutting off the ties and entanglements that has being part of the Soviet and the post-Soviet Russian history. It does not sit well with the Russian society particularly the young generations, whose future is taken away. A major problem is that we've been not that successful in resisting a very conservative attitude in Russia, in public, in media, in educational sphere too. We're facing a new century and it will bring new challenges. The one that we didn't know in the 17th century. We need to have a different attitude towards history. We need to look at the history with the idea of how do you strange or make less hegemonic discourses that are inherited from the past. Something that says that the state is the only point of political loyalty, says that the only form of social solidarity is a national solidarity, says that culture has to be pure and defined by the boundaries of language and that a particular culture upbringing kind of a “Bildungs” culture. This is not true about the beginning of the 21st century and I'm sure in the 21st century we'll see more of a mixture, more of the contradictions that are coming out of the mixture and entanglements. That's why we wanted to build a very different sort of department. That work has been upended but we've produced a number of graduates that are around the world, that are being employed, that are doing professional history and I don't see that 10 years were completely wasted.

That’s very good to hear because it’s a major turning point for the work you've been doing. I'm very grateful that you share this with us and our audience here. You've been talking about changes history or the way of looking at history underwent in the last two decades and what has happened when it comes to the politician of history. What do you think could or should historians do to counter the political abuse of history as we see it now? You’ve been talking about your students; you’ve been educating younger generations. Is it educating good young historians to counter it? Should historians speak up more clearly? Should they enter into political debates and raised their voice? What is your view on this?

I mean, usually, when historians are asked this question, they were saying, historians are not politicians, of course.

I know.

They're not going to replace and have a different job to do. But it is very important for the historical profession that sent us in Eastern Europe and Russian imperial or Soviet history to look back at the past 20 years and ask a question. The Soviet Union is no more and we still call the space the post-Soviet space. There is a major change of the political borders and a major change of the society, why didn't the narrative change? Maybe the true role of a historian is not to dispute fact in a writing of a politician, but to look at the major questions that the present societies facing and to look back into the past and write a different narrative from a different angle, from a different perspective. I always use the example of gender and woman history when people say wow history doesn't really change. Is it so? We’ve seen professional history ignoring the question of woman as if they did not exist. Now we have a very different history.

The past is very rich and complex. Every new generation asks different questions to the past. The way we tell the story, the way we shape the narrative should reflect, should not be conservative. That is repeated because is going to sell well. Society is ready to listen to very different parts of history, complex and difficult history but we need not to be arrogant about society, we should trust society and provide society with this material to reflect on the present questions. If you look at the current state of almost all societies, they all experience diversity and they're all struggling with it, because diversity is not always good. Diversity is about the conflict, is about the various form of identifications and norms that are seemingly incompatible. This is the reality. The only alternative to that is cleansing and genocide. We better start thinking about how to write a narrative of history, how to explain how people live together being in diverse societies and in very huge political formations. Maybe that will bring to the present society to know what to do with the issues of diversity today.

Thank you so much Sasha for this conversation.

I very much appreciate your invitation. Thank you.

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Geschichte ist Gegenwart! Der History & Politics Podcast der Körber-Stiftung

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