Historical Memory in Russia and the USA

by Anatol Lieven

International relations Russia and her neighbours US foreign policy 11 mins read

Contribution to a webinar of the Simone Weil Center: Politics, Tragedy, Sovereignty: A Panel Discussion on the Meaning of Today’s Russia.

View on YouTube.

Panelists:  Marlene Laruelle, James Carden, Anatol Lieven, Boris Mezhuev, Paul Robinson, Richard Sakwa

The USA and Russia: Common Dilemmas of Memory and Identity

by Anatol Lieven

An absolute curse of Russia’s relations with the West not just since the end of the Cold War but throughout modern history has been the Western insistence that we have nothing to learn from Russia, and everything to teach Russia – an attitude which tends to produce among Russians either slavish and humiliating acquiescence or furious and arrogant rejection; or very often the first followed by the second.

This Western hubris is especially fatuous when it comes to questions of national memory, national identity and core national values. These have been central issues for Russia for most of its modern history; and due to a mixture of immigration and cultural change, they have also become central issues for every major Western state. Given the events of the past year, it should be obvious that Americans today should sympathise and learn from Russia’s experience when it comes to addressing contested and tragic historical memories and historical symbolism.

Since Gorbachev’s reforms (or even since Khrushchev’s Thaw), Russians have faced the dilemma of how to remember with pride the tremendous achievements of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War without at the same time defending Stalinist tyranny and its imposition on Eastern Europe; and how to remember the dark sides of Soviet and Russian history without (like the extreme liberals) trashing the entire Russian state tradition – remembering of course how the entirely justified recollection of Leninist crimes helped bring about the collapse of the USSR.

Under Putin, public historical symbolism has become completely incoherent: statues of Tsar Alexander II and Lenin stare bemusedly at each other from opposite sides of roads. Perhaps however this is in the end not just inevitable, but desirable; since the alternative would be the exclusion of huge parts of the historical record, the suppression of the values of large parts of the population; and the creation of new and not necessarily more accurate monolithic historical myths.

The USA today is facing the dilemma of how to recognize the evils of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans without – like not just the American Left but even God help us the New York Times – trashing the entire US state tradition and dissolving the ideological and cultural glue that holds the USA together.

Curiously enough however the endless apologies of Western liberal intelligentsias for past sins of Western racism, imperialism and so on do not diminish in the slightest their attitudes of arrogant ideological superiority towards the rest of the world, and towards benighted (white) conservative elements of Western societies. It seems a bit like the old Catholic practice of Indulgences: a ritual act of apology makes you good and pure again, and therefore in a position to look down on and dictate to those who have not yet adequately apologised for their sins.

Tony Blair represents an extreme form of this attitude, or pathology. None of his apologies for British imperial crimes led him to wonder for a single second whether this record might give people good reason to doubt Britain’s honesty, intentions and capabilities in helping the USA to invade Iraq in the name of freedom, peace and democracy. The French progressive intelligentsia are another example. Having abandoned socialism, but being quite incapable of abandoning a sense of individual and national civilising mission, they have made a cult of preaching human rights to the rest of humanity, a mission that is not at all qualified by their acknowledgement of monstrous past French crimes.

Associated with this are aspects of the widespread cult of victimhood. This psychological shift from legitimate sympathy for victims to compulsory admiration for victims stems partly from a sort of international competition to suggest comparisons between your own collective sufferings and those of the European Jews during the Holocaust; and partly from the demilitarisation (dare I say feminisation?) of broad swathes of Western culture, especially in academia and the media.

Thus in sympathising (quite rightly) with the sufferings of colonised peoples, it has become distinctly unfashionable and frowned-upon to recognise – and respect – the fact that Zulus, Chechens or Afghans were not simply victims, but also tough and courageous warriors fighting in defence of their own traditional orders and values – which were most assuredly not those of contemporary Western liberalism.

In the teaching of the Second World War, this approach contributes to a wider tendency (fuelled by state propaganda campaigns by particular NATO and EU states) to cast the Soviet Union as an enemy and not an ally of the West, analogous to Nazi Germany. On the one hand, the great reduction in attention paid to the battles and the soldiers who fought in them means a great reduction in recognition of the Soviet soldiers who did the great majority of the fighting. On the other, the indiscriminate mixing of Nazi crimes, Soviet crimes and collaborationist crimes creates a historical fog out of which – Hey Presto! – the Western progressive tradition shines once more pure and unsullied.

If there is one book that I would make compulsory reading in any course about the Second World War, it would be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate: a profound meditation on the analogous evils of the Nazi and Stalinist systems that on the other hand does not doubt for a second the justice of the Soviet War, and also praises the idealism of many Communists (however misplaced); and a work of the deepest sympathy for the victims of the war that at the same time celebrates the heroic endurance of the defenders of Stalingrad and their vital role in the salvation of Europe. Grossman was a great Russian classical novelist; a fierce critic of Stalinist tyranny; a strong and devoted patriot; and of course Jewish.

As Grossman’s case illustrates, Russia and the USA today are both in their different ways multiethnic and multicultural states. This fact can be shaped and contained in various ways, but it cannot now be abolished without hideous repression.

Two shaping and constraining forces are of especial importance: loyalty to the state, and a degree of love for a common culture (which does not need to cancel out love for another cultural tradition at the same time).

Loyalty to he state stems from traditional legitimacy but also in the Russian case from a deeply rooted fear of chaos and internal conflict. This is a fear that is now coming to be shared by sensible Americans. We have to pray that foolish Americans will not have to learn fear of chaos the Russian way.

To retain a capacity for cultural and economic growth, states should of course govern through the law; but they have to be strong enough to enforce obedience to their laws and to ensure their own survival. For this they need to enjoy legitimacy in their populations; but populations also need to understand their need for a strong state, and the dreadful consequences for themselves if the state weakens too far.

This leads me to another thing that Americans can learn from modern Russian history: the vital importance of a strong central cultural and especially literary tradition. I don’t know if Allan Bloom has been translated into Russian but Putin would certainly read him with approval.

We may remember that in the Middle Ages, the legends of Charlemagne and the secondary literature in vernacular French that they gave birth to were known as “The Matter of France” just as the Arthurian legends were known as the “Matter of Britain” – and in both cases were critical to the development of the national languages, literatures and identities.

The great Russian classical literature of the 19 th century and its 20 th century descendants, together with the Russian cinema to which it contributed so much, could well be called “The Matter of Russia”.

And of course both to play its full national role and to continue to flourish, such a literature must be open to people of every ethnic background who identify with it and wish to contribute to it, while retaining loyalty to their own ethnic traditions. Vassily Grossman should also be an inspiring symbol in this regard.