The Corner

From the Other Side of the Ravine

Kathrin Hille has a fascinating article in today’s Financial Times. It’s paywall protected and the piece is too long to give a sense of it all, but this question is perhaps at the heart of it:

“Before blaming Putin for playing his tune, you have to ask: ‘Who put the piano on stage?’” says Alexei Miller, a Russian historian….

Maybe a better way of looking at it is who left it there.

More than seven decades of communist rule and the chaos that followed both its collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet empire were never likely to have been easy for Russia, but they were, in the end, made worse by the failure to come to terms with its past and the consequences of Putin’s attempt to conceal that failure by manufacturing a myth:

The history of central and eastern Europe and central Asia had been constricted in a tight ideological corset for more than 70 years. Suddenly newly independent countries could revive their national histories and debate atrocities from the Stalin era. Such discourse became a key pillar of national identity.

In Russia, things were much more complicated. Russia had been the nucleus from which the Soviet Union was built, its language and culture had dominated the now-defunct communist empire and its people had accounted for the lion’s share of the Soviet armed forces. A clean break with the past was impossible. In many cases, the opening of historical archives pitted Russians against their neighbours.

In the 1990s, during a brief interlude of multi-party politics, Russia started to question its past. But at the same time, political infighting, corruption and financial crises left many with a sense of loss, chaos and confusion. Almost a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, the country was still struggling to find a new identity.

Putin changed things. Since he came to power 15 years ago, Moscow has closed historical archives, narrowed the spectrum of debate and moved to unify history textbooks. Since the start of his third presidential term in 2012, Putin has identified patriotism and a hero cult as the necessary glue for his disoriented nation.

Contrast postwar Germany. 

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