To Start ‘from Scratch’?
On September 7th Valdai International Discussion Club held a roundtable discussion on ‘Russian History, Geography and Future’ at the HSE Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs.
Video clip of the meeting (partly in Russian and in English)
The Valdai International Discussion Club is an annual forum of the world’s leading community leaders, representatives from the business elite, scientists and politicians, and its meetings include essential discussions on Russia’s position in international politics, economics and culture. This year the club members took a trip on the Kronshtadt riverboat from Saint Petersburg via Ladozhskoye and Onezhskoye lakes to Kizhi. During this trip the participants not only visited some memorable places related to the tragic history of the GULAG, but also took part in some very interesting meetings with local scientists as well as informal discussions on the past, present and future of Russia.
In his opening speech Sergey Karaganov, Dean of the HSE Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, introduced the guests, shared his impressions of the trip and mentioned that Russian history has been one of the most popular topics in the Club and led to some of the most heated discussions between local and foreign participants.
— We had some marvellous talks during the trip: long, very different, funny and sad — he said. For me, as the Chairman of the Club, among the most interesting questions were the following. Can Russia pass to a stage of modernization without an analysis of its own history, without admitting the catastrophe that took place in the 20th century? Should we forget our past and start ‘from scratch’? How important is it to understand who we are in order to move forward? I think that in the 20th century we lost not only tens of millions of people, in addition to the losses of WWII, we also lost our historical memory, or, more precisely, we erased it. We still cannot honestly admit what we did to ourselves. This is something we discussed during our long intellectual marathon, and we shall continue talking about it today.
Professor Vladimir Buldakov, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Editor-in-Chief of Soviet and Post-Soviet Review (Leiden, Holland), stressed in his speech that attempts to forget the past have been carried out in Russia more than once: not only following the Bolshevik revolution, but also during the reforms of Peter I and Pavel I’s projects.
— After every riot and revolution – Prof. Buldakov said – we try to answer questions about who we are and where we are going. A number of historians, including me, look at Russian history as sequence of system crises, a sequence of crashes of our statehood. For example, I believe that the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century and the smouldering revolution of the late 20th century are similar events. The history we are writing – the history of tsars, governments, political elites – is a ‘view from the above’. We still have not written the history of the people, of the ordinary man – what is nowadays called a social history of the country. And without a knowledge and understanding of our own history and analysis of the mistakes it is impossible to move forward.
According to Professor Timothy Colton, Chair of the Department of Government at Harvard University (USA), not only Russia, but also Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and other European countries are concerned with the existing interpretations of historic events that happened in their countries in both the distant and recent past.
— I am a political scientist, not a historian – Prof. Colton emphasized – and I would have thought that if you’d asked me 15 years ago whether Russians would need to be worrying about historical questions in 2010, I would probably have said, I don’t think so, because the Soviet period is already over, communism is dead, there’s a new Russia trying to build on a different foundation. And this attitude was present in many countries, not only post-Soviet countries, but also other countries in the former Block. But then something happened to change all of that. In the middle of this decade it seemed that history returned to the agenda. For us to be discussing this topic turned out to be a very good idea, and one preliminary conclusion that some of us came to towards the end of our discussions on the riverboat was that this is an issue for which there may have to be a European solution. And I don’t mean Western Europe telling Russians what to think about their own history, but rather looking together at some of these issues, because they involve most of the modern world, at least in the 20th century.
The speech by Samuel Charap, Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for American Progress (USA), included a brief analysis of how Georgia’s military action and the Russian response in August 2008 in South Ossetia transformed Russian-US bilateral relations.
There was much anticipation and interest in the speech by Professor Shiliang Sheng, Chief Researcher with the Center for Global Challenges Studies, Xinhua News Agency; Chief Researcher at the Institute for Social Development of Eurasia (the Center for Development Research under the State Council of the People's Republic of China), who expressed his opinion not on the past, but on the future of Russia.
— A good positioning of your country in the world context is an essential condition for the modernization of society and the economy. Russia is not going to join Europe, nobody is waiting for it there — he said. Your country is too big and too special. Russia should not try to integrate too closely with Europe. As a Chinese proverb says, ‘A Duke’s palace is good, but it is not ours’. Russia’s move towards Asia is even a worse option, since it is already very crowded. I think that the best way is to remain a great Russia, one of the only really sovereign countries, able to hold its own in foreign policy games.
Concluding his speech, the Professor emphasized:
— It would be good for Russia to get rid of its negative self-image which is often absolutely groundless. Low self-esteem inevitably provokes even lower evaluations from other countries, which makes Russia an easy target for unfair criticism from outside. A craving for self-flagellation and diminution of its advantages decreases Russia’s immunity to Western criticism. In Russia we can often see ‘pursuing’, imitative models of democratization and social modernization. Russian intellectual and political elites traditionally consider the West as a model for necessary transformations. Be sure that Russia, Russian people and Russian culture are if not better, surely not worse than those of any other country, any other nation or any other culture.
Valentina Gruzintseva, HSE News Service
Photos by Nikita Benzoruk