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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Computers Aiding In Battle for History

As the nationalities of the former Soviet republics seek to rediscover themselves after 70 years of communism, history is of central importance. Just what did it mean to be Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian before the Soviet Union? Just how do we measure the alleged failures of the communist regime? Memories are short and inaccurate and the question is vitally important as history is now often used by politicians to provide themselves with justifications for their own ambitions.

Historians exist, in part, to defend a nation's history from those who would hijack it for their own ends.

During the next three years, six universities in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Belarus will be taking part in a scheme to help clarify the historical record. Dr. Manfred Thaller, former president of the Association of History and Computing, and now the organization's unofficial ambassador in Russia, is spearheading a project which seeks to apply computer technology to the teaching of history and the recording of unpublished historical sources.

The projects include an attempt to build a database of all state censuses undertaken in Azerbaijan during the years of Soviet rule, the building of a digital map of the Tsarist empire as it existed in 1913 and, perhaps the most interesting of all, an attempt to make digital copies of village descriptions that were made by the Tsarist regime at the time of the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

Detailed audits, sometimes running to 50 pages, were made of almost every village in European Russia.

At present, these records are sitting in an archive in St. Petersburg and no one has ever even indexed them all. The plan is to scan the pages into a computer and store them on compact disks. This would enable any historian to read them on his or her desk using a personal computer.

"This is a mass source. Individually the records may be of limited interest, but taken together they could give us hugely valuable information about life in rural Russia," says Thaller.

The project aims to digitize around 10,000 pages in one year. The full archive runs to millions of pages.

"One reason why we think we can be successful here is that in the study of mathematics, Russia was indisputably as good or better than any nation of the world. Statistics and quantitative methods have been integrated into the study of history for some time. What this means in practice is that once you have the equipment, it is going to be relatively easy to put someone in front of a computer and make him productive," Thaller says.

But Thaller is making no claims about the short-term impact of these projects in universities where money has all but run out: "This work is going to be of use to Russian historians in maybe five years time. What can you do for a university which has difficulty buying chalk to write on blackboards with?" he says.

Yet it is not only a shortage of cash that leaves the country's historians ill-equipped to defend Russian history against those who would distort it. The style of historical study here has not changed at the same pace as the Russian political scene.

"Since it is now prohibitively expensive to publish textbooks here, students are still being taught using textbooks published in the 1970s," says Thaller.

"There is still a strong tradition that historical truth is somehow decreed. Someone ruthless enough to decree their own alternative version of history might well be successful here."

Robert Farish is the editor of Computer Business Russia

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