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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

History Is a Teacher, Not A Therapist

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A new textbook on the social history of Russia has recently appeared in bookstores, which is something to delight in. However, the book begins by saying that our compatriots need "cliotherapy" — in other words, to be healed by history.

Although the term cliotherapy appears to have been just made up, the idea is hardly a new one. Modern life is full of humiliations, failures, injustice, shame and lowly intrigue, but we can immerse ourselves in the great history of our ancestors, and recall the endeavors of medieval heroes and victories of enlightened emperors. Then we can feel better and realize that life is not so awful.

The problem is that a "therapeutic" history is a false history. The past is as full of repulsive scenes as the present. And Russia's social history is the least worthy object of tender love — with its serfdom, bureaucratic corruption, backwardness and illiteracy carefully guarded by the authority of the state. For the sake of fairness, one should say that in this regard Russian history is no better or worse than any other. If you read English or French history honestly, you will find treachery, cruelty and, what is even more important, horrible cases of social injustice and disdain behind the stories about the great deeds of brave leaders. History is hardly fit for comforting us.

This is true, however, only of an honest and thorough history. The "therapeutic" trick is to have a selective look at history, at a comfortable angle, picking out the most advantageous fragments and presenting them as best as you can. In other words, to turn history into ideology, a justification of the state.

The worse the present situation is, the louder the speculations about the great past. This is how history was used in Italy and Germany in the early 1930s. The results were so catastrophic that "imperial myths" were buried in both countries for a long time and the first attempts to revive them are being made only today.

Modern Russia, on the contrary, is desperately looking for a new historical myth. The Soviet period cannot be the source of inspiration, because the new Russian state was built as the Soviet Union crumbled. That's why in the early 1990s, double-headed eagles, tricolors and other symbols of the old empire — which had been mocked by fighters of autocracy back in the 19th century — became suddenly of use again. As if monarchy can be an ideal for democracy.

Of course, it is not the symbols that matter, but what stands behind them. The greatness of the empire rested not only on the oppression of the subjected nations, but on the cruelest exploitation of Russia's own peasants. The history of our capitalism is full of repulsive scenes, too — it is enough to recall how industry was built up on the slave labor of peasants who were "attached" to the factories by the government.

Recollections of imperial greatness and nostalgia for Soviet superpower have somehow become one. The most fervent enthusiasts of the "state idea" are telling us that Russia has never conquered anyone (everybody joined voluntarily). On the other hand, Tatar, Ukrainian or Chechen nationalists can no longer see anything but reprisals, oppression and injustice in the history of their relations with Russians. Which is, in essence, the same lie — the opposite side of the same imperial myth.

Just like the present, the past cannot be simple and straightforward. The problem is that "imperial" propaganda requires us to take pride in what we should be ashamed of and to forget those who could truly cause national pride. We have to revere tsars and generals and not say a good word about those who resisted them, rebelled and thus built the foundations of liberty and defended human dignity.

In today's Russia, there is an attempt to turn history, once again, into an instrument of propaganda. History has to teach and not to heal. That is why knowledge of its dark sides may be even more important than memories of past greatness.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.