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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Matter with History

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When the presidents of Russia and the United States met earlier this month in their curious Maine event, with its awkward clinches and realpolitik rabbit punching, there was at least one concept on which the two self-described "friends" could agree wholeheartedly: History matters. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin have recently shown a remarkable new interest in this discipline, and both have begun inviting historians to their homes for consultations. Given the intentions of these particular mortals, however, Clio, the muse of classical history, is probably not rejoicing on Mount Olympus.

Bush volunteered in a recent speech that he has taken to reading history. Aware that his legacy will be judged through the current war and the books people write about it, he has reportedly been "summoning historians ... to the White House for discussions of the fate of Iraq." Yet Bush still seems oblivious to the history of his own political judgments. Since October 2003, he used the term "progress" at least five times to describe the course of events in Iraq, modifying it successively as "really good," "steady," "good," "incredible" and "inspiring." At Thursday's news conference, the trend continued with progress now apportioned into "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" modes. Perhaps Bush's historian-visitors can explain how four years of continuous progress can produce a situation in which victory is simply "not an option" to use the words of the national security adviser to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

The surge in Bush's historical interest is less a search for explanations than an attempt at pre-emptive exoneration. "When presidents have screwed up and want to console themselves," noted a veteran Washington observer last week, "they think history will give them a second chance. It's the historical equivalent of a presidential pardon." If I can spring former U.S. White House adviser "Scooter" Libby after his perjury and obstruction of justice convictions, this president may have reasoned, can't I find some loyal historians to write a get-out-of-fiasco-free card?

This simultaneous ignorance of history and desire for its sanction may appear hard to beat in a bare-knuckles chutzpah match, yet Putin does not seem intimidated. The Russian president is not only a formidable bruiser of the historical record, he has now taken to tutoring his homeland's history teachers so that the rising generation of Russian students can understand their own past correctly -- as their president sees it.

In 2005, Putin described the demise of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. Not only does such short-order cooking of the history books demean the victims of last century's genuine geopolitical catastrophes -- two world wars, the Holocaust, the Soviet gulag and terror-famines, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia -- it ignores the fact that in a score of world capitals no longer subject to Soviet oversight, the end of the U.S.S.R. remains a cause for rejoicing.

The Soviet-demise remark was not an isolated historical hyperbole. Putin and his aides have accused Estonians of "trying to rewrite the history of World War II" through Tallinn's department of parks and monuments; likened U.S. global "hegemony" to that of the Third Reich; compared the mass murder of Soviet citizens by their government with U.S. wartime use of the atomic bomb; and affirmed that Josef Stalin, the infamous genocidal tyrant, was "the most successful Soviet leader ever." These and other pulse-stopping pronouncements appear in a new Russian high school history text, whose author Putin recently invited to his residence, along with other historians, for an encouraging chat.

Some sobering Russian voices have been raised against these attacks, calling them "dangerous and harmful" and a sign of the Kremlin's "distrust" of its people. Izvestia's Alexander Arkhangelsky even warns that the weight of such ideologized history from above could sink Russia's weak educational system: "[Teachers] without talent will prosper," and "new sources of corruption will flourish." Theater director Lev Dodin mourns that Russians are "afraid of our own past" -- so the state is encouraging "collective amnesia" and "nationalism is becoming the soul of our era."

In the Soviet period, as one saying had it, the future was always certain while the past remained unpredictable. Bush and Putin -- two lame-duck presidents and suspiciously sudden history buffs -- want to dictate new pasts for us. We shouldn't buy either. If they invite me, a history teacher, to the White House or Kremlin, I'll certainly accept -- but they should know in advance that it's going to be a long chat.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.