Punch-Drunk History

The Russia narrative relies on a powerful identification between the people and the land, one that exploits facile geographical metaphors to create an image of national character or “soul”:  broadness, and  expansiveness (like the vastness of the country’s physical space), extremes of feeling/passion (like the extremes of the weather), and an intermittent emphasis on pagan holdovers in an Orthodox Christian country (reverence for “Moist Mother Earth,” for instance). [1] Again, none of these assertions can be evaluated beyond the standard of cherry-picked, anecdotal evidence, but verification is not the point.  The point is the myth.  

The other major component of the myth is more explicitly conspiratorial, in that it posits the story of Russia as alternations between greatness and betrayal.  These two concepts simultaneously appeal to national pride while explaining away national failure. Conspiracy, after all, is a ready answer to an eternal question: why are things so bad? In this case, the answer is that we (our land, our resources, our people) are so valuable that evil enemies are plotting against us.  And, as is so often the case with conspiracy, there is valid historical evidence that can be made to fit with this assertion (not least among them, the “Tatar Yoke,” Napoleon’s invasion, and World War II).  Conspiracy weaves these discrete historical event into a long-term pattern.  If we go back to our discussion of fantasy and world-building, along with the problem of the Imaginary, we can say that conspiracy takes these events and uses them as a building blocks of a story about an Imaginary Russia whose entire history ends up looking as if it were constructed of only these sorts of events. This Imaginary, conspiratorial Russia is, in fact, holographic or fractal in its nature:  every component piece of it looks the same.  To borrow a slogan Snickers, from the product that, in the 1990s, was the go-to symbol of Russia’s humiliation as a consumer culture dominated by occupying invaders: no matter how you slice it, it comes up conspiracy.

For its adherents, conspiracy does more than simple “explain” Russia.  More often than not, conspiracy serves as a myth of origin: the Soviet Union was founded/betrayed by Jews, for instance, or Jews were the ones who hooked Russians on vodka (a proposition that must only make sense if you're profoundly drunk).  Americans and their agents destroyed the USSR; the Masons have been guiding Russian history.  As we shall see, conspiratorial narratives tend to be all-encompassing, easily assimilating new data or plot points.  

Throughout Putin’s third term, politicians and academics in Russia have debated about the desirability of adopting a single Russian history textbook for the entire country.  After two decades during which civil society organizations and liberal historians had moved towards the development of a menu of textbook options,  a unified text would be only one of many steps towards reviving elements of the Soviet education system (which was hardly a model for curricular pluralism).  It also resonates with Culture Minister Medinsky’s lament quoted at the beginning of this chapter:  we’ve spent too much time entertaining conflicting, often negative, interpretations of Russian history. As Medinsky himself said about the proposed textbook, “A fifth-grader’s head is not the place for pluralism” (“Нельзя в голове пятиклассника порождать плюрализм”).  Professional historians have been taught to distrust coherent narratives for decades, at least since Hayden Whites publication of Metahistory (1973).  The push for a single history textbook reflects a desire to see both history and the study of history as the result of a reliable, guiding hand. 

Next:  Allegories of Re-Reading


[1] Future note on Pesmen.