Archive for May, 2009

I expect better from the Medvedev brothers

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

The radio station Ekho Moskvy has a very interesting piece on historical falsification (and I was led to track it down by a reference in Johnson’s Russia List # 94, 20 May 2009). Unsurprisingly, Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii is all in favor of the Commission, though he fears that it might be infiltrated by falsifiers themselves. Given the list of Commission members, this danger is roughly akin to the promulgation of socialism by the Republican National Committee.

Even Roy Medvedev, well-known historian and most notably the author of the anti-Stalinist Let History Judge, has weighed in favor of President Dmitrii Medvedev (no relation)’s Commission. The JRL version, though not the one I found on Ekho Moskvy’s website, quotes Medvedev as saying “there are official histories in all countries. There is the official history of France, the UK, the USA.” Very interesting. I’d appreciate his pointing me to the official history of the USA.

Medvedev is also quoted as claiming “that information wars were still typical of the historical science. (The results of) studies are often published to the detriment of the interests of particular states.” Once again, I ask for specifics. What particular historical claims and works have been published with the goal of harming a specific government?

What’s troubling is that Eduard Limonov, author and neo-fascist / neo-Bolshevik, is the only one quoted as pointing out that an anti-falsification committee will end up endorsing history amenable to the current party of power. Two cheers for the wingnut.

Against Falsification

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

In keeping with the Kremlin’s general trend of using history for political purposes that this blog has described here and here, on Tuesday, May 19, Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev created a “Commission to Counteract Attempts at Falsifying History to Damage the Interests of Russia.” The details of the decree (Russian language version available here) are just as ominous as the title would suggest.
While never specifying any concrete examples of the falsification of history that the Commission is set up to combat, the decree appoints a long list of heavy hitters, including N. E. Makarov, Chief of the General Staff. It’s dominated by state functionaries, and scholars are conspicuous by their minimal presence. I only spotted two and a half: V. P. Kozlov, head of Rosarkhiv, the Russian archival administration, along with two real researchers. One is A. N. Sakharov, who specializes in medieval Russian diplomacy [!]; the other is A. O. Chubarian, a well-published scholar of 20th-century diplomacy who at least possesses relevant expertise. The rest of the 28 are mostly bureaucrats, with some Duma representatives mixed in.

This balance between scholars and chinovniki leaves little doubt about what the Commission will set out to do. In particular, it is charged with (point 4a) “collection and analysis of information on the falsification of historical facts and events, directed at minimizing the international prestige of the Russian Federation.” I can’t help pointing out that the Russian Federation as a sovereign state has only existed since 1991. It’s not entirely clear to me how historical analysis of how the Soviet Union conducted World War II can damage the interests of a state that did not exist during World War II . . . unless of course the Russian Federation intends to claim full inheritance of the international role and significance of the Soviet Union.

The Commission is also supposed to take on (point 4b) “preparation of proposals for the President of the Russian Federation for measures aimed at counteracting attempts at the falsification of historical facts and events.” I’ve already formulated one such proposal: open the Presidential Archive to scholars. That would be a decisive blow against historical falsification. If Medvedev isn’t interested in doing that, then he isn’t interested in combating falsification.

On the bright side, the Commission has the power (point 5a) “to request and receive . . . necessary materials from federal organs of state powers, organs of state power of subjects [federal units] of the Russian Federation, and organizations . . . .” Seems to me that means the Commission could request the release of documents from the Presidential Archive if it wished. I doubt it wishes to do any such thing, but I can always hope.

The More Things Change… (or, “Tanks for the Memories”)

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

President Medvedev’s video blogged comments regarding the need to defend memory from the efforts of falsifiers seeking to impugn the meaning of history (see Dave Stone’s post below) appear not to be an isolated blast from the past, but rather part of a broader return to the types of rhetorical devices and displays used by Russian statesmen to secure legitimacy during times of political crisis. Along with nationalistic appeals and martial fanfare, compensatory symbolism is alive and well, too. That, at least, was the impression given off by Moscow’s recent Victory Day celebrations according to The Economist:

Amid Russia’s anti-crisis measures, the military parade on Red Square on May 9th was spectacular. Some 9,000 soldiers goose-stepped past political leaders. Tanks, rocket launchers and ballistic-missile carriers scratched the cobblestones; bombers, jets and helicopters flew above St Basil’s Cathedral. The show is meant to mark victory in the second world war. But this genuinely national holiday has long been appropriated by the Kremlin for ideological ends. Rather than celebrating the war’s end, this military parade represented Russia’s readiness for a new fight….

At a time of financial crisis, this posturing is meant not only to project Russian invincibility but also to compensate for falling incomes and rising unemployment. To maximise the therapeutic value of the parade it was preceded by full-scale public rehearsals that won top billing in news bulletins. That some 100,000 Russian war veterans do not even have flats took second place to a show that cost an estimated 3 billion roubles ($94m), half of it for patching up the road surfaces it damaged.

Read the whole thing here

Dmitrii Medvedev on the Great Fatherland War

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s video blog includes for May 7 his comments on Victory Day, the Great Fatherland War, and the falsifiers of history. He calls on Russians to defend the memory of the war, and to defend it against the malicious falsifiers who attempt to impugn its meaning.

Generally speaking, it’s a bad thing when historians wrestle with politicians. As the saying goes, “Never get in a mud fight with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” But professional pride requires me to point out a couple of things.

First, Medvedev most notably says not a word about what exact falsifications of history he’s objecting to. I can come up with some candidates, as could anyone who’s been following post-Soviet politics. Let’s say, for example, he’s troubled by Victor Suvorov’s allegations that Stalin was preparing an invasion of Western Europe, only to find himself beaten to the punch by Hitler in 1941.

I’m not a particular adherent of Suvorov’s school, but what I think is most relevant here is that the key to resolving the truth or falsehood of Suvorov’s accusations lies almost literally in Medvedev’s hands. The holy-of-holies of Russian archives is the “Presidential Archive.” If Medvedev doesn’t like what historians say, he could throw open the archives tomorrow. If he doesn’t want to open those archives because of what might come to light, then we’re no longer talking about falsifiers.

Second, Medvedev’s language is sadly reminiscent of Soviet-era history journals and their regular attacks on “bourgeois falsifiers.” Medvedev has stripped the “bourgeois” off the label, but the tone is rather similar. In 1931, Stalin dismissed historians as “archive rats,” and we’ve generally taken pride in that label. Though Medvedev is no Stalinist, he’s pandering to similar sentiments.

Doesn’t Make Sense . . .

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Some things about the military coup in Georgia don’t quite make sense, at least based on the very sketchy early reports coming out.

For one, the  mutiny / coup seems to be centered on a tank battalion, but all reports I’ve seen have suggested that it’s former and current special forces commanders who are behind this.  Either the conspiracy is more widespread than initially indicated, or there’s some strange piece of information we’re not getting.

For two, note that claims of leadership of the coup center around one Gvaladze (or Khvaladze), former commander of an elite special forces unit.  At least one report has claimed the conspiracy extends into current leadership of Georgian special forces. I haven’t been able to track down WHEN Gvaladze was commander of this unit, but it’s actually the Georgian special forces that the United States has been most heavily involved in training and equipping over the last few years.  It makes little sense that current special forces types would be the ringleader of a coup designed to disrupt the immediately forthcoming NATO exercises in Georgia–I could see a disgruntled former commander, though, which is why I was so surprised to see the claim that current commanders were implicated.

For three, what kind of coup plotter discusses his plans on video?  I haven’t seen the video yet, though I intend to track it down.  If it’s genuine, and Gvaladze knew he was being taped (as opposed to clandestine surveillance), that’s class-A stupid.

Certainly  this makes Georgia’s chances of joining NATO ever more distant.  Why would anyone want to let in a country prone (best case) to military coups or (worst case) with high-ranking military officials recruited as Russian agents.

Russian involvement is of course the 300-pound gorilla in the room.  Direct evidence is hard to come by, though a military coup aimed at cutting off a NATO exercise is pretty clearly in Russian interests.  Unless of course the Georgian opposition is right and it’s all a provocation organized by Saakashvili.  Groan.