Thursday, May 01, 2014

Thoughts: History, Russia, the USA and the Search for Identity

In March, the members of the history book club to which I belong discussed the practice and uses of history based on a number of short books. I would make a few points related to that discussion:
  • Historians gather data on the past from contemporaneous records, newspaper accounts of the time, memoirs, biographies, letters, and other sources.
  • They validate the data gathered cross referencing information and using peer review to look for false data, erroneous interpretations, and other problems with the facts at their disposition.
  • They create narratives, selecting from many events and much data to tell the story leading up to an important event or situation.
  • Those narratives are in turn subjected to peer review, the unsatisfactory ones discarded by the professional community.
  • From time to time historians create new narratives reinterpreting the history leading up to an event or situation, subjecting those narratives also to detailed scrutiny by the professional community. 
  • Sometimes alternative narratives coexist as comparably credible to historians for the time historical situation.
The Search for Identity

I have been reading Russia in Search of Itself by James Billington. As I described in a recent post, Russia has undergone huge changes since World War II.  (Of course, it had previously gone through other major changes from the westernization of the 18th century, to the overthrow of the Tzars and introduction of Communism, not to mention a series of major wars fought largely on its own territory.)

Billington addresses the various schools of thought that have arisen seeking to define a new understanding of Russia's society and the country's role in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union. What was once an understanding of the Communist center of an atheistic Soviet empire is being transformed into an understanding of a more democratic, predominantly-Russian-Orthodox, smaller country with a market economy.

Perhaps the United States has undergone comparably major transformations in self understanding during its history. What was once a small poor country, fighting against greater powers for survival, became in the 19th century a continental empire, convinced of its manifest destiny to span the continent from Atlantic to Pacific, ready to challenge Great Britain for the northwest and to fight Mexico for the southwest of what is now the United States. The isolationist nation that elected Woodrow Wilson to "keep us out of the European war", became the arsenal of democracy in World War II, and emerged from that war as the nuclear armed, global super power. Now the USA too is stretching to experience itself as one player in a globalized economic system, with its global economic power challenged by both the European Union and China. The experience in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are leading to a reexamination of its use of military power (as has the spread of weapons of mass destruction to a number of other countries).

Billington suggests (and I agree) that the understanding of a country's history influences the ideas of its intellectuals and thus eventually of its citizens of the nature of that country -- its identity. I would guess that the perception of that identity emerges from discussions among friends and colleagues, from the stories told by the media, from the analyses offered by intellectuals, from the works produced by writers and artists, from the teaching provided by schools and universities, and importantly from the debates and platforms put forth in the political process.  History is used, and misused, in all of those venues in deriving the new understanding of the identity of the country.

Note too that the people are working out their own personal identities. I am an Irish-American, but there is no doubt in my mind that I am an ethnic American of Irish ancestry. I recall, however, that men who had fought for the Union sought to invade Canada and hold it hostage for Irish freedom from English domination -- the Irish identity of those 19th century Irish Americans was of a different order than that of the Irish American of today. America prides itself as a "melting pot" in which people from many ethnic backgrounds have "American" as their first identity, and the hyphenated term as secondary.

Tens of millions of ethnic Russians, who had been even privileged in the Soviet Union, found themselves as members of ethnic minorities in newly independent states in the 1990s. So to, ethnic Ukrainians and members of other ethnic groups found themselves as minorities in the new Russian Federation. Muslims in Russia found themselves suddenly in a society much more committed to the Russian Orthodox Church. How were former citizens of the Soviet Union to re-conceptualize their identities in their new situations? Perhaps we are seeing a portion of that process going on this year in Crimea and Ukraine.

History and the Re-conceived Role of Russia in the World

Historians are pretty good at telling the story of the past in a credible way. Moreover, historians agree that the past holds parallels to current situations, and properly understood history can provide useful in the consideration of alternative policies, strategies and tactics for a country.

However, historians also agree that their field does not provide a sure guide to current action. Prognostication is not an art that historians should practice. While there are means to challenge data gathered by a historian about the past, or to challenge the narrative that he/she weaves about the past, the only way to verify prognostications or narratives about the future is to wait to see if they come true.

Moreover, history is often misused. Myths about the past, often with little or no basis in fact, are sometimes substituted for historical knowledge. People sometimes use the most available memories of the past for guidance, rather than more relevant historical parallels to current problems. Indeed, people sometimes deliberately lie about the past as part of propaganda to bring others to acquiesce to proposed policies. (Of course, the myths sometimes are beneficial, sometimes neutral, but sometimes dangerous, and unfortunately the value sometimes only becomes obvious when it is too late.)

Billington, describing various positions advanced by factions in Russia's search for its identity,  gives examples that can scarcely be believed. I suggest that some are so strange that one does not wonder if they were true, but whether they could have been advanced and accepted by anyone. For example, he describes a theory proposed by Lev Gunilev. Gunilev apparently suggests that the decisive factor in history is the energy supplied by and dissipated by ethnic groups, that the relevant energies occur only in the northern hemisphere, that they correspond to thermodynamic processes occurring in nature, and that they are related to cosmic processes. From this basis he Gunilev apparently derives a view that Russia has a role to fulfill leading a Eurasian alliance. Wow!

Before too easy a condemnation of Russians for believing myths about their country, I recall that Americans do so as well. Millions of Americans regularly described the United States as "one nation, with liberty and justice for all", while there were wide spread infringements on liberty and justice was clearly not available for all. Thus too, the idea of "American exceptionalism" has played a role in American foreign policy since the founding of the country, even as America has in the past acquired territory by war, fomented regime change in foreign countries, and supported autocratic governments even as those governments infringed on the human rights of their citizens. And indeed, the myth may have been important and useful, even as the government failed to live up to its ideal.

Are There Useful Historical Precedents for Russian to Consider?

I wonder whether there are historical parallels that might be useful to the Russians as they contemplate their national identity and the role of Russia in regional and world affairs after the fall of the Soviet empire? Consider:

  • Great Britain after the loss of its colonies in India and Africa, and the independence of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • France after the loss of its colonies in Indochina and Africa.
  • Austria after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a result of World War I.
  • Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman empire.
  • Portugal after the independence of Brazil and the loss of its African colonies.
  • Spain after the independence of its American colonies and the loss of the Philippines.
In each of these cases, a multinational empire broke up, leaving the central nation as a smaller, more modern country. The problem of course is that none of the analogies is very close. The Russian Federation is still very large geographically, with a large population; it is still militarily powerful on a global scale. And Russia faces a world that it more integrated by transportation and communications systems, with huge trading blocks, and a global trading network.

I leave the work of identifying similarities and difference between these historical experiences and that of today's Russia to others. So too, I leave to others the exploration of the lessons that the Russians might take to heart, and the precedents that they might better avoid, and those which might be put aside as of little relevance.

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