Mihhail Lotman: History is war

Mihhail Lotman.
Mihhail Lotman. Source: ERR

"History is war and needs to be won." These rather noteworthy words were uttered by Russian President Vladimir Putin when meeting with historians on June 22, 2016. No historian dared argue. The utterance concerned the battles of the so-called Great Patriotic War. Putin's logic seems to suggest these battles are still raging, among other things, in treatments of history, Mihhail Lotman writes.

No Russian ruler has paid more attention to history than Putin, whereas he seems to be becoming more active in this regard.

Plato reckoned that it takes three generations for a lie to start functioning as the truth in society. It can be achieved in a much shorter time in the information age.

A few examples

Military ventures against Ukraine have been orchestrated through war of words in the field of history. I will leave aside the chorus of propagandists and limit myself to utterances by Putin. First, the assault on the Kiev front. Leading treatments of history provide that Russian statehood began in Kiev. The so-called Kievan Rus can be found in all Russian history books. This fact, demeaning to Russian chauvinists, needs rectifying.

When visiting Novgorod in 2001, Putin shocked historians when he proposed seeing the beginnings of Russia in Novgorod instead of Kiev. This would marginalize the Kievan Rus period in Russian history. Leading Russian historians met the proposal with ironic skepticism at the time, saying it is not possible.

Putin did not let it go and presented it as an obvious fact in 2018. "Novgorod, as the birthplace of Russian statehood, has always played a special part in our history, the development of the traditions of statehood and patriotism."

Let it be said that Putin mixed up the two Novgorods – while the birth of Russian patriotism can conditionally be tied to Novgorod, it has nothing to to with Veliky Novgorod but rather concerns Nizhny Novgorod where Minin and Pozharsky rallied a defensive force in 1612 to free Moscow from the Poles. (To remember this momentous event, Putin created a national holiday called Unity Day in 2004. But it has nothing to do with Veliky Novgorod.)

Of historical attacks on the Crimean front

"Crimea has always been a part of Russia," "The madman (version: Ukrainian) Khrushchev arbitrarily separated Crimea from Russia and gave it to Ukraine," etc. Putin's voice towers above this chorus of propagandists. Not in some random conversation but an address to both houses of the Federal Assembly Putin said verbatim on December 14:

"Here, in ancient […] Korsun is where Knyaz Vladimir Christened himself." This "created the Russian nation that united different Eastern Slavic tribes and tribal alliances" and "on this premise our ancestors for the first time and forever became a single nation." "This gives us the right to claim that Crimea, ancient Korsun, Chernosesos holds sacred significance. Just like Temple Mount does for the Jews and Muslims."

Therefore, forget about Kiev and Novgorod. The sacred birthplace of the Russian nation is in Crimea. It is senseless to try and pin down historical facts or logic here. How can a mythical story of a Kiev prince of viking blood having Christened himself in Crimea create grounds for the latter belonging to Moscow of which no one had even heard of back then?

Back to events on our historical front. They operate inside the same logic that allowed the sanctification of Crimea. The Soviet Union was allegedly a peaceful country, while the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was needed because the Baltics and Poland were about to form an alliance with Nazi Germany (see the quite noteworthy article on the MRP in Russian Wikipedia); the Second World War was unleashed by the Poles and not the allies of the Soviet Union etc.

These are not harmless lies we could irreverently ignore. These lies have blood on them. We will not be overturning them but will counter lies with the historical truth.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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