In the new Russia, history students no longer see red

October 20, 2000

Young Russian historians are far more interested in the domestic life of 19th-century peasants than in the forging of a Soviet superpower, reports Catherine Merridale.

Teachers of history in Russian universities have little in common with their students these days. The differences are not just about age and family circumstances, but are the result of a cultural and intellectual revolution. Most lecturers received their training under the old communist system. They were taught to think of history in terms of class conflict; the past led inexorably towards a specific present; and though they were heirs of a proletarian revolution, they learned to respect authority, to defer to their teachers, to observe conservative social codes and to begin their written work with reverent quotations from Marx and Lenin.

History is a sensitive topic and must always be rewritten when dictatorships collapse. As part of my research for a conference on this theme to be held next year, I recently visited a number of Russian schools and universities. I found, ten years after the collapse of communism, a cultural revolution in the universities as encouraging as the ideological one. The students I met in Moscow were relaxed and talked without restraint. When I asked them to tell me what interested them about the past, the 15 men and women in a final-year seminar group all began to talk at once. Their teacher, the product of another time, muttered about their lack of discipline.

"The situation is different now," one student told me after the seminar. "It's not just that we have different ideas. I think we even use our muscles differently."

This latest Russian cultural revolution began where Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost , or openness, ended. Gorbachev described his attitude towards the past using the metaphor of a book with blank pages. He promised to fill in the gaps by allowing selective access to classified archival documents. But the book remained the Soviet one, written with an eye to the old paradigm, the topics on its contents page unaltered since the Marxist-Leninist edition. Even the process of declassification was choreographed by the state, beginning with the least controversial issues, such as the fate of Nikolai Bukharin -an advocate of socialist markets, and thus a thinker of whom Gorbachev approved - and only later raising sensitive questions about the Bolshevik revolution.

For anyone accustomed to Soviet censorship, glasnost was breathtaking despite these limits. Professional historians had known the basic facts since the 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev had encouraged debate about the past for the first time since Stalin's death. But the question was how much openness - and how much critical writing - Gorbachev would allow.

Looking back, it was this element of danger, of controversial disclosure, that lent the history-writing of the glasnost years its glamour. It is true that there were millions of Soviet citizens who found the stories in their daily papers shocking. But the essence of the shock was that the information had at last been printed. The past, so long either a matter for silence or else a false but comforting collective fable, had finally come alive.

What makes today's students so different from their predecessors is that they remember neither the silence nor the contest over truth. Marxism-Leninism is not something that they criticise or seek to overturn. They do not need to - it is irrelevant. The contrast with some of their teachers, many of whom are still fighting old battles, can make for an uncomfortable atmosphere in the lecture-hall. "I shall begin by looking at a number of myths," my friend Nikolai announced in his first lecture of the year. He was about to criticise himself, to expose the falsehoods that his generation learnt, researched and taught for 30 years. His ideological journey troubles and fascinates him still, but the students, though respectful, began to look bored. It had never occurred to them to wonder whether the proletariat in 19th-century Russia was ripe for socialism or not. They have no special reverence, either, for glasnost 's heroes. "What do you know about Bukharin?" I asked a group of schoolchildren. There was a pause, then giggling. My question was funny because the politician's name sounds like the new slang word for getting drunk.

The collapse of communism has involved Nikolai in a major review of his life's work (which he welcomes), a drastic salary cut (which he tolerates) and a bewildering change in social status. Another historian, Valdimir, has calculated that the cost of getting to work consumes more money than he is paid.

Inevitably, there have been resignations. People whose training equipped them to analyse documents now sell computers or deal in shares. The historians who remain have had to reconsider what they do. One answer is to escape into an aesthetic past. "I was always a romantic," one colleague explained. "I like the 19th century because it was so civilised."

The other - more lucrative - solution, has been to accept research commissions from wealthier colleagues in the West. Scholars choosing this option spend their days rummaging through dusty folders and queuing by photocopiers to produce evidence that will be used by outsiders, many of whom have spent little time in Russia. Collaboration with foreigners enables Russian scholars to remain in their chosen profession, but seldom helps them to develop a research agenda of their own.

Even those who can work live with a disconcerting question. No one really seems to know what history is for. There have been positive changes. The atmosphere of inquiry and debate in Russian universities, despite their financial difficulties, is exhilarating. The experience of the past ten years has taught professional historians to avoid the cant that they call ideology. They have also given up the stuffy authority of the past, the deadly idea that there was only one right answer.

The key today is pluralism, even the free market. "My only job is to make the students think critically," one lecturer says. He approaches this task through a range of fashionable seminar topics. Others do the same. Russia is witnessing a vogue for anthropology, for the history of everyday lives, of humour, fashion, family papers, memoirs and mentalities.

At the same time, the 19th century, like a costume drama, has become more popular than the recent past. The critics call it "ego-history", but a fascination with ordinary lives in other times is drawing thousands of enthusiasts into research.

This would be fine if Russia's democratic structures, or even its identity, were secure. But academic history is more than just romance. There are questions - the ones that preoccupy the popular press, the ones that generate chauvinism - that it ought not to ignore. The most urgent of these is the nature of the post-imperial nation, the story of Russia's relationship with its non-Russian citizens (the Chechens, for example). In Soviet times, this issue was not left to chance.

Nikolai, a conservative close to retirement, deplores the disappearance of what he calls civic education, but younger historians seldom discuss current affairs, still less political ethics. "It is not tactful," one of them says to me. That leaves his students to work out the answers for themselves. Their ignorance was clear when I invited them to ask me about England. "Don't you mind that there are so many black people in your country?" they said. "Why doesn't your government encourage white people to have more children?" Costume drama cannot enlighten prejudice such as this.

Taking the ideology out of history, then, can also mean evading value judgements. There were no public trials after communism collapsed, and the older generation, with all its memories, now talks of tact. Their reticence leaves a new kind of blank. My friend Irina recently gave her teenage daughter a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago to read. An hour later she was surprised to hear the child laughing out loud. "She told me it was funny, all that tragedy," Irina explained. Again, that might not be so bad in other times. But for those who remember it, the past is not yet dead. "We know how to read between the lines," Irina continued. "We always recognise the nuances when politicians talk. But I am afraid for our children. When it comes to dictatorship - if it ever comes to that again - they won't have the antibodies that we do."

Tactful neutrality may turn out to be another of the luxuries that teachers of Russian history can ill afford.

Catherine Merridale is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Bristol. Her book Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia is published by Granta Books, £25.

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