A Few Words About History, Russia and Latvia

28.04.2005. 14:28

Professor Aivars Stranga
University of Latvia

"Here he goes again, talking about history!" That is what the audience member may say. A diplomat or politician – and not only in Latvia alone, believe me! – will exclaim, "Here he goes again, talking about that damnable history!" We can damn history, but it does not disappear. China and Japan yearn for the best possible economic relations, but then there is the "book war" about long-ago events in Nanking. Turkey wishes to join the EU, but many Europeans demand that it admit to the undeniable – the genocide which Turks committed in Armenia.  Such issues go on and on and on.  The fact that Russia has not properly assessed its own history and the crimes which it committed against its neighbours is not really much of a challenge against democracy.  Instead, it proves that the type of democracy which exists in Russia is not really democratic at all.  Political scientists will say that it is illiberal democracy.

Over the last half-century, there have been three attempts in the Soviet Union and, later, in Russia, to take a more certain and more honest look at history.  The first two occurred under the framework of the Communist system, and they did not differ in essence.  Instead, they differed in terms of how much information was provided about the crippling aspects of Socialism.  One process occurred during the Khrushchev era in 1956, and the other took place when Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985.  In neither case were the so-called Socialist choice or the history of Communism called into question as such.

The third attempt occurred in contemporary Russia and was very different, indeed.  In the 1990s, many honest and academically distinguished publications were written and printed in Russia.  Within this process there was the pioneering work which the Memorial Foundation did in researching concentration camps, the history of the KGB, the terrors which were visited upon the Poles at Katyn, and similar issues.  It would be false to claim that this work has ground to a complete halt, but there are at least three things which indicate that there are serious problems for Russia and its democracy.

First of all, the work of re-evaluating the past has not only been halted at the national level, where there is much too much control over the process, but it has been radically turned backward.  The state itself has clearly defined its thinking about history.  Recently we have heard two very fundamental statements of this understanding.  We have been told that over the last 300 years Russia has walked down the path of democratisation and liberalism hand-in-hand with the rest of Europe and sometimes surpassing it.  Second, we have been told that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a massive geopolitical catastrophe.  These two examples alone should make it quite clear that it will never be easy to reach agreement on the interpretation of history with those countries that were under "liberal Russia's" boot or for which the "catastrophe" of 1991 represented the true beginning of freedom.

It is also true that when a country does not agree with the interpretation which Russia produces, the result is not an academic debate, but instead a war of disinformation and lies.  In the case of Latvia, this has been true since the beginning of this year.  All of the state-controlled media in Russia – television, the radio, the press, lapdog political parties – are being used to throw collective mud at Latvia and the Latvians.  Latvians are dubbed "Fascists" by these media, and it must be noted here that even the position which Communist China recently took vis-à-vis the "book war" was far more controlled.

Third, the so-called "fight against Fascism" in Latvia is being pursued with resources which suggest that this "anti-Fascism" is actually very similar to true Fascism.  We are witnessing attempts by a state to fire up hatred and stereotypes against other nations, the state is sponsoring the lies that are being told, it is inspiring "protest demonstrations" in neighbouring countries, and the like.  All of this signals a weakness in democracy and the civil society, a nostalgia for the past – including the segment of the past which is known today as Stalinism.  This understanding of history threatens and will continue to threaten Russia's ability to pursue normal relations not only with almost all of its neighbours, but also with the liberal society which exists in the world today.  Democracy surely cannot be constructed without a process of moral purification and, if nothing more, then at least true regret for the injustices that have been committed against others.

The second major issue is this.  In the summer of 1988, a newspaper called Skolotāju Avīze, or "Teachers' Newspaper" launched a series of publications about our own history.  The newspaper is often forgotten today, but it was of great historical importance at the time.  Absolutely nothing in Latvia's history has been ignored, everything has either been overturned or renewed, and that is a process which is continuing to this very day.  The state has never managed to hinder this process, nor has it really wished to do so.  There have been questions which have caused problems – the issue of the Latvian Legion is one example.  Luckily, it is unlikely that history will be sacrificed on the altar of diplomatic needs, even if those needs are considerable.  Latvia's democratic system, no matter how young it is, provides a certain guarantee against any forgetting of history.  Indeed, it is already sufficiently strong to ensure that history shall not be forgotten.  For several reasons, history is just as very important to us as it is to any nation:

First of all, ours is a nation state, ours is a small nation.  History or, to put it more specifically, the collective memory of collective history – that is an inviolable component in national identity.  The loss of identity can be a true tragedy for a small nation.

Second, Latvia will not experience true, as opposed to artificial integration if the people of Latvia, irrespective of their nationality, do not accept at least the important segments of our collective memory and experience as their own.

Third, any attempt to sweep history under the carpet for reasons of diplomatic advantage will cause diplomacy to become amoral, and it will create greater domestic, moral and other problems than those which occur when history is discussed.

Finally, let me say that we often told that we should think more about the future and less about the past.  This advice is not exactly erroneous, but why is it that other countries often have problems in accepting it?  I refer here to large countries which supposedly have "overcome" their history.  When a popular author in Germany suggests that there should be less discussion of Auschwitz, there is a big and fully justified scandal.  When anyone attempts to redefine the Holocaust as having been something relative or even to deny the Shoah, countries often pursue that person with criminal or civil charges.  Many issues in Latvia have not been discussed or studied properly, to say nothing of the fact that the consequences of historical injustices have not yet been overcome.  This means that we have every right to experience the same understanding of our history as does any other country in the world.