Monday, June 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russians, Germans Ready to Prepare Common Textbook on 20th Century

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 22 – On the 68th anniversary of the German attack on the Soviet Union, a senior Moscow academician said that Russian historians are close to an agreement with their German colleagues to write a common textbook on 20th century history, something possible he said because of their lack of disagreements concerning the key events of that period.
In an interview in today’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” Academician Aleksandr Chubaryan, director of the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that after more than ten years of consultations, Russian and German historians have concluded that they did not have any disagreements about the events of the 20th century, including World War II.
Consequently, he said, there is nothing to “prevent” the preparation of a common textbook, and at present, three variants of such a project are being discussed: “a parallel history of Russia and Germany in one volume, a shorter text on Russian-German relations, or a Russian-German textbook of European history” (
If Russian and German historians have reached such a level of agreement, the Moscow paper asked, why have the historians of the former Soviet republics not been able to? For an answer, it asked several non-Russian historians, and their responses suggested that while there may be only “one past,” there are of necessity “many versions of it.”
Georgian Academician Roin Metreveli noted that despite five years of effort, historians from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia had not been able to agree on the text of a common “History of the Caucasus,” the product the Georgian scholar said of the difficulties of achieving objectivity.
“Now we are free from principles imposed from above, from Marxism, and from dogmatism. But none the less we need principles which all must follow. One of these is objectivity” – which he defined as “the extremely difficult attempt to free history from politics” -- something almost impossible to achieve when dealing with contemporary events.
Liliya Zabolotnaya, the deputy director of the Moldovan Institute of History, State and Law, suggested that efforts to produce common textbooks are part of “a populist post-Soviet syndrome” in which political leaders hope to advance their positions by suggesting that they are objectively true.
But in fact, she continued, “national textbooks of any country are based on national histories. And there are always sensitive issues, such as for example territorial claims.” Trying to come up with a common textbook may be “useful as a chance to find a common language at the level of scholarship, but not at the level of politics.”
Ashot Melkonyan, the director of Institute of History of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, explained what was taking place in terms of psychology. After the end of the Soviet system, “when everything was permitted, there appeared not only the desire to write the true but also the temptation to go further.”
That temptation, one reflecting “political interests, has led to “the falsification of the history of neighbors.” And while patriotism is fine, “educating young people by blackening the reputation of former friends is impermissible.” Instead, one must “find in oneself the strength to say” that the neighbors have many good things about them, including “a heroic history.”
Valery Khan, the deputy director of Uzbekistan’s Institute of History, suggested that many of the problems in the writing of history in the 1990s were “a disease of growth.” Efforts at finding one’s own national identity through the study of the past of one’s people “often acquired radical forms.”
“The basmachi movement began to be treated as heroic and romantic. The basmachis became almost Robin Hoods. [Indeed,] it became fashionable to trace one’s clan almost back to Adam.” Khan insisted, however, that “an attempt to reduce history to a single uninterrupted line contradicts science,” however much some political figures may want to do just that.
But perhaps the most interesting comments came from Stanislav Kulchitsky, the deputy director of the Institute of History of the Ukrainian Academy of Science. He argued that “the past is one thing but histories about this past are many” and that even in Russia “many things can be disputed.”
As an example, he points to discussions about the famine in Ukraine, a theme that is “very sharp because it is very politicized,” although the Kyiv historian noted that there are “other issues” just as sensitive or perhaps even more, including “the problem of the ethnogenesis of the Ukrainian and Russian people.”
Russian historians disagree with the insistence of Ukrainians that the famine in Ukraine was a genocide. “The famine in Kazakhstan led to even more destructive consequences than in Ukraine,” he noted, “but there it was the result of the social-economic course” of Soviet policy. In Ukraine, on the other hand, the famine “was intentional.”
According to Kulchitsky, Stalin had as his goal not the “destruction of the residents of Ukraine” but to create a situation in which no Ukrainian would ever rise up against him and his regime. “As is well-known,” the Ukrainian scholar concluded, “all of Stalin’s repressions were preventative.”
Not surprisingly, Chubaryan intervened and rejected Kulchitsky’s interpretation: “In Russia in recent years,” the Moscow historian said, “a whole series of documents and scholarly works have come out which incontrovertibly show that hunger in various regions of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, including in Ukraine, was the result of collectivization.”
“There is no place for talking about a genocide,” the Moscow academician said, adding that “it is too bad that these works are not very well known to Ukrainian historians.”

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