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Cahiers du monde russe : Russie, Empire russe, Union soviétique, États indépendants - Année 1994 - Volume 35 - Numéro 4 - Pages 839-868
Michael Confino, Représentations : le présent et l'écriture de l'histoire. A propos de quelques problèmes récents dans l 'historiographie russe en Occident. L'écriture de l'histoire n'est probablement pas une réflexion du présent par d'autres moyens. Mais elle n'est jamais non plus exempte d'influences du temps et du lieu où elle s'effectue. C'est pourquoi les vraies questions sont : quelle est l'ampleur de l'influence du présent sur le travail de l'historien ? A-t-il conscience des formes de cette influence ?
Les développements récents en Russie ont eu un effet profond et sur l'historiographie dans ce pays et sur la soviétologie en Occident, devenue en fait sans objet. Mais ils ont aussi posé aux historiens de nouvelles questions et donné un renouveau d'actualité à de vieux sujets. Est-ce là le résultat d'une évolution organique de la discipline historique ou d'une révolution conceptuelle ? Ou bien, peut-être, l'expression de certaine faiblesses de l'historiographie traditionnelle, telle qu'elle fut pratiquée durant les trente dernières années ? Une de ces faiblesses est, par exemple, l'approche déterministe et téléologique inspirée par « 1917 », approche qui engendra un narratif où la « crise », les « processus révolutionnaires » et l'« instabilité sociale » étaient hypertrophiés et privilégiés aux dépens d'autres tetidances et phénomènes sociaux et politiques. Cette approche disait (en gros) : comment « 1917 » pouvait-il se produire s'il n'avait pas été précédé par une série de phénomènes déstabilisants ? Mais, comme on sait, la logique de l'histoire suit rarement celle du sens commun.
Qu'avons-nous appris (sur le présent et sur le pa.ssé) de l'emploi systématique d'analogies historiques qui s'est installé dernièrement dans la recherche ? Gorbatchev et Alexandre Ier, Eltsine et Kerenski. Faut-il revenir aux réformes (réussies ou avortées) au temps des tsars pour évaluer les chances de succès de celles effectuées aujourd'hui en Russie ? L'histoire russe se répéterait-elle et son cours serait-il entaché d'atavismes ? Le rôle de l'historien serait-il de prédire l'avenir plutôt que de comprendre le passé ?
Ces questions pourraient être aussi bien des signes de progrès de la discipline historique, que ceux d'un malaise et peut-être d'une crise.
Michael Confino, Present events and the representation of the past. Some current problems in Russian historical writing. Historical writing is probably not just a re-enactment of the present by other means. Nevertheless, there is something of it in all historical writing. For that reason the real questions are : to what extent do current events influence the historian's work, and is he or she sufficiently aware of this influence and its by-products ?
The recent developments in Russia have had a profound effect on Soviet/Russian historical writing, and a devastating one on Western Sovietology. But they have also put on the agenda of Western historiography new questions, or given an acute topicality to old ones. Is this new turn justified by the organic development of the discipline ? Is it a paradigmatic revolution of sorts ? Or does it reflect rather some inadequacies in traditional historiography during the last thirty years or so ? Inadequacies such as deterministic and teleological approaches inspired by the 1917 paradigm ? In turn, these approaches have generated an hypertrophy of phenomena such as the crisis of the Old Regime, revolutionary processes, and social instability. For how, indeed, could 1917 have happened without such kind of overwhelming phenomena ? But as is well known, historical logic does not always follow the logic of the common sense.
What have we learnt (about the present as well as about the past) from the recurrent and pervading ase of historical analogies as, for instance, between Gorbachev and Alexander I, or Yeltsin and Kerenski ? Do we need the constant evocation of reforms (failed or successful) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to gauge the chances of success of the reforms in today's Russia ? Is Russian history repeating itself, or is there something atavistic in its course ? And is it the historian's task to predict the future instead of explaining the past ?
Are these new problems a symptom of the discipline's growth and maturity ? Or rather non-issues indicating a malaise and perhaps a crisis ?
30 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.

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Michaël Confino
Present events and the representation of the past
In: Cahiers du monde russe : Russie, Empire russe, Union soviétique, États indépendants. Vol. 35 N°4. pp. 839-868.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Confino Michaël. Present events and the representation of the past. In: Cahiers du monde russe : Russie, Empire russe, Union
soviétique, États indépendants. Vol. 35 N°4. pp. 839-868.
doi : 10.3406/cmr.1994.2411
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/cmr_1252-6576_1994_num_35_4_2411Résumé
Michael Confino, Représentations : le présent et l'écriture de l'histoire. A propos de quelques problèmes
récents dans l 'historiographie russe en Occident. L'écriture de l'histoire n'est probablement pas une
réflexion du présent par d'autres moyens. Mais elle n'est jamais non plus exempte d'influences du
temps et du lieu où elle s'effectue. C'est pourquoi les vraies questions sont : quelle est l'ampleur de
l'influence du présent sur le travail de l'historien ? A-t-il conscience des formes de cette influence ?
Les développements récents en Russie ont eu un effet profond et sur l'historiographie dans ce pays et
sur la soviétologie en Occident, devenue en fait sans objet. Mais ils ont aussi posé aux historiens de
nouvelles questions et donné un renouveau d'actualité à de vieux sujets. Est-ce là le résultat d'une
évolution organique de la discipline historique ou d'une révolution conceptuelle ? Ou bien, peut-être,
l'expression de certaine faiblesses de l'historiographie traditionnelle, telle qu'elle fut pratiquée durant les
trente dernières années ? Une de ces faiblesses est, par exemple, l'approche déterministe et
téléologique inspirée par « 1917 », approche qui engendra un narratif où la « crise », les « processus
révolutionnaires » et l'« instabilité sociale » étaient hypertrophiés et privilégiés aux dépens d'autres
tetidances et phénomènes sociaux et politiques. Cette approche disait (en gros) : comment « 1917 »
pouvait-il se produire s'il n'avait pas été précédé par une série de phénomènes déstabilisants ? Mais,
comme on sait, la logique de l'histoire suit rarement celle du sens commun.
Qu'avons-nous appris (sur le présent et sur le pa.ssé) de l'emploi systématique d'analogies historiques
qui s'est installé dernièrement dans la recherche ? Gorbatchev et Alexandre Ier, Eltsine et Kerenski.
Faut-il revenir aux réformes (réussies ou avortées) au temps des tsars pour évaluer les chances de
succès de celles effectuées aujourd'hui en Russie ? L'histoire russe se répéterait-elle et son cours
serait-il entaché d'atavismes ? Le rôle de l'historien serait-il de prédire l'avenir plutôt que de comprendre
le passé ?
Ces questions pourraient être aussi bien des signes de progrès de la discipline historique, que ceux
d'un malaise et peut-être d'une crise.
Abstract
Michael Confino, Present events and the representation of the past. Some current problems in Russian
historical writing. Historical writing is probably not just a re-enactment of the present by other means.
Nevertheless, there is something of it in all historical writing. For that reason the real questions are : to
what extent do current events influence the historian's work, and is he or she sufficiently aware of this
influence and its by-products ?
The recent developments in Russia have had a profound effect on Soviet/Russian historical writing, and
a devastating one on Western Sovietology. But they have also put on the agenda of Western
historiography new questions, or given an acute topicality to old ones. Is this new turn justified by the
organic development of the discipline ? Is it a "paradigmatic revolution" of sorts ? Or does it reflect
rather some inadequacies in traditional historiography during the last thirty years or so ? Inadequacies
such as deterministic and teleological approaches inspired by the "1917 paradigm" ? In turn, these
approaches have generated an hypertrophy of phenomena such as the crisis of the Old Regime,
revolutionary processes, and social instability. For how, indeed, could "1917" have happened without
such kind of overwhelming phenomena ? But as is well known, historical logic does not always follow
the logic of the common sense.
What have we learnt (about the present as well as about the past) from the recurrent and pervading ase
of historical analogies as, for instance, between Gorbachev and Alexander I, or Yeltsin and Kerenski ?
Do we need the constant evocation of reforms (failed or successful) in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries in order to gauge the chances of success of the reforms in today's Russia ? Is Russian history
repeating itself, or is there something atavistic in its course ? And is it the historian's task to predict the
future instead of explaining the past ?
Are these new problems a symptom of the discipline's growth and maturity ? Or rather non-issues
indicating a malaise and perhaps a crisis ?ESSAIS
MICHAEL CONHNO
PRESENT EVENTS AND THE REPRESENTATION
OF THE PAST
Some current problems in Russian historical writing*
The future is certain, only the past is unpredictable.
(One-time conventional wisdom of Soviet historians)
I
Educated laymen, and some scholars too, believe that "we can only read the past
in terms of the present." In support of this view they point out that the historians'
attempt to reconstruct the past is fraught with insuperable obstacles such as psychol
ogical subjectivity, cultural bias, political attitudes, and the greatest of all — lan
guage. Laymen stick to this view because it gives them a (false) sense of security,
and the conviction that whatever they may think about the past, they cannot be wrong
(for "we all think the past in terms of the present, don't we?"). Theirs is an egali
tarian attitude towards truth, which means that whatever they believe about the past
is not less true that what the historians say: their truth is equal to the historian's.
Laymen don't know that if all truths are equal, there is no truth at all. This stand
gives them also the feeling of being great experts in history, and in any case not les
ser experts than the professional historians, whose knowledge "comes only from
books" anyway. Thus, with regard to truth (and its nonexistence) laymen have
always believed in what some postmodernist fads present as dernier cri in historical
thought.
And there are also scholars who believe that all history is "history" of the present.
This was a great issue in a great debate several decades ago. The debate is now
over, and the issue pertains to historiography. Historians who happen to think today
that "we can only read the past in terms of the present," are either tired of writing
Cahiers du Monde russe, XXXV (4), octobre-décembre 1994, pp. 839-868. 840 MICHAEL CONHNO
history, or would like to make it more "contemporary" or more "relevant." This
disease is known as "prescntism," and in our age of mass communications and mass
exposure, of voyeurism and leleW.v/7w, those who suffer from it are obsessed with
"visibility" and with being "in," and they want to tell a history with appeal to people
today. The trend is well-known nowadays in stagecraft: enter Caesar in jeans and
Napoleon wearing a Borsalino instead of the bicorne.
As for the idea that all history is fiction because there is no truth, the scholars who
share the laymen's fantasies (and Henry Ford's "all history is bunk") belong mainly
to the postmodernist streak of literary criticism in academe. Postmodernists tend to
coticeive of history as a form of fiction; postmodernist fiction, to be sure, what one
of them called "a historiographie metafiction." They think that history pertains to
literature, that it was always part of it, should have never left it, must quickly return
to its proper place.1 Theirs is a surrealistic attitude since they affirm also that not
only truth does not exist, but the past does not exist either, while they show an acute
sense (ami great acumen) for worldly pursuits in the present. But is the present
(that is, tomorrow's past) a pure fiction too? This is a more complex topic, for it
deals with a particular case of academic imperialism blended with psychological
nihilism and public relations know-how, which deserves a separate treatment,
obviously beyond the scope of this article.
The obstacles mentioned above — bias, subjectivity, cultural boundaries — are
very real, but they don't preclude the possibility of reconstructing the past in its own
terms. The professional historians know that they are not immune from the pitfalls
created by these obstacles, and consider them as occupational hazards. You don't
stop driving your car because of the weekly statistics of traffic accidents.
This article intends to examine two such accidents in the writing of Russian
history in the West. And since this may be construed as the "bad news," a
preliminary remark is in order.
In the last thirty years or so Western historians of Russia have made remarkable
strides toward a greater knowledge and better understanding of Russia's past. This
applies to such diverse fields as social, intellectual, economic, and political history.
Lately, there have been very promising beginnings in women's history and cultural
studies. Suffice it to read the standard textbooks used in university courses in the
1950's, for instance, in order to gauge the tremendous progress made since that time.
Take the widely known books of several distinguished historians: B.H. Simmer's
Survey of Russian history (1944), Hugh Selon- Watson's The decline of imperial
Russia, 1855-1914 (1952), V. Gitermann's Ceschichte Russlands (1944-1949),
G. Welter, Histoire de Russie (1949) or В. Gille, Histoire économique et sociale de
la Russie (1949): for all their qualities they are simply unusable today in any
meaningful way except in the field of history of historical writing.2 Some people
think that history is not a cumulative science; maybe so, but it is certainly a
cumulative discipline, and we know more today than yesterday, have better tools of
enquiry, more refined methods, greater skills in extracting information from primary
sources, and we achieve results of incomparably higher quality than in the past. We
have moved nearer to the truth.
But nothing is perfect, of course, and this great progress could not have been
achieved without some failures and errors. And here begins the "bad news," which
is the main topic of this paper. PRESENT EVENTS AND THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PAST 841
II
Whatever the views about the recent and current events in the former Soviet
Union, all agree that it has undergone great changes in many respects. Seemingly
well-entrenched institutions have been abolished. Nations have achieved
independence. New forces have appeared in the social and political arena.
Currents of ideas considered yesterday as marginal — or, as the cliché has it, laying
in "the dustbin of history" — have moved to center stage. The Soviet Union, bom
in October 1917, is gone.
On all this there is no disagreement. There might be divergent opinions as to
the causes which brought about these momentous changes, but they are not the
subject of this examination. The questions raised by our inquiry are: What these
events have to do with the writing of Russian history in the West? Should they
change our perceptions and interpretations of Russia's history? we
reconsider, for instance, the historical role of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the
Great? Should we re-examine the nature of industrialization in late nineteenth-
century Russia? Or its social structure? Should we ask, as a scholar recently did:
"...if the Soviet Union — the fmit of the Russian Revolution — has gone, what does
the revolution itself now mean? Or was there ever any such thing?" 3
One possible reaction of historians to such questions could be that present events
should not have such an effect on historical writing. Historians have always
assumed that changes in historiographie interpretations are mainly the results of two
kinds of developments. The first one is the finding of new primary sources which,
by their sheer mass or unexpected content, lead to a reassessment of conventional
views. The second consists in the elaboration of new analytical and conceptual
tools of research which compel to re-examine known sources with new approaches,
and arrive thereby at new interpretations. But nothing of the sort has happened yet;
nothing that should affect Western writing on Russia's past.
In order to explain this point let's take a comparative approach and examine, for
instance, the effects of these same developments first on Soviet historiography, then
on Western Sovietology.
An ideological drama
Soviet historians have been deeply affected by the unexpected changes and
events that unfolded since the beginnings of glasnost ' to these days.4 The many
reasons for the shock are both complex and clear; suffice it to mention here the two
most important amongst them. The first is theoretical and ideological, and it stems
from the deinstitutionalization of official Marxism. Soviet Marxism (as interpreted
for the historians' benefit by the Politbiuro) ceased to be the mandatory matrix of
historical interpretation, the theory supplying historical laws, models and
conclusions, and the source of examples, lessons of history, and antecedents which
fed the always errorless prognosis of things to come in the future. In one bold
stroke, Soviet historians were told that all that is bunk, and that they should begin to
think for themselves about the contents and methods of their profession.
The second reason is psychological, and it emanates from the emerging
awareness that Soviet historians wrote (or had to write) for decades a version of
history which they knew (and certainly know today) to be inadequate, distorted, 842 MICHAEL CONFINO
erroneous, or intentionally falsified. Whatever the degree of inadequacy, the Soviet
historians were dimly aware (and understand now) that their product does not stand
to the standards of the historical discipline and to the requirements of professional
ethics. This lamentable situation has, of course, various explanations. As a
current euphemism has it, the historians, like the overwhelming majority of the
Soviet intelligentsia, "were not born to be heroes" and did not behave as such.
They did not challenge the regime, took care of their lives and daily comforts, did not
get involved "in politics," and wrote the kind of books which were expected from
them and according to the directives "from above." Today it begins to appear that
something was deeply wrong with this stand.
The result of these phenomena is a crisis in historical writing and in the historical
profession in Russia. One of the expressions of the crisis is a conceptual
disintegration of the basic assumptions of Soviet historical thought, a situation
described by the historian Aron Gurevich as a vacuum of historical vision
(mirovozzrencheskii vacuum), and by Vladimir Kozlov as a "virtual ideological
drama."5 Others have termed it "a vacuum of identity," which has led to the
concomitant and deeply disturbing question: If the past is not anymore what we were
writing that it is, then what is it?
The "vacuum" metaphor conveys also the prevalent mood of the general public.
Russian historians and Russian society as a whole are in a state which James
Billington has seen as a "fever break" whose central issue is "defining a post-
totalitarian identity," the main options being — in Billington's view — a nationalistic
identity or a democratic one.6 In fact, in terms of historical writing, the options are
more numerous and diversified. In a comment to Gureviclfs article, the historian
S.I. Zhuk argued that Russian historical thought is moving now towards three
directions: the Annales School methodologies; "nationalistic positivism" based on
the theory of Russia's singularity and exclusiveness; and a brand of neo- Marx ism,
linked — in his view — to the New Ixft and the New History in the West, but which
smacks much more of the old Soviet historiography's dogmatism.7 But even the
three orientations delineated by Zhuk do not exhaust the many trends and intellectual
phenomena that inhabit now the perplexed world of Russian historical thinking.
Indeed, the vacuum is being filled nowadays with strange theories and odd beliefs:
the "discovery" of superseded interpretations abnndoncd in the West long ago;
Great- Russian ultra-nationalism; neo-Slavophilism; old would-be "prophetic"
visions and "up-dated" Berdiaevism, which are as pathetic as anachronistic;
historical self-flagellation (in fact, an inverted samokritika); wild anti-Communism
(like dated canards about the Soviet period, which have been clearly refuted in the
West); nostalgia for the certainties of old Soviet-Marxist dogmas, and even plain
endorsement of past approaches; and last but not least, an increased propensity to
make use of the past (old vintage or newly discovered one) in current political
debate.8
"Roundtable" with Western scholars held five years ago — when things in At a
Russia seemed much clearer, Russia's future less insecure, her past more certain, and
Moscow streets much safer — Iurii Afanas'ev observed: "Soviet historical
studiesj.. .Jhave continued to be not primarily a search for historical knowledge, but
a forum of propaganda and an adjunct to ideology." 9 V. A. Kozlov concurred: "We
have not yet managed to purge ourselves of old impediments, while new
impediments and myths have already begun to pile up."10 And Viktor Danilov EVENTS AND THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PAST 843 PRESENT
deplored the "hysterical quality of the questioning" to which the historians' work in
the past is being subjected: "The fact that society has turned to history to find out who
is to blame leaves a particular mark on the position of historical scholarship and its
development.""
Today, five years later, events such as the August putsch, the shelling of the
While House and the storming of Ostankino, and the dismal results of the last
elections, have increased the soul-searching, the disorientation and the malaise.
And the search to understand this strange turn of events has led more and more to
look for answers in the past. Indeed, these events compel Russian historians and
Russian society as a whole, to look hack to their past. In so doing they face now
the terror of history — of their own history, of the "blank spots," and even more so
of the badly written ones. This is a difficult and painful process which, once it has
begun, cannot be stopped, and has to run to the bitter end of revelation, contrition,
and comprehension. It is a process of facing the past whose many varieties and
shapes can be seen in other nations, too: the German people is doing it sedulously
and at an excruciatingly slow pace; the French are beginning it after forty-five years
of conscious or unconscious efforts to avoid it; the Japanese reject the very notion
that they have to come to grips with their past; and, finally, this soul-searching
process will probably never take place in Croatia thanks, first to Iosip Broz Tito, then
to Helmut Kohl, both of whom, for quite different reasons, absolved the Croatians
from having to look at their past.
In striking contrast, history is debated everywhere in Russia, and Danilov should
not be worried by that. It may bring, indeed, some temporary discomfort to the
historical profession, but also long-term benefits for the historical consciousness of
the Russian people. It is a chance and a risk at one and the same time, for the "terror
of history" may lead either to a redeeming catharsis or to inventing a mythical past.
The historians could certainly play, now and in the future, a salutary role in this
process, once they have sorted the wheat from the chaff. Tin's is, then, an obvious
example of the sort of effect — albeit a traumatic one — which the recent events
have had on historical writing in Russia.
Tlie predicament of Western Sovietology
The second example of such an effect is Western Sovietology. During the last
few years, and particularly since 1991, students and observers have variously
described this field of study as being in deep trouble: "crisis," "disaster area,"
"bankruptcy," "collapse" are among the terms most frequently used when referring
to its present condition.12 There is no need, then, to elaborate at length why the
disintegration of the Soviet Union has brought upon Sovietology a crisis of identity,
a malaise, and a predicament. The latter could be summarized grosso modo by the
question: Has Sovietology become a field of study without a subject?13
An extreme (and somewhat unfair) example of this malaise is the case of Francis
Fukuyama — a Sovietologist experiencing a crisis of identiy, who mistook the end
of Sovietology for the end of History. He found refuge in the absolutes of Hegel's
Phenomenology of the spirit, and this exempted him (that is, Fukuyama) from
explaining, first, the technicalities of Yeltsin's worries about privatization,
hyperinflation, and the rebirth of History (which, supposedly, arrived at its end)
courtesy of the blocs of old and new nomenklatury; and second, exempted him also 844 MICHAEL CONFINO
from making sense of the mess which the otherwise victorious capitalism is unable
to sort out in matters such as unemployment, medicare, budget deficits, and other
free market beauties.
Sovietology's predicament entails the need for a re-examination of the subject
matter of former Soviet studies, and of their tools of research, models, and
approaches. Above all, Sovietologists have to come to terms with two questions:
Why were they surprised by the turn of events in the Soviet Union? Will
Sovietology continue to exist as an independent field of study, and if so, in what ways
will it be different from, say, Egyptology?
The prognosis which epitomizes the mass of the Sovietologists' short-sighted
and wrong-headed analyses and comments is probably Jerry Hough's belief, in
February 1991, that "Mr. Gorbachev's position will be very strong in the mid-
1990*s."14 As a symptom of intellectual failure, this utterance is eloquent not
because of its error in predicting the course of events, but because of the very
intention, scholarly arrogance, and rashness in formulating such predictions and
prophecies. Recent developments have compounded Sovietology's already serious
problems, for it is clear that the more Russia will lie "returning to herself," to her
cultural heritage, historical memory, and national traditions, the more Sovietologists
will find it difficult to comprehend the new Russian scene.
Another question is, What will be the unifying ground and the integrative force
which will keep together the various elements of Sovietology? Since the Soviet
Empire is irrevocably a matter of the past, what should prevent this field of study
from being diluted into the historical discipline? In such a case this could be done
only by a complete revision of Sovietology's concepts, methods, and approaches
which have proven to be less than adequate in the past, and certainly have no better
prospects in the future within such a highly sophisticated discipline as history. As
former Sovietologists will quickly find, understanding the past is not less difficult
than predicting the future. Such an outcome would imply also the implosion of
Sovietology into several fields along disciplinary lines, such as economic history,
ethnography, anthropology, sociology, and the like, implying the need to study many
things from the outset. IS
This has made clear that the recent events in the former Soviet Union have had
an earthquake effect on Western Sovietology, and put on its agenda vital questions
— literally and metaphorically — which should lead to fundamental transformation
of this field of study.
History and current events
Why is this not so with regard to historical writing on Russia in the West? Is
there any reason, indeed, for reappraisals as a result of these events?
I am fully aware that there are deeper forces of historical contingency at work in
the profe.4sion, and that many of our methodsand standards of competence inescapably
flow with the tides of history today. In other words, we historians are influenced —
both on the conscious and on the unconscious level — by the "history in the making"
in which we live, or which we witness at close distance. Suffice it to look at the
graveyard of ideological models which historical writing has abandoned during the
last fifty years or so in order to grasp the extent of the present's influence on historical
thinking. Two examples would illustrate this point. The first is Jacob L. Talmon's PRESENT EVENTS AND THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PAST 845
Origins of totalitarian democracy. Published in 1952, its main thesis was that
Rousseau's thought is at the origin of modern totalitarian regimes; from this
assumption stemmed a sweeping interpretation of this aberrant turn in the history of
otherwise civilized Western nations as Italy and Germany (only Russia was seen as a
case in which this phenomenon had to be expected). In the climate of the Cold War
the book knew a great success, quite unwarranted by its modest scholarly value. It is
today almost forgotten and rebutted by most subsequent research. The second
example is Peter Novick's book That noble dream^ published in 1988, which presents
with great lucidity the successive views and approaches in the American historical
question." In his analysis, in between the clash of ideas profession on the "objectivity
and paradigms, one can clearly sense the influences of the ambient intellectual and
political trends on the historian's thinking.
One such influence has always been the temptation to learn from the (changing)
present about the past or to project (unconsciously) present phenomena backwards
to the study of the past. (The parallel temptation — or projection — is, as we well
know, drawing lessons of the past for explaining the present). This trend is perhaps
almost inevitable both among professional historians and, so much the more, among
educated and not-so-educated laymen. There are today, however, some forms of
reading history back, and of trying to learn about the past from the present, which are
deeply disturbing, and at the same time reveal some of the weaker spots of our
assumptions and conventional historical wisdom. For the purposes of this study, I
will examine two cases of such "lessons from the present." The first is a correct,
but belated one; the second is timely, but dubious. The first deals with the " 1917
paradigm"; the other with the latest attraction for the "historic roots" of reforms in
Russia today, and the not lesser attraction of historical parallels.
Ill
The 1917 paradigm and its discontents
A short note entitled "Russia after the coup: rethinking the past" by Joseph
Bradley, and published in November 1991, epitomizes in capsule form a certain train
of thought which is making its way among historians. l6 The author begins with the
present," observation that in the events of August 1991 and "the rapidly changing
two aspects stand out, namely the greatly expanded role played by society and the
pressure of the non-Russian peoples toward independence.
"These developments [he writes] pose important questions for teaching Russian history.
How can we help our students, schooled in seeing mainly autocracy and imperialism in
Russia's past, understand that even during the height of autocratic politics there were in
Russia alternative views and possibilities? To put it only slightly differently, what usable
past can help as the emergence of democracy and political pluralism?"
The "usable past" which the author finds appropriate to this effect includes:
emphasizing the state less; teaching more about social groups, families, personal
networks and non-state institutions; alerting students and the general public to ideas 846 MICHAEL CONFINO
of federation, confederation, and commonwealth in the past, to constitutional
projects that cropped up from time to time, to peasant strategies intended to confound
bureaucratic tutelage, and "even |to) the Brezhnevite 'deal' which sanctioned native
cultural autonomy and fiefdoms in return for political loyalty."'
"Presenting such variety in a history survey (concludes Bradleyl is a daunting prospect,
but if Russians can challenge the state principle on the streets of Moscow, so can we
challenge it in the classroom. Our students and the general public need to look at Russia
and the Russian past in a new way. They need to learn more about the many alternatives
in the past and learn that, despite the odds, Russians have indeed aspired to govern
themselves, to act rather than be acted upon."
This analysis hints or implies two major historiosophical assumptions which I
would summarize as follows. To ignore or to overlook that in each and every
historical situation there are always many alternatives and possibilities besides the
one which materialized, means that historians have said or implied that what actually
happened in Russia's past must have happened. This means also that at all times
there were never other possible ways ("alternatives") to the future. Consequently,
it has been assumed that Russia's history was governed by an iron determinism and
an inflexible predestination.
The second assumption holds that while Russia's history was following this
inexorable path, it was not going nowhere, but heading toward the major event and
the central result of its motion: October 1917. This is implicitly posited in
Bradley \s analysis: the past which historians described was usable for explaining
autocracy and its concomitant phenomenon — the revolutionary process; and since
there was only one alternative toward the future (which excluded "the emergence of
democracy and political pluralism"), the latter was revolution and totalitarianism,
ergo October 1917 and its sequels.
Strange as this may seem, Bradley is quite right on one major point: this is indeed
the view which many (and even most) Western historians of Russia had adopted in
their analyses and syntheses of Russia's past. Theirs was, implicitly or explicitly, a
rigid deterministic and teleological approach to Russian history. And this is so
regardless of the nature and direction of current events, which for some historians
have had apparently the catalytic effect (for the wrong reason) of exposing and
revealing this hitherto unconscious approach, and of uncovering the "hidden" past
that it prevented them to see. What is the fundamental reason of this "revelation"?
Whether justified or not, one of the historiographie side effects of the Soviet
Union's disintegration has been to put a big question mark on the event which led
to its formation. This led to the loss of authority, of paradigmatic coherence, and
of explanatory value of the Bolshevik Revolution in the reconstruction of Russia's
past and of its supposed evolution toward the future. For that same reason, the
Bolshevik Revolution lost its validity as the paradigmatic event and as a self-evident
starting point for a different Russian and world order. As a consequence the
problem of what came before 1917 acquires an enhanced importance, and demands
a new analysis; this consequence is obvious and inevitable: if 1917 is no more what
it seemed to be, all the evolution and processes which were supposed to lead to it
must be re-examined because of the suddenly changed nature of their "outcome."
Since the "result" disappeared, its "causes" must be checked for their real
meaning.17