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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 130-150
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History, Inertia, and the Unexpected
Recycling Russia's Despots
Kevin M. F. Platt
Sergei F. Platonov, Ivan Groznyi, 1530-1584 [Ivan the Terrible, 1530-1584] (1923), Robert Iu. Vipper, Ivan Groznyi [Ivan the Terrible] (1922), both reissued in one volume, edited by Dmitrii M. Volodikhin (Moscow: Universitet Rossiiskoi akademii obrazovaniia, 1998), 221 pp.
Aleksei N. Tolstoi, Petr I [Peter I] (Moscow: EKSMO-Press, 2000), 656 pp.
In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, José Saramago remarks that the norms of historical truth are "founded on consensus and authority, although it is obvious that any change in authority is reflected in a corresponding change in consensus." 1 Of [End Page 130] course, the tricky bit here is the relationship—"reflection," Saramago calls it—that ties together authority and historiographical consensus, and the further linkage of this dyad to the constitution of historical truth. There is perhaps no better "natural laboratory" for work on this problem than contemporary Russia. Since the late eighties, when Gorbachev's policy of glasnost unleashed a flood of new revelations concerning the Stalinist and revolutionary past, management of the uneasy equilibrium between representations of history and rapidly changing political exigencies has been at the top of the political and intellectual agenda. The process has been driven by the comprehensible urge of (former) Soviets to align themselves with the new by means of a public repudiation of the old—that is, of the repressions, terrors, man-made famines, and other horrors of the seventy years of Soviet rule. Symmetrically, this wave of reevaluation and "repentance" for Bolshevik crimes has been accompanied by a rush to reclaim the heritage of the tsarist past: demolished cathedrals have been rebuilt, executed tsars reburied, and Peter the Great's state seal has been adopted by the new Russian Federation.
From a broad angle of vision, the recent recalibration of Russian history is as intuitively comprehensible as Newton's third law of motion: down with revolutionaries, up with the tsars. Visions of history, it seems, are carried along by something like physical inertia, which ensures that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Yet the apparent symmetry and grace of this process is misleading. Certainly, the momentum of well-worn historical paradigms can propel them predictably through revolutions and counterrevolutions, so that the monuments that were torn down in the 1920s and 1930s can be set back on their pedestals in the 1990s. Yet upon close inspection, matters are not really so neat: the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow is not "the same" as the one that was demolished in the early 1930s—I am referring not only to the reinforced concrete of the new version but also to its signification. Under review here are two recent reprints that illustrate the complexities and uncertainties that beset the transmission of historical inertia. But before turning to them, a consideration of one more concreteexample will show just how messy the process of recycling national history can be in contemporary Russia.
Just across the Moscow River from the new/old cathedral, within sight of the Kremlin, one finds one of the most remarkable additions to the landscape of Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union: a monument to Peter the Great constructed in the middle 1990s, rising to a height of ninety meters—approaching the size of the Statue of Liberty. The monument depicts Peter standing at the helm of a ship heading west. Relative to the autocrat, the ship looks to be roughly the size of a bathtub. Adding to the confusion of scale, Peter is actually balanced on a miniature depiction of St. Petersburg which rests in the boat (the tower of the admiralty building forms a supporting pillar for the ship's [End Page 131] wheel). A double-headed eagle, symbol both of Imperial Russia and of the new Russian Federation, perches like a vulture on the prow of the ship. The entire improbable assemblage rests high in the air, perched on a rostrum column that echoes famous naval...