Historical Amnesia

How Russians Forget Their Own Past

Our friend Andrew Pavelyev offers a response to my David's Book Club entry on David Satter's, It was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway:

Yes, what the book says is true. Furthermore, the Russians don’t want to reckon with any part of their history. For that matter, they don’t even want to know their history. Some nations have mythology that is more historically accurate than Russian official historiography.

Russian worldview is almost entirely based on myths and combines delusions of grandeur with paranoia. E.g. the popular explanation for the country’s backwardness and the need for enormous military expenses is that Russia was frequently attacked by other countries (for its resources and for other reasons).

However if you actually look at Russia’s wars over exactly four centuries that Russia has continuously existed as a fully independent centralized nation state (since the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613), in most of them Russia was a willing participant (if not an outright aggressor), and in the rest of them chose to do nothing to avoid a war that everybody knew was coming. In fact few other countries in Europe were so lucky in avoiding unwanted attention of their neighbors (e.g. just over the last 100 years the Belgians were subjected to two massive invasions without the slightest provocation on their part).

Somehow the Russians are puzzled why they are so disliked by Eastern Europeans. They are totally oblivious to the historic memories of Muslim peoples living on the Volga River just 400 miles east of Moscow (memories such as Ivan the Terrible’s slaughter of the entire adult population of Kazan – apparently a six digit figure) and will be mightily surprised if (when?) a serious separatist movement starts in that area.

Most Russians are unaware that just a little over 150 years ago a wide swath of the modern Russian Far East (including two biggest Russian cities east of Lake Baikal) was part of the Chinese Empire – until Russia “persuaded” the Chinese to move the border following their defeat in the Second Opium War (and later occupied Manchuria and ran it as a colony). The way the Chinese see it, the Russians were among the Western imperialists who treacherously took advantage of China’s temporary weakness in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Russians naively think the Chinese view them as valuable partners in opposing American hegemony. In the meantime, there’s mass illegal Chinese immigration in the Russian Far East…

The rational behavior for Russia would be, of course, to try to ally with the US (and not only against the rising China, but also against radical Islam). But the Russians are blinded by their insane superpower ambitions and their take from their heavily mythologized WWII history. In their eyes, 1) Russia can singlehandedly defeat anybody; and 2) the US is a worthless ally anyway. (After all, why would you want to ally with Americans who could not defeat Japan in four years, while the Russians got the job done in just five days).

Incidentally, the Russians are both very ignorant of true WWII history and very emotional and aggressively defensive about it (a practical tip: if you ever find yourself on a Russian online forum and in need to get blacklisted in a hurry, just try to correct a few Russian WWII misperceptions).