Unpredictable Past: 300 years of struggle to figure out Russian history

Artyom Efimov is a rising star of history — after publishing his book he JOINED the HSE in Moscow TO work on his doctoral thesis 'the Monetary reform and money supply in Russia in the age of Petrine modernization'. He is a well-known Russian journalist and works FOR transperency international Russia.
Original Title | С чего мы взяли? Три века попыток понять Россию умом
Publishing Year | 2017
Pages | 416
Available material | English sample translation

Russia's history is nowadays and has been for a long time a battleground as those in power and those challenging them put a great effort in advancing their competing historical narratives to promote their particular ideological agenda. What we lack in political debate, we make up in historical one. That's why we say that Russia has an unpredictable... past. As Artyom Efimov states, any distortion, and the distortion of history above all, starts with us forgetting to ask ourselves the question "How do we know this?". Or even "Why do we think we know this?"

In his new book UNPREDICTABLE PAST: THREE HUNDRED YEARS OF STRUGGLE TO FIGURE OUT RUSSIAN HISTORY Efimov deals with Russian historians, from Vasily Tatishchev in the 18th century to Nicholas Karamzin in the 19th to Bolshevik Michael Pokrovsky to post-Soviet theorist Leonid Milov. Every chapter is a professional biography, showing how the historical figure thought, what he believed in, were he might have been manipulated or corrupted as well as what he found out that changed the way we look at Russian history.

«Each historian finds reasons to take certain bits of information into account while omitting others thereby turning a stream of information – which we all share – into a journey that one takes on one's own. A book on Ivan the Terrible written in the XX century tells us as much about its author and about the XX century as it does about the XVI-century Russian Czar.

Was there ever a threat of Rus being overran by the Teutonic Order and was Prince Alexander Nevsky of the 13th century the one who repealed Western agression by defeating the Order? How do we know the Czar Ivan IV was Terrible and Alexis of Russia was "Most peaceful" as his monicker suggests?

Do we really know that Czar Dimitry Ivanovich who reigned over the Russian empire for a short span in the early XVII century was in fact an impostor, a runaway monk by the name of Grigory Otrepyev whereas the real Dmitry Ivanovich was killed in his childhood on orders of Boris Godunov? We have all been told all of this by someone – a scribe, a researcher, a poet. All of them in turn had their own sources and convictions. That's a different and very interesting story».
From the preface:

The purpose of history is to bring order into the world. The stream of events, big and small, that makes up the life of a person or a community is random and chaotic. Any higher meaning it might have is inaccessible to us. But our consciousness has no tolerance for chaos and tirelessly looks for patterns in the stream. Narratives of intellectual success and moral decay, a reckoning for the primal sin as we await Judgement day or social transformation caused by the development of production capacities – these are all interpretations of the very same process. Attempts to find meaning where there is none.

The journey metaphor is often used when talking about history, often with the speaker referring to "Russia's true path", trying to figure out where it "made the wrong turn" and how to "bring it back on track". Sometimes, a river may change its course, but it doesn't mean its former direction was "better" than its current one. It may be more convenient for the people living on the banks, but that's their problem.

This book is about the history of Russian history, i.e. the development of historical learning. It is comprised of stories – the biographies of the most notable people involved in the process. A massive stream of scenes and events, errors and revelations, is compartmentalized and presented as a journey. It is given meaning.
To bring order into chaos is a basic need of the mind. History is just one of the ways to satisfy it. How does it work? Let me tell you a story...
Lorenzo Valla was a humanist living in 15-th century Italy. The word "humanist" then had approximately the same meaning as "humanities student" does now: Valla studied ancient languages and literature, trying to understand human nature without becoming entangled in theological doctrine. One can conclude that he had a dreadful personality: he grew up in the Papal court but fell out with his sponsors, did not get a position in Rome and went on to the University of Pavia to teach rhetorics.

At the university, he ran afoul of law professors in so bad a way that they organized an attempt on his life. He then went on to serve the Alfonso the Magnanimous, king of Naples, Aragon and Cicily. The Pope had old claims to some Neapolitan lands which led to a conflict with Alfonse. Before it was resolved on the battlefield, Valla did his lord a few big favors by looking for grounds to denounce the Pope's claims, and in the process inventing history as we know it.

The papal claims were based on a document called the Donation of Constantine (Donatio Constantini) - a decree signed by 4th century Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) addressed to Pope Sylvester I (314-335). The Donation contains a pious story about a pagan ruler being converted to the True faith: Constantine became infected with leprosy and no magician or healer could cure him. Then a Christian priest prayed for him and he was cured, and soon baptised.

The emperor then bestowed on the see of Peter supremacy among all other sees, as well as his palace, his horse and the entire western half of his empire, himself moving to Constantinople, the Donation says. The popes in Medieval times used the document to substantiate their claims to lands in Western Europe (among them the Kingdom of Naples), their right to appoint rulers and their supremacy over the patriarchates of Constantinople. These claims were among the reasons for the final the Great Schism, between the Orthodox and Catholic churches (the mutual anathema was only lifted in 1965).

Opponents of the Holy See had on many occasions claimed the Donation was a fake. German King Otto III even went as far as issuing an edict on it in 1054, so the idea that Lorenzo Valla lay at the base of his treatise De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamatio, (On the fraudulence of the Donation of Constantine) was not new. The arguments he presented were.

First, there was no source old enough that mentioned the transition of power over Western Europe from Constantine to the Holy See. The Donation of Constantine was suspiciously the only source. Second, it was unfathomable in the Roman legal tradition to grant secular authority to a religious institution, especially on so grand a scale. The third and most important argument was that the language of the document clearly did not match that of the time it was allegedly written.

Valla was famous for his good Latin. Some said he spoke it as well as Cicero. He certainly had the qualification to refer to his contemporaries' Latin "kitchen speak", which he did on many occasions. In Constantine's Donation the word beneficium (making of good) is used to mean "land donation" - a meaning the word only acquired later, in the medieval period. The emperor's governors are referred to by the Persian "satrapis" - that's like Peter the Great naming one of his subordinates "ombudsman".

In terms of grammar and style, it was always quite obvious that the Donation was not written by a native classical Latin speaker. It was all evident from the start, Valla did not possess any secret knowledge. But he made the connection. It turned out that in order to settle an ages-old dispute, it was enough to carefully analyze the text of the Dontation, its relation to other texts (quotations, adoptions, references etc) and its place in the hierarchy of accumulated knowledge – simply to cross-check it against independent sources.

Valla never professed to have invented a new scientific method, he was just trying to solve a specific task which was not so much scientific as it was political. His argument on the fraudulence of the Dontation of Constantine only became widely known after his death, in early XVI century. The treatise which until then had only existed as a script was printed by German humanist Ulrich von Hutten with a mocking dedication to the Pope. Martin Luther quotes Valla's arguments from a Hutten book in his debates with the Holy see. The legend of Constantine's conversion in the Donation is a recognizable "drifting tale" (again, a story!) in medieval literature: the Slavic Tale of past years relates a similar tale about the conversion of Prince Vladimir, we could even trace them back to a common source but let's not go into too much detail.

The Donation of Constantine was most likely manufactured within the Papal court in the VII century. Those who made it would today be referred to as falsifiers of history. However, they would probably not have understood the accusations if confronted. They were likely convinced that the acts behind the Donation of Constantine really did take place. There was most likely a word-of-mouth account of it in and around Rome that was so commonly known that nobody thought it necessary to put it down in writing.

This theory of origin of the papal seat's worldly influence did not in any way contradict the reality known to the forgers. And if a fact Is true, then the document that chronicles it must also be true, even if it is fake. From this angle, Valla's way of thinking is much closer to our time: for him, the authenticity of a document determines the veracity of the facts stated in it.

That was also the thinking that Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon adhered to two centuries later as he prepared his vast collection of documents on the history of his order for the press. Having dedicated twenty years to studying old manuscripts he summarized it in the treatise De re Diplomatica in 1681. Mabillon devised a methodology for determining the authenticity of documents based on their exterior (the materials and ink used for writing, seals, handwriting, etc.) and attribution (time and place stated and in some cases the name of the author).

Bernard de Montfaucon, another Benedictine who worked by Mabillon's side in the famous abbey of Saint Germain-des-pres, near Paris, published his Palaeographia Graeca in 1708. It was a history of Greek writing from ancient times to the fall of the Byzantine Empire. These two had thus become pioneers of palaeography, the study of ancient scripts.

They both became first members of the French royal Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres , formed in 1663. The Academy still remains one of the most respected humanities institutions in the world.

Twenty years earlier, in 1643, Jesuit monk Jean Bolland of Antwerp started on one of the most ambitious publishing projects in the history of mankind, the Acta Sanctorum. Bolland and his associates (few of them in the beginning) wanted to assemble under one cover all the acts of Catholic saints, cross-checking each text against existing sources and looking into all the differences between versions, attaching to each of them a detailed commentary on who wrote and edited it, where, and when.

This project has set the standard of academic source studies for centuries to come. The community of scholars known as the Bollandisits only completed the publication of the Acta Sanctorum in1940. Critical treatment of sources was the chief innovation in the works of Bolland and his followers, as well as Monfaucon and Jean Mabillon and other humanitarians from their age. Their contemporaries who called themselves natural philosophers in the ancient manner (Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton) treated natural phenomena the same way.

Valla anticipated this approach two centuries ahead of the XVII century's "scientific revolution". The authenticity and veracity of sources were no longer a matter of faith: they could be determined by a method known today as historico-philological criticism. The use of that method gives history a right to claim the status of science. History is written by people, and people have their own interests, they hold political opinions and are subject to commercial motivation. Some have incomplete knowledge. Some make honest mistakes and purposeful omissions or even go as far as to tamper with sources.

Unfortunately, there are also cases of pure profiteering. As I was starting to work on this book I browsed Moscow's bookshops' history sections and came across a book titled "Single history textbook" with the label "Recommended by Nikolay Starikov". Despite being named a textbook, the tome did not have the appropriate markings of the Russian Education Ministry. It turned out to be reprint of a classic book for grammar schools first published in 1909. It was written my Sergey Fyodorovich Platonov, a great historian with a tragic fate, one of this book's heroes. My first reaction was: "Who is Nikolay Starikov to recommend a book by Platonov?".

After I took a closer look at the book it turned out that the text was not quite the one Platonov wrote. with a few not-too-clever tweaks, his idea of the Russian state's inherent "military organization principle" into the very familiar notion of "Russia is a besieged fortress". This was clearly an attempt to make a profit on the name of a great scholar, using him as cover for an opportunistic project with clear political and commercial motives.

This is hard to accept but not only is there no meaning in history, there is also no concept of "how it really happened". History does not deal with facts as they are, but only as they are related. History is something that has left our living memory, staying behind only as information in sources. These messages were left by people who got their information elsewhere (from personal experience or the accounts of others) and had their own agendas, which were not always simple and obvious.

Each historian, too, finds reasons to take certain bits of information into account while omitting others thereby turning a stream of information – which we all share – into a journey that one takes on one's own. A book on Ivan the Terrible written in the XX century tells us as much about its author and about the XX century as it does about the XVI-century Russian Czar.

Any distortion, and the distortion of history above all, starts with us forgetting to ask ourselves the question "How do we know this?". Or even "Why do we think we know this?" Why do we think that Alexander Nevsky* saved the Rus from being overrun by the Teutonic "dog knights"? How do we know the Czar Ivan IV was Terrible and Alexis of Russia was "Most peaceful" as his monicker suggests?

Do we really know that Czar Dimitry Ivanovich who reigned over the Russian empire for a short span in the early XVII century was in fact an impostor, a runaway monk by the name of Grigory Otrepyev whereas the real Dmitry Ivanovich was killed in his childhood on orders of Boris Godunov? We have all been told all of this by someone – a scribe, a researcher, a poet. All of them in turn had their own sources and convictions. That's a different and very interesting story.
Pokrovsky, Stalin and the 'Academic's Case'.
The so called "Academics' case" was the peak of the conflict between Porkovsky, who practically represented the Soviet regime in scholarly circles, and the older-generation professors. It was an important and harrowing landmark for historical studies in Russia. The continuous succession of academic staff and the organic development of historical schools was cut short not by the revolution, but by the "Academics' case".

It was one of theatricals that signaled the arrival of state terror. As of 1929, only 16 of 1158 members of the Russian academy of Sciences were members of the VKP(b) as the communist party was then called. During the 1920s, a time of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and relative freedom, the authorities were willing to turn a blind eye towards it. Then came the Great Break: Stalin consolidated his power within the party and the country. The NEP was revoked and the USSR was steered on a course to forced industrialisation and collectivisation.

The new regime needed control, so independence of any institution, including the Academy of Sciences, was out of the question. The academicians resisted for a time - most of them were people of the old stock who believed in free scientific thought.

At a general assembly held on January 12, 1929, they were offered eight party members to be voted into the Academy. Among the party candidates were the editor-in-chief of Pravda Nikolay Bukharin (who by then had already been declared a "maverick rightist" but not yet expelled from the Politburo), , Porkovsky himself and his associate, historian Nikolay Lukin whose specialty was the Paris Commune.

Five of the applicants including Pokrovsky barely got over the two-thirds vote benchmark they needed to be enrolled in the Academy. Another three failed.

Porkovsky was incensed. It is hard to say what dominated his feelings: ideological fervor, a feeling of administrative empowerment, or his grudge against old-school academicians who did not bother to hide their disdain for him and his associates.

"We must advance on all scientific fronts, the time of peaceful coexistence with bourgeois science has come to an end," he declared. Several days later the academicians voted again and this time all candidates were enrolled. But that did not save the old Academy. A purge took place in the summer of 1929 which saw over 700 staff of the Academy's presidium expelled. The Rabkrin (Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate, a revision body of the Soviet regime) appointed a special commission headed by Yury Figatner for a probe into the Academy's work.

The commission started to look specifically for reasons to open criminal cases against Academy staff. And of course the commission found them.

Precious archive documents were found in the Academy's library and another of its departments, the Pushkin House. There were original documents in which Czar Nicholas II and his brother Great Prince Michael renounced the throne, documents of the Russian empire's police department, the Gendarmerie. There were secret police notes and the exchange of letters between Nicholas II and St. Petersburg Governor-General Dmitry Trepov regarding the Bloody Sunday.

There were archives belonging the exiled Constitutional Democratic and Socialist Revolutionary parties, the black-hunderist Russian People's Union, the Constitutent Assembly and the Provisional Government. Kompromat that could be used against a great number of people was found here.

It was all there, listed: who was a criminal or an agent provocateur, who was a police informant and who was tied to the wrong parties, like Pokrovsky himself who once courted the Constitutional Democrats.

Mikhail Fyodorovich Platonov, already introduced, was director of the Pushkin House and the Academy of Sciences Library. He was actually going to retire. His "Complete lectures on Russian history" had been published, meaning that he had started to summarize his work both as a scholar and as a teacher. He left the department of Russian history at the University of St. Petersburg in 1912, his position of director of the Woman's Pedagogical Institute in 1916.

But in the chaos of revolution and the civil war, it was his sense of duty that held him at the Academy. He took it upon himself to head the Archeographic commission, the Archeological Institute, the Main Archive and many other scholarly organizations which had suddenly found themselves lacking administrative heads. The Pushkin House and the Academy Library were added to the list in 1925.By 1929 Platonov, nearing 70, was a patriarch at the Academy and the unquestionable leader of the "old regime" intelligentsia of St. Petersburg.

Among the first results of the Rabkrin Commission's work was Platonov's dismissal along with the Academy's secretary, oriental sciences scholar Sergey Oldenburg. By January 1930 Platonov was arrested. It is hard to say whether he or his subordinates had any plans to use the documents, which they were accused of having concealed on purpose, or just did not believe them to be of any special significance as they claimed at the interrogation sessions.

All of that mattered little, as the investigators forgot all about the "concealed" documents by the time of the second interrogation. They remembered, however, Platonov's meeting with one of his students, the Great Prince Andrey Vladimirovich at a science conference in Berlin in 1928, as well as his ties to Milyukov and other "whte" immigrants.

Platonov was charged with establishing and leading a counter-revolutionary organization called "The all-people's union of struggle for the rebirth of free Russia". The investigators themselves came up with that name.

The fictional union's goal was to bring down the Soviet regime with foreign aid and to establish a constitutional monarchy. Great Prince Andrey Vladimirovich was to become the Czar, Platonov the prime minister and St. Petersburg historian Yevgeny Tarle was to be appointed Minister of foreign affairs. The organization's headquarters were ran by the academic bodies of St. Petersburg and the network of agents was operated by local branches of the Central office of local history.

At the interrogations Platonov admitted he was a monarchist but strongly denied he was involved in any conspiracy against the Soviet regime. One of the pieces of "evidence" against him was his own work about the Time of Troubles, a Russian history period.

The investigators claimed he had made a suspicious "change of perspective". In his earlier works Platonov focused on the popular militia leaders Minin and Pozharsky, but later he started paying more and more attention to Mikhail Skopin-Shuysky who brought the Swedes into Russia to fight the Polish interventionists in 1609. This was to mean that Platonov was counting on foreign aid in restoring the Russian monarchy. In a different set of circumstances it would have seemed funny.

A total of 115 people were tried as part of the Academics' case, mostly historians and other humanitarians. There was never a public trial - all sentences in the months from February to August 1931 were expressly passed by "Troikas". Those were comparatively mild times and so only eight forger Guard officers were sentenced to execution by firing squad.

Fifteen others including Platonov were sentenced to 15 years in exile. Russian scripts historian Mikhail Priselkov was sent to the Solovki labor camp, Sergey Bakhrushin to Semipalatinsk, Yury Gauthier to Samara. It was also to Samara that Platonov was sent with his family. He died there in 1933.

The degree of Pokrovsky's personal responsibility for the "Academcs' case" is a matter of discussion. It is impossible to directly link his denunciation of the "bourgeois" academicians and the repressions. The case was handled by the Joint State Political Directorate which did not take orders from him and was in no way accountable to him. However there is no doubt that Pokrovsky was implicated in the creation of, so to say, the atmosphere of hate towards old-school academicians like Platonov.

Porkovsky died several years later of late-stage cancer . He died in 1932 and Platonov only outlived him by less than a year. Pokrovsky's body was cremated and buried inside the Kremlin wall – there was no bigger posthumous honor in the USSR. What is more, the Moscow University was named after Pokrovsky in 1932.

Then it all changed again, as things did in those turbulent times. The VKP(b) Central Committee and the Council of People's Commissars issued a joint decree "on teaching civil history in the USSR". It said, among other things that "instead of teaching civil history in a lively and engaging form, recounting the important events and facts in chronological order, the students are served abstract notions". It was was an obvious stab at Pokrovsky's method: his dogmatic adherence to the Marxist theory of five social development stages and his depersonification of certain figures to the degree of painting some czars as "trade capital wearing Monomakh's Cap".

Another decree was issued by the same two bodies in 1936, this time more direct: "a part of our historians seem to harbor views on history that are anti-Marxist, anti-Leninist and in essence liquidationist. The VKP(b) Central Committee and the Council of People's Commissars stress that these vile liquidationist tendencies are related to the spread among our historians of erroneous historical views with relation primarily to the so-called Pokrovsky historical school".

The accusation of liquidationism, a concept that Lenin used to describe ideological negation by party members probably stems from a phrase that Pokrovsky once uttered: "history is politics dipped into the past". Since we are at it, the grounds for deposing Pokrovsky could be considered liquidationist as they were purely political and lay outside the realm of scholarly disciplines.

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