The Politics of History in the Former Soviet Union: Editor’s Introduction

This issue of Russian Politics and Law continues the discussion of historical politics that was begun in the previous issue. The articles presented here show how processes similar to those that have occurred in Russia are taking place in other former Soviet states—including Estonia, Ukraine, and the countries of Central Asia.

In “Estonia: The Political Struggle for a Place in History,” Alexander Astrov argues that the intensification of historical politics in Estonia is the result of an identity crisis, caused in part by the country’s successful completion of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) accession processes. He argues that the interpretation of the “struggle against totalitarianism” offered by the French “new philosophers” may enable small states like Estonia to overcome this identity crisis and provide them with a special entry to world politics and a place in world history. He compares the Estonian historical debates that have taken place since that country’s independence to the German Historikerstreit, which allowed that country to come to terms with the legacy of Nazism on German identity. For most of the post-Soviet period, Estonian historians and politicians have avoided dealing with the most difficult issues of Estonia’s recent past, including collaboration with the Nazi and communist occupations. Astrov makes the case for a more open discussion of these issues as means of helping Estonia develop its own identity while simultaneously subscribing to the pan-European identity that Estonians have worked so hard to make their own over the past twenty years.

Georgii Kas’ianov examines the trajectory of historical politics in Ukraine since it achieved its independence. His article “The Holodomor and the Building of a Nation” traces the evolution of the politics of history in Ukraine during this period—with a particular focus on the famine of 1932–33, which has come to be known in Ukraine as the Holodomor (famine genocide)—and its role in domestic politics and foreign relations. He examines, in particular, the campaign of President Yushchenko and his political allies to impose an interpretation of the famine as genocide against the Ukrainian people and the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.

He shows how the reinterpretation of the famine fits into the larger effort to create a national myth for newly independent Ukraine, which also includes a reassessment of Ukrainian history during the Soviet period, the partial rehabilitation of the nationalist rebellion of the 1940s, and the selection of particular national symbols and myths for Ukraine. He also shows how the interpretation of the Holodomor changed depending on who was in power in Kiev, focusing on the role the famine played in internal politics and electoral competition. In doing so, he shows how the Ukrainian experience with historical politics parallels similar events in Russia, the Baltic states, and other parts of the former communist world.

The next three articles take the discussion of historical politics to Central Asia. In “A Symbolic Past: The Struggle for Ancestors in Central Asia,” Victor Shnirelman discusses recent narratives of Turkmen, Kazakh, and Uzbek ethnogenesis and explores the tension between the Aryan myth and pan-Turkism. He also analyzes the role of the Aryan myth in Tajik and Russian narratives. He explores the importance that political leaders in Central Asia, as well as state-associated historians, attach to claims of indigeneity for the titular ethnic groups of these states. In this context, he focuses on the competition among historians from each country in developing arguments that show that their ethnic group can claim the oldest inhabitants of the region as their ancestors. He shows that in some cases, these theories result in quite extravagant claims, such as Olzhas Suleimenov’s ideas that Turkic peoples preceded the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and developed some of the earliest writing systems.

Shnirelman shows the critical role played by the state in this competition, both in terms of promoting certain historical arguments at the expense of others and in providing resources for favored historians to publicize their theories and ensure that they are presented as the dominant (and often only) historical narratives in national museums and school curricula. He argues that the creation of national mythologies is an integral component of state building for Central Asian states, all of which acquired independence quite recently. Claiming prestigious ancestors allows the leaders of these states to solidify their legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens and of their neighbors.

Slavomír Horák focuses on one particular case where this quest for prestigious ancestors has led to tensions between two neighboring states. In “In Search of the History of Tajikistan: What Are Tajik and Uzbek Historians Arguing About?” Horák discusses how historical narratives designed to promote nation building in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have come into conflict. He argues that the historiography of Central Asia has become a zero-sum game in which the positive characteristics ascribed to one nation are contrasted with negative characteristics of the other. In the process, the ties that have linked the two groups over previous centuries and even millennia are eliminated from the historical narrative of both sides.

In addition to disputes over ancestral homelands and who has closer ties to the ancient Aryan civilization, historians from the two countries disagree on the causes and consequences of the division of Central Asia into separate republics in the 1920s and, particularly, the perceived injustice (from the Tajik point of view) of the placement of several of their cultural centers in Uzbekistan. At the same time, the unequal status of the two countries means that Tajik historians spend a lot more time focused on the injustices they believe were committed against Tajiks by Uzbeks, while Uzbek historians focus more on their country’s position in Central Asia and past relations with Russia and the Soviet Union.

Finally, Sergei Abashin returns to the topic of the role played in the creation of national ideology by museums in his “Mustakillik and Remembrance of the Imperial Past: Passing Through the Halls of the Tashkent Museum in Memory of the Victims of Repression.” Abashin seeks to describe the construction of a particular historical narrative by the government by discussing the exhibits of the recently opened Tashkent museum dealing with repression. In his article, Abashin takes issue with what he sees as a one-sided presentation in the museum—one that is focused on Russian colonialism and the crimes of the Soviet period while largely excluding local issues that do not fit conveniently into the Uzbek nation-building narrative.

Abashin’s article is unique in that he allows Uzbek historians working at the museum to respond to his points. These comments are interspersed in italics in the text of the article. The Uzbek historians note that the museum is not meant to provide a comprehensive review of all aspects of Uzbek history but rather to focus specifically on repressions, rather than national liberation movements or other aspects of the country’s history. For this reason, there are gaps in the presentation and some time periods receive significantly more attention than others.

The articles in these issues on historical politics show that historians in the states that arose after the breakup of the Soviet Union are intimately involved in the formulation of national myths that are designed to strengthen these states’ legitimacy. Of course, the promotion of national historical narratives is not unique to the former communist world; it has long been a feature of historiography around the world.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of History in the Former Soviet Union: Editor’s Introduction

  1. Pingback: Russian Politics and Law, September 2010 Table of Contents « Russian Military Reform

  2. “Holodomor” and it variations is a casual term for “famine” throughout the Slavic languages.

    The only difference being, if you say it without an specifying adjective, or write with big “H” in Ukraine, everybody would know which famine you mean.

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