20 years under Putin: a timeline

CI: What characterizes your new approach?

IG: An important aspect of our approach has to do with thinking about history. We call it historical imagination.

CI: Could you explain what this means in layman’s terms?

IG: Historical imagination is a kind of social thinking that comes out of the attempt to understand the past. Past events are only relevant insofar as they are acknowledged to be by the current generation of historians and their readers. It’s not what happened that it is important, as much as how the phenomenon is analyzed and described in the present. I am not talking about some opportunistically contrived reconsideration of known facts, but about the ability to understand the complex social fabric and assess it not teleologically (i.e. according to a programmatic understanding of the progress of history), but as a number of options that happened to materialize as a matter of choice; to examine the logic behind a number of actors in the historical process. By actors, I mean anything from states and peoples to professional associations, women as a group, children, etc.

CI: You started working on your New Imperial History project in 2000. How has it developed since its inception?

AS: The New Imperial History project was tied to the (then new) publication of Ab Imperio, an international academic journal. The academic portion of the project includes a reevaluation of the Russian historical experience in a comparative context, and a dialogue on the implications of being a historian today. First of all, this project aims to rethink the role of national history as the basic framework for the analysis of past experience. We also seek to reflect on implications of using certain categories and terms to describe a heterogeneous, complex, and multi-directional past. This is a constantly developing project. Old questions recede and new ones emerge; I would say that this project in some sense is our life's work. This is a self-critical project and I admit that we had to get past certain misconceptions: at one point, we had taken nationality to be a fundamental factor in the post-Soviet space and its history, but later, we realized that things were a lot more complicated… In 2000, a certain group, let’s call it a collective of like-minded people, simply acknowledged that a critical mass of questions had accumulated which demanded new answers and new approaches for developing these answers. These were the origins of our project.

CI: What were these questions primarily concerned with?

AS: The history of the Russian Empire, the history of nationalism, the history of national identities, the past of historically constituted regions, as well as the issues associated with the history of various religions and denominations. To summarize, I would call these the questions related to differences and diversity in Russia's past.

CI: Why do you believe such questions to be essential to Russian history?

IG: It’s hard to imagine the pluralistic society of the future without learning more about the differences between the social and cultural patterns in a country through history, without having a clear idea of the defined ethnic, religious, and linguistic hierarchical structure. It's impossible to build a democratic society without understanding the elemental processes of how a society organizes itself, even in the context of an undemocratic, “sovereign” regime. It is impossible to learn to be tolerant toward the “other,” when you have no experience with thinking about the fact that two or three centuries ago, all people were the “other” for one another, that everyone existed outside of the “nation” concept that we are so used to today. The “Russian” peasant was a stranger to a “Russian” nobleman; a Pomor wouldn’t understand the language of someone who lived in Kursk; Old Believers couldn’t intermarry with Russian Orthodox, not to mention other religions; and so on.


Population breakdown by social class 1912


It is impossible to imagine the contemporary society that we know without asking ourselves how and why isolationist versions of the past emerged (ideas such as “Moscow is the Third Rome,” and “Eurasia”), and without seriously considering comparative and global perspectives on Russian history.

Moreover, the primary question for us used to be how to formulate our questions. Remember that in 1991, historians essentially had no name for what they studied.

CI: In the sense that they didn’t know what to call the country anymore?

AS: People wrote about the history of Russia, but oftentimes this would actually mean Russian history. Think of the funny dissertation titles, like “The History of Russian Central Government in the 1930s.” What Russia?! What are we talking about here? If we are talking about the history of Russia and imposing present borders on past conceptions of what Russia is, we are completely destroying the historical context—the economy, the political system—of a much more complex political and social landscape.

CI: Of course. And there is no way out of the generalizations that come with a historical context, even when they controversial. For example, with Georgia.

AS: Exactly. Especially when they are controversial. It is impossible to understand conflicts out of context. To get a sense of their acuteness, shape, and where they are headed is completely impossible without taking a broader perspective and keeping the entire context in mind. If we do not compare and contrast the elements of a given situation and instead, if we continue to believe that everyone lived happily in their little islands of nation-states with their national pasts, it will be impossible to understand how conflicts originated.