20 years under Putin: a timeline

CI: Aleksander, you studied during Soviet times…

AS: To be precise, during late perestroika.

CI: Afterwards, in addition to completing a post-Soviet education, you also studied in America. Is this international experience serve as a prism through which you see the history of your own country differently?

AS: You know, we still get submissions that say, N — is a Russian historian, Z — is a foreign one. Separating historians according to their citizenship is an artificial and not very productive practice. We are talking about differences in schools and traditions. Historians should be assessed according to the school, tradition, and theoretical framework they prescribe to, not their citizenship.

CI: What I meant to ask about is the difference in schools. I wanted to know whether your assessment apparatus changed after you had the opportunity to study in a different tradition, with different approaches.

AS: The Western PhD. system is different from the way we do post-graduate studies in Russia. In the West, graduate school is a kind of training camp for independent research. It allows doctoral students to read in a broadly defined field of studies and familiarize themselves with various schools of thought and branches of scholarship. It is not typical for students to study the same narrow topic as their advisors or other instructors and follow them in their footsteps, focusing on a narrow aspect of a greater topic.

In addition, the Western system is characterized by being cross-disciplinary and using the methodology of comparative history. The cross-disciplinary aspect presents historiography as a part of the social sciences, positing that it is impossible to imagine contemporary historiography without, say, new approaches to sociology and anthropology. The Western school provides this kind of training while the Soviet system, for obvious reasons, missed out on certain key developments in the social sciences of the 20th century, when scholars were moving away from Essentialism and Primordialism, and mastering new methodologies… Comparative history destroys isolationism in perceptions of he past. It allows historians to learn what can and cannot be compared, what makes up a single context, and what separates contexts otherwise connected by influences or borrowed models.

He who knows only one country knows no country.

Seymour Lipset

It’s important to mention that in the West, there is also such a form of organization of knowledge as area-studies. This is when a group of specialists in the literature, history, and politics of a single region gather to discuss their research, bringing together various disciplines and approaches. Sometimes, the Russian or Eurasian area-studies field is called Kremlinology, not without reason. The best of the Western historians of Russian history understand that they aren’t just historians of Russia, they are also part of the historical profession. In this profession, you need to read the theoretical works and works related to other regions and constantly reflect on the identity of the discipline of history

CI: Is this why your magazine appears in Russian and in English?

AS: Yes, that is an important part of it. We want to facilitate communication between historians from different countries, and English happens to be the lingua franca of the international academic community.

CI: Do you find that today’s young Russians are more interested in their history and its reinterpretation?

AS: I would say that the return of relevance of history is due to the sense of dynamism and change in the present. Young people are less convinced that the path of development is predetermined and more convinced in that the future could be changed. This is an aspect of historicity and so yes, more students are signing up for history classes.

CI: Today’s students probably have some intuition of the plurality of the past?

AS: Yes, they probably intuitively understand that the plurality of the past is what history is made of. From Rurik to Putin, what we see aren’t predetermined narratives, but different ways of reading, different interpretations. I believe that the return of politics, not in the strict sense of the word, where one party wins and the other loses, but in the sense of civic engagement and the ability to effect change, also fosters a greater interest in history.

CI: As a journalist, I am convinced that these two things are related. When people begin to believe that their voice matters, that they can effect change, they begin to think about their civic duty, which includes its historical aspect. People began to feel the necessity of drawing their own conclusions about the state of their nation. It becomes clear to them that it’s impossible to analyze the present situation well without understanding history. Even people don’t usually think about history see this.

AS: Yes, of course.

CI: I would like to discuss the lessons we can learn from history. The lessons that could be of use to a society that is facing new challenges, that has come out this winter to protest the current state of affairs.


The USSR in 1950


AS: History and political subjectivity, that is, how people become subjects, how they act and shape the future. This is only indirectly related to current politics, but this is the fundamental lesson of history. If we were to approach lessons of history in a straightforward manner of looking for ready recipes, then we will end up with what Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, ended up, in his own words “No matter how you build it, you end up with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” And this is probably not something we need.

CI: But what do we need then? Here are the people, the so-called “new Decembrists,” that have taken to the streets and will continue to do so in Moscow and beyond. What lessons from history would you advise them to look at?


Boris Yeltsin on a tank during the putsch of August 1991. Moscow


AS: Very indirectly, I would recommend that they look at a few fundamental things. For example, to see the diverse historical experience that has to do with being a political subject. Look at how people created history, try to figure out what were the factors of actualization of human volition and human imagination. Sometimes, a look at the past can help to rethink the straight jacket of modern categories. For example, do we believe that the way to become subjects of history is to get to the Kremlin? If one believes in this, then one is bound to strive tomake his or her way into the Kremlin on the basis of truth and lies alike, and then change the country once  in power. But people can act and shape the future without necessarily being in the Kremlin. Despite what the history textbooks say, I think people are beginning to understand this.

That is another important function of history, in my opinion—to serve as a warning.

CI: So that people don’t get dizzy with their success?

AS: Yes. It’s crucial to understand that certain historical processes have inertia. It is impossible to just stop them or change their course once they have begun.

Here is one important warning: there aren’t simple solutions to our complex problems. Our problems are complex partially because the context of diversity continues to characterize the Russian Federation. It characterizes a number of other contemporary states that also debate the meaning of citizenship, political community, and are engaged in negotiating cultural boundaries, whether it be in Germany, France, or the United States. Until recently, our intellectual milieu searched for a national idea. The prevalent notion was that our history had gone wrong—there hadn’t been time to build a nation-state. That today, we need to catch up to other countries and also build ours. But this is a wrongheaded point of departure. What if the nation-state is an attractive but, considering historical experience, unattainable ideal?

CI:  To return to your project, where would you say you are with it today?

AS: When we began working on the project, we didn’t think that we could provide the answers to the questions we were raising. Now, things are changing. We are at the synthesis stage. Using the conclusions drawn in our research and the research of our colleagues—even if their interpretations don’t necessarily coincide with ours, but share a framework—we are beginning to feel that we can come up with a new interpretation of Russian history, especially considering the fact that more than ever, we see the inadequacy of the old narratives.

CI: Is the inadequacy simply apparent or has it been widely acknowledged? There is a difference.

AS: We can say that it is acknowledged. Right now is a very exciting time, and people are attempting to write new histories. They are writing them. And if they are writing them, this means that there is a common idea among historians that synthesis needs to be made anew. We are entering a new stage in our work, and we are very hopeful that the conclusions we draw from our analyses, our hypotheses, and the analytic models formulated in the context of our project, will all be interesting not only to experts in the field (since we are constantly publishing work intended for them in specialized journals), but for the reading public at large.

CI: And the book will presumably be written in the language that the layman, well, the well-read layman…

AS: Let’s say the reflective and concerned reader…(laughs)