this is how Vladimir Putin rearranged the plot
Before finding success as a non-fiction writer, Tamim Ansary briefly worked as an editor of world history textbooks. The job was not easy. Ansary had to explain complicated events using the simplest terms and in doing so had to stick to microscopic word counts. On top of that, he had to choose which historical details were worth including and which weren’t.
It was during this period that Ansary began to think of history as history – a narrative that, far from being set in stone, is constantly being edited by different people for different reasons. Today, the same questions that Ansary once asked itself are being debated both nationally and internationally.
Debates about history and how it should be taught are happening everywhere. In America, there are intense disagreements about the extent to which students should focus on the darker episodes of the nation’s past, from slavery to Japanese internment. In Europe, there are disagreements about how the Holocaust should be taught, for example regarding each country’s culpability in the perpetration of genocide. On the other hand, Japanese children barely learn about World War II.
As a result, story plots can be quite flexible. For example, since the end of the Korean War, the North Korean government has presented a view of history that grossly exaggerates the influence that Kim Il-sung and his family members have had on the country’s development. Recently, Vladimir Putin promoted a revisionist history denying Ukraine’s statehood and independence from Russia and the Soviet Union. Putin’s speeches and essays, which have been heavily criticized by historians on both sides of the Iron Curtain, provided a false justification for Russia’s February 24 invasion of the country.
It is partly in response to issues like these that Ansary has written its new book, Yesterday’s Invention: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict and Connection. Although technically a history book, Yesterday’s Invention is more interested in the philosophy of history than in history itself: Ansary tries to show how historical narratives are made, and how they make us.
The philosophy of history
People tend to think of history in unambiguous terms, yet this discipline is anything but simple. What should theoretically be an accurate account of everything that happened often materializes as incomplete and heavily biased accounts of past events.
During an appearance on a recent episode of Crossing line to discuss his book, Ansary explained that he approaches history the same way he approaches his own past. For example, he does not see himself as an Afghan or a Norwegian, but as the son of a Norwegian mother and an Afghan father. His mother, he adds, was a worker, and his father was well-to-do by his country’s standards.
Ethnicity, gender and class are all factors that play an equally important role in Ansary’s past; if one of them is left out, the whole reconstruction of that past collapses. “History,” Ansary told his NPR hosts, “is made up of facts like a cathedral is made up of bricks. But the bricks [themselves] are not the cathedral. The cathedral is how the bricks are put together.
Ansary’s take on the story mirrors that of Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who wrote about the subject at length in the epilogue to his famous novel. War and peacewhich follows several Russian aristocratic families during the country’s decisive war against Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century.
Tolstoy wrote the novel in response to how historians had interpreted the war. The academic community at the time was captivated by the so-called Great Man Theory. This theory, popularized by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, holds that history is driven by (and can be reduced to) the actions of a small number of unique and influential individuals. At the height of his power, Napoleon was considered one of those “great men”. Georg Hegel, the most influential philosopher of his time, called the emperor the “soul of the world”. In Hegel’s philosophy of history, based on the conflict of ideas or ways of life, Napoleon was someone who could reconcile France’s monarchical past with its republican future.
Tolstoy disagreed with the idea that history could be written by the will and actions of one person. Having previously served in the Crimean War, the author knew that descriptions in history books rarely matched the reality they claimed to reconstruct. History, like war, is chaotic and unpredictable, made up of so many moving parts that it would be impossible and pointless to summarize everything.
Tolstoy emphasized the interwoven stories of individual people – such as those found in War and peace – provided a more truthful account of the Napoleonic War than most history books. “Only by taking infinitesimal units for observation,” reads the epilogue, “and attaining the art of integrating them (that is, of finding the sum of these infinitesimal) that we can hope to arrive at the laws of history.”
The Historical Narrative of Russia: A Case Study
While Yesterday’s Invention was published months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the questions posed in Ansary’s book provide a good starting point for studying the geopolitical discussions that preceded this ongoing conflict – discussions about the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations and Russia’s overall role in the world stage.
In a televised address on February 24, Putin offers a compelling but grossly inaccurate account of modern history. The Russian president sees his invasion of Ukraine as a long-awaited reaction against “NATO’s eastward expansion, which is bringing its military infrastructure closer and closer to the Russian border.”
The story that Putin tells his country begins where that of Mikhail Gorbachev ended. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia lost its position as a global superpower, and many Eastern European states that had long ago merged with the USSR suddenly regained their political independence, economic and cultural.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin continues, disrupted “the balance of power in the world”, as Western countries – supposedly emboldened after winning the Cold War – violated international relations by supporting the separatists in post-Soviet Russia, increasing the American presence in Eastern Europe, and launching military operations in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Many of the historical details mentioned in the speech are technically true – Russia lost considerable influence after 1991, and conflicts like the war in Iraq are widely seen as acts of imperialism. However, echoing the Ansary Cathedral analogy, it is Putin’s way of assembling and interpreting these details that is problematic. For example, Western historians have interpreted the collapse of the USSR as further evidence of the inherent instability of totalitarian states. Putin contextualizes this development in Russian (as opposed to Soviet) history, viewing said collapse and subsequent political concessions as an effective but temporary attack on the Russian people and their way of life.
This is the central plot of Putin’s historical narrative, which posits the restoration of Russia’s international authority as the final and only goal of his country and its people. “The paralysis of power and will is the first step towards complete degradation and oblivion,” he warns. “We won’t make that mistake the second time around. We don’t have the right to do that.
The history of Ukrainian independence
The world is aware of Russia’s intense interest in Ukraine since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, fear of a full-scale invasion did not become widespread until Putin issued a essay last summer entitled “On the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine”. in which he argues that the two countries share a common history and should never have been separated.
Scholars were quick to condemn the essay as revisionist history – a distorted version of past events focusing only on the things Russia and Ukraine have in common, not what makes them unique. Worse still, Putin falsely claims that the Europeanization of Ukraine was a strategic move orchestrated by Russia’s enemies, rather than a decision the country made of its own accord.
Over the past few months, and particularly in the past week, writers, historians and policymakers in Eastern Europe have attempted to expose the plot holes in Putin’s narrative. Russia’s most recent claim to the country – having been part of the USSR – can be disputed on the grounds that Lenin, a proponent of spontaneous world revolution, insisted that Soviet satellites achieve self-determination.
Although Russia and Ukraine can trace their lineage back to the time of Kievan Rus’, this medieval federation of Slavic, Baltic and Finnish peoples dispersed into distinct communities upon its dissolution. According to Björn Alexander Düben, professor of public affairs at Jilin University, the first linguistic differences between Russian and Ukrainian appeared as early as the 13th century.
The divergence of language was followed by a divergence of culture and religion. From the 15th century, a schism in the Orthodox faith led the churches of Moscow and Kyiv to develop separate liturgical practices. The Cossacks, a group of Eastern Slavic Orthodox Christians who played a key role in the histories of Russia and Ukraine, have long been recognized as politically autonomous, with their allegiance split between Russia and Poland.
“A look at Ukrainian history,” writes Düben on a London School of Economics blog, “reveals that [Putin’s assumptions] are based on a dangerously distorted reading of the past. In a move that would turn Tolstoy in his grave, Russia announces its own history while rejecting that of Ukraine and the people who live there.
In the end, the problem is not that Putin is buying into a narrative, but that he is buying into a meta-narrative: a grand storyline that does not acknowledge either the history of the USSR or the status of an independent state. from Ukraine. It is not yet clear whether the invasion of Russia will be stopped. Yet Putin’s critics might take solace in the fact that over time all meta-narratives crumble into themselves. Even his.