20 years under Putin: a timeline

Aleksander Semyonov, Ilya Gerasimov:
“This project is our life's work”

The complexities of the Russian future require new approaches to the the nation's past. These can be found in the New Imperial History project, created by a group of leading Russian historians including Ilya Gerasimov, Aleksander Semyonov, Marina Mogilner and Sergei Glebov. This project explores the myths found in outdated historiography, recognizing the multiplicity of past with view to the pluralism of the future. Ilya Gerasomov and Aleksander Semyonov recently spoke to IMR's Caterina Innocente about their work and some fresh perspectives on Russian history and the post-Soviet space.


Caterina Innocente: As a historian, how would you characterize a healthy attitude toward the past?

Aleksander Semyonov: I would say that a healthy attitude toward history is critical. “Critical” in the broadest sense of the word. In the same way that we reflect on every passing year, thinking that one thing was successful and another wasn’t, that we’ve changed in one way, and in another way we’ve stayed the same… It is important to be critical of the past and not to be absorbed by it. There are many examples where the past may inhibit a person from branching out and doing something that wasn't done by those who came before. Especially when the predecessors are elevated to the status of mythical heroes—nation builders, vanquishers, founders of states. People who take such creation myths for granted begin to live in the past. This is especially characteristic of the mythology of nation-states, where the metaphor of foundation and persistence of the national community becomes the exclusive focus of the history-writing. Historians call this deterministic vision of history and historical teleology.

Another no less dangerous extreme is dismissing the past completely. Believing that it is simply behind you. Thinking that if something happened 10 or 20 years ago, it might as well have happened in the Stone Age. For the generation of young people born after 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union is akin to the Great Reforms of the middle of the 19th century. This is dangerous because the past, in the words of the renowned Russian historian Vasilly Osipovich Kluchevsky, leaves, but doesn’t cover its tracks.” When we speak of the post-Soviet period, about the post-Soviet landscape, we see that, for example, institutions don’t change as quickly as we would like.

CI: It’s hard to change your personal habits, and when it comes to changing an approach…

AS: Exactly. An entire approach is extremely difficult to change. Society often get fixated on certain things like the terms of public rhetoric or political discourse.


The possibility for a different future is directly related to the quality of historical thought in a society.

Aleksander Semyonov

To see an example of this, we only need to look at the idea of nationality. The majority of people take it for granted that this concept as a collective possession can be contingent on context. Sometimes the concept of citizenship overrides it. The idea of what is considered Russian in Kazan’ must have been very different from the idea of Russianness in Estonia or Belgorod.

CI: How so?

The history of the emergence of the concept of nationality in the 19th century is full of examples of very different definitions of the concept, ranging from aesthetic characteristics to race. It did change its meaning and its relevance. Nonetheless, official and academic rhetoric render this concept as fundamental and natural. As though every person, before they go to sleep at night, checks what nationality they are. The way the term is used in Russia makes people think that nationality is an obvious and internally homogenous group that exists outside of what people think about it and do with it. Very often, the concept of nation is linked to ethnicity, especially in the post-Soviet concept. In this rendition it becomes a natural thing, a fact of biology, not history or politics. This is the legacy of the Soviet nationality policy.


A woman is seated in a calm spot on the Sim River, part of the Volga watershed in 1910

Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/Library of Congress


CI: Cultural historian Vladimir Paperny once told me about a typical conversation between an American social worker and an immigrant from the Soviet Union:

“What’s your nationality?”
“I'm Jewish.”
“I don't mean your religion. What's your nationality?”
“I'm a Jew.”
“And your native language is...?”
“Then you’re Russian.”
“No, I’m not.”

AS: That’s an interesting example, which illustrates the point. We should add, however, that in other situations, the same person may prefer a different way of describing themselves, as young or old, as an art lover or soccer fan, and so on. We should also keep in mind that the question “Are you Russian?” seems too obvious and forces people to think of more refined categories for defining themselves. Many prefer to say that they are “from Russia.” Over 100 years ago, [Vasilly Osipovich] Kluchevsky gave a fitting description for the ever-increasing nationalism we see in Russia today: “There is no more Russia now, there are only Russians.”


The Russian Empire 50 years before the beginning of its demise. The Russian Empire is considered to have collapsed between 1916 and 1923 (sometimes 1924). Over the course of these 7 (or 8) years, independent states were formed on the territory of the former empire, the former empire was dissolved, and the USSR was formed.


Returning to your original question about a “healthy” attitude toward the past, I would probably say that the space between the two extremes we have laid out is the critical landscape. This landscape allows a person to see themselves against the backdrop of history; one of the most important tasks of the historian is to be a medium for the past, creating a kind of mirror for his contemporaries in which they could see that they have already changed and stopped resembling what they looked like, say, 30 years ago. The historian’s objective is to make society look in the mirror often and contemplate itself constantly. For instance, we no longer debate whether or not women should vote. Those debates happened 100 years ago and were rather brutal. The accepted notion is that history is a kind of political science that will tell the story of how a country was run in the past so that this knowledge can make us smarter and allow us to draw some sort of conclusions and morals out of these stories, to modify our behavior. However, people often forget about the historian’s capacity as a mirror of the past. In reality, in the words of Leslie Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It is very important to keep this in mind.

CI: How often do or should historians reexamine their assessments of the past?

Ilya Gerasimov: History never rests, but ideas about it may ossify for years or even decades. The past simply has to change every ten or fifteen years, or at least once in a generation, which means that there are always new people who have new questions addressed to the past. Most importantly, when you have a healthy attitude toward the past, you start to see that it is just as unpredictable as the future.

CI: How can the past be unpredictable?

IG: The past is only relevant vis-a-vis the role that it plays in new challenges. Acknowledging the plurality of the past—not only the multiple interpretations of a single event but the many possible consequences of a given moment in history—opens up the plurality of the future. If people continue to believe that everything that came before led directly to the triumph of the Roman Empire, consumer capitalism, or the development of socialism, we are bound for a crisis. Changing this idea is the most important part of our new approach to the discipline of history.