History: Self-knowledge and toxic litigation

The Russian war on Ukraine woke us up to the fact that most of us are historically illiterate about most of the world, most of the time. Was Ukraine a creation of Lenin, as Mr Putin would have it? As one commentator put it, with an average audience you can easily string together a narrative, strew in some correct historical facts, leave out others just as correct and salient, and have everyone nodding at your profound expertise. My philosophical question is, what do we want to do with history? Can we use it as a force for the good and avoid the toxic uses?

Spoiler alert: Ukraine was not Lenin’s creation. When did Ukrainian statehood begin? Depending on your perspective, you can trace it to modern times or back to Kievan Rus, founded in 862 with Kyiv as its centre. The question itself is somewhat anachronistic, for you just cannot project a modern system of nation-states into a remote past. Before the 20th century, any large state formation would have been multi-ethnic. The old Russian empire was not Russian in the modern sense either. If you like, the Russian nation-state, if it exists, was Boris Yeltsin’s creation.

The main trouble with most media coverage now is that history only comes in as a kind of litigation. This or that country has ‘historical right’ to this or that – e. g., ‘Russia had Crimea in 1783, therefore it should have it now’. I find it rather absurd to think that borders on historical maps should trump the people who live in a place today. Moreover, we would need an Earth at least twice its present size to put all this litigation into practice, to please every country that might advance it.

‘Historical rights’ discourses, moreover, for obvious reasons tend to privilege the ‘claims’ of those actors who were successful in the past (i.e. empires). This is also because the history of large empires is generally much better publicised than that of small countries. All this contributes to a perception of a world as a chessboard for the big players. Suddenly we have no international law but simply spheres of influence and paranoia.

So much for the toxic use of history as litigation. Still, as philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943) put it, history is ‘the only way in which man’ (the human being) ‘can know himself’. This is a useful point on several counts.

Firstly, wars are not natural disasters like earthquakes. Humans, unlike nature, act from reasons. Moreover, reasons, for human agents, are good or bad reasons, while natural causes are simply there – they may be useful or unfortunate, but not good or bad. Humans act upon their understanding of what kinds of motives are legitimate and intelligible. Considering the fact that their thinking is not just the result of a universal human nature, we must look into people’s norms and ways of understanding, as they have developed in the history of each human society.   

Secondly, in understanding the thinking of others, the mind engages with it and potentially changes it. It also changes itself. History offers us a ‘view from elsewhere’, a place from which to put ourselves in perspective. We encounter others, different people, times and places. That kind of encounter requires us also to revise our ideas. History allows us to see beyond our self-congratulatory myths.

An example that springs to mind is Edward Said’s research on ‘orientalism’, scholarship on Middle Eastern history and culture. Said’s book was a history of history: an account of how scholarship itself was put to use for entrenching myths about ‘East’ and ‘West’. The exotic East became a negative mirror image of all the ‘backward’ tendencies that Europeans found in themselves and wished to leave behind. Its people were not real people; not agents, but cultural stooges and pawns in someone else’s game. Much ‘Western’ thinking about Eastern Europe was cast in a very similar mould. ‘Oriental’ east Europeans were irrational and corrupt, while ‘the Russian bear’ was a force of nature, to be tamed or left alone. It was not living people, to be questioned or understood.

We badly need to dismantle historical myths in Europe, but the need appears even more pressing in Russia. Russian scholars and civil society organisations started in the ‘90s to look into the Stalinist past. However, the government soon put a lid on it. For heaven’s sake, do not smear the Happy Family of the Soviet Peoples, for what comes next?  Where is then imperial glory? Where are ex-KBG officers? To put a positive spin on it: Censorship is the strongest possible validation of humanist scholarship. It is to recognise that human self-knowledge can literally move mountains.

The ‘West’, or at least its governments, was shamefully complicit in that suppression of truth. The war in Chechnya in 1999 –2000, with the same brutal methods now in use in Ukraine, and with subsequent assassinations of whistle blowers, immediately rose the alarm of the human rights community. All the information was available, but what did ‘our’ governments do? They embarked on a long honeymoon with the Russian leader, lasting at least up to 2008. One reason was great power politics: the ‘West’ has a long history of supporting dictatorships, and Putin looked like a friendly dictator worth cosying up to. A great underlying reason, however, is ‘orientalism’ with regard to Eastern Europe.

We have a long way to go – not only doing what we can for Ukraine, but also realising that human rights belong to everyone.

Olli Lagerspetz