The meeting took place ahead of a joint session of the Council for Culture and the Arts and the Council for Science, Technology and Education devoted to preparations for celebrating the 1150th anniversary of Russia’s statehood in 2012. The President signed an Executive Order on this anniversary on March 3, 2011.
The meeting took place at the Palaty museum complex built in 1785–1790 for Vladimir Region’s administrative authorities. Today, it is home to the Cultural and Educational Centre of the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum-Reserve.
* * *
Excerpts from transcript of meeting with historians
President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Hello. I would like to welcome everyone to Vladimir.
The location I selected for holding the joint session of the Presidential Councils for Science and for Culture is no accident. But before holding that session, I decided to meet with historians – with you – since this year and especially next year are significant for our nation. You are aware that I signed a special Executive Order on celebrating the 1150th anniversary of Russian statehood, although this is a separate subject of discussion, but for now, we will follow the canonical approaches. If you have others, you will probably tell me about them. In any case, this is always a cause for us to turn toward our nation’s past and think about what has happened and what awaits us.
“ I would simply like for us to look more broadly at certain problems existing in our nation, and to talk about the connection that has traditionally existed between history and political practice.”
You are well aware of the problems in history and archeological science. I think we will discuss them today. But I would simply like for us to look more broadly at certain problems existing in our nation, and to talk about the connection that has traditionally existed between history and political practice.
In general, when these things are too closely interlinked, it can be dangerous for the government. On the other hand, when history is completely removed from politics, that is no less dangerous. And finding a contact model that will be useful for both the government and for science – I suppose that this is also a topic for our discussion.
But I don’t want to anticipate the topics of our discussion; most of all, I would like to hear you out, although naturally, I will make a few comments of my own at the end of our conversation. So I suppose I’ll end my opening remarks here and be happy to hear what you have to tell me. Please, go ahead.
Our meeting place is also significant in and of itself, with all the merits of such an establishment, and all the complications.
* * *
The majority of people get information knowledge about historical events not from books or popular science texts but from fiction and the media. And the level of these texts is very different: some of them are excellent but some are of a very low standard and even harmful. Some of them have very high literary merit, they are easy to read, which is also important because academic texts can be very dry.
At the same time it is very important that research in its various forms, the results of a consensus that you have also talked about reach the majority of people so that they are aware of the generally accepted views on some or other events among modern historians, although there can also be alternative points of view. That is to say people should be aware of this trend without feeling any pressure from the state that says: “This is how things were, it could not have happened any other way, these over here are positive characters and those over there are the villains and so we’re not going to talk about them.” This has happened in our history and I don’t mean only the Soviet period. It’s just that we all remember life in the Soviet Union and it left many reminders of how historical events were presented in that period. However, the interdependence between direct political practice and history as an academic discipline existed in other periods as well, when the main political characters of the period directly manipulated historical events for their benefit.
* * *
”From the outset our state developed not as monoethnic but as polyethnic. Our state is enormously complex; in fact, it is difficult to imagine a more complex state than the Russian Federation and clearly that is related to a number of challenges. But that is a challenge we must tackle. In order to survive, we must preserve our complexity and resolve the existing contradictions.“
From the outset our state – and this is the historians’ view – developed not as monoethnic but as polyethnic. This is a very important conclusion, given the difficult conditions in which we continue to evolve, taking into account the fact that our state is enormously complex; in fact, it is difficult to imagine a more complex state than the Russian Federation and clearly that is related to a number of challenges. But on the other hand, that is a challenge we must tackle and it is a challenge that will continue to be relevant for any head of the Russian state in the 22nd century and even further in the future because as long as we exist we will remain a complex state. In order to survive, we must preserve our complexity and resolve the existing contradictions.
You mentioned another important matter: our relations, including during the celebrations, with our closest fraternal nations and neighbours, Ukraine and Belarus. I am not talking about economics because fortunately this is not the venue to discuss the price of gas, so if you don’t mind I won’t talk about that today. But I think it would be very desirable to involve our friends from Ukraine and Belarus in the celebrations of the 1150th anniversary of Russia’s statehood. In fact, I think it would be very symbolic, despite the fact that, to be honest, perhaps I'm not perfectly objective in my thinking but I think the influence of politics on the history of these countries is even greater than in the Russian Federation, or shall we say it’s more methodical (laughs). That is, it is always present and we can’t create completely sterile conditions either, but nevertheless we don’t have a situation now when the government issues instructions to historians and historians follow these instructions.
* * *
The study of history has changed a great deal in the last one hundred years. It is clear that if humanity does not perish from a nuclear disaster or something like that, then a thousand years from now the historical knowledge of our age will differ significantly from our grasp of, say, the period of Russia’s emergence. Because now we have the technology to preserve information for decades, centuries or millennia, and this should reduce the number of absolutely diametrically opposed interpretations. I think that is the main trend in the study of history for the foreseeable and even not very foreseeable future.
The point that is absolutely true and with which I would like to voice my absolute agreement is that in order for both statehood and for the study of history to develop there must be consensus points. This does not mean that these points should be forced on anyone through administrative measures, but they should exist as a kind of an ancient road that promotes the development of a nation and of humankind. Moreover, any departure from those points is fraught with very unfortunate consequences, and not for science – that wouldn’t be so bad, but quite practical ones. And I hope that those who hold different views on crucial events will understand our position.
For example, the events of World War II, the Great Patriotic War – these are the kinds of events on which it is crucial to have maximum consensus in society and within the political establishment. Otherwise, this may take us in a very wrong direction.
There are other points of consensus that you mentioned, and I think it's especially important to hear this from historians. They must be present in education but not in academic research because academic texts can also argue for alternative points of view.
But when it comes to educational standards and teaching materials, this is an area where consensus is absolutely necessary. That should be our approach to writing teaching materials. This is one of the most popular subjects among history teachers because it is their biggest headache and the main problem they come across because it creates the worst conflicts with students.
And the second theme, regarding the Internet. You are familiar with my own attitude to the Internet, so naturally I speak in favour of using it to the fullest. But here too it is very important what products we come across.
* * *
Finally, one last point regarding modern history. It is also an absolutely vital topic because 20 years have passed since the establishment of a new Russian state, and this is a considerable length of time. A whole generation had grown up that does not remember the Soviet times, that learns about that period from books, films and textbooks, and which needs to be explained what happened and why.
I think this is particularly important task. Perhaps my current position has helped me understand the importance of this issue because it would be dishonest of any head of state to say that he is indifferent to what kind of impact he leaves on history, what events take place during his term in office, which of his initiatives were successful and which were less so, where he succeeded and where he failed. Therefore, I think that in this respect any head of state should encourage the writing of a good modern history textbook so that it goes hand in hand with the nation’s development, and not 20 or 30 years after the event.
* * *
”It is clear that if humanity does not perish from a nuclear disaster or something like that, then a thousand years from now the historical knowledge of our age will differ significantly from our grasp of, say, the period of Russia’s emergence. Because now we have the technology to preserve information for decades, centuries or millennia, and this should reduce the number of absolutely diametrically opposed interpretations.“
There’s something I wanted to add about Internet resources, since we are talking about them. It is widely believed that the current young generation reads less than, say, the generation of 20 to 30 years ago.
I don’t entirely agree with that; perhaps it is true in terms of the number of pages. But let's think about this: we used to read books, as a rule. Historians also read historical documents. The current generation has the entire visual range at its disposal. It reads texts, watches videos when the video files are attached – people have been making films for over a hundred years. Finally, they can see historical documents as files, which are also available online.
In this sense, they are exposed to much more information per unit of time. That's obvious. This does not mean that they are deeper and better educated than the generation that studied in the Soviet period, but nevertheless they have a different perception, and they must take advantage of that.
* * *
Once again, I would like to endorse what has been said with regard to non-self-deprecating interpretations of our own history. There are fewer of them in historical texts but they are increasingly present in the media and the public mind: we were always like that, we were like that from the outset, it was the Normans who brought us civilisation, and in general everything we have is derivative and dependent on Western European culture.
As we all realise, it was not like that at all, everything was far more complex, especially since from time to time different parts of European civilisation and civilisation in general had an impact on each other, and a particular state or a nation received certain advantages. We must talk about this just as it is necessary to say, and I fully agree with you on this as a lawyer, that our Government, whatever people say and however much we hear that we must establish a “law-governed state” (although it is absolutely true, we must develop it), but it was law-governed from the outset, or at least no worse than European states in terms of the collection of laws, which appeared historically in Russia, and the attitude to the law as a gauge of justice, as the objective truth that was used to resolve various conflicts in society.
* * *
Naturally, I fully agree that the 1150th anniversary of Russia’s statehood should be a celebration of all the inhabitants of our country, of all ethnic groups, because no nation can possibly have its own isolated history, except possibly the island states in Micronesia, where life is the same as it was 10,000 years ago. Everything else consists of interwoven destinies, historical trends, challenges, religions and nations – everything that makes the fabric of human life. That fully applies to everyone but particularly so to our country because it is an exceptionally complex entity, as I have already said. And that is the result of joint development of a large number of peoples.
We must acknowledge the contributions of all peoples to the development of Russia’s statehood (I also strongly agree with this), and in my opinion, it is critical to try to rethink some stereotypes and maybe reject them completely. Not all existing stereotypes, including the Soviet ones – I'm not even talking about Soviet stereotypes – but also pre-Soviet and very different stereotypes only very rarely reflect the actual historical processes. But this is just what history is for and communication between historians, which you were talking about. Because in the end such a synthetic view of history should result from your interaction. Here the state should probably distance itself and not impose particular views, especially since everyone has their own views, and this is precisely the problem. Rather the state should remain dispassionate and just observe the results.
* * *
”The 1150th anniversary of Russia’s statehood should be a celebration of all the inhabitants of our country, of all ethnic groups. Our country is an exceptionally complex entity, and that is the result of joint development of a large number of peoples. We must acknowledge the contributions of all peoples to the development of Russia’s statehood.“
History teachers today face a rather difficult situation. On the one hand, they have opportunities that no researcher or history teacher, whether at school or university, had just 20–25 years ago. On the other hand, the diversity of opportunities, the need to choose a methodological approach as well as an interpretation of historical events, presents a challenge for teachers.
Here, and I will say so directly and hope that no one is offended by my words, a great deal depends on the teachers themselves and on how well trained they are. Because if a person has a good professional foundation, advanced skills in the use of various sources of knowledge and a good classical education, then he or she will most likely be able to teach history in the right way, in the broad sense of the word, providing legal and comparative analysis, as well as other types of analysis. But if the teacher’s education is lacking, and there are such teachers, then we cannot expect that their students will be taught in a serious and inspirational way. Most likely their teaching will be based on a doctrine and impose their own ideas about historical events.
Today, it quite often happens that people who are ignorant but who fervently believe in a particular hypothesis, impose it on their students at schools and universities. That is extremely harmful, especially when it comes to very young people. It would probably be quite difficult to impose something on us, but when people are 12 or 13 years old, they take things in very easily and it is impossible to get this nonsense out of them. That is truly dangerous. The real danger is not in the theoretical beliefs that people have but in the way they are put into practice in real life, which often leads to enormous problems, including extremism, nationalism and other problems our nation faces.
* * *
I think that none of you have any doubt: our country has survived a very difficult period since its inception, and needs consolidation perhaps more than any other – intellectual, economic and national consolidation. Such events [1150th anniversary of Russian statehood] serve this purpose, while at the same time they have enormous significance for research, but the main thing is that they contribute to nation building, and for us this is extremely important today. Therefore, we will celebrate together.