The past in modern Russia: the profession of the historian and challenges coming from society and politics

On 28 October, the Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies hosted a lecture by historian Ivan Kurilla, titled "The past in modern Russia: the profession of the historian and challenges coming from society and politics."

According to Ivan Kurilla, history is a steady dialogue between the present and the past. Furthermore, history is a special area of social consciousness, as far as a society at different stages of its development creates different questions to the past. Historians constantly rewrite these questions and understand that new questions are the natural phenomenon following social development. Consequently, the emergence of new questions to history does not erode it. Every generation has new questions, therefore it receives new answers. Hence, the “present” is changing as well as the questions coming from this present. However, these changes do not influence the past, as it has already passed.

For instance, at the end of the XIX century all the questions were addressed to the past on behalf of a nation. Later, the questions started to be created by different groups, like women, elderly people, Afro-Americans, children and many others. History has become a mosaic. Toward what does it lead? Is it possible to preserve a united country under a diversity of narratives? According to the professor - yes. The existence of different narratives is a fact over which there is no need to fight. Furthermore, the existence of contradictions - it is a natural phenomenon. Thus, the global and domestic policy should stop fighting for the “correct narrative” and should not be dwelling in the past. Historical narratives are patches which could create one historic patchwork blanket. The main task of the professional historian is to "search for the bad joints" in this patchwork blanket.

The professor noted that the importance of the past in Russia has been growing in recent decades, proportionally to the reduction of the role of the future in setting values and forming directions for the development of state and society. Simultaneously, with this increase of the value of the past, professional historians were manipulated by the interpretations of national history coming from political consultants, PR-specialists, hardworking and professional laymen and mythmakers. However, the professionalism of historians means that they know which questions should not be asked of the past, and how to formulate those questions which it is possible to ask. With the exchange of historians for mythmakers, the restrictions are growing on both sides of the dialogue between the past and the future, because this dialogue is just cut off. That is why Ivan Kurilla attaches great importance to historians’ self-isolation, and their exclusion from the process of historic patchwork blanket creation, because their real role, in his opinion, is to organize the polylogue between the present and the past.

The discussion that followed the seminar raised the issue of professional snobbery as a factor of self-isolation, and the different roles of the historian in the public discourse. It touched upon the possibility of transforming the historian from the sage in an ivory tower to a public intellectual. Ivan Kurilla noticed that only in recent years, historians are attempting to “defend the frontiers of their profession”, trying to maintain the respect for history as a science, and explaining the public why special skills are required to be a historian. At the end of the discussion, the place of history in the education system was considered; in particular the possibility of changing the role of history from a policy tool to an independent area of knowledge.