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At the beginning of summer, Vladimir Putin, who generally loves to talk about history, once again gave a monologue on this topic. At a meeting with entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists, the president stated that Emperor Peter the Great waged war against Sweden not to “seize” its territories, but to “regain” his own. “It also fell to us to return and strengthen,” Putin concluded with a smirk.
Perhaps you were not interested in the president’s historical views all these years. So what if Putin considers the collapse of the USSR a “tragedy” and finds someone to blame for this tragedy (such as Lenin or Mikhail Gorbachev)? In February 2022, it became clear how important these views are. An authoritarian leader, who is very concerned about the historical “mistakes” of the past, has taken to “correcting” them with artillery, tanks and blood.
This is a real tragedy. And for all these months, to some extent, we have been trying to understand his logic, in order to somehow explain to ourselves the madness of what is happening. I also think a lot about this – not only in the context of Putin’s own logic, but also in the context of the logic of history. In my letter today, I will tell you that Putin is not alone in this logic. We look at history in a similar way (such an era). And I will also show how ideas about correcting the “mistakes” of the past are popular in Russian society – and what role “bad” science fiction literature played in this.
There are indeed many grievances towards Vladimir Putin regarding Russian history in the past decades. Since the beginning of the 20th century, disaster has followed upon disaster and according to the president’s statements, numerous historical mistakes are to blame.
Let’s start with the revolution of 1917. This “tragic event” led to “a collapse, to the disintegration of a great country”. The Soviet Union appeared, but when developing principles of state building, Vladimir Lenin failed “from the standpoint of the fate of Russian’s” – which was “not just a mistake”, but “much worse”. In addition, Lenin made a mistake when he acted as the “architect” of Ukraine and “squeezed” Donbass into it.
After Lenin, Nikita Khrushchev made a mistake – in the mid-fifties, he “for some reason took Crimea away from Russia” and “gave it to Ukraine”. Then the USSR collapsed altogether. Lenin was primarily responsible for this, of course, having made a mistake from the very beginning. But his followers were no better, according to Putin: Mikhail Gorbachev could not “change the system”, as a result of which “under the careful guidance” of the CPSU, “one of the largest catastrophes of the 20th century” occurred – the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
All the “mistakes” listed by Putin he tries to “correct” to some extent. The culmination of this process was the current war, and it cannot be said that it is the first attempt by Putin to patch up history.
Yet, until February 24th, the Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed like pure fantasy to many. Let’s talk about fantasy.
How to make Russia great again?
Recipe from Science Fiction Writers
In the world of science fiction literature, there has long existed a particular subgenre called “time travel“. It first appeared in the 19th century, and one of the earliest science fiction novels in this subgenre is considered to be Mark Twain’s book “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, written in 1889.
If very briefly, its plot is as follows. An American of the late 19th century suddenly finds himself (hence the subgenre and its name) in 6th century Britain, i.e. in the time of King Arthur. There he tries to change the society to resemble modern America.
About thirty years ago, Soviet writers started to write novels about “time travelers”, meaning travelers to the past who try to change something with its help. Books about time travelers were eagerly read in the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, this literature did not become less in demand. On the contrary, it entered a new phase of popularity. Novels by Andrey Velichko, Roman Zlotnikov, German Romanov, Alexey Makhrov and other writers appeared on the shelves of bookstores (if you have never heard of “time travel” before, these names are unlikely to mean anything to you).
Fans of “light” adventure literature bought their books actively – and still buy them. So actively that literary critic Vladimir Laryonov wrote: “The Russian reader has long been engulfed by a wave of ‘time-travel’ fiction. This storm…has not subsided for many years. A revisionist rewriting of the past with the help of “Cossacks” from the present has become a constant and beloved pastime for a whole cohort of literary craftsmen… A significant portion of domestic readers (young and not so young) literally thirst for any victories, even if they are fictional victories in a made-up past.”
In turn, Leonid Fishman – a political scientist and researcher of modern Russian history – commented on Russian literary tastes in the mid-2000s: “The loss of our country’s status as a great power with all its known consequences caused a wave of a kind of revanchism and revisionism in domestic science fiction since the early 1990s. The cultural values imposed on Russia were being revised. Numerous alternative versions of history were created in which Russia (Russia-Eurasia) was a great power.”
What do “numerous alternative versions of history” represent in “time-travel” literature? Generally, the plots of these books do not shine with diversity. Typically, a contemporary person accidentally or intentionally travels to the past, often inhabiting someone: an ordinary person, a famous military leader (such as Andrei Kolchak), or even a ruler (Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin, or Adolf Hitler). Using their knowledge of the time they have travelled to, as well as all modern skills, the hero changes the course of history, corrects the mistakes of humanity, and accelerates scientific development. Thanks to the time-traveling heroes, the USSR or imperial Russia quickly defeat not only real historical enemies (Nazi Germany), but also potential enemies – the USA and Great Britain. And, of course, they achieve global domination.
For example, the plot of one of the most absurd “time travel” books is “Comrade Fuhrer” by German Romanov, in which all revanchist stereotypes can be found. In October 1993, a military man named Andrey joins the opponents of President Boris Yeltsin. He is convinced that the president’s reforms “have exhausted everyone” because they have “impoverished the people completely.” Whether due to injury or a mysterious time rift (it is not entirely clear from the text), Andrey is “thrown back” several decades – and his mind ends up in the body of Adolf Hitler.
The Second World War has not yet begun, and the hero decides to prevent Germany from attacking the USSR in order to “help Stalin”. In trying to come up with a way to do this, Andrey comes to the understandable conclusion of any revanchist: “I need to make it so that the Germans clash to death with the English. The more blood they shed on each other, the better. We should also somehow weaken the Americans because then they won’t be able to become a superpower and dictate their terms to the whole world!”
Andrey carries out his ambitious plan throughout two volumes (the second part is called “Comrade Hitler. Hang Churchill”). The plan works: America and England are defeated, “the dollar and the pound have collapsed”, and the “reichsmark and the chervonets are still considered the most reliable currency everywhere”.
In Romanov’s duology, as well as in many other “time travel” novels, it is easy to notice the author’s imperialistic mood. And genre writers, in general, do not hide this mood. For example, Ilya Te, who wrote another time travel novel, “Absolute Alternative”, directly says: “Personally, I dream of the Third Rome. I hope I am still a patriot, not a revanchist”.
Ilya believes that “Russian society is suffering” not because of “the resource-based economy” or “Putin’s authoritarianism,” but because of “disrespect for their own country.” A typical “time traveler” hero challenges this disease by creating a new version of the world that seems right and just to him (including towards himself).
Authors of books about “time travelers” really love the Soviet period and, in particular, the years of the Great Patriotic War. It would seem that in this war, the Union emerged victorious and there is nothing to correct. But in reality, there is something to correct. “Although we won, still ‘we should have done it differently, we should have done it better somehow.’ Reach the Atlantic. Win with little bloodshed and on enemy territory. This is like a written confirmation of our own deep conviction: ‘Yes, we know how to fight,'” explains writer Sergei Lukyanenko.
This is the secret to the success of “time-travel” literature. For many, eliminating “mistakes” of the past for the illusion of building a beautiful present is more understandable and closer than projects of a beautiful future, which they still have to live to see. While greatness is something they want right here, right now, instead of some time later. And “time-travel” literature caters to this demand.
“Time travel” is a “low” subgenre that even science fiction fans often look down upon. But like any popular phenomenon, it can be seen as an indicative symptom to talk about much more serious things.
For example, about the presentist view of history, which is characteristic not only of Vladimir Putin but all of us.
What time are we living in?
And what does memory and duty have to do with it?
The term “presentism” was coined by the French historian François Hartog to describe the feeling of history among modern people.
Yes, humanity has felt it differently throughout different epochs. Before the beginning of the modern period (that is, before the 17th century), the theory of “history as a teacher” dominated. The main orientation, the golden age, was in the past. In order to determine how to act in the present, people relied on history: examples from the past pointed out the right path, warned against mistakes.
In the modern era, the focus has become the future. Great discoveries were made and progress was made in its name. In the name of the future, people were even willing to sacrifice the present – for example, during revolutions. Blood and chaos are frightening, but everything is justified by the great goal ahead.
The presenter’s view of history, which dominates the world today, makes the present the main time. Explaining Artog’s theory, another historian, German Chris Lorenz, writes that the present has become the “key category for understanding oneself” in our days, while the past and the future are “extensions of the present.” “Now we all inhabit a new, one-dimensional territory of memory,” Lorenz comments.
By the way, memory is one of the key concepts of presentism. It was the processes (including legal ones) associated with the memory of the Holocaust and postcolonial memory that pushed historian Arto to develop his theory. And memory here is not textbooks or historical monographs. Memory is an emotional experience, it requires a response: condemnation and punishment of the guilty, assistance to the victims. Thus, through memory, the historical event seems to continue to this day, and we all become its contemporaries and accomplices.
Technologies have played a role in this. For example, modern interactive museums (which Lorenz calls “museums of experience”) and virtual reality helmets allow you to literally feel the events of the past. At the same time, the “otherness of the past and its rupture with the present,” important before the era of presentism, are reinterpreted. “Memory always strives for their (past and present. – Ed) similarity and continuity,” writes Lorenz.
It logically follows from this that a person who has experienced some trauma in the past (such as the Holocaust) becomes the main authority on questions about that past, replacing the historian in this sense, according to Artogu. And the idea of “history will judge” is replaced by the idea that “history must be dealt with in court”: thus, in the late 20th century, trials were held in France against collaborators of the Second World War, which helped people “correct past injustices.”
Another key concept of presentism is the duty, which is the “responsibility and obligation to remember“. According to Artog’s theory, “the present is concerned with searching for its roots and noticeably obsessed with memory”. It becomes not only a powerful emotional experience, but also an important element in forming identity – that is, the present absorbs the past, making it a part of itself.
This is manifested both in private life and in politics. The present time is not enough to simply consist of a chain of events – it wants to immediately secure a place in history. Therefore, modern politicians “consciously build their biography as a chain of” historical “performances and actions.”
In the present, which becomes history in real time mode, there is no longer a place for the image of a beautiful future. Therefore, presentism is characterized by a special understanding of this future – “not as promises (as in modern, progressive times), but as” threats “, continues historian Laurenz. The future is not the result of progress, but the time of impending disasters. And “these catastrophes (climate, environmental, nuclear, genetic) are already present in the present, simultaneously global and irreversible,” notes Laurenz.
In Russia, the connection between politics and history is even stronger. As Russian historian Ivan Kurilla writes, the country generally has “a very poorly developed language in which one can talk about politics,” so conversations about politics are replaced by conversations about history.
“If we want to express someone’s political views and say that this person is a liberal or a conservative, in the Russian context it will not be very clear what we mean. But if we define their attitude towards Stalin, then this will be a very clear label. The same goes for their attitude towards the cursed or happy nineties,” Kurilla gives an example.
When explaining their decisions, Russian politicians also resort not to political arguments, but to historical references. In other words, Vladimir Putin’s quote about Peter the Great at the beginning of this text (and his other “historical” speeches) is very much in line with the concept of presentism. The Russian president speaks about his actions not in the context of political logic or pragmatic motives (such as a desire to seize new fertile lands of a neighboring state), but in the context of historical analogies.
Peter “restored and strengthened,” we remember this, so for us “almost nothing has changed.” This also “fell” to our share. Therefore, it is our duty to act in the same way.
How Putin managed to travel to the past
And why does the future now seem impossible?
In short, “time travel” novels appear to be a natural phenomenon in the era of presentism. And Vladimir Putin is not a unique hero of this era, being a “time-traveler” president.
Putin cannot literally go back in time to “correct” all historical “mistakes” for objective reasons. But he doesn’t need to, he is already there in presentist logic. And his position as head of state gives him the ability to correct history with weapons and blood. So he is fighting not only with neighboring countries, but also with the “empire of lies” – the United States and NATO. This further aligns Putin with the heroes of time-travel fiction – if he’s going to intervene, he’ll do it to the end.
Vladimir Putin’s actions are the quintessence of the actions of a politician of the presentist era who wants to become a character in a history textbook here and now. Perhaps no other contemporary politician builds “their biography as a chain of ‘historical’ speeches and deeds” like the Russian president.
And he “judges” history, not only giving evaluations to his predecessors but also acting as their advocate. For example, Putin’s article “75th anniversary of the Great Victory: shared responsibility before history and the future,” written in 2020, is practically a ready-made advocacy speech in a virtual court defending Joseph Stalin and his subordinates who concluded the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And at the same time, it is an accusatory speech against Great Britain and European countries.
The Russian authorities are feverishly looking for the roots of their statehood in the past, infecting the present completely with it. This is one of the reasons why it is now so difficult to imagine any future.
Any hot conflict is the extreme point, critical and almost unimaginable for modern civilization. Because every war is an enemy of the future, both for the aggressor and for its victim.
But for a hero who gets transported to the present era, there is nothing impossible in it. There were wars in the past, so “we can repeat it.” In a sense, the war never ended – it was always there, living together with us until today, compressing time into “here and now.”
“Time travelers” who are afraid of the future find it easy and comfortable to live in such an eternal “here and now.” This is their main historical mistake.