Public History in Russia and Its Failed Struggle Against Putin’s Historical Politics

Public history emerged in Russia in the 2010s as an attempt to resist the increasing monopolization of the past and its interpretations by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Despite public historians’ solid effort, the struggle was lost. What are the field’s pasts, presents – and potential futures?

Let’s imagine, purely for illustration’s sake and at the risk of simplification, the field of public history as a football pitch. Populated by a variety of publics, it consists of two halves, one of which – say, on the left – houses public history practitioners and their projects, and the other – on the right – hosts academic public historians and their analyses of practitioners’ work. Importantly, these two halves are not separated by the halfway line, but rather meet and interact in an expanded center circle. Using public history projects as a source for analysis, academic public historians ideally reciprocate by providing practitioners with critique and support.

That said, public history has different origin stories, depending on the contexts in which it came to be. In the United States and other countries where it began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, its primary aim was to overcome the rigid confines of “traditional” historical science located further to the right from academic public history, just outside the football pitch (the ivory tower metaphor is well-known in this regard). The idea of the “first” public historians was to bring historical knowledge back into the pitch, where publics could engage with it more easily.

In Russia, however, the key task of public history as a strand of academic inquiry, whose establishment began in the early 2010s, had other challenges in its focus. Responding to publics’ interest in and demand for accessible historical knowledge, the emergence of public history in the country was also part of the broader effort to resist the attempts of the Russian authorities, since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, at monopolizing the past and its interpretations.

Talking About Failure

In a recent contribution published by International Public History, the journal of the International Federation for Public History, I discuss with colleagues Vera Dubina, Egor Isaev, Alexandra Kolesnik, Julia Lajus, and Katerina Suverina – all public historians working on Russia (and now mostly outside it), albeit from different disciplinary backgrounds and with different areas of expertise – the past and the present of (public) history in the country.

Seeking to contextualize the emergence of public history programs at Russian universities, the conversation recaps the situation in the fields of history and memory since the 1990s as well as the rise of official historical politics since the 2000s. At the heart of the conversation is Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began a year ago. While the discussion’s participants see the war as a caesura, we also attempt to trace continuities in the regime’s treatment of the past before and after February 2022.

In the decade since the introduction of public history to the Russian academia, as Alexandra Kolesnik (currently an independent scholar) remarks in the discussion, nine relevant university programs have been established across the country. While some of them have since closed, this “infrastructure,” together with the field of truly public history that started to form around it, did a lot to change the inflexible structures of historical knowledge and memory work that had persisted since the Soviet times and that had been maintained and strengthened by Putin’s memory politics.

“Public history failed not only to become mainstream, but also to survive the aggressive historical politics of Russian authorities.”

“It could have done much more,” argues Vera Dubina (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). But, finding itself “between the Scylla (public distrust of historians) and the Charybdis (the aggressive historical politics of the state),” in the end “public history failed not only to become mainstream, but also to survive the aggressive historical politics of Russian authorities.”

To be sure, the above-mentioned distrust of historians, which has its roots in the Soviet Union, and which has characterized Russian society since the 1990s, and the increasing monopolization (and militarization) of the past by the authorities are not the only factors that have contributed to public history’s failure. Another reason, at least as perceived by the discussants, has been the almost complete absence of postcolonial and decolonial optics in the research and practice of (public) historians and memory scholars. What is also relevant for public history, independent mass media (to say nothing of official and pro-state outlets), too, have often ignored “problems of the relationships between Russia and its former colonies as well as between the ‘center’ and ‘the peripheries,’” notes Egor Isaev (University of Bochum).

To speak of a total absence of postcolonial lenses in academic and media discourses before the February-2022 stage of the war would admittedly be an exaggeration. There were, for instance, a handful of scholars working, mostly in English, on postcoloniality in relation to Russia and countries of the former USSR. And yet, how is it possible, the conversation’s participants ask themselves, that 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in a country like Russia, not every or at least every second humanities scholar would be preoccupied with reflections on, analyses of, and working through (post)colonial pasts and presents? This status quo has now begun to transform radically.

Time to Reinvent the Pitch

Finally, the issue of (public) historians’ responsibility for the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine is raised by the discussants. From the perspective of historical science, argues Dubina, it is unproductive to pose this question: “History never happens because it is meant to happen. It happens when a multitude of circumstances, including those beyond human control, come together.”

From the viewpoint of public history, however, it is impossible not to ask ourselves how public has public history been in Russia. Have we contributed too little to the collective effort of resisting the official memory politics? Have we spoken out too rarely and too quietly? Have we all too often prioritized other dimensions of our busy (academic) lives? On the one hand, we feel like we have done a lot, and not only within university walls and inside academic publications, to oppose the growing instrumentalization of history and memory by politicians. On the other hand, our public work could – and should – have been much bolder, louder, and firmer. There is no doubt that we, public historians, share blame for the ongoing war. And we will have to reflect – and act – upon it for years to come.

“As public historians, we should put postcolonial critique and (self-)decolonization efforts into the center of our work. ”

Thinking about the current situation with the (mis)use of history and with public perceptions of the past in Russia, Julia Lajus (University of Oregon) refers to their temporal peculiarity: “when the events and norms of a very distant past return as contemporary, it is as if the time did not pass at all.” She continues to observe: “The more the present with its everyday life is destroyed, the more distant pasts harmfully transpire to the surface of political and social life.” What, then, could be potential futures for history, public history, and memory in the country?

As public historians, we should put postcolonial critique and (self-)decolonization efforts into the center of our work. More broadly, according to Katerina Suverina (Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences), there is an acute “necessity for myself and my colleagues, literally every humanities scholar in the country, to take a critical approach to what they do in their research, what optics they use, and so on.”

Like numerous other spaces in today’s Russia, the football pitch of public history is in ruins. Putin’s regime has turned it into a battlefield secondary to the actual war zone. The official historical politics and its soldiers are doing anything they can think of in order to take full control of the past. We, public historians, are left with the task of waiting for – and working to prepare – the pitch’s reinvention.

[Title image by unknown author via Wikimedia Commons]


Andrei Zavadski

Andrei Zavadski is a Research Associate and Faculty Member (wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the Institute of Art and Material Culture, TU Dortmund University, and an Associate Member of the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. He works at intersections of memory studies, museum studies, public history, and media studies, with a focus on Eastern Europe. (Photo credit: Silke Wawro/TU Dortmund)

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