No Comment — September 19, 2008, 1:19 pm

The History We Need

“The future is certain. Only the past is difficult to predict.” So went one of the Soviet era’s most revealing jokes, one of which the Stanford historian and poet Robert Conquest was particularly enamored. The totalitarian societies of the twentieth century were united in their passion for airbrushing history. They recognized, to the great misery of the human race, the potency of having just the right history–the history that would propel a country forward along the tracks that they so busily laid. And as WWII ended, some of the West’s sharpest minds recognized the fundamental importance of this historiography with a mission—it plays a focal role in the great burst of novels and essays that George Orwell emitted as the war years ended, and was also remarked upon by figures as diverse as Victor Klemperer and Theodor Adorno.

As we seek to understand the transformations at work in the territory of what was once the Soviet Union, therefore, the way these countries understand their own history is of critical importance. Leon Aron, writing in the current issue of The New Republic, has delivered a masterful and very important essay that undertakes just this. He starts his essay by examining a high-school history textbook. Here’s how the author of one chapter in this Putin-endorsed work of iconography describes his project:

You may ooze bile but you will teach the children by those books that you will be given and in the way that is needed by Russia. And as to the noble nonsense that you carry in your misshapen goateed heads, either it will be ventilated out of them or you yourself will be ventilated out of teaching…. It is impossible to let some Russophobe shit-stinker (govnyuk), or just any amoral type, teach Russian history. It is necessary to clear the filth, and if it does not work, then clear it by force.

Aron proceeds to walk us though the pages of this vital textbook. Not surprisingly the Soviet Union left a glorious historical legacy filled with accomplishments in the economy, science, and the arts, and on the world stage. Its worst abuses, notably the purges and military escapades that cost millions of lives, are airbrushed into oblivion. The Putin vision is history is guided by a primary axiom, “although there were ‘mistakes’ and ‘dark spots,’ what mattered was the survival and strengthening of the state–by whatever means necessary. And, by that standard, the Soviet Union was a glittering success, and the costs were justified–especially, as we have already seen, since the main victims of Stalinism were the elite, not the ordinary people.”

Putin’s historiographers are busily building a bridge to the past. This is necessary to forming a state, as any political scientist would tell us. But how that past is defined is a matter of great importance because it points to the future that these “architects of human souls” are trying to construct. With typical prescience, Leon Aron has shone a light exactly where it is most needed.

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

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I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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