From the International column of the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

"The Armored Train of Memory": An Introductory Note

Gabrielle M. Spiegel, January 2011

Nikolay Koposov, author of the article on the politics of history in post-Soviet Russia is an internationally renowned historian of early modern France. He is the author of eight books, including Historical Concepts and Political Ideas in Russia, XVI–XX Century. (Saint Petersburg: European University Press, 2006); How Historians Think (Moscow: Novoye Literaturnoye Obozrenie, 2001, in Russian); and The Highest Bureaucracy in Seventeenth-Century France (Leningrad: Leningrad University and Sciences, 1990, in Russian); and a co-editor of Down with the Cats’ Massacre! A Critique of the Social Sciences (Moscow,:Novoye Literaturnoye Obozrenie, 2005, in Russian). He has been a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris as well as at the University of Kent, and was a fellow at the Max Planck Institut für Geschichte at Göttingen. He is currently a fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Study in Finland where he is the research director of an interdisciplinary seminar on the theme, “History, Memory, Politics.” He was one of the founders and the first dean of Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a collaborative venture between Saint Petersburg State University and Bard College (New York), a position that he held until last year.

The article addresses the current climate for historical scholarship in Russia as a result of recent initiatives on the part of the Russian government to gain control over the treatment of the past, and in particular of the Soviet past during the “heroic” epoch of opposition to Fascism during World War II. In May 2009, President Dmitri Medvedev created a commission to review “falsifications of history to the detriment of Russia’s interests,” delegating the commission to govern historical debate and to prevent the expression or publication of historical judgments “unfavorable” to Russia. This was followed by a proposed law against the “rehabilitation of Nazism,” making it an offence punishable by fine or up to three years of imprisonment to “violate the historical memory of events which took place during the Second World War.”

The AHA formally protested these developments by sending a letter to President Medvedev affirming the principle of freedom of research and expression and articulating our belief that it can never be in the public interest to violate the fundamental principle of scholarship that a researcher must be able to investigate any aspect of the past and to report without fear what the evidence reveals. As president of the AHA at the time, I signed this letter together with Arnita Jones, then executive director. At the same time, Nikolay Koposov, joining with Pierre Nora and members of “Liberté pour l’Histoire,” issued a public “Statement to the Citizens of Russia, the President and the State Duma” calling for protection of the freedom to conduct historical research and teaching in Russia. Koposov’s article supplies a critical account of the background against which these developments took place. He is also finishing a new book, to be entitled Russian Politics of Memory in Comparative Perspective, 1985–2010 (Moscow: Novoye Literaturnoye Obozrenie, forthcoming, in Russian), which will deal more extensively with the current politics of memory in Russia discussed in the article.

Gabrielle M. Spiegel, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, was president of the AHA in 2008.