29 April 2014

The Importance of Knowing History

My second reading of David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb cleared up a matter that had me puzzled for a number of years. You see, when I was in college during the Cold War, people felt threatened and scared by the Soviet Union. I kept telling them that their fear was misplaced because the Soviet Union would collapse under its own weight. My high school and college studies convinced me that the Soviet economy was unsustainable. The country, moreover, was ringed by US bases and its naval installations were all boxed in by narrow passages out into the ocean. I repeated this opinion often enough that there must be many dozens of people who heard it.

So far, so good. In an economy in which large, valuable fish catches in the Pacific rotted and were lost just because the supervisors had to wait for an order from Moscow to ship them, an order which came too late, and in which steel was produced, not in response to the needs of industry, but to orders from central planners, and in which the mandate for large cotton crops did incredible environmental damage such as drying up the world's largest lake, nothing worked as it should. The people were overworked and very poor. It is a wonder the system lasted as long as it did. Remnick says that people were comfortable with their "equality in poverty."

That said, I never expected to see the Soviet Union to collapse in my lifetime. And yet, here we are, closing in on 25 years after it disappeared. What other factor was at work that was so powerful that I had overlooked? The main theme of Lenin's Tomb is the return of history to the Russian people. Until the election of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev as General Secretary, the entire Communist apparat kept all the history, especially the Red Terror under Lenin and the Great Terror under Stalin, secret, while instead teaching propaganda: nothing but good and heroism in the Great War against fascist Germany, praise of Stalin, and a rosy socialist future. Gorbachev was determined to improve the socialist model and that meant, in his opinion, opening up the truth of the history of 20th-century Russia: the concentration camps, the disappearances, the killing of some 50,000,000 Soviet citizens by Lenin but mostly by Stalin, the luxurious life of the party officials and KGB, and the brutal repression of independence movements in Eastern Europe. As soon as the public began to learn about the history of their country, the power and purpose of the Communist party began to unravel. The process proved unstoppable and the Communist movement is now history.

Note that the power of the Communist party depended on depriving the citizens of knowing their history. Here was the other factor I had not taken into account. The truth of the past, once known, accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and blindsided me with its lighting speed. I just wasn't thinking about that.

I find it a little alarming that we Americans do not care one whit about knowing our history. We find  it boring because it is poorly taught (as a bunch of facts instead of as a story). We may know the episodes of our favorite TV program by heart, or collect trivia about sports statistics, but history? Not on your life. But when you consider what happened to Russia, it becomes evident that not knowing our history allows us to be manipulated. I will mention two examples. In southern states children are often taught that the plantation system was a benevolent institution for the slaves and that the "War Between the States" (never the Civil War) was over states' rights and not over abolition of slavery. This is a highly skewed take on history which does nothing to help us resolve the many lingering effects that horrendous conflict has on our society. The other example is the current "Tea Party" movement. The name, of course, is taken from the famous Boston Tea Party. Because we the people do not know history, we fall in to the idea that all taxation is bad and anti-American and that taxation per se caused the American Revolution. The truth, however, is that the Boston Tea Party was a protest against taxation without representation. The obvious corollary is that taxation by a body we are represented in is legitimate. But since we don't know this, we acquiesce in this mindless, uncivil, propaganda ostensibly offering all of us relief on taxes, but in fact working to undo the progressive taxation which made the 1950's and 60's so prosperous and created a large middle class. If we don't know that about our history, we cannot counter the propaganda of the "Tea Party."

I would suggest that it would be better for us to know our history well rather than become the victims of propaganda. Let the collapse of the Soviet Union be a cautionary tale for us.

In my Angela series, Mr Romano, the history teacher, strives to help his students love their country more than the politicians (or most other people) do by understanding our history and drawing on our many strong and positive points. The books are available at www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid


  1. Great post... What's your predictions about Russia now?

  2. Russia will be more dangerous than before, because it feels threatened and continues to be poor. Putin's behavior is more like that of a Tsar than that of a democratic leader. At present we are seeing a very Slavic push for a "Greater Russia" to bring the Russians the Soviet Union planted in neighboring countries into Russia by annexing territories where Russians outnumber Ukranians, Moldavans, Georgians, etc.

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