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Alisa Ganieva and Russian understanding of history

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Ideology and propaganda in Russia during the Soviet era looked to the future and the dream of socialism’s ultimate triumph. Today, however, the glorious past has taken over the role of symbolic capital for the powers that be.

By Ingunn Lunde, professor of Russian

Translated by Rolf Gooderham

“An author has difficulties competing with reality – it’s more absurd than anything you can imagine,” author Alisa Ganieva commented recently.

While Russian authors in the 1990s took little part in social debate – particularly compared with the Soviet era and the 19th century – both writers and texts have become more politically and socially engaged in the past couple of decades. One of these authors is Ganieva, who has published four novels by the age of 34. Although part of a shift towards the political in Russian literature, she nevertheless occupies a distinctive place among contemporary writers. While historical novels or future utopias have been favoured genres for criticising society or the powerful, and for creating nationalistic and patriotic literature, Ganieva has focused consistently on today’s Russia and on her own background from Dagestan in the northern Caucasus.

She has lived and worked in Moscow since 2003. In addition to her literary authorship, she is a critic, editor, essayist and communicator of literature. She is also a human rights activist, speaking worldwide and participating in debates and demonstrations at home.

Ganieva made her literary debut in 2010 with Salam, Dalgat!, a collection of texts on urban Dagestani youth which was published under the male pseudonym Gulla Khirachev. The book won the Debut prize for young authors, and her real identity was first revealed at the award ceremony.

Her novel The Mountain and the Wall appeared in 2012. We meet Sjamil, a young unemployed Dagestani who tries to work as a journalist in a turbulent and divided Dagestan. Rumours that a Russian wall is under construction highlight border issues and pro-Islamic threats. A depiction of religious and ethnic diversity also occupies a central place. Together with social deprivation, corruption and general deterioration, this paints a bleak but vivid picture of that period in the north Caucasus.

This was followed in 2015 by Bride and Groom, which concerns Marat and Patya, two young Dagestanis who have both returned to their village after spending many years in Moscow. An intense love story plays out against a background of cultural, ethnic and linguistic encounters and collisions, where the urban Russian metropolitan atmosphere meets a Dagestan split between tradition and modernity.

In Offended Sensibilities (2018), her latest novel, Ganieva turns her gaze from Dagestan to the Russian provinces and addresses incendiary political topics even more clearly than before.

Let us take a closer look at one of these, the current Russian remembrance culture and history policy. During a harrowing scene in the novel, one of the central characters – the widow of a murdered civil servant – is subject to an unannounced search of her home. The head teacher of a school, she is suspected of being an accomplice of one of her subordinates who has been arrested and accused of falsifying history. In a school play, he has presented the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact) as “criminal” and “a mistake”.

The secret codicil to this agreement split large parts of eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of interest. Official acknowledgement of this codicil by Russia in 1989 was one of the high points of the glasnost era. The document from the Supreme Soviet at the time stated that: “a recognition of the complex and contentious past is part of the perestroika process”.

History policy in Russia has taken other paths today. Since the 2000s in particular, we have seen a clear shift in official attitudes to the past, with a number of government initiatives to formulate a new authoritative understanding of earlier times.

President Dmitry Medvedev appointed a commission in 2009 which was to counteract efforts to falsify history “at the expense of Russia’s interests”. This body was active until 2012.

In 2013, President Vladimir Putin launched the idea of a “unified history textbook” for schools – a presentation which would be free of ambivalence. This concept was a response to a number of controversies during the preceding decade over various history books used in schools and their presentation of Russia’s totalitarian past.

That debate reached a climax when a new series of school textbooks was published in 2007. They put the emphasis on “positive results” and “necessary measures”, and were silent on or trivialised the victims of Stalin’s crimes.

Responses to these texts from historians, journalists and social scientists were extremely mixed, and ranged from active support to open letters of protest. After a few years of work on the project for a “unified history textbook”, a new common “historical-cultural standard” has now been established as the basis for new teaching materials in several subject and “put an end to the unreasonable intellectual disputes of the 1990s, the meaningless ‘diversity’ in perceptions of the country’s history and the assertive ideologicalised interpretation of the most important historical events,” as culture minister Vladimir Medinsky put it.

The official remembrance policy is precisely not about diversity of views or differing interpretations, but emphasises continuity, stability, unity and reconciliation. One of the starkest examples is Russia – My History, the wide-ranging multimedia exhibition park in Moscow. This presents the story of the past entirely without ambiguities, in the form of simple truths which highlight development trends for Russia and play down, suppress or trivialise the dark sides.

This finds expression not least in the memory of the Second World War, which occupies a key place both in the exhibition park and in today’s remembrance policy as a whole. Heroic stories of victory and triumph overshadow not only sacrifice and suffering, but also more unclarified and complex aspects of the war’s course and key players.

An example is the scene mentioned above from Ganieva’s latest novel. It refers to section 354 of the Russian penal code – a supplement from 2014 – which prohibits “conscious dissemination of false information about the Soviet Union’s role during the Second World War”. This is one of a number of new legislative enactments which restrict freedom of expression and assembly in Russia. The common denominator for these and for many other new laws are their vague formulation and their applicability to a number of circumstances. Ganieva’s novel provides examples of that.

Many of Russia’s contemporary authors express themselves, both in their art and otherwise, on subjects such as national identity, history and tradition, politics and social life. When literature gets to grips with such subjects, the room for reflection is often greater than in the public debate. That makes it an important arena for social discussion in a media reality under ever greater pressure. And perhaps it not only “competes” with reality, as Ganieva puts it, but also expands the range of interpretations – so that we can see reality with new eyes.

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