When a top American politician thinks the US liberated Ukraine in WWII, it’s clear we are no longer on the same page
By Timofey Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club
The fate of the Ukrainian lands is now at the epicenter of the confrontation between Russia and the West. However, there are growing reasons to believe that the current confrontation is only the beginning of a new phase in relations, which have never been particularly friendly. Several factors are contributing to the return of Russia and the West to the usual rut of systemic confrontation that has been going on for centuries: the inability of the Americans and their allies to recognize the decline of their power to influence the fate of the world, the general crisis of the global market economy, and the very independence of Russia, which has remained a challenge for the US and Western Europe.
What form this confrontation will take remains to be seen. It will certainly not be like the Cold War, when East and West were separated by the so-called Iron Curtain. It’s also unlikely to be as elegant as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries: The current times are more prosaic. But we can be relatively sure that an important part of the relationship will be a very different reading of historical events, including those about which there seems to be little factual basis for argument. We already see examples of this at every turn, to a ridiculous degree – like the recent statement by an elderly American politician that the US liberated Ukraine from Nazism during the Second World War.
In a sense, different peoples have different histories, and it is extremely rare for individual events of the past to be viewed identically on different sides of state borders. History is the interpretation of facts, the determination of the significance of each of them, and the placement of specific events in the general path taken by a state throughout its existence. Those who write textbooks and scientific monographs decide for themselves which facts deserve to become historical events. And they do so on the basis of their own considerations, which may be patriotic or subordinated to the current political situation. But in all cases, when history is written independently, it is inevitably state history.
History can unite peoples only in two cases. Firstly, when they are part of a single state-civilization and share a common historical destiny. This is characteristic of multinational countries, and sometimes even persists when new independent states emerge in their place. A common history unites different peoples within Russia, China, India, and the US.
Secondly, history unites when the fundamental interests and values of formally independent powers coincide. In this case, interests come first because they provide a solid material basis for unity in relations with the outside world. The countries of Western Europe, for all their present insignificance in world affairs, are former colonial “empires.” It is therefore important and natural for the French, the British, the Dutch, or the Spanish to develop a common vision of their history and major events in interaction with other nations. They walk this path together, whether to celebrate geographical discoveries or to deal with the crimes of the colonial past.
For Russia and the West, both factors – the unity of political civilization and common interests – have almost never worked. Their confrontation began literally immediately after the Russian state finally gained sovereignty in the late 15th century. Russia was formed as an independent power, separate from the rest of Europe, and its fate has never depended on internal European politics. Russian political civilization is based on the idea of independence, and the greatest threats to this value have always come from the West. There, in turn, the foundation of political culture is based on the idea of its own superiority. In this case, the challenge has always been Russia, which, while recognizing the cultural and technical achievements of the West, has never wanted to turn this into a recognition of its dominance. Several attempts to impose this on Russia ended in dramatic defeats for Western Europeans, after which our power only increased.
Tactical interests sometimes coincided. So when political confrontation was less intense, different interpretations of history took a back seat. There was even a case in the middle of the last century when Russia and some Western countries were fighting a common enemy in the form of Hitler’s Germany. And it even made it possible to create a common version of how we see individual events. Then the interests converged so strongly that a relatively uniform reading of the events of 1939-1945 lasted for a surprisingly long time: right up to the present day. Even then, however, readings of individual details differed, often quite significantly. Especially since Western Europe lost its independence after the Second World War and had to accept the American version of history. This process was not instantaneous: but in our time it is taking on an increasingly definitive form.
Now even partial unity in the understanding of historical events is in the past. We are entering another period, when their interpretation plays an increasingly important role in internal consolidation for both us and the West. Since Russia, like the entire USSR, was the victor in the Second World War, the fundamental importance of this is unquestionable in our history. As much of Europe suffered a humiliating defeat in that war, should we be particularly surprised that attempts at consolidation on the Western side are based on a denial of the significance of the events of 1939-1945? For Americans, the Second World War is important not because fascism was defeated, but because they achieved almost unchallenged world domination. Interpretations of history thus turn out to be utterly divisive as far as contemporary international politics are concerned.
Today, all globally significant civilizations are going through a period of adaptation to profound social, economic and, as a consequence, political changes. There are no ready-made recipes, everyone learns from their own experience. That is why history is important for us as a source of understanding the nature of our statehood. In a sense, it becomes one of the resources of development – giving an understanding of the path of the state through its historical experience. Which means that it will be extremely difficult to share, if even in any way possible. Therefore, we must get used to the fact that – in Russia and in the West – the understanding of even the most well-known facts of European and world history will be different.
The question remains: How important is a shared historical memory for the future of the international order in Europe? The answer to this question is not yet clear. On the one hand, the stability of security relations and respect for each other’s most important interests do not require a close look at the past. On the other hand, denying what is important to neighbors is itself in conflict with their interests and values. Russia has already experienced this with the West’s attempts to impose its version of key events in our history. It is possible, however, that the past will prove to be the only area of public interest where Russia and the West will be unable to reach a compromise in the future. We should be prepared for such a prospect, while recognizing the importance and validity of our vision.
This article was first published by Russia in Global Affairs, translated and edited by the RT team