Recently I took out a subscription to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s pet project, SNOB magazine. Terrible title, I know, but in between the sympathetic profiles of people who stole a lot of money in the '90s and ads for luxury real estate you can find some interesting articles. This month for instance, Alexei Yevdokimov asked a question that had never occurred to me before: Why has nobody written a book or made a film about 1991?
1991 of course was the year that Yeltsin stood on a tank to defend democracy, shortly after which the Soviet Union collapsed, shortly after which Yeltsin spent eight years making a mockery of democracy. Pretty important, then: and yet as Yevdokimov pointed out, that key year, the moment of annihilation of the old world, is a theme that has been almost completely neglected by Russia’s artistic elite.
Various big name Russian authors gave their thoughts on this strange absence. Perhaps the event was too big to grasp, suggested one author, who pointed out that Lev Tolstoy wrote War and Peace sixty years after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Another argued that it was a poor topic to write about- when Yeltsin mounted the tank, the crowds were full of skinheads and morons. Yevdokimov himself went off on an extended riff about how Russia was a “failed state”, because it had not lived up to utopian expectations, or something. A word that kept reoccurring was ‘shame’, and that in turn gave me an idea:
Perhaps Russia’s intellectuals are silent on 1991 because most of them supported Yeltsin in 1991, only to later realize that his kleptocratic regime was a disaster for Russia, which led directly to the election of Putin, who they dislike intensely. Consequently, they do not wish to draw attention to their earlier naivete, which somewhat devalues their currency as Professional Clever People.
Now I don’t know about you, but I like that explanation. It’s pleasingly straightforward and insulting to a class of people who are rather smug. Meanwhile, after reading Yevdokimovs’s piece I asked myself- what strange silences exist in the other cultures I know?
Immediately I thought of Britain’s history curriculum: for in 13 years of schooling I was taught absolutely nothing about the British Empire. Now you might think that the birth of the United States, Australia and Canada, plus Britain’s impact on Africa and Asia is a bit more important than the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws. I would agree. But I left school knowing almost nothing about the former, and rather too much about the latter.
The reasons for this are, I think, shame, embarrassment and confusion on the part of Britain’s intellectual class. In my father’s day, the history of Empire was taught as a heroic narrative of noble Englishmen civilizing ‘the natives’. In the 60s the reverse view- equally simple in its own way- that it was a dastardly period of exploitation and cruelty took hold in the universities. Meanwhile by the time I entered school large numbers of children descended from former colonial subjects were also studying in British classrooms. Confronted with this sensitive and complex situation, Britain’s leading educationalists decided to… ignore the topic completely!
Awesome- thanks guys.
But what silences prevail in the United States? Well, I noticed within weeks of my arrival that American Indians were almost everywhere absent from celebrations of national diversity; that you never saw their spokesmen on TV, and that their vote did not seem to be courted by any major politicians. There are of course books by angry academics denouncing the fate of America’s original inhabitants but that stuff never makes it into the mainstream. There’s no mystery here, of course: monumental guilt creates this silence.
Then there is another silence I have noticed. Readers will recall that during the Bush administration, a great many films, books and articles were produced in which the hapless ex-president was accused of war crimes, violent assaults on the constitution, etc. Water-boarding was singled out as an especially heinous violation of everything that made the United States great.
Perhaps it is. But if so, then surely ordering the execution of a U.S. citizen without trial is also a bit bad. The curious thing is, Bush never did that- rather it was Mr. Obama, the current president who gave the order for a hit on Anwar al Awlaki, the American born spiritual guide to various murderous jihadis. And yet I almost never see denunciations of this death sentence in the U.S. media. Curious that.
What it suggests to me is that much of the outrage over Bush was less an expression of principle, but rather a hysterical and manic expression of partisan politics at its most extreme. Unless the U.S. intelligentsia really does think that dunking some dude’s head in water for a few minutes is worse than shooting another guy in the head.
Hey, you never know.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.