Russia can aptly be called a history-centric country. Russia, or even the so-called “Russian World”—whatever that phrase means—is a place for the never-ending past. Any discussion about the present or future inevitably drowns in a sea of the past.

As the conflict raged in Ukraine, the issues of “who is a real fascist?” and whether it was appropriate to take down a statue of Lenin were debated as fiercely as questions about who shot down the Malaysian airliner. Debates on history have become a substitute for discussions on contemporary politics. And this is nothing new.

Nikolay Karamzin’s early nineteenth century History of the Russian State—Russia’s first major work of historical analysis—opens with a dedication to Emperor Alexander I. Karamzin needed just one phrase to express his conception of national history, one that holds true to this day: “The history of the people belongs to the Tsar.”

Karamzin’s idea can be formulated simply. The state-minded Russian people were worried from early times about their lack of a strong government, so they invited the Varangians to rule over them. Since then, the Russian people have always created a strong centralized state, paid dearly for any moves to deviate from that path, and returned to the same model.

For this state, rulers and warriors are its main heroes, and military victories are its main accomplishments. The saints in our historical pantheon hold swords and wear armor. Take Kuzma Minin, the hero from the seventeenth-century Time of Troubles who is memorialized in a statue on Red Square. Though neither a ruler nor a warrior, the butcher from Nizhny Novgorod was still honored as a symbol of Russian statism by Karamzin and others. This butcher came out on the streets, pledged his support for Prince Pozharsky, and helped restore the Russian state through the force of his will.

This bias toward statism is not the fault of historians, who go about their business as they have always done. It is the wider problem of a society that fails to appreciate the value of a simple person who is not a servant of the state. And in so far as Russia has no history of simple persons, there is no history of Russian freedom. Besides conquerors in shining armor, Russians have no role models, and new generations of Russians are not being offered anything else. Meanwhile, the Russian state keeps creating situations where its people must sacrifice their lives for it. Schools are again named after heroes who laid down their lives for their country on a distant shore.

Karamzin, who created this Russian matrix, must be pleased as he looks down from the heavens. Society shows no sign of wanting to break free from the matrix, which means that grown-up kids will again kill and die, intimidate their country’s neighbors, and forgive the state any atrocities it perpetrates. This will continue to happen because no one told them that things could be any different.

The state knows what kind of history it needs. It needs to present itself as an everlasting, immutable authority that the common folk are ready to die for—and in fact live for. Hence its endless ostentatious exhibitions, theme parks, Soviet armored cars adorned with double-headed eagles that cross Red Square. Hence the monument to the medieval monarch Prince Vladimir, who happens to bear the same name as the nation’s current ruler. Of course this construction has contradictions, but the government has experts in reconciling them, such as Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.

Faced with this, the European-minded segment of the public takes the bait and starts arguing that Ivan the Terrible was a bloody murderer who doesn’t deserve a monument. But this argument misses the point. Ivan the Terrible was a major historical figure, and the merit of erecting a statue in his honor is not the real issue here. The problem is that when we eliminate a tyrant from the history books, we are playing at inventing history ourselves. But we must live with the history that we have.

It’s fairly easy to say that Russian history is complex, beautiful, and terrible at the same time. It is not just a history of foolish people who love a tyrannical state. The most important point is that Russia needs a new pantheon of historical heroes who will not replace the rulers and warriors, but supplement them.

Strange as it may sound, the Russian Orthodox Church is virtually the only institution in the country that fights for the history of Russian freedom (even though this is the same church that propagates the most retrograde ideas and launches blatant attacks against Russian freedom). The news that the church is working on a new school textbook about the religious martyrs of the Stalin era is already alarming the new ideologists of empire, who call the idea “divisive.” But the Church has no other choice: the overwhelming majority of the heroes of Russia’s sacred history are not tsars or warriors but lovers of humankind, heroes who practiced charity and believed in freedom.

We need to personify Russian history, make it more human and understandable. The statues of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible won’t disappear any time soon. They can remain in place while we expend our energy on finding our own alternative heroes. When we look, we find these heroes very much in plain view. Here are three examples.

It may seem strange to mention war in this context, but there is no way of avoiding it. After seeing dwindling numbers of veterans on the streets during the 2012 Victory Day celebrations, several citizens of the city of Tomsk decided to honor the memory of their relatives who fought in World War II. The following year, they walked through the streets holding the portraits of their relatives. People in several other cities joined their project, which was later named the Immortal Regiment.

But in 2015, the Kremlin noticed the initiative and tried to take it under its control by adding it to official parades. The Kremlin didn’t completely succeed, though.

Immortal Regiment in Moscow, 2015. Source: Pavel Bednyakov/Zuma/TASSLast year, the pseudo-historian Nikolay Starikov perfectly described the danger that the Immortal Regiment initiative posed to the new state ideology. He wrote, “Instead of celebrating Russian military might, the unvanquished spirit of our people, the strength of popular unity to forge common victory, you end up celebrating… the dead in this war.… Give it some time, and our descendants who didn’t see the veterans and didn’t experience the holiday atmosphere of May 9 will treat Victory Day as a day of mourning. And then they are just half a step away from asking questions like “Did we really need this war?” And his key point: “Instead of being celebrated as a day of unity and victory, this holiday is fragmenting into millions of private sorrows.”

Starikov is right in all respects. The Immortal Regiment fulfills a need for living, personified, and personal history. It’s also a reflection on Russia’s terrible twentieth century and a debate between two lessons learned from the war: the “Never again” and the “We can repeat it.” “We can repeat it” is what the state needs and what these parades are for. But the fact that people still clearly say “Never again” inspires some optimism.
The second alternative hero, Yefrosinya Kersnovskaya was a girl from Odessa who fled east to Bessarabia during the Russian Civil War. When the Soviet Union took over Bessarabia in 1940, Kersnovskaya was thrown out of her house and sent to Siberia. What happened next is a depressingly familiar story: the nightmare of labor camps, watchtowers, ever-present death set against a struggle to survive.

She did survive and later in life achieved something extraordinary. Kersnovskaya didn’t write a book about her experiences—she drew one. A horrible Russian comic strip with pictures that were simple and therefore twice as believable.

She wasn’t a writer and wasn’t trying to accomplish a literary goal. Hers was a purely human triumph. Through her drawings, Kersnovskaya proved that she consciously remained human and lived as a human being in places where it’s almost impossible to survive.

She writes very plainly, her vocabulary is poor, and stylistic errors abound. But the message is as loud and clear as a gunshot. Different versions of the book can be found on the website, and have been published by the GULAG Museum. They should actually be acquired by every school library. Perhaps if her drawings were printed on cheaper paper and plastered on school walls, the country would change faster and for the better.

Our third story is from Tatarstan and is of a Robin Hood who didn’t rob the rich.

Asgat Galimzyanov grew up in a Tatar village. After the war, his family was starving, and he went to the regional capital of Kazan to earn money. He was a simple, uneducated man and he ended up in a job carting refuse to a dump.

A village man who remembered a childhood of hunger, Galimzyanov couldn’t bear to see watermelon rinds and rotten vegetables go to the dump. So he bought an abandoned barracks and dug a basement underneath. He built a special contraption that allowed him to lower feed into the basement and hoist up manure. He then started rearing pigs in secret (apparently, Islam was not so respected in Tatarstan in the Soviet era).

Obviously, his operation was discovered at some point, and he was prosecuted. But then an incredible thing happened. The workers in several orphanages spoke up in his defense. It turned out that he had used most of the revenues from his shadow business to help the orphanages. He bought fruit and gave it to the children. He donated over 80 cars and buses to the orphanages. All of this happened in an era when such activity was almost impossible—in the 1970s.

Incredibly, the criminal case against him was closed. Even more incredibly, he was given a plot of land and allowed to own a herd of 300 oxen. So, he continued doing his work.

Galimzyanov died in January 2016. Tatarstan’s veteran leader Mintimer Shaimiev knew Galimzyanov and respected him a great deal, and had a statue erected in his honor in Kazan while he was still alive. The monument had no name plaque and was simply called the Monument to the Benefactor. It featured a cart, a handful of kids, and a driver—Galimzyanov himself.

That’s how they do it in Kazan. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the communist parliamentarian Valery Rashkin asked the mayor to put up a statue to commemorate the notorious dead militia leader Arsen Pavlov, better known by his nom de guerre Motorola, one of the heads of the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. “The monument to Arsen should be a reminder in Moscow for every one of us,” said Rashkin.

Rashkin has a point. The statue to this criminalized figure would be an eyesore reminding us of the kind of people Russia produces. What about the country’s real heroes? We don’t notice them, and then we affect surprise at the way Russia is still a stepmother to her native sons and frightens the rest of the world.

  • Ivan Davydov