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Ninety-Five Years of Solitude

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Ninety-Five Years of Solitude


From the Editor Dmitry Butrin’s article is very much in opposition to Boris Kagarlitsky’s “The War that Changed the East,” which is also devoted to the ninety-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. In fact, both are trying to answer the question of what the events taking place ninety-five years ago mean for Russia. We cannot say that this is a polemic or that these articles, on the contrary, complement each other. Rather, they both indicate how little we still understand as to the meaning of the First World War for Russia and the Russian world today and how difficult it is to develop an overall national perspective on the events of ninety-five years ago. Perhaps the fact that these events of such fundamental importance are on the periphery of the sight line of state patriotism and Stalin's communist ideology gives us the chance to begin a careful and impartial examination of the issue. And perhaps it is this work in what is still “no man’s land” that will allow a fresh look at Russia and its place in the world. If the 20th century does not want to end, it is worth searching for what we let slip in its origins. However, this is a separate and very serious issue.

Augusts in Russia wait with a vague premonition of trouble, and, perhaps, it can be said precisely enough when it started – on the morning August 1, 1914. The Great War, as it is called in Europe where it was and remains from that time the main event in the history of the continent, does not even have a single name in Russia. At the state level, it is the First World War – so as to distinguish it from the Second World War. It never became became the Patriotic War, as there is already the Patriotic War of 1812. There is the Great Patriotic War. Simple people remember according to legend, that great-grandfathers went to the “German” war, and returned, as explained in what were still non-party newspapers, from the “imperialist front,” located God knows where, but in no way here.

No one – not the heirs of the Russian Empire, not its defeated, not the old Bolsheviks who turned this war into a civil war, not the Stalinist or post-Stalinist Soviet leadership that focused solely on the main event of Soviet history, the Victory of 1945 – no one was positively interested in what this war meant for Russia. This is the exact opposite of what happened in the rest of the world over the subsequent ninety-five years. To speak of justice in relation to the historic event is ridiculous, although I am certain that from August 1914, Russia finally began a path that separated it from the rest of the world. The Great War, in contrast to the World War that became known as the “second,” became for the greater part of mankind a barrier between two worlds, which outside of Russia were a continuation of one another. In the first prewar or pre-August world, Russia and the rest of the world were a single entity. In the post-August world the entire 20th century resisted the outcome of the Great War, developing it, refuting it, challenging it, amending it, overacting, realizing – to this day this process is not finished, so this world remains historically connected. Russia was catastrophically and terribly unlucky. Its losses were incomparable even with the millions of casualties on the fronts of the Great War. The last person who took an interest in this national tragedy in Russia was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, dreaming that the break could be overcome. Unlike the rest of the world, the First World War does not figure in the national consciousness, nor has it ever. But history does not tolerate blind spots in the chronology: without this war, the Russia that existed up until the fatal August of 1914 cannot exist for Russia today: everything between August 1914 and October 1917 that made the country an essential rather than formal part of the rest of the world falls away.

In Russia, alas, virtually no one fathoms that the rest of the world, in the form that we see it when crossing international borders, is a consequence of the changes that this war brought to Europe, the United States and Australia – and then in an attempt to replay it all in a new world war – to Japan, and Africa, and Latin America – the entire inhabited world.

There is a rational explanation for the strange and near absence of the history of the Great War in Russia, although one is always left with the feeling of understatement. The military outcome for Russia was not so great, and it was not so great for the rest of the world either. Actually, the list of political nations, the foundations of the world’s modern political map, was not changed by it: Germany remained Germany, France remained France. By August 1914 empires had consisted of these political nations. If one looks at the situation outside of Russia – the Hungarians began to live in a nation state that emerged from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – was there much from which everything began? Or that Poland or Ireland, which until 1914 had existed as sort of shadow realities that were not visible on the political map, in 1918 emerged from the shadows. These are cases of days long past. As a political nation, the Hungarians formed long before the First World War. And before 1914, no one doubted the authenticity of Poland and Ireland.

The First World War seemed not to have changed the state ideology in all countries affected by it. Apart from Russia and the Ottoman Empire, everywhere else the difference in the landscape in 1909 from the landscape in 1923 was insignificant. An important exception is the region of central Europe, which as a political phenomenon in its present form emerged precisely as a result of the First World War – like a jack-in-the-box. (Incidentally, the concept of the center between western and eastern Europe was set in motion and really took off after the First World War, before which Germany and Austria-Hungary, and not without reason, felt themselves to be central Europe). However, the increasingly perceived rift today between western and central Europe (and in some measure the almost impenetrable wall of misunderstanding that has arisen between the countries of eastern Europe and Russia) also has its origins in the fact that eastern Europe and its peoples did not participate in the Great War as an independent force. If they had their own vision of what was happening, then, like the Poles, they would more likely have attempted to extract maximum benefit for the nation-building from the collisions between the great powers that had formerly divided their land amongst themselves. For them the war was a clash of the titans that awoke the forces from which they were born. And this formed a very definite view on the “beginning of a new world,” different from the views of the vanquished titans who tasted the bitter victory of the gods and whose fate after 1918 was far from an Olympian calm.

However, this by no means affects the uniqueness of our situation. When this world was born, we were simply busy with our own affairs. Indeed, where did everything come from that became the 20th century? We do not remember. For today’s Russia, everything began with the shot from the Aurora. Everything that came before it was of equal magnitude: the distance from Prince Vladimir to Nicholas II is several hundred pages of a school textbook: the past had long finished, but it was not a past that merged into the present. From the Aurora to the Brandenburg Gate – a take-off, followed by a continuous soaring in the emptiness of the horizon, beyond which stood the rest of the unknown world.

In this rest of the world there is nothing for Russia. The very idea that the modern concept of the welfare state – from public health (coinciding with the ministries in England and France that were created in 1920), pension systems, public education – is the culmination of the battles between 1914-1918 seems strange to those living in Russia. But this was the case. The first total war in the history of mankind demanded that the states, which counted on the entire available mobilization potential in subsequent wars, show care for the future of the human resource in a modern way. In the Great War the major political and economic ideas of the 20th century, which continue to exist for better or worse, were formed and legalized. Understanding the outcome of the war gave rise to countless events – from sports in its modern form to today’s money, which has nothing to do with the prewar gold, from current ideas about family, patriotism and morality to the obligations of the state and human rights.

Of course no event, even on such a scale as the Great War, which in its early stages was dreamed of as the last war, a war to end all wars, was able to remove Russia from the world entirely, all the more so because in the country’s history attempts to detach it from the world and live self-sufficiently had been overcome. The second great war that has been forgotten in Russia’s history is the Crimean War, which had become the greatest event in what was at the time the world’s most important region – Europe. Precisely because of its results, which were hardly comprehended in Russia, the world, which recognized society as its main component, discovered for itself, for example, the notion of mercy. Florence Nightingale, a national hero in England, worked in Sevastopol. The world also discovered the existence of other societies beyond Europe’s borders, such as in the Middle East. For decades the gap grew. The gap of the First World War for Russia became a break. For us it became as equally important and unimportant as the Russo-Japanese War or even the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was too long ago, too unclear. Even more so because there was, in fact, no formal seclusion. Almost all of the social and technological achievements of the postwar era were imported or invented independently by Russia and the Soviet Union, or they were built in the post-Soviet era. In the ninety-five years since August 1914 the delinquencies seem insignificant, inadequate by historical standards.

I think this delusion is proving very costly to us. To import does not mean going through and understanding, and an analogue, even very a good one, is only an analogue. The world is much more than Russia, but this statement sounds like a challenge. This is the case, however, which is why the first thing that one understands outside the country is Russians’ terrible habit of simplifying everything that is not uniquely Russian – from window frames to the legal system. Decades of separate, isolated existence began precisely with the results of the First World War that we refused to process. For Russia, the Great War had perhaps the most devastating consequences when compared to any other country in the world. However self-sufficient Russian civilization was, many of the modern world’s phenomena that are extrinsic to us remain incomprehensible in actual fact, in essence, as a continuous result of an almost never-ending history. Without the history of the Great War, for quite some time we will have to feel like outsiders, endlessly showing the rest of the world that world history ended on May 9, 1945 with our victory, which we will celebrate forever until the end of time. Merely in early August will someone remember that in 1914, the world that we forgot and that we were once an integral part of, flew into a horrible movement and threw us outward. And every August, alas, we are reminded of the world’s lack of understanding as to what is happening with us, and our lack of understanding of what the world thinks about us and why it doesn’t assess us in ways that we would like.

How do we return? The task of remembering is back-breaking. History happens only once. However, time really does heal all wounds, even the most terrible wounds. There is hope only for that, for the future. For memory there is no hope.


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