The following piece contains an important error, which I have highlighted in yellow below. I have corrected the record in a follow-up post.
In the USSR, during certain periods, key individuals were erased from photographs and history when they fell out of favor. Trotsky was perhaps the most famous example. Such attempts to falsify images and textbooks for political ends went further, however. Historical reality itself—not just its interpretation and instruction—needed to bend to the regime’s will. Who knew that such crude reality-bending tools would be used in the United States in the 2010s by the party that credits the end of the Cold War to its hero, Ronald Regan?
The new administration’s erasure of data might be one of its most offensive actions thus far. If lives are not immediately threatened by it, the long term will be a different matter. But how to prove such harm when the time comes? Congressional prohibitions on research into the public health effects of gun violence have been effective so far.
At least there are capable individuals and organizations working to safeguard existing data, as in the case of the Internet Archive and recently erased USDA reports on animal welfare. But how did such a class of reports become too hot for certain politicians to handle?
We once punished tobacco companies for suppressing information, but our public servants actively suppress public health data that doesn’t comport with their worldview. Wouldn’t it make more sense to trust the public and to compete in the marketplace of hard data and ideas? And why not serve the public interest by supporting the research that organizations like the USDA, the CDC, the Department of Energy, and the EPA require to fulfill their missions?
History can be used to justify all manner of circumstances in the present. Want to justify an authoritarian regime in Russia? Referring to Russia’s present conditions can help, but even more effective can be skillful tradition-building that shows Russia’s long line of great authoritarian rulers. And what better place to start than with history teachers in the schools?
The New York Times published a remarkable article yesterday about a new history guide for high school teachers in Russia. After a brief introduction, it offers verbatim excerpts on Stalin, who comes away smelling like roses, despite his massive purges.
Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible from the people in order to get the maximum possible. . . . The result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline. . . .
Thus, just like Chancellor Bismarck who united German lands into a single state by “iron and blood,” Stalin was reinforcing his state by cruelty and mercilessness.
It is quite an intellectual feat to bring Stalin into line with both Peter the Great and Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, such relativism reveals something about the Kremlin’s self-image these days. It would be helpful to see the rest of the guide before drawing broader conclusions. Still, does not the following statement recall some of Putin’s own criticisms of democracy in the United States in recent years?
Political and historical studies show that when they come under similarly serious threats, even “soft” and “flexible” political systems, as a rule, turn more rigid and limit individual rights, as happened in the United States after September 11, 2001.
Yes, history textbooks matter.
This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.