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Is history a nightmare?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 15:39 UK time, Thursday, 7 June 2012

Anna Akhmatova, a great Russian poet of the 20th century, once said "I wish you knew from what kind of rubbish grow poems".

The same is true of this entry. It started with me reading a hilarious little item. The Russian educational authorities have released the results of history exams in the country's schools and quotes from them were smuggled onto the net.

Some of them are pure gems and I can't resist sharing them with you.

  • "The Empress Catherine changed her favourites like stockings."
  • "Catherine exercised a policy of enlightened violence."
  • "Before collectivisation everyone starved on his own; after collectivisation all starved together."
  • "In the 40s on behalf of Khrushchev, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico with an ice-breaker."
  • "In the USSR, those who did not go into severe Gulag camps were sent to the less severe pioneer camps."
  • "The enemies of Soviet power were called dividends. Dividend movements grew and enlarged."
  • "After the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn he moved his camp across the United States."
  • "It is easier for literate women it to find a husband, and easier for them to have a baby. Therefore literacy helped solve demographic problems."
  • "In modern Russia it all ended, as usual, in the lawlessness of those in power and a lack of food."

Apart from the fact that these quotations are quite funny, they also show the usual Russian way of treating history as something distant, irrelevant and mythological.

Solzhenitsyn in 1976

Solzhenitsyn is not remembered as a great camper

One only need remember how many times the flow of Russian history has been abruptly broken with a complete denial of the previous epoch to understand where this approach to history comes from.

I am not a royalist, monarchist or imperialist at all, but what was interesting to see during the Diamond Jubilee - or the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the throne - was that sense of history as a living reality.

Once, in Westminster Cathedral, seeing at my feet the entire history of royals buried there, I imagined what kind of responsibility Prince William must feel as a part of that still-living chain.

I was born in the USSR at a time shortly after Joseph Stalin's death. Nikita Khrushchev wiped him out of Soviet history, like Stalin had done before with Lenin and Trotsky, and just like Brezhnev afterwards with Khrushchev himself.

A cynical sense of historical opportunism rather than of a historic purpose was and still is prevalent in my part of the world.

I don't think that the monarchy is the only possible solution to keep this historical perspective unbroken and uncut. Yet it seems that that feeling of owning one's own history rather than renting it is somehow much stronger when embodied in a single person or institution with a successive tradition.

The Queen shortly after her coronation

Queen Elizabeth II shortly after her coronation in 1953, aged 25

Even this tradition is not black and white. Otherwise Shakespeare wouldn't have said, through his Hamlet "The time is out of joint" and James Joyce wouldn't have stated even more radically through Stephen Dedalus that history "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake".

Although the reading of our historical past could differ in interpretations, we are doomed to it like trees are doomed to their roots...

The deeper the roots, the faster the flow through the trunk, the stronger the crown. Or is that another of those same infamous school exam quotes?

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