History as a prostitute

Archivists preserve facts. Historiographers record them. Historians explain what the facts mean. And then ideologues barge in, turning history into a prostitute and themselves into pimps.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III. Note the twisted, crippled body

History begins to service all comers on a Procrustean bed. Facts that can’t be squeezed into the ideology are either lopped off or stretched to bizarre interpretations. Then history continues to put out for generation after generation. Eventually no one remembers its dissipated past.

Examples of this worldwide prostitution could fill many thick volumes. For brevity’s sake I’ll cite only three, one from England, two from Russia.

The English example involves William Shakespeare, whose libellous portrayal of Richard III became historical orthodoxy and has persisted in that capacity ever since.

In 1485, Richard lost his battle and his life to the man who thus became Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England. Writing his Richard III drama during the reign of Henry’s granddaughter, Shakespeare was working to what the Soviets later called ‘social order’.

The order was twofold: first to besmirch Richard, then to glorify Henry, whose actual rights to succession were rather tenuous. The first objective was achieved by depicting Richard as an evil hunchback who murdered those little princes in the Tower. Both parts were mendacious.

Richard had one shoulder slightly higher than the other, that’s all. A real hunchback wouldn’t have been able to wield a heavy 15th century sword with the athletic agility required to stay alive in many battles, which Richard did.

As to the two young sons of Edward IV murdered in the Tower of London, there isn’t a shred of evidence to connect Richard with that crime. Shakespeare based his play on Sir Thomas More’s account that solely relied on cui bono conjecture.

Richard was supposed to have murdered his two nephews because their claim to the throne was stronger than his. By the same logic, Henry could have been indicted with even greater justification: his claim was much shakier than Richard’s.    

Let’s just say that, if that charge were brought in today’s England, the CPS wouldn’t even open the case. And, if by some oversight the flimsy case did reach the court, the jury would take minutes to acquit.

The second objective, glorifying Henry, was achieved in the last scene, where Shakespeare produced a soliloquy whose lickspittle sycophancy wouldn’t have been out of place in Stalin’s Russia.

However, in spite of its ideologically inspired falsehood, Shakespeare’s version of Richard has been taught to schoolchildren ever since. A message to our Department of Education: children would do better learning their history from historians, not playwrights, even those of genius.

Or for that matter from novelists, which gets me to the way the Russians learn about an event misleadingly called the Patriotic War of 1812. The novelist in question is Leo Tolstoy, who in War and Peace put forth a version of history that falls somewhere between ignorant and mendacious.

Tolstoy’s ideology wasn’t politically motivated, but it was none the weaker for it. In common with most great Russian writers of that period (Chekhov being one notable exception), he glorified the sainted Russian peasant as the embodiment of the nation’s unmatched spiritual strength.

Hence he portrayed Field-Marshal Kutuzov, a French-speaking aristocrat, as a leader who derived his genius from the soil and soul of Russia. Napoleon, by contrast, is depicted as a megalomaniac nincompoop. In fact, Napoleon was one of history’s best generals, who defeated Kutuzov in every battle they fought, from Austerlitz to Borodino.

Tolstoy lovingly shows Kutuzov dozing off during the pre-Borodino military council at which the order of battle was determined. To Tolstoy, Kutuzov derived his strength from an extrasensory link with Russia’s grassroots, not from any strategic considerations. To any modern court-martial, such somnolence would be grounds for a guilty verdict, especially since the battle was lost and so, consequently, was Moscow.

Above all, the moniker ‘Patriotic’ is a misnomer, and in fact the 1812 war didn’t acquire it until decades later. Tolstoy writes that the sainted Russian peasants “picked up the cudgel of people’s war and began to flail at the French with it.”

The serfs, which most Russians were at the time, did indeed pick up a cudgel, but it wasn’t the French they hit with it. It was their own masters, the landlords. Baronial estates were being sacked and burned, with their owners killed, all over Russia.

Peasant uprisings broke out in practically every province of the country, and Kutuzov had to dispatch large units he could hardly spare to put them down. Celebrated heroes of 1812, Paskevich, Deibitsch and Wittgenstein, had to divert thousands of much-needed soldiers to kill their fellow Russians.

The war should have been more appropriately called Civil, not Patriotic, yet Tolstoy makes much hay out of the partisan warfare the Russians conducted behind enemy lines. That indeed took place, but the partisans weren’t sainted peasants armed with axes and pitchforks.

Their detachments were units of regular light cavalry led by aristocratic landowners, which all 1812 officers were. That was by no means an expression of spontaneous popular fury, and it had nothing to do with the Antaean properties of Russian soil.

Yet not only do all Russian schoolchildren learn the Tolstoy version, but their textbooks actually cite War and Peace as a reliable historical source. Still, a novel is better than a film, which brings us to a current development.

The Novosibirsk professor of history Sergei Chernyshev has been summoned to the regional office of the Investigative Committee, a sort of police regulator answerable to Putin personally.

Prof Chernyshev’s crime was teaching the history of Alexander Nevsky on the basis of archival documents rather than of Eisenstein’s eponymous film. The film was produced in 1938 to establish historical continuity from one epic hero, Nevsky, to another, Stalin.

The country was then feverishly preparing for war against Germany, and the populace had to be rallied with both an icon to worship and a bogeyman to hate. Hence the mythical Alexander Nevsky accompanied by Prokofiev’s rousing score.

The film focuses on the 1242 Battle on the Ice of Lake Preipus, which Nevsky allegedly won against the overwhelming forces of the Livonian Order seeking to convert Russians to Catholicism.

Eisenstein draws on his bag of cinematic tricks to show endless hordes of Germanic knights with buckets on their heads slain by Nevsky, laying about him with some élan. At the climax, the ice cracks and dark waters swallow up hundreds of those Bucket Heads.

The actual, well-documented battle wasn’t like that at all. It was no more than a skirmish, and contemporary sources estimated the knights’ losses at 20. Hence that engagement only had iconic, not strategic, value.

It’s true that Nevsky didn’t have much time for Germanic Catholics. Mongol pagans were more to his liking.

When they invaded Russian principalities in 1240, Prince Alexander became one of the worst collaborators. He raided adjacent principalities to collect tributes for the Mongols, and he suppressed Russian uprisings with characteristic Asiatic savagery.

Chronicles of the time talk about such niceties as eyes gouged out, ears cut off – and of course the usual complement of beheading, quartering and impaling. This last punishment was a Mongol contribution to Russian culture, along with the uncompromising absolutism of central power.

Nevsky went so far as to fraternise with Sartaq, son of the Mongol Khan Batu. He thus became the Khans’ foster son, not just a faithful servant. Some 700 years later Gen. Vlasov was hanged for less.

Yet Russians aren’t supposed to know the real Alexander Nevsky. They are taught to worship Eisenstein’s prefiguration of Stalin, a staunch fighter against all encroachments by the degenerate West on the holy soul of Russia.

Two months ago, the Duma passed a law inculpating “besmirchment of Russian history offensive to the memory of the Motherland’s defenders”. The law was put into effect mainly to kill the true account of Stalin’s role in the beginning of the Second World War.

The only acceptable version is one put forth by Stalin: a peaceful nation quietly going about its business only to be treacherously attacked by an evil aggressor. That the peaceful nation was more militarised than the rest of the world put together, with its forces being primed for a massive offensive on Europe, can’t be taught – and historical evidence be damned.

And of course the delicate sensibilities of the few surviving veterans of that war must be spared any intimation that Stalin and Hitler were ideological brothers, if not exactly twins.

Now it appears that the surviving veterans of the Battle on the Ice must also be protected from the truth about Alexander Nevsky. In comes Eisenstein, out goes Prof. Chernyshev – out and quite possibly down. One Russian historian posted a funny comment: “I’m working on the history of the Mesopotamian Interfluve, c. 3000 BC. I wonder if it’s safe enough.”

The scholarly bespectacled gentleman is fading away as the embodiment of history. He is increasingly being replaced in that role by a whore accosting passers-by at a street corner. How much, love?

7 thoughts on “History as a prostitute”

  1. In Hollywood the bad guy is often portrayed as a cripple, hunchback, deformed in some manner. Even hideous. Very evil but with high IQ to compensate for physical inferiority.

    1. Afraid not. He is a fine acror though. Then I try to avoid Sakespearean productions in modxern dress and with cross-dressing actors. I happen t0 know Shakespeare’s plays reasonably well, and I get terribly confused seeing a black woman in a role played by a white man for 500 years.

  2. “Truth-telling Persians do not dwell upon
    The minor skirmish fought at Marathon.”
    – Robert Graves

    Was there ever a time in Russia when it was possible to doubt Nevsky the way Graves doubted Miltiades? Will there ever be such a time?

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