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Russia takes (yet another) look at its 'unpredictable past'

A new lens

A recently opened exhibit introduces the Russia public to a different view of the czars – and shows a strong bias for strong leadership and territorial expansion.

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    The history park in Moscow's exhibition center is the first permanent display of its kind devoted the history of Czarist Russia.
    Courtesy of the All-Russia Exhibition Centre
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Visitors to the newly minted history park in Moscow's venerable exhibition grounds enter under a giant portrait of 19th-century Czar Alexander III and his evergreen observation, spelled out in giant letters, that "Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy."

It's the first permanent display of its kind devoted to introducing the Russian public to the long-neglected and much-maligned history of the princes and czars who ruled Russia for a thousand years before the narrative was ruptured by the Bolshevik Revolution – whose controversial centenary is barely a year away.

Jointly initiated by the Russian Orthodox Church, President Vladimir Putin's administration, and Russia's Ministry of Culture, the exhibition uses high-tech, multimedia tools to create a historical pageant that is factual and compelling, but with an unmistakable bias for strong leadership, ruthless state-building, and territorial expansion.

There seems little doubt that the exhibition's official sponsors were hoping to co-opt that millennium-long record, iron out the Soviet-era glitches, and introduce the public to a story line that begins in the wild forests and open steppes of medieval Eurasia and appears to find its natural and inexorable climax in the current Russian state.

A 20th-century hall, to be opened in May, will tackle the thorny job of integrating the Soviet period into that narrative.

"Our concept is Russian history as one continuing, unbroken process which goes on in our present time," says Ivan Yesin, the project's director. "Of course this is our history, based on the consensus of Russian historians."

Critics, however, point out that one thing not called into question in this exhibition, or the general treatment in current textbooks, is the autocratic nature of both the czarist and Soviet systems, in which one man held near-absolute power.

"The main thrust of this exhibition is that the more authoritative a leader was, the more cruelly he put down revolts, the greater he was," says Nikolai Svanidze, a historian and popular TV personality. "History is, famously, the present projected onto the past. There is no doubt that this is the political vision of our authorities we are seeing, and it mainly serves to justify their actions rather than enlighten us about history."

The idea started with a temporary exhibition three years ago, opened by Mr. Putin, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, and the highest-ranking Romanov survivor, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna. Over the next several months more than 1 million visitors came to view it, and the decision to expand it and make it permanent was born.

It's not a museum, but more of a historical theme park, and it does a very good job of creating a riveting tale that schoolchildren can follow, using film, sound-and-light collages, and interactive displays to make dramatic moments spring to life, like a Mongol attack or Napoleon's burning of Moscow. One fascinating innovation is accurate portraits of ancient Russian princes and nobles that have been reconstructed from skeletal remains, based on the famous method pioneered by Russian anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov.

But is it good history, or just another rewrite in a country that's notorious for having, as the old joke goes, an unpredictable past?

"We studied a very different history, especially concerning the czars," in Soviet schools, says Tatiana Marcheva, a Moscow engineer who was visiting the exhibition recently with her granddaughter. "Some of this is quite a surprise. For example, we learned that the last czar, Nicholas II, was a bloody tyrant who exploited the people. Now it seems he was a kind man who has been made a saint by the church, and people pray to him to watch over Russia."

Her granddaughter, Ekaterina Muradyan, a high school student, says the exhibit conforms pretty much to what she's learning in history classes. "Still, the scale of this exhibition is impressive," she says. "It seems like every czar is best remembered for expanding Russia's territory and increasing the population. I wonder if the bigger it got, the harder it was to govern?"

Alexander Petrov, a historian at the official Institute of World History in Moscow, says that the post-Soviet vision of Russian history is still a work in progress. But, he adds, it's far more balanced than czarist-era work, which was largely hagiography of saints and czars, or the Soviet version that vilified the country's former royal leaders and painted history as an endless struggle of workers and peasants to throw off their chains.

"I've discussed this exhibit with my students, and we agree that this is a first effort to convey an integral picture of our history, and it's a pretty good start," he says. "There is a tendency in history-writing these days to stress only positive notes, and this is part of our present stage. Many scholars are discussing the shape of the national idea, what does it mean to be patriotic, and what should we do? Simple answers are easy to come by, but there are some very hard questions that call for deeper dialogue and more thought."

One of those is the sometimes vicious character of some Russian rulers, such as the 16th-century czar Ivan the Terrible. He may have expanded Russia's territory and centralized state power, but he also conducted a brutal social experiment called the oprichnina, a seven-year reign of terror, in which he abolished all laws and murdered countless people – including his own son.

"You can't color these leaders in black or white, you have to present them as they were," says Mr. Yesin. "There's no doubt that Ivan was a contradictory personality. But the morals and realities of that world were different from today. Much worse things were happening in other countries at that time." He says the same approach will be taken to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the forthcoming 20th-century hall.

Mr. Petrov, the historian, says it's natural that Russian authorities are trying to guide the debates that will almost certainly erupt next year around the centennial of the Russian Revolution.

"Our government and president are very interested in history and helping the public to grasp it better," he says. "Sometimes the public doesn't see how things that are happening fit into the traditions of Russian history. They can't understand why Russia is doing this or that. Better historical knowledge helps with that."

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