Can a country “own” its history ?

History is all about argument. There is no absolute historical truth about anything big in history.” Robert Service, Professor of Russian History, Oxford University.

russian flag

Russia has set up a commission to counter the falsification of history.

The country’s president , Dmitry Medvedev believes there’s an anti-Russian bias in the western media which is becoming “severe, evil and aggressive”

medvedev at his deskHis country’s Prime Minister – Vladimir Putin – will today take part in commemorations in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two.

The back drop to today’s events is a row between Russia and Poland over the events that led up to September 1, 1939.

nazi soviet pactThe Nazi- Soviet pact  (right – with Joseph Stalin standing at the back) was signed just a week before – essentially it was a deal to carve up Poland and the Baltic states, and acted as “the starting gun” for the invasion of Poland.

Medvedev said in a TV interview that it was a “complete lie”  to say that Stalin bore any responsibility for the war, and Russian state television even claimed that Poland  was plotting with Nazi Germany AGAINST Russia.

pact 2Vladimir Putin has since tried to be conciliatory : 

“It is possible to condemn – and with good reason – the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact concluded in August 1939…… it was unacceptable from the moral point of view”

Hence the new commission . It seeks to counter any suggestion that the Nazis and the Russians were anything other than bitter , sworn enemies. Russia sees it’s victory over Hitler as the greatest moment of the last century.

This, in a country that only in 1990  acknowledged it’s soldiers carried out the Katyn massacre of 22 thousand Poles in 1940. Up until then , they’d blamed the Nazis.

A film about the massacres- released two years ago- is banned from being shown in Russia.

Can a country control it’s own history ?   is it important to maintain a version of events that makes people proud of their own country ? And are the Russians right ? is the rest of the world biased against them ?

40 Responses to “Can a country “own” its history ?”

  1. 1 helen in usa
    September 1, 2009 at 11:57

    History really is only an account:a story told based on what people know or saw and also people might deliberately lie,or repeat a lie. History is an approximation to explain situations that are to be remembered,celebrated,or that cannot be ignored or left unexplained. History is never complete,it is never accurate and it does not tell the whole story or even reflect the truth. This makes me want to say history is only important while it’s being made because once it is a textbook item what the intention often is that the purpose is to teach you something else and uses the anecdotes they call”history”as the vehicle to convince you of what they want you to believe. If every one of us valued life and respected others we could create a changed future that history has not described yet;because history too often documents destruction and desperation. History is most important when it is being made.

  2. 2 Bad Ronald
    September 1, 2009 at 13:16

    History is all about argument? More importantly, how about the present and indeed the future (witness Afghanistan).

    How important is it becoming for all of us to now have a say in the outcome, rather then leaving it to politicans playing catch-up?

  3. 3 Taban Alfred David
    September 1, 2009 at 13:28

    Any country must have to remember its history, since it has lost its country men in that past time of war or any devastating situation. Like me here in Sudan 21 years of war is my history where by I saw children and old once straggled for peace and till it has been achieved, in this I called it history.

    Juba/ South ,Sudan

  4. 4 gary
    September 1, 2009 at 13:39

    Every country owns its history and every account is subjective. The dead do not speak while survivors tell heroic tales. The Russians are correct about the western bias, but their accusation applies equally well to themselves. Folks chat on about the minutiae, failing to realize the only important bit is that they are alive to do it, or that knowledge of history is generally helpful and specifically useless.

    • September 3, 2009 at 14:50

      I am rather weary of hearing about “western bias” as if there is only one bias and that is the one you don’t happen to have a belief in. ALL accounts have some level of bias probably – as it is almost impossible to be totally objective in any account of events which shape people’s lives. History, if we are to understand it, probably would be best served by offering several viewpoints and a sense of feelings, backgrounds and belief systems of as many players as possible. In one sense I do not think anyone inside any culture can understand their own unless they make an attempt to leave it and look from the outside, if only temporarily, or with the purpose of trying to understand another from as inside it as you can get.
      History cannot be “owned” by anyone, or any country, even – and maybe especially of its own past.

  5. 6 Dinka Aliap Chawul-Kampala,Uganda
    September 1, 2009 at 13:42

    No.Country can be protected from other things like internal/external aggressions but not on historical term.A good history must have both negative & positive impacts on the people/area/country etc.

  6. 7 patti in cape coral
    September 1, 2009 at 13:48

    No, a country should not be able to control its own history. A version of events that make people proud of their country should not be maintained. I never really thought of one’s country a matter of pride anyway, after all, I had nothing to do with where I was born. It should be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (ideally). Of course things look different depending on who is looking. It is said those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, but I wonder if a little forgetfulness about the past wouldn’t be helpful at times, to forget past hurts and start off new. As far as everyone being biased against Russians, I don’t know, I really don’t know much about them.

  7. 8 anu_D
    September 1, 2009 at 14:02

    [WHYS writes]The country’s president , Dmitry Medvedev believes there’s an anti-Russian bias.

    His country’s president – Vladimir Putin – will today take part in commemorations in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two.[WHYS]

    Hello WHYS…please make up your mind who the president of Russian is 🙂

  8. September 1, 2009 at 14:10

    The most unfortunate bit is history is it’s a pack of lies closely interwoven into occasional truth. This makes it worthy and worthless at times especially to a sceptist like me.

    On a bigger whole though, history is an integral part of our lives. I would defend the history of my clan, or country for that matter should i be convinced that someone is trying to weave an unacceptable lie into it.

    We must, however, remember that more of this integral parts of our lives are more of arguments of what was and what wasn’t. E.g, ‘to what extent was the french revolution of 1789 responsible for the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to power?`
    such are the arguments that characterise history.

  9. 10 George Papadopolis
    September 1, 2009 at 14:10

    Can a country control it’s own history ? is it important to maintain a version of events that makes people proud of their own country ?

    With the power of the meeja and the backing of state – yes, at least until it conflicts with a differing p.o.v, then the fireworks start.

    Russia, China, Iran, USA — all have their own inerests in mind and I tend to think that Iraq, and to some extent Afghanistan, is a “do-over” for the states to make up for losing in Vietnam.

  10. 11 anu_D
    September 1, 2009 at 14:11

    From time immemorial…..the winner writes the history.

    And from time immemorial those with Power…..re-write hisotry.

    And generally when in contradiction the west supercedes all other versions of hisotry with it’s own presumptions of it.

    If Hitler had won….the hisotry of WW-2 would have been vastly diffrent from how we know it today.

  11. 12 Matthew Houston
    September 1, 2009 at 14:12

    What about the hundreds of millions of Native Americans who were killed and generally left out of the history books?

    • September 3, 2009 at 14:56

      yes, they have not had nearly enough opportunity to tell their story. And that is what history is – stories. The battles, the generals, the kings and the king-makers are all just shadow. The stories of people tell more of a history that we can understand. I have a friend who studied the movement of modern music trends from the early part of the 20th century and this gave me far more insight into economics, social change, and political movements than I ever had from studying the wars, the presidents or the great economic events. Who owns that? no one. The story is for everyone who wants to know – wants to understand. It will be a lie if told only by one side or from one point of view, or skewed to make someone or some place look good.

  12. September 1, 2009 at 14:28

    Hi Mark,
    On the blog, there is the following:
    His country’s PRESIDENT– Vladimir Putin – will today take part in commemorations in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two.

    Do you mean: His country’s PRIME MINISTER – Vladimir Putin? Or is Vladimir Putin the president of the commission? There seems to be an ambiguity.


  13. September 1, 2009 at 14:49

    History is defined as “what happened the way I saw it”.

  14. 16 Steve in Boston
    September 1, 2009 at 14:56

    As time passes on and eyewitnesses fade away, history is up for grabs. The memory of unsavory events can be altered, whitewashed, or simply called a lie. In a few hundred years, who will believe the Holocaust ever took place? Heck, more and more people don’t even believe we put a man on the moon.

    Russia has always owned it’s own history. I went to Russia three times in the 1970’s and it was like entering a parallel universe.

    “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Vladmir Lenin, Russian Communist politician & revolutionary (1870 – 1924).

    P.S. Putin is the Prime Minister, not the president.

  15. 17 Nengak Daniel, Nigeria.
    September 1, 2009 at 15:08

    The truth of history depends very much on who is telling it, and to what purpose. The very choice of words in the presentation of the historical tale will go a long way in determining how factual it is. For example, a historian’s choice of saying “Mr. X was killed” as against “Mr. X was murdered” could affect the acceptance of the historical tale. By and large, historical records (especially in war situations) are kept mostly to exonerate a nation and vilify the other. That is why there is no official historical record of anything that is universally accepted.
    So Russia is right in writing history the way it believed it happened, it is another thing all together whether I will want to be reading and quoting it.

  16. 18 Roy, Washington DC
    September 1, 2009 at 15:09

    History belongs to everybody, so it cannot be “owned” or changed. A country owns its image, though, and it can try and spin that however it wants. Whether this spin is accurate or not depends on the individual case — what they are changing, why they are changing it, and how.

  17. 19 Black Ali Ghana
    September 1, 2009 at 15:10

    The history of a country basically is a recollection of prior events that have occurred in that country and perhaps the repercussions of such an action, thus it’s history isn’t entirely it’s own.
    We all live in a very small world though this world seems a large one thus what affects one country affects another, take September 11th as an example, the aftermath of the bombings affected every country in the world despite the face that the US was attacked.
    Therefore the history of any country cannot entirely belong to it.

  18. 20 Rob in Vancouver
    September 1, 2009 at 15:13

    Above my desk is a picture of a Spitfire. My father has the same picture above his, in the Isle of Wight. To my father this is the plane that fought in the skies over London in 1940, and is the main reason I did not grow up speaking German. However, my son, with his supercritical anyalytical mind, pointed out a while back, “Actually, Dad, it’s the reason you did not grow up speaking Russian.”

    History is subjective. My son is actually right. With 33 million soldiers under arms, had Britain fallen, Germany still would have been conquered. But Europe would look very different, a thought that never crossed my fathers mind, nor my own.

    History changes as we change.

  19. September 1, 2009 at 15:15

    Each country’s history is written according to an ideology. Each regime tries to depict it as it sees fit. There is the official line which tries to justify an action in the past. There is the example of Turkey which still categorically denies any genocide in Armenia and no Turkish historian can publicly say the contrary without being prosecuted.

    It can be difficult for a country to protect its history totally as long as there are controversial sides in it which are seen from different prospectives. There isn’t a single version of a major historical event. What is seen by some an act of defense is seen by others as aggression.

    There always remains a dark side in the recent history of many countries as long as it is enshrouded with secrecy or there is the absence of hard evidence .So it remains open to different interpretations rightly or wrongly.

  20. September 1, 2009 at 15:16

    Medvedev,is not wrong in saying that Stalin bears no responsibility for WW2. The starting gun for WW2,was the terrible treatment metered out to Germany after WW1. Then along came Hitler,put bread & butter on the table, created jobs, and made Germans to believe in themselves;then he lost all his marbles and went on a rampage. And yes, the west is biased against Russia. Afraid of communism, armed or unarmed!

    Professor Service, is correct in saying that there are no absolute truths in history,but there are truths,in all historys. The only absolute truth I know is that 2+2=4 Was, is, and evermore shall be, that is mathematics.
    There is nothing I like better than a good history book.

  21. 23 Anthony
    September 1, 2009 at 15:35

    Well, if you’ve ever seen the movie Red Dawn, which they are making the remake as we speak, those “communist bent on world domination” do have a bit of a bad name.

    It’s funny, we (the U.S.) is more bent on world domination than any other country right now, but we just put it in everyones face with a smile dressed in a Mickey Mouse shirt and a Coke in hand.

    -Anthony, LA, CA

  22. September 1, 2009 at 16:19

    Every country should mention the positive and negative aspects of its history. It should be remembered the fact that Germany and Russia divided between themselves Poland and the Baltic States. It is something that should be remembered like the Holocaust.

    Here is the website of the Musuem of Occupation of Latvia.

  23. 25 Ros Atkins
    September 1, 2009 at 16:30

    Point taken on our mistake about Prime Minister Putin – I’ve changed that. As Mark also referred to President Dmitry Medvedev, I don’t think you’ll find anything sinister here. Just an accidental use of two word rather than one. But thanks for letting us know.

  24. 26 Tom K in Mpls
    September 1, 2009 at 16:30

    Everybody controls their history. Both intentionally and unknowingly. Even when the facts are correctly and well documented, the truth can be twisted. Examples in US history:

    Spanish-American war: The sinking of the USS Maine. Fact , it sank from an explosion. Nobody knows the cause of the explosion. Truth, it was an excuse for the US to kick Spain out of Cuba claiming the anchored Maine was attacked by a floating mine. An internal fire was much more likely.

    WWII: Fact, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Excuse, to save the lives of tens of thousands of US military personnel. Truth, this is a partial truth. It was also done to show Russia what they would face if they decided to ignore the Yalta Agreement. The US and Britain feared Russia would try to take all of Europe after Germany surrendered. The second part of this is recorded but does not ‘sell’ well, so it is not taught directly in lower schools. This was in fact the start of the Cold War.

    Even in societies with ‘free press’ the truth is manipulated in too many ways to count, for reasons both sinister and accidental.

  25. 27 Robz
    September 1, 2009 at 16:37

    The way Eastern Europe was taken over by the Communists at the end of WWII,was a bad deal;looking back on it.
    Those who were under Soviet control have a legitimate right to dislike Russia.And Russia needs to stop trying to control it’s ex-subjects.
    The Cold-War is over,the super-powers are not so super any more.
    We all need to work for a beter world and not play a never ending game of world dommination.
    Rob in Florida.

    • 28 Tom K in Mpls
      September 2, 2009 at 22:25

      Read up on the Yalta Agreement. Eastern Europe and Manchuria was given to help prevent a shooting war with Russia. They had geared up production, a huge population, some very impressive military units and a taste for growth. That war would have dwarfed what had already happened.

  26. 29 John in Salem
    September 1, 2009 at 16:40

    It is the ultimate in hubris for any leader, any country or any people to think they can “own” their history.
    History doesn’t give a damn what you want and trying to “spin” it is an exercise in futility. Generations of pharoahs, emperors and kings have tried to control how the future will see them and all to no avail. Not even Mao Zedong could change the past.
    No – Russia slaughtered Poland’s best and brightest in the Katyn Forest, the ovens of Auschwitz were not burning wood, and there were no WMDs in Iraq.
    History is what it is.

  27. 30 nora
    September 1, 2009 at 16:44

    What was it Voltaire said? Something about history being the lie we all agree to.

  28. 31 Bert - USA
    September 1, 2009 at 17:03

    I can’t believe they are obsessing over minutiae. Honestly, when it comes to Poland vs Russia or the USSR, you don’t need to look back to 1939. Russia has found excuses to invade Poland since then.

    I can’t figure out why these folk are getting sentimental about their bad old days all of a sudden. What’s next? Will they try something similar with the Baltic states? Justifying that decades-long occupation? C’mon, give it a rest, Medvedev and Putin. You were doing so well there for a few years.

  29. 32 Reena Dasani
    September 1, 2009 at 17:55

    History evolves. People decide what is important, what to remember and what to forget depending on their own point of view . There is no ONE truth Here in America it even comes down to each group, having a different view on the the history of this country . You can’t OWN it but simply put as much of it out there and see what remains the view held by the majority, whether accurate or not will prevail

  30. 33 Jennifer
    September 1, 2009 at 17:58

    Isn’t Putin really the president there!? 😛

  31. 34 anu_D
    September 1, 2009 at 18:01

    @Ros Atkin
    actually it’s not a fault…but more a freudian slip.
    A lot of people are confused about who “the real president” is 🙂

  32. 35 Keith- Ohio
    September 1, 2009 at 18:28

    @ Matthew Houston-

    are you kidding me? Try taking ANY American history course without learning about how we took land and killed Native Americans. What are you talking about?

    America, generally, owns up to its mottled history. It’s true, we do. We own up for taking land from the Native Americans, we own up for slavery, we own up for previously discriminating against women. We own up for the atomic bomb (some say it was necessary, others say it wasn’t). The fact that we acknowledge these mistakes allows us to be progressive and reform!

    Even the conflicts as current as Iraq: for every American politician in favor of this war there is at least one other politician that is against it. I think America, in general, is one of the most honest countries when it comes to their history.

    How can we ever hope that a country can reform if they refuse to acknowledge their mottled history? It’s not like it’s a big secret that practically every currently powerful country has committed some sort of atrocity in the past. America, China, England, Russia, Japan, should I go on?

  33. September 1, 2009 at 21:34

    As most of the previous commenters have said, history is just the story that is passed down through the ages. As such, there can be no ownership, only the attempt to tell your version of the story. Ultimately, the question isn’t who *owns* the history, but rather, who’s telling the most accurate version.

  34. 37 Roberto
    September 2, 2009 at 03:32

    RE “” And are the Russians right ? is the rest of the world biased against them ? “”

    ———— Rest of the world?

    Did anyone at WHYS vet this question for nonsense?

    There is an obvious bias in the make up of most folks in the world towards “the other.” It’s part of the survival instincts of any animal.

    If the US hadn’t been so hamhandedly aggressive in trying to take over the world financially and militarily, the Russians would’ve had more breathing room for friendlier relations. It was a grave hardship being weaned off the Soviet communist state and thrown to the wolves in the capitalistic dog eat dog economy.

    The only question that should be asked is whether the global politics have advanced to avoid anymore historical tragedies. The historical record generally is not encouraging.

    If and when the status quo changes is in the hands of modern peoples and their political states.

  35. 38 Tan Boon Tee
    September 2, 2009 at 05:29

    History must be the strangest word. It is absolutely relative, interpreted differently by different people at different epoch.

    Moreover, in history, “truth” could be often distorted.

    There does not seem to exist a true history (be it for a person, a nation or a race). It all depends on who is doing the talking or who is executing the writing. Eventually, the powerful and the one-in-charge will have the final say.

    So, does it matter if a country could own its history?

  36. 39 scmehta
    September 2, 2009 at 06:13

    History of any society and/or country is directly or indirectly is connected to the whole world; it is a study of the past events in the life of a nation or that of the progress or existence of any community or institution. And history is always thought to have been written after sufficient investigations on the past events; the events important enough to be recorded. Therefore, logically and justifiably speaking, the historical facts, which can generally be disputed as having been manipulated, distorted or falsified, can only be acceptable to the majority of the world if they have been verified and proved to be true. Hence; though any country can claim to be the owner of its own history i.e. of the events disconnected from the rest of the world, but the history of any event is liable to be questionable or answerable, the moment it is found to be even remotely connected with even any other nation of the world.

  37. 40 Sargonid
    September 8, 2009 at 23:10

    Sometimes yes, sometimes not. An example of when not is Iraq.

    I am from the Assyrian minority; a people who have lived in Iraq for over 5000 years, being the descendants of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, and absorbers of the Sumerians. We still speak Mesopotamian Aramaic to this day.

    I feel the ancient history of Iraq;Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Babylon, Chaldea and the nations of Hatra, Adiabene, Osroene together with the early Christian period of that region is our history, and not that of the Arabs and Kurds who make up the majority of Iraq today, but who had no presence or input in the region between 3500BCE and 7th Century AD.

    Particularly as Indiginous peoples have been the victim of racial, cultural, linguistic and religious prejudice from the said Arabs and Kurds over the last 1400 years, it is a bit much if they then claim the culture and history of those they are trying to destroy as their own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: