A Culture of Discontinuity? Russian Cultural Debates in Historical Perspective location:Preston, UK date:3-5 May 2016
When Alexander Etkind wrote that “Historians write from the past to the present, but think from the present to the past,” he touched upon two key issues of history: 1) history is a narrative, in which 2) continuity – a linear story from the beginning to the end – is a prerequisite. Russian history is no exception to this rule: the idea of ‘discontinuity’ that seems to dominate it, is nothing less than a rhetorical device so as to add tension to the narrative. It builds on the dichotomistic thinking that dominates science and Western thinking since at least the 17th century and it suits the Russian rulers who want to present their rule as the best that could happen to Russia (as opposed to previous periods).
In my paper I want to explore the different modes of continuity in Russian history (linear, circular) and how they rely on ‘discontinuity’ to prove their case. I want to look at the subject from a diachronic perspective, covering the period from the late 17th century to the present. Almost every Russian historian (and ruler) stresses the ‘continuity’ of Russian history from the earliest times to the present, claiming distant eras and regions as their own. Moreover, the idea of discontinuity as a rhetorical device (and hence its strength) is corroborated by the fact that Western historians hardly ever question this continuous ‘discontinuity’ model of Russian history.