Rewriting history: The Soviet Union, the Confederacy, January 6th

Lee statue time capsule being opened

Recent events highlight attempts to whitewash history and to place past regimes in a positive light. In Russia, the civic organization, International Memorial Society, has just been banned. That organization is dedicated to educating the public about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. They have worked to document the Gulag system of forced labor, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the waves of executions that took place in the USSR. The campaign to shut down Memorial is in line with (and possibly at the instigation) of Russia’s President. Putin is intent on glorifying the Soviet Union, whose break-up Putin sees as one of the great catastrophes of world history. In the narrative of the greatness of the USSR, there is no place for historical accounts of injustice and atrocities.

Meanwhile, this week here in Richmond, Virginia, insight into another whitewashing of history was on display. A time capsule was opened yesterday that had been found in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue, placed there in 1887 when the monument to the Confederacy was erected. As expected, the documents in the time capsule celebrate the break-away state established to preserve slavery in the Southern states. Most of the 60 or so documents reference the Confederacy and are in line with the message of the statue itself, namely glorifying the state and one of its heroes. The statue itself was removed this year, as have been many other memorials celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. Not surprisingly, the time capsule contained no documents related to slavery or to Black people (or to any people other than Whites). That stands in sharp contrast to the graffiti messaging on the Lee statue and on its pedestal from last year’s protests against racism, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Finally, the attempted coup this year in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, to prevent the official recognition of Joe Biden as President elect is also being whitewashed by those loyal to Donald Trump and to his “big lie” that he won the election in 2020. That and other attempts to rewrite history are dangerous, as they deny the validity of documented historical facts. Spreading false accounts of historical events can have profound cultural repercussions, as we are witnessing now in the US, with a substantial proportion of the population convinced that the Trump account is true. Such developments, as many have pointed out, represent a serious threat to democratic systems, as they can destroy faith in civic institutions.

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