Monday, February 10, 2014

History's Missing Pages

Watching the impossibly expensive Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics on Friday, I was intrigued to see how the organizers of the event would present the entire span of Russian history (starting as far back as the 10th century, CE). After all, with a limited amount of time and space, the designers, much like textbook authors, would have to make choices about what to highlight, as well as what to include, and what to omit.

Opening Ceremony, Sochi Olympics
While the tsarist imperial period, starting with the accomplishments of Peter the Great, was impressively beautiful (see above), I was most interested in how the Russians would deal with the period after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. As USA Today put it in their recent headline,"5 things you will, and won't see in opening ceremony", I, too, wondered how the Russians would deal with the long and rather recent Soviet period (ending in 1991), which is widely viewed as a failure. For example, how would we "see" Josef Stalin, the towering figure who not only presided over the rushed industrialization and agricultural collectivization of the USSR during the 1930s (killing at least 20 million people), but also over the undeniable victory against Nazi Germany in the 1940s?

Soviet Cosmonaut Team, 1970s
We wouldn't "see" him at all, apparently. He would be erased from the historical record, of course. Now, this is not the first time the Russians or the Soviets "photoshopped" their own history: numerous examples abound. And a "De-Stalinization" started as early as the 1950s. But to eliminate someone so influential so completely seems an insurmountable task, as opposed to what was done to these relatively smaller historical figures featured in this doctored photo.

But I would argue that Russia is an easy target for Americans: we've been in a kind of war with them ever since the US government refused to recognize the Soviet Union in 1917. A more interesting challenge might be to identify people and periods in American history that have seemingly been whitewashed away from our collective memory. What would you choose to write in the blank pages of American history?

11 comments:

Isabel Frye said...

I think that this is very interesting to compare to the textbook activity we did way back in the beginning of the year to the Russian opening ceremony for the Olympic games. I also think while eliminating Stalin from the ceremony is insurmountable, there would not be an appropriate way to include him into the ceremony without glorifying him; which would leave much of the audience feeling uneasy.

Similar to Stalin, America has many shameful choices that it has made. For example, from the very beginning when Columbus came to America and the way the Native Americans were treated is not something that I would chose to present at an opening ceremony. Then there was African slavery, our very own Internment camps, dropping an atomic bomb on Japan, a civil war-none of which I would include in an opening ceremony to the Olympic games.

I would choose to include Columbus finding America in the way that we all grew up hearing. I would include the progress America through industrialization, overcoming the great depression but not the mistakes we made in between.

Shannon said...

I definitely agree with Isabelle on the Colombus thing, especially since his actions are so misrepresented in studies of American history. I also feel like the whole "Thanksgiving" story has been glamorized and put into a cute little box, supposing to be about our acceptance of the natives but really just being a lie made up by someone in a much later era.

Madi M said...

Yes the opening ceremony was very interesting in how Russia photoshopped their history and blacked out certain parts in order to improve their image. However i agree with mr bolos that the Russians are not the only ones who have edited their country's history, because it happens in America all the time. Every textbook that is printed on American history has done some sort of evidence because they have the power to control what parts of history are emphasized and get more words on the page and what is left out.
This reminds me of the article that we looked at for the final exam by Mary Beth Norton. She explains how the Florida Legiskature focuses more of their education on the Declaration of Independence versus the Constitution because the Declaration makes America look better. The declartion features language that inspires us like "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," where the constitution counts black men as 3/5 of a person. This is one way Americans construct their history in a better light.

David H. said...

I am not surprised that Russia decided to leave the Stalin era out of the Opening Ceremony, for obvious reasons, but I also do not blame them or criticize them for doing so. The Opening Ceremony is about showing why you're a great country to host the Olympics and to set the tone for the Games. Including the failures of the Soviet Union and the millions of deaths ordered by Stalin would do the exact opposite. If the Olympics were in the US, I would not expect to see any of the massacres of Native American tribes or how are country was built on the enslavement of Africans, even though these are integral part of our nation's history. I do believe our country does a good job of addressing these blemishes on our country's history in schools, and I think that's the appropriate place to teach about them; not the Opening Ceremonies.

Alex Wyse said...

I agree with David, I would not expect to see anything about slavery in an Olympic ceremony in the US. I immediately related the Stalin regime in Russia to slavery in America. I think that the two are very similar; they are both topics that our nations are not fond of discussing (for the most part), and both portray Russian/American leaders in a negative light. Stalin may have committed actions far worse than those of American leaders, but regardless, early American presidents still had their faults, like being slave owners. To include anything about slavery in the olympics would be inappropriate, because it is such a great stain on American history. Including slavery would highlight probably the greatest flaw in American history, and although it is important for people to know about slavery and the suffering that blacks had to endure, the Olympic ceremonies are simply not the place to display slavery. The olympics are supposed to highlight the great qualities of a nation, not the negative ones, like David said. Its like discussing sensitive issues; you generally only share this type of information with close friends and family, not with general public.

Luke I said...

I agree with Isabel and David- there has been many instances where America has chosen to suppress or turn a blind eye toward historical events. But even well-documented events, such as the Civil Rights Movement, have blank pages. Almost every textbook documenting America’s history is viewed from similar perspectives. These single-sided events create a single-sided, unfinished history. Many have chosen to ignore the view of the Cherokee Indians, when thousands were killed during the ‘Trail of Tears’ while being pushed into Oklahoma during westward expansion. Or chose not to include the voice a Japanese-American relocated to an internment camp during World War 2. By looking only through a single lens we erase much of the history that has made America what is it today.

Carolyn D. said...

It seems obvious that America would choose to omit such things as slavery in a setting such as an olympic ceremony, so logically I feel like Russia should be cut some slack for omitting facts on the Stalin era. However, aside from the World War related "embarrassments," most of the things people seem to agree that they would omit from an opening ceremony in our own country, such as slavery and Columbus's maltreatment of Native Americans, happened a very long time ago. Whereas Stalin's government rule happened within the past century. Even the points on Japanese internment and such could be justifiably be omitted compared to the Stalin era because it seems to me that an entire government takeover is different then one aspect of life during a perilous time. In short it seems less dramatic to omit something that wasn't our entire government or something that happened two-hundred plus years ago than hiding something such as the Stalin era.

Josh Sussman said...

I think I would include more about the faults of our nation in the blank pages of American history. While I agree with David that many schools do a fair job teaching about the "flawed" areas in U.S. History such as slavery or Japanese internment, it often not nearly enough, in my opinion. The more we learn about the "less pretty" parts of history, the less likely we are to repeat those mistakes. I think textbook authors are only doing a disservice to their readers by "whitewashing" the ugly parts in our past.

Griffin Powell said...

I think everybody has summed the white-washed part. Of our American a history quite well, from the genocide of native Americans, to slavery and the interment of the Japanese. I do not however blame Russia for omitting Stalin from their opening ceremonies. The whole world is watching, and I think any countries should use that space as a celebration of the nations history,, especially since Russia has such a rich one.

William E. said...

Ya i completely agree with Griffin. I think that if any country had an olympics or world ceremony that they would then try to omit any part of history that makes their country. If given the possibility to write their own history, a country or people will make themselves look better with the whole world looking at them

William E. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.