In modern Russia, history is a battleground. Politicians publicly argue for the preservation of myths, statues are erected to figures like Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, the Kremlin deploys the memory of the Second World War as an ideology of power, and archivists and historians who pursue uncomfortable truths face dismissal or even criminal prosecution.
But there are some groups fighting back against the use and abuse of history.
Cultural history project Arzamas is one of the most prominent. “History is very politicised,” says Filipp Dzaydko, the chief editor and founder of Arzamas, which tries to popularise the cultural achievements of the past. “We have a situation in which naked people are wandering around with clubs and beating each other up. We live in an aggressive, angry society because people do not know anything.”
Arzamas’ online resources take the form of anything from lectures and podcasts to videos, listicles and quizes — but they all use the work of Russian academics as the basis for exploring the history of culture and politics in Russia and the rest of the world. About 1 million people are subscribed to their pages on social media and they have an average of 4 million monthly views.
Perhaps their most ambitious venture, which involved 52 academics, is a so-called super course on the history of Russian culture from the 10th century to the present day. “Popularisation is not very well developed in Russia and often, because of how it is done by television, academics think they will be asked to stand on their heads and dance,” Dzyadko says during an interview in Arzamas’ Moscow offices. “But we have earned a reputation in academic circles.”
Because there isn’t much of an opportunity to talk about real things, people clarify what they think about the world in conversations about the past
Before founding Arzamas in 2015, Dzyadko was chief editor of Bolshoi Gorod, a Moscow magazine associated with its coverage of anti-Kremlin protests in 2011 and 2012. He quit after he was pressured by the magazine’s owners to include more lifestyle content. Many other of the staff at Arzamas are also veterans of once-independent Russian media outlets: editor Kirill Golovastikov formerly worked at Lenta.ru (dozens of its journalists left in 2014 when its successful chief editor was dismissed by the owner) and editor Irina Kaliteevskaya, who briefly succeeded Dzyadko at Bolshoi Gorod before it was shut down for good in 2014.
The trajectory of Dzyadko and his editors is far from unusual. Mikhail Zygar, another prominent Russian journalist, left his position as chief editor of liberal television station Dozhd in 2015 to work on 1917.ru, a social media venture that published writings from the 1917 Russian Revolution in real time. He is currently running a project tracking the events of 1968 using documentaries shot on mobile phones.
“Of course it’s easier to tell the story of what happened 100 years ago than what happened yesterday. Easier in the sense that you don’t have to break through any walls,” says Dzyadko. “But the stories we tell are in some ways more important than those you see on the news.”
Arzamas avoids over-simple comparisons between the past and present, and their lectures and courses are not dictated by day-to-day political developments. To ensure accuracy, they employ a team of fact-checkers and, for particularly politically sensitive topics like the Second World War, Dzyadko says they often chose to emphasise eyewitness testimony.
The name “Arzamas” is a deliberate choice and hints at how Dzyadko and his team see themselves as more than just a straightforward education resource. The name of a progressive, 19th century literary society, Arzamas’ members went on to have a huge impact on Russian society: from poet Alexander Pushkin to arch-conservative Sergei Uvarov who invented the tsarist ideology of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationalist”. Dzyadko describes the 19th century Arzamas as: “a fun, sometimes hooliganistic group and the only thing they were serious about was literature and its importance.”
We are in a situation where naked people are wandering around with clubs and beating each other up. We live in an aggressive, angry society because people do not know anything
For Dzyadko, whose mother is a prominent human rights campaigner and two brothers are well-known liberal journalists, popularising culture in today’s Russia is also important because it is a world still free from what he describes as the deadening hand of an increasingly authoritarian regime. “There is not very much alive in Russia at the moment and what is alive is under threat from the authorities,” he says, and teaching someone how to read a novel like War and Peace provides “an amazing antidote against social and personal loneliness and an opportunity to escape from the grey life of a barbarous state.”
To this end, Arzamas explores literature and history from different angles, trying to make them engaging and accessible. They often use listicles, games and tests and make full use of both video and radio-style publications, as well as texts. In just a small sample of Arzamas’s output, they have created courses called “Byzantium for beginners” and “How to read Harry Potter”, uploaded original recordings of songs sung during the 1917 revolution and compiled a quiz about the political favourites of female Russian rulers in the style of dating app Tinder.
Dzyadko wants to target different audiences, not just intellectuals from Russia’s major cities. He says he wants to attract curious, non-humanity students in their twenties; office workers who studied the humanities but have forgotten most of what they once knew; and people outside Moscow and St Petersburg who do not have an offline community for their historical or cultural interests.
Initial funding for the project was provided by socialite, presenter and actress Anastasia Chukhrai, but Arzamas also has partnerships with institutions including the Tretyakov Gallery and Russian search engine Yandex.
To reach a broader segment of society, Dzaydko says he would like to expand Arzamas’ work in English and collaborate with television. But working with television is difficult because, he says, state-owned television channels in Russia “don’t want to make people happier and more intelligent.” Nevertheless, Arzamas recently launched a programme on Russia’s TV3, hosted by Dzyadko, which explores the country’s 20th history through iconic films.
Arzamas has not only benefitted from Russia’s renewed interest in history, but also from a surge of interest in self-education that has seen the emergence dozens of online projects providing accessible reading material, lectures and other resources. Other examples that emerged in recent years include PostNauka, a science education project; InLiberty, a contemporary discussion platform; education portal Theory and Practice; and Lektorium, a website for online courses.
Dzyadko believes that channelling the expertise of academics can go some way to redressing ignorance about the past. And he predicts that history will only become more important as the political environment becomes more repressive. He says: “because there isn’t much of an opportunity to talk about real things, people clarify what they think about the world in conversations about the past.”