I arrived in the Soviet Union at the beginning of February to teach 19th-century American history at Moscow State University. Early in my visit, a Soviet colleague remarked that the U.S.S.R. is the land of the "unpredictable past," where historical judgments shift, often abruptly, in the prevailing political winds. History everywhere is political, in the sense that contemporary problems and values profoundly affect accounts of the past, but rarely has history been so malleable as in Gorbachev's Soviet Union.
Glasnost (intellectual openness) provoked challenges to established verities in every corner of Soviet life. Simultaneously, under the slogan of perestroika (restructuring), authorities embarked on a series of reforms intended to transform the country's political and economic structure.
A new future requires a new past. To legitimize these far-reaching changes, the press and public officials now paint the history of the Soviet era in the blackest hues, reclassifying every top leader between Lenin and Gorbachev as either criminal or incompetent.
In high schools, textbooks on Soviet history have been scrapped, new ones have yet to appear, and last year final examinations in history were canceled altogether.
The collapse of established assumptions and previously unquestioned paradigms has produced an intellectual crisis. The demise of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the crisis in the Soviet economy have thrown into question Marxist ideas that previously were the basis of historical scholarship _ that history is evolving in a predetermined direction, that capitalism is declining and socialism is on the rise, that class struggle is the motive force of historical change.
The disenchantment with the previous orthodoxy and longing for a new past were evident among my students. In my first lecture I remarked that the semester's themes _ the rise of the market, the causes of secession, and the process of radical reconstruction _ held particular relevance for today's Soviet Union. (With luck, I added, the U.S.S.R. could go 19th-century America one better and avoid a civil war.)
In the very week when I lectured on the American secession crisis, Lithuania declared its independence. Gorbachev's response, I pointed out, was not unlike Lincoln's: A union, no matter how constructed, could not be dismantled without the consent of all its members.
To my surprise, nearly all my 30-odd students supported Lithuania's right to leave the Soviet Union. Indeed, they viewed with remarkable equanimity the very real possibility of their country's dismemberment, especially if this could be accomplished without bloodshed.
Nor did they express regret about the recent "loss" of Eastern Europe and the evident decline of the U.S.S.R.'s status as a great power. One student said that Gorbachev should take a lesson from Russia's policy after its defeat in the Crimean War, which revealed the country's profound social and economic backwardness: The U.S.S.R. should retire from the world scene for a generation and put its own house in order.
Predictably, my students read American history through the prism of their own desires. On their final exams, for instance, nearly all professed admiration for Abraham Lincoln, whom they saw as a pragmatist guided solely by "common sense."
Their nonideological Lincoln, who lacked deeply held political and moral convictions, would be unrecognizable to most American historians today. The construct of a generation of Soviet students soured on ideology, he embodied their yearning for intellectual and political moderation after nearly a century of war and social upheaval.
As for their own history, my students shared the current obsession with locating missed opportunities and roads not taken in the Soviet past. Accomplishments of which all Soviets can be justly proud, such as the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, evoked little enthusiasm.
The rethinking of history, I realized, has opened a deep fissure between the generations.
The older generation does not share the nostalgia for czarist days now fashionable among critics of the existing order. But at Moscow State, many students (themselves mostly from privileged families) lavished praise on the high standard of prerevolutionary culture and the excellence of elite prerevolutionary education, lamenting the downward "leveling" of both in the Soviet period.
Such nostalgia is an enemy of true historical understanding, since it reifies portions of the past while ignoring others. But as a wholesale rejection of the present, nostalgia can serve as a powerful mode of protest.
"A society cannot live or develop normally," said Soviet historian Yuri Afanasyev, "without knowing where it came from and what it is."
Sometimes, as in Stalin's Soviet Union or the early 20th-century United States (where historians rewrote the American past to justify the denial of black's right as citizens, such as arguing that the failure of Reconstruction was proof that blacks were incapable of participating in government), history serves mainly to rationalize the status quo.
History can degenerate into nostalgia for an imaginary golden age or inspire a utopian quest to erase the past altogether. And it can force people to think differently about their society by bringing to light unpleasant truths.
In today's Soviet Union, history plays all these roles. It is easier, of course, to dismantle an old vision than to assemble a new one, but if historians succeed in providing this troubled country a common sense of its past, they will have done as much as legions of radicals, secessionists, and populists to project the Soviet Union into a new future.
Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, recently returned from four months as Fulbright Lecturer in American History at Moscow State University. His most recent book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, won both the Bancroft and Parkman awards.
Harper's Magazine. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.