Sunday, August 29, 2010

An Amazing Look Into the Past

By Barry Rubin

Although this is a bit outside what I usually discuss (but I have an excuse coming up in a moment), I recommend to you some truly remarkable pictures of the Russian empire, taken a century ago.

Here’s my excuse: A number of them are in the Caucasus and Central Asia which can be regarded as part of the Greater Middle East.

I hate it when people recommend photos or You-Tube items or jokes to me that turn out to be a waste of time, or that take my time from something else I'd rather do. This, however, is different.

For what makes these photos—excellent in their own right—totally amazing and unique is that they are in color. Not colorized but real color. The photographer, operating before the Russian Revolution, used a clever way to create color photographs a half-century before these became common. A reader tells me this method was invented in the United States and developed in Germany.

Given their clarity, they show how closely people and places of a century ago resemble those of today or, to put it another way, it brings out the distinctions in dress, customs, and technology between a century ago and today. A friend who is an expert on Russia and has spent many years there says that the countryside has changed surprisingly little since these photos were taken.

It also makes me wonder about an alternative history: Suppose the Russian Revolution, or at least the Communist part of it, had never happened? Would the world, and certainly those places that became part of the Soviet empire, be better off?

To begin with, there would never have been any Nazi imitators of Bolshevism—I’m not saying they were the same but the fascists did see Communism as both inspiration and an enemy that required extreme measures to combat—World War Two, Holocaust, or Cold War, among other things.

And this made me wonder about today’s “wonderful” schemes for fundamentally transforming Western democracies or imposing revolutionary Islamist regimes in the Middle East that are bringing so much waste, suffering, and roadblocks to true progress.

It is not enough to talk about helping the poor and downtrodden or saving the earth or fostering diversity or all those other slogans. The policies, ideas, and programs proposed must actually work in making the world a better place. All too often they don't do so, but rather make things worse and leave large blood stains behind.

The problem with using historical analogies is that not everyone understands them. Let me give you an example, here's a passage from the incomparable Shai Agnon about pre-World War One Austria-Hungary. That country was the very model of a diverse, multicultural country, with extensive autonomy for Hungary and a lot of freedom for all the different peoples therein:

"And so, Isaac sits [in a train] and rides through the realm of Austria, that same Austria that rules over eighteen states, and twelve nations are subject to it. One and the same law for the Jews and for the people of the land, their well-being is our well-being, for the Emperor is a Gracious King, he protects all who take shelter with him....Her earth is lush and fertile and the produce of her land is greater than the need of her inhabitants...."

But Agnon, writing thirty years later, during World War Two no less, knows what happened: quarrels among these diverse peoples plus the defeat in World War One, tore the country apart in strife. The same happened with another multicultural empire called Russia, albeit that was far less tolerant, dubbed the prison house of nations. On its ruin rose the Soviet Union, which claimed to be a paradise of plurality but was actually a Russian-dominated empire of persecution and oppression under the most enchanting slogans and carefully cultivated lies.

The post-1918 conclusion was that multiculturalism didn't work but actually provoked conflict. The countries that flourished were those who promoted a democratic sense of national identity along with freedom, like the United States, Britain, and France. Teaching people that they are separate groups who are victims of the majority plants mutual hatred, consolidates separate identities, and ensures that many will seek revenge.

But enough about that. Meditate on these marvelous photographs and look deeply into the faces of these long-gone individuals and their societies. Here and here.

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