We hear it said time and again that “those who don’t study history are destined to repeat it.” This phrase is used as a warning when the oracles of our civilizations declare that something tragic is about to befall us again. Such declarations are meant to wake Us up and for Us to apply the brakes to our collective unconscious charge into a preventable disaster.
Why is it always the tragedies that find their way back into our modern lives, echoing the tragedies our grandparents lived through? Why can’t the good parts of history repeat themselves while we live our lives with reckless abandon? Is it some type of generational karma? Is it a punishment for some original sin? Or does history have a score to settle for the sins and abuses of each new generation?
Would history feel the need to lash out at us every seventy years even if We gave it the proper respect it demands for appeasement? After studying history for decades, I have a suspicion that history is simply trying to exorcise its own demons and that you and I are caught in the wild swings of its possession. Regardless of what we do, history will continue to regress, relapse and replay its ancient pains hoping for closure.
Europe is at war again and somehow it seems there was little anybody could have done to prevent it. I studied the histories of both Russia and Ukraine with respect. I looked at them from several different perspectives. I adopted a position and then changed it. I have turned the history of the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet period of the last thirty years upside down and turned it inside out. I lived in both countries. I learned to read, write and speak Russian and other Eastern European languages. History didn’t give a damn.
What then can be done to stop the march of history? If studying history hasn’t helped us to avoid this hellish war in Ukraine, would ignoring history maybe be a better option? Many times it is history that gives us all sorts of bad new ideas! If we tried to forget about the past could it be that maybe we would forget how to be cruel and violent to each other? Could we hold on to the good parts of history, such as tradition and culture, while discarding its traumas and false narratives? Or is it an all or nothing scenario?
Trying to hold back the course of history would be as fruitful as trying to hold back the tide each day. While history repeats itself, all We can do is preserve as much human dignity as possible for those caught in the crossfire. With enough dignity preserved by Our collective compassionate acts for the victims of Russia’s ever-repeating cruelty against Ukraine, perhaps the reconstruction of lives, buildings, cities and societies can be strengthened enough to live through repeated head on collisions with history the next time it wants to take a drive down a treacherous memory lane.
Let those with no new ideas about how to make our world a better place revise and rewrite a defective history of modern civilization. Maybe they can help themselves feel better about what has made them into what they are today. As for me, I will not study history any longer. Instead, I will be giving my full attention to the here and now, hoping to contribute answers and solutions, in the present tense, to help make a brighter today and give hope for tomorrow to those for whom history shows no mercy or respect.
V M Karren is the author of The Deceit of Riches series, set in Eastern Europe (Russia, Ukraine, Romania) during the political and social chaos of the 1990s as the Soviet Union disintegrated.