Coronavirus, Russia and the world: can history help?

Russia has suffered its share of epidemics in the last century or so. As we face the global uncertainty of coronavirus, does knowledge of this history help us?

Take three examples with different implications.

Sometimes, decision-makers successfully learn from recent experience. In 1892, Saratov endured one of Russia’s worst cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century. Ten years later, when cholera spread across the city again, the response by medics and government was more effective, thanks to sanitary and social reforms in the intervening period.

A religious cholera procession in rural Russia. Pen drawing by I.A. Vladimirov. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

At other times, circumstances have been so overwhelming that the state has been disabled. In 1918, Russia was caught up in the worldwide influenza epidemic. But its experience of that devastating disease was determined by the breakdown of state and society caused by the Revolution and Civil War.

And state agencies have sometimes had all-embracing ambitions. In December 1947, an infectious disease codenamed ‘form 6’ was detected in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. It had plague-like qualities. The Ministry of Health demanded that the whole town be immunized immediately.

Is this historical knowledge — three examples of how the Russians have responsed to epidemics — useful in the current emergency? I’m doubtful. As I argue in an earlier post that is sceptical about historical analogies, every event only happens once, so applying historical knowledge can be outright misleading.

Chld’s ration book, UK, Second World War. Image courtesy of UK National Archives / Wikiemdia Commons.

There’s a danger in Britain right now of muddying the waters with historical analogies. Here comparisons between the global pandemic and the Second World War are common. This week the FT investigated the wartime parallels of the UK’s Covid-19 economic policy. The underlying assumption is that we’ve seen something similar before, at least in economic terms. But the historian Adam Tooze took a different perspective in The Washington Post. ‘This isn’t 1914. It isn’t 1941. It isn’t even 2008. It is 2020,’ he wrote, arguing that historians have to point out when things are new (and exceptionally alarming).

But if analogies are problematic, historical context might be more useful. Knowledge of relevant circumstances — specific frameworks in which people have thought and acted over recent decades — might throw some light on responses by the population and government to Covid-19 in Russia.

Putin visits coronavirus unit

Let’s take two historical aspects of Russian political culture which tell us something about the assumptions of todays’s top officials. First is the resort to understated rhetoric during a crisis, and second is the special status of the city of Moscow. There’s a disjunction between government’s soothing words and its furious activity: a de facto shutdown, which is already the prelude to even tougher and more widespread restrictions, is just ‘a week-long holiday from work’. Breakneck hospital construction is happening precisely in Moscow, and the fate of provincials is uncertain.

Then there’s the Russian population, sometimes breezy, sometimes terrified: a combination that has an historical dimension. Having encountered health disasters and national emergencies before, it seems innoculated against panic — but only for a while. Since the public health crises of the 1940s, many people have reflexively washed their hands and removed outdoor clothing indoors, gone to see the doctor for a health certificate before accessing a swimming pool, and quickly isolated themselves (or at least their children) at the merest hint of a high temperature. Any Russian who lived through the early 1990s has seen food shortages, hoarding, a quick adjustment to modest habits, and sudden inversions of social injustice. The memory seems to create perspective and calm, until the threat feels acute, and the sense of injustice becomes overwhelming.

Foreign observers can use such historical context to gain a better sense of what Russians might be thinking or doing today. But this process is intuitive and subjective. Patterns are not clear. Exceptions are rife. The methods are not scientifically rigorous. Any conclusions are not objectively defensible.

So if historical analogies are risky, and historical context might only be loose, is history barely useful while coronavirus threatens our societies?

The truth is that history is at the heart of how we look at the world, so at this time of peril we need it more than ever. Faced with Covid-19, policymakers and ordinary people might find history useful in three ways.

First: very precise expertise. Economists and epidemiologists need historical data to model possible future trends and plausible responses to them.

Visiting other historical worlds. ‘Russia: people carrying goods on sledges over the snow.’ Engraving by Smith, 1785.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Second: a consolation. Locked down in our houses, we can travel to whatever pasts we want to, in books, films, and pictures, not to distract ourselves, but to open our imaginations and find connections with our ancestors.

Third: a warning. Politicians use history to justify their actions. Boris Johnson says that he is heading up a wartime government. He reminds us of the Blitz. But we are not at war: we are dealing with a massive public health emergency. As Russia found during the Spanish flu of 1918, a war and a pandemic are different things. Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty, sounds a warning: the new legislation to protect the UK public ‘is without doubt the biggest restriction on our individual and collective freedoms in a generation.’

This consolation and warning are crucial history lessons for our time. The more we listen to the voices of people who came before us, the wider our view of human experience. The better our sense of the past, the less likely we are to take at face value our leaders’ historical analogies. As ever, the real use of history is to make us more sympathetic people and less credulous citizens.

History itself therefore encourages us to stay at home and play our part in arresting the pandemic, while reminding us of the urgent need to keep our governments accountable. And so the answer is yes: history really can help us at this unexpected time of fear.