Getting Zapped by History

My father, rest his soul, did not believe that studying history was worth it. He wanted me to study economics instead. He was paying the bills, and so I did,

My father’s relative disdain for history is typically American. History is a nice backdrop for current events but nothing more. The real action is in the present and future rather than the past. And so Americans obsess about how to increase their performance – even by experimenting with transcranial direct current stimulation. We think less about what our past tells us about ourselves.

But history plays a different role in other countries. it does in Estonia, and it may as well in Russia.  Why is that important? Consider this question — Is Vladimir Putin dangerous to the west?

Of course, we cannot know for sure because we cannot know what is lurking in his mind. One could answer “yes” or “no” depending on how one reads the tea leaves.

There are at least two views. One view is that Putin simply wants to stay in power and reacts to potential threats in a knee jerk way. If one believes this, he is not really dangerous unless provoked. Leave him alone and he will leave you alone. Throw him a bone and he may even be friendly. So far, this appears to be Donald Trump’s view.

The other view is that Putin feels a deep need to destabilize the west, and that his actions are all meant to weaken western confidence in its institutions.  That would include NATO, but is not limited to NATO. He is also interested in weakening the US and Europe.  Those who take this view point to Russia’s predilection for creating frozen conflicts, as well as its recent intervention in the US elections. it may also be rooted in Russia’s history.

If you want more background on the second view, check out Peter Sovodnik’s piece for Vanity Fair. According to Peter, we in the west may be headed for a rather unpleasant Dostoyevskian surprise. In other words, history is about to bite us all in the butt.

Is Peter right? Who knows! But one thing is abundantly clear. Errr … at least to me. Mr. Putin disdains western institutions. He is building a counter-weight to western democracy and it is totalitarian. Putin gains as totalitarian thinking in the west gains. And at least in the short term, it has been gaining ground.

We will see if Peter is right, if I am right, or if both of us are wrong. This in itself is a sad thing to say. Sad because I would rather know for sure that I am wrong, and that there is really nothing to worry about. But I cannot dismiss the concerns that things are moving in a dangerous direction. My father, who did not see much value in thinking in historical terms, might have disagreed. But while I studied economics, I never lost my interest in history.


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