Shlaes says Putin’s actions are not shocking to those who study history

Amity Shlaes explains for Forbes readers why a little historical knowledge makes Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s recent actions in the Crimea and Ukraine more understandable.

Today many people disdain historical imagery as tacky. And they think of nations such as Russia, China and Germany only in present terms, with little regard to what took place before, say, 1989 (or even in 1989, i.e., Tiananmen Square). That year the scholar Francis Fukuyama published the essay “The End of History?” in the journal National Interest. Fukuyama put forward the concept that the major ideological struggles were over. Editors and politicians all began to treat history as a suitcase with some embarrassing content best left–when no one is looking–on the baggage belt.

But what were the reasons we did so? Diplomats such as Clinton fear they’ll sound like (Republican) Cold Warriors. From fifth grade to graduate school teachers subtly discourage students from using such words as “Soviet,” “communist,” “Comintern,” “Munich,” “tsar” (or its alternate, “czar”) and “appeasement.” But the teachers never say why.

Part of this willed amnesia grows out of good will. Germany and Japan turned out all right after 1945, so we just assume all European and Asian nations will inexorably improve this time around. (The Middle East is another column.) Economists avoid history because they are pragmatic optimists. In the middle of the last decade Andrei Shleifer wrote about Russia as a “normal country,” whose shift from the Evil Empire of communism to a market economy was nothing short of a “transformation.”

Such impulses are understandable, but it’s not pleasant to answer the buzzer at the front door and find that old bag on your top step. Fortunately, recovery from history amnesia is possible. Certain historical trends are evident in the Russian government’s behavior.

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