In a recent book of essays entitled Knowing One’s Enemies, a noted political scientist recounts an apocryphal story ascribed to a retired British Foreign Office professional. Through more than half of the twentieth century, year in and year out, so the reminiscence goes, this diplomat assured Foreign Secretaries that there would be no major European war. In all that time, he boasted, he had been “wrong only twice.” What some may consider a banality bears repeating: now more than ever we must know our “enemies,” not, as in the past, in order to win wars, but to avoid them. In a sober search for understanding of those who can destroy us, we must not only ask the right questions and give the right answers but also make certain that we do not get “little things right and big things wrong.”
The purpose of all historical study is understanding: understanding of each people’s development, understanding of the human condition, understanding for responsible citizenship in the world. A study of Russian history can facilitate all of these as we come to know our “enemies” better. It is not a foolproof tool, but it is far better than ignorance. Historically, it is a fundamentally different past from our own, but it, too, requires our careful attention.