“By popularizing military history, reenactors popularize an archaic reverence for war and force”

Anton Sveshnikov on the reenactment movement in Russia

“By popularizing military history, reenactors popularize an archaic reverence for war and force” Photo: Ilya Repin

After the tragedy that happened to the girlfriend of historian and reenactor Oleg Sokolov, Anastasia Eshchenko, opportunistic interest in the reenactment subculture has grown in Russia. Most of us are familiar with it thanks to the participation of reenactment clubs in the events where the battles of historical eras are simulated. Why people join the reenactment movement, why is it supported by the state, why women choose it and much more — read in the interview of Realnoe Vremya with historian Anton Sveshnikov.

“It is boring to be a manager without any prospects. Reconstruction gives the opportunity to paint a gray life”

Why do people join the reenactment movement?

Here, in my opinion, the intersection of several factors and contexts is important.

On the one hand, roughly speaking, modern global mass culture forms a person's interest in history. History is constantly present in modern culture in various forms. It is almost impossible to be modern people and “be free” from history. It is impossible not to know who, for example, Hitler is. At the same time, in various forms of representation of knowledge about the past, this knowledge is marked as important or interesting.

But on the other hand, we can talk, as many modern researchers say, about the crisis of the “classical regime” of constructing the image of the past, formed in the 19th century. He assumed that there were professional historians, competent experts in the study of the past — and all the rest, non-specialists, the public, society. This is exactly what society needs historians for: they “competently” study the past, relying on conventional norms of science, and package the results of their research into various forms of narratives addressed to a wide audience. Which in the framework of this regime acts as a passive consumer of historical knowledge.

So, for various reasons, this classic mode fails. The “public” is not satisfied with the classical forms of packaging knowledge about the past and they do not agree to perform a purely passive role of the consumer. They seek to participate in the construction of knowledge about the past. The study of the past is being democratized, and historical reconstruction is one of the forms, not the only one, manifestations of this trend. At the same time, within the framework of historical reconstruction, the aspiration, not limited to the verbal form, figuratively speaking, “to touch the past with your hands”, “to smell”, to feel it, using “bodily experience” in contact with the past, turn out to be significant.

I must say that despite the ambiguity of this trend (there are many tricky nuances), modern professional historians are ready to meet it. This is manifested in the emergence of new problem areas of historical research both in the search for new forms of packaging of historical knowledge and in the development of the form of work of historians such as “public history”. This is the first point.

The second point, in my opinion, is that the reenactment movement is a form of escapism. It allows a person who is dissatisfied with his social status, boring work or everyday life, to get away from it and thus, as it seems to him, to realize his or her potential. It's boring to be just an ordinary manager with no prospects. And reconstruction give the opportunity to paint this gray life.

The third point is also very significant: the mass reenactment movement is largely the result of the influence of the Internet and digitalization in general. The Internet greatly increases the possibility of communication, which is important for the formation of communities, and the availability of almost any information about the past. If in the ‘90s, it was difficult for a resident of a provincial Russian city interested in, for example, the middle ages, to see firsthand a medieval armour, now the Internet allows them to get acquainted with the appearance of such armour in all details, and with its detailed description.

Why do women join the reenactment movement?

The reasons are exactly the same — “interest in history” and escapism. In the reenactment movement, there are far fewer women than men, and most often, they have to play the traditional roles of women in traditional society — sewing and wearing clothes, portraying beautiful ladies at jousting tournaments, cooking and setting the table. Although women, not always satisfied with this state of affairs, try to express themselves in a different way in the reconstruction. There are especially female clubs of reconstruction, and in HMB (Historical Medieval Battle — editor’s note), there are female fighting nominations — girls dressed in armour beat each other with a sword. Not very authentic, but interesting.

Photo: Ilya Repin
In the reenactment movement, there are far fewer women than men, and most often, they have to play the traditional roles of women in traditional society — sewing and wearing clothes, portraying beautiful ladies at jousting tournaments, cooking and setting the table. Although women, not always satisfied with this state of affairs, try to express themselves in a different way in the reconstruction

Is there any traditional world congress of reenactment clubs like the Olympic games in sports?

Yes, of course. Reenactors actively interact with each other both in the former post-Soviet space and more widely. But here we must bear in mind the following point: from the point of view of the forms and principles of work with the past, the reconstructive movement is heterogeneous, and this heterogeneity leaves its imprint on the forms of interaction. For each type of reconstruction, the “congress” is different. For example, if we are talking about the medieval clubs of historical reconstruction (those that reconstruct the Western European middle ages), then among them there are two types of activity.

The first is what is known as “living history”, which is based on the desire to recreate the daily life and life of people of a historical period. It is the reconstruction of buildings, settlements, handicraft activities, clothing, kitchen and so on. For Russian reenactors of this direction. a significant congress is, for example, a major festival of historical reconstruction Times and Epochs, which is held in Moscow.

The second type is combat sport, duels, competitions with the use of modern medieval weapons and armour. It is known as the HMB. There is a lot of sports in it — clear rules, nominations, judges, tournament grid, awards to winners. And, accordingly, the activities are carried out differently, in a different form, for different purposes. For them, the main “congress” is the Battle of the Nations. In the latter, according to official information, representatives of 32 countries took part.

Although sometimes, especially in the province, reenactment events are held where supporters of “living history” and HMB participate together and actively interact with each other.

Photo: Ilya Repin

“Napoleonics is, perhaps, the most mass segment of the movement”

To what extent have the staged scenes of reenactment clubs grown? Do they already make wall-battering guns or build small fortresses?

You know, if one gives reenactors will, they would go far enough in this direction. But in reality, it all depends on the limited scope of space, time and budget. To build a “real” knight's castle or medieval city takes more than one year. But, for example, a wooden fort with a palisade and ditches — the re-enactors and take by storm. This is a fairly common practice. They ca “play” large-scale battles unfolding in a large area with a significant number of participants. This is typical, for example, for Napoleonics (the reconstruction of the war 1812), perhaps the most massive segment of the historical reconstruction movement.

In the organization of space, it is partly a little easier for those reenactment clubs that have the opportunity to hold their events in open-air museums, but here, of course, you do not have enough freedom, you have to control yourself and moderate the ardor of battles.

What good for society does the reenactment movement bring in general?

Speaking about the meaning of their activities, the reenactors themselves appeal to that they are engaged in the study of history and the popularization of historical knowledge, contributing to the growth of interest in history. To some extent, we can agree with them on this. Indeed, within the framework of the reenactment movement, an interest in history is formed and maintained, and in a rather bright and original form. Hundreds of people try to learn something about the past, and not in the mode of one-time passive perception of information, but systematically, taking part in the construction of a certain version of the image of the past. They read books, gather information, make “historical kits”, prepare and hold events without any external coercion. In the course of this activity, new non-traditional forms of interaction with the past and new meanings of these interactions are formed. Moreover, in the course of joint “work with the past”, people build their communications, form a circle of communication, find new forms of behavioral practices and construction of identity and their social space, which they lack in everyday life, make their life “rich and interesting”.

Further, however, modern Russian reenactors, justifying their social importance, often switch to the official state discourse and talk about “the formation of patriotism”, “the popularization of traditional values”, and these are not so obvious things.

Photo: Ilya Repin
Speaking about the meaning of their activities, the reenactors themselves appeal to that they are engaged in the study of history and the popularization of historical knowledge, contributing to the growth of interest in history. To some extent, we can agree with them on this

“Officials can report that a patriotic educational event has been held”

We'll come back to that. Can reenactors be criticized for anything?

There is not much criticism of the reenactment movement in the public space, and it is connected in modern Russia with three points.

First, reenactors are often criticized from certain ideological positions for excessive loyalty to the official “historical policy”, as a result of which they sometimes become an important tool in carrying out this policy.

Second, professional historians sometimes criticize re-enactors for non-reflexive methodological “naive objectivism”. Reenactors believe that they know, or at least can learn, how it really was, and on the establishment of “objective facts” build their activities. From the point of view of the modern theory of historical knowledge, the knowledge of the past is more complex.

Finally, the third point is, perhaps, the most important. The moment, the significance of which becomes especially significant after the recent incident in St. Petersburg with historian and reenactor Oleg Sokolov. The thing is that the presence of a military, militaristic principle plays a very important role in the historical reconstruction. Within the framework of the reenactment movement, it, and much of what is associated with it, is heroized and mythologized. By popularizing military history, reenactors popularize an archaic reverence for war and force, in a sense legitimizing violence as a way to solve the problem. Even titularly — many reenactment clubs are called clubs of “military-historical reconstruction” or “military history”. Behind this, in my opinion, there is a really serious problem.

Although, in fairness, it should be recognized that representatives of living history are trying to distance themselves from this trend.

It is possible, of course, to raise the question of the productivity of escapism, escape from modernity into the past as a life strategy (it is often said that those who can not realize themselves in normal life come to reconstruction), but this question hardly lends itself to an unambiguous interpretation.

You’ve said that the state supports the reconstruction movement. For what purpose does it do this?

There are a few points here, too. First, the support for this movement allows officials to tick the box in terms of reporting on the work done. In fact, most of the preparations for the reenactment festivals are carried out by the reenactors themselves, and officials can report that an important patriotic educational event of a large scale has been held. In this regard, government agencies are willing to meet the re-enactors, allocating cash grants and providing other types of support. They especially favour, of course, those reenactment events, the theme of which fits into the official state historical policy and which can be carried out under the stamp “Patriotic education”. For example, for Siberia, these are festivals that reconstruct the events of Ermak's campaigns and “glorify the heroism” of the conquerors of Siberia. Although, to be fair, it should be said that the reenactors themselves perceive such cooperation sometimes very cynically.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
In fact, most of the preparations for the reenactment festivals are carried out by the reenactors themselves, and officials can report that an important patriotic educational event of a large scale has been held. In this regard, government agencies are willing to meet the re-enactors, allocating cash grants and providing other types of support

Second, for the authorities, the support for the reconstruction movement is, to some extent, an opportunity to redirect public initiative into a peaceful, i.e. safe for the authorities themselves, direction. Let them forge armour and wave swords rather than do something else.

By Matvey Antropov