With Queen Elizabeth’s departure, no matter how we feel about the monarchy or Britain, an almost eternal constant has disappeared from our subconscious. After all, it is clear that on the scale of the life of an individual, 70 years is practically an eternity, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The funeral of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II marks a farewell to the twentieth century. This phrase has become commonplace in numerous comments and articles on her death. It is clear that the twenty-second year of the next, twenty-first century is underway. But the calendar’s chronology does not always correspond to political symbolism.
Understanding this difference between ordinary and political time is associated mainly with the historian Eric Hobsbawm. Thanks to his work, terms such as “long 19th century” (1789-1914) and the “short 20th century” (1914-1991) that followed it are now already in common use in academia and are used by the media. However, “long” and “short” political centuries were written about even before Hobsbawm. For example, Fernand Braudel spoke about the “long 16th century.” There were other contenders for the title of the discoverers of these terms.
But the name is not so important here. With regard to the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm consolidated what many thought themselves. That this political century really ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world socialist system. After that, a completely different era began. With completely different rules, or at least an attempt to build them. Thus, the metaphor of the “short 20th century” accurately and succinctly reflected the world political reality. And it was by no means contrived.
But if the twentieth century ended in 1991, then why is it only now being buried with the Queen? Does this simply signify a tribute to the memory of a woman whose name and image have been familiar to the whole world for seven decades?
With her departure, no matter how we feel about the monarchy or Britain, an almost eternal constant has disappeared from our subconscious. After all, it is clear that on the scale of the life of an individual, 70 years is practically an eternity.
Or is it something else? Something more meaningful? If so, would it not be an exaggeration to say that there were two “political” twentieth centuries in this world? One the age of Hobsbawm and the other the age of Queen Elizabeth II?
It is clear that the Queen here is only a symbol. But the years of her reign, 1952-2022, mark, to some extent, a truly integral era. The quintessence of Hobsbawm’s “short 20th century” is still two world wars. The very title of his book, The Age of Extremes, says so. These wars are the essence of his political century. Everything that happened after them was only an epilogue to the end of this “age of extremes”. And from this point of view, the post-war twentieth century is fundamentally different from its first half. Just its beginning symbolically coincided with the ascension to the throne of Elizabeth.
For us in Russia, however, it is more logical to shift the starting point of this post-war twentieth century by a year. Not 1952, but 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, really irrevocably changed the whole way of life in the USSR. I don’t know if everyone will agree with this, but sometimes there is a feeling that the Soviet Union under Stalin and the Soviet Union after him are two completely different countries. These were different people (albeit in the same body), who had different views and a different style. They valued life differently, for that matter.
In turn, 1991 also has a completely different meaning for the inhabitants of Russia, compared to the rest of the world. For a person and society in the West between 1990 and 1992, absolutely nothing changed in life. There was only a distant geopolitical event that did not directly concern them. Therefore, for public opinion in the West there is no real pause, line of interruption of life in 1991. The end of the “short 20th century” in this particular year is perceived as nothing more than the intellectual exercise of an historian, another “glass bead game” of social sciences. Therefore, in this context, the “extension” of the twentieth century until the day of the Queen’s death can be perceived there quite naturally. Her whole epoch appears as one and whole.
For many residents of post-socialist countries, 1991 marks the beginning of the path of freedom and independence, a new path, albeit a difficult one, but a welcome one. For them, this year is undoubtedly significant; and in a completely different way, it is significant for Russia. For the older and middle generations of Russians, this year is primarily remembered as a time of extremely sharp impoverishment and poverty, as a time of complete loss of social security and the loss of almost all orientation in life. Not for everyone, no doubt. For some people in Russia, the year 1991 marked the beginning of an equally sharp enrichment and, along with it, the emerging feeling of uncontrolled power over society and the world.
But one way or another, 1991 became a real border between two eras in Russia. And therefore, the “twentieth century of Elizabeth” for us cannot be perceived as a whole, it is clearly divided into two. If the readers have a taste for intellectual exercises, then one might think what name to give to this thirty-year era, 1991-2022; the beginning and end of this period are quite obvious to us. You can come up with, for example, “short twenty-first century” or “short post-twentieth”, or “long inter-age”, or something else. The point is not in words, but in our memory of the integrity of this era, which almost completely, except for the youngest generations, was part of our own lives.
Now this era is fading into the past, with its habits and traditions. But have we finally said goodbye to the twentieth century? Is it possible to turn back time? Nothing is impossible for a historian. One can already come across arguments that Russia has now returned to the twentieth century. Certainly, to that very “age of extremes” of Hobsbawm. And now it is only at the very beginning. So everything is dialectical.
Let’s not forget, however, that the same Eric Hobsbawm devoted one of his works to the “invention of tradition”. In this book, he argues that those traditions, those foundations that we sometimes nostalgically remember as a constant of the “golden age” of the past, “when the trees were tall,” and which form the basis of conservatism and traditionalism both in behaviour and in values and in politics, are by no means such. Most often, they were invented post factum, as part of a modernist or postmodernist reconstruction of the past — and for certain political purposes. Such total negativism is quite understandable in a historian with Marxist views, such as Hobsbawm. He was extremely critical of the mainstream ideologies of modern politics. It is possible that his approach is an exaggeration. But now, recalling with sadness the traditions of the twentieth century in connection with the death of Elizabeth II, let’s not forget that someone could artificially invent them, too.