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A better way to understand the past

“History is topiary,” says Matthew Parris in The Spectator. Like a gardener who trims a hedge into the shape of a swan, a historian strips away redundant information to “make themselves a story”. Yet through this approach, “something true is lost”. I recently watched Adam Curtis’s “genius” documentary series, TraumaZone, a seven-episode collage of BBC clips filmed in the collapsing Soviet Union, and later Russia, from 1985 to 1999. There’s “no commentary at all”. One minute you see two old women walking with suitcases through the snow; the next, “bewildered monkeys in an abandoned zoo”; the next, Boris Yeltsin in his Crimean villa (above). It adds up to a “curiously heart-breaking” kaleidoscope of bits and pieces – and because it doesn’t fit into a neat argument, we better understand how things felt at the time. Through the very process “of simply watching without trying to make sense of it”, we start to make sense of it.

💻😳 I had an “absolute disaster” when I watched TraumaZone on my laptop on the train, says historian Dominic Sandbrook on Twitter. At one point, the documentary “abruptly cut” to a scene of ordinary Russians earning some extra cash by “making homemade pornography”. The train was “absolutely packed”, and I was sitting next to a young woman who couldn’t help but see it, so I desperately tried to fast-forward. But at that point the Wi-Fi seemed to give out, and the picture froze “at the most incriminating possible moment”. Shutting the laptop and stuffing it back in my bag seemed to take “an eternity”.