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On May 9, Russia is set to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. This will be more than an act of personal commemoration and remembering for ordinary Russians. It will be—even in the enforced absence of public events—a highly political occasion for a regime that has made victory over Nazism a cornerstone of its national ideology and legitimacy.
The Kremlin has postponed the main May 9 Victory Day parade because of the new coronavirus pandemic, but not canceled it, because of its political importance. Three-quarters of the Russian public traditionally watch the parade on television, reinforcing a sense of national unity. On May 9 itself, there will now only be an airshow and a fireworks display.
Pressing ahead with a public event while Moscow is in the grip of the pandemic could have caused a backlash against the president. By holding the parade later in the year, when it is hoped the peak of the infection will have passed, the Kremlin aims to retain its power to rally Russians “round the flag” and mobilize support for President Vladimir Putin and his plans to revise the constitution and reset the clock on his presidential terms to zero.
Putin takes a strong personal interest in this issue. He puts such a premium on shaping a new historical discourse for the country that he can reasonably be dubbed Russia’s national historian. Evidently with his approval, a national working group drafting new constitutional amendments has proposed a new clause to the constitution that reads, “The Russian Federation honors the memory of defenders of the Fatherland and protects historical truth. Diminishing the significance of the people’s heroism in defending the Fatherland is not permitted.”
Russia is far from unique in having an obsession with shaping a national historical discourse. Many European countries are now engaged in fighting historical memory wars. Every state constructs its own pantheon of heroes and victims, historical hierarchies, and what French historian Pierre Nora calls “sites of memory.” Many governments seek to be the custodians of collective memory.
Russia stands out in two respects: first, in its categorical refusal to discuss all uncomfortable historical issues, and secondly in the extremely aggressive tone of its discourse on historical issues, which acts as a kind of political mobilization on contemporary issues.
The Kremlin is waging a history battle on two fronts, both against Russia’s supposed “falsifiers of history” at home, and against those abroad who purportedly deal in “historical distortions” that are seen to denigrate Russia.
The Russian government employs a whole arsenal of resources in pursuing this double fight. It mobilizes the public with products of mass culture, such as patriotic historical films like T-34 or Stalingrad, and stages military parades, historical reenactments, and events of official collective mourning. Increasingly it deploys religion to reinforce the patriotic message. A procession was held in St. Petersburg in September 2019 to mark the two hundred and ninety-fifth anniversary of the transfer of the holy relics of St. Alexander Nevsky. A new Orthodox cathedral constructed in a park on the edge of Moscow to commemorate Victory Day features steps paved with melted-down guns seized from the Nazis and a mosaic depicting Putin, members of his inner circle, and Stalin (though in recent days Putin has initiated the removal of the mosaic of his face: he doesn’t want to look ridiculous at a time when his popularity has dropped).
With grand projects such as these, the leaders of the regime aim to legitimize their authoritarian practices by sacralizing the power of the state. They limit history to the accomplishments of czars and political and military leaders, and treat people as expendable resources in the sweep of history.
In the process, even personal memories must be co-opted to fit a prearranged historical discourse. For example, the state has taken control over the “Immortal Regiment” marches, an initiative that was intended to be nonpolitical, in which families commemorate loved ones who died in the war on Victory Day by carrying photographs of them in processions.
Russian officialdom is busy restoring the history of the “Great Patriotic War” (as the Second World War is known in Russia) to the same simplified propagandistic outlines it had in Soviet times. Recently, the State Duma passed a bill moving the date commemorating the official end of the war in 1945 from September 2 to September 3, as it was in the Soviet era. This sends the message that the Soviet Union fought for one day longer than its Western allies—but has also offended many in Russia, as the Beslan terrorist attack of 2004 is also commemorated on that day.
A yet more controversial case is that of the notorious secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, under which Germany and the Soviet Union divided parts of Eastern Europe into “areas of influence” and the USSR occupied the Baltic States and parts of Poland and Romania.
In Soviet times, the very existence of the secret protocol was concealed because it was deemed so shameful. Then came glasnost, and in 1989 the new Soviet parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, condemned the pact and its secret protocol as “legally deficient and invalid.” Now the pendulum has swung back, and they are being portrayed as a victory for diplomacy and for Stalin personally.
In August 2019, Sergei Naryshkin, who combines the post of director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service with being head of the Russian Historical Society, published an article in the official government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, titled “There Was No Other Way.” Naryshkin argued that “refusing Ribbentrop’s offer could have put the Soviet Union in a far worse military and political situation, as further developments demonstrated.” On August 23, then culture minister Vladimir Medinsky described the condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by the Soviet Union’s Second Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989 as “hysterical demonization.”
The following month, in an apparent response to this new historical discourse, an argument broke out after Putin was not invited to Warsaw for commemorations of the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the war. The non-invitation was clearly a political blunder. It provoked a wave of anti-Polish sentiment among the Russian political class and a new surge of the politicization of history in Russia.
Putin has taken a personal interest in the story of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He repeatedly condemned a resolution by the European Parliament of September 2019 which stated that the pact and its secret protocol had played a decisive role in starting World War II.
In 2009, Putin asked rhetorically in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, “Did not the borders in Europe begin to crumble much earlier than September 1, 1939?” suggesting that the Soviet Union was doing nothing unusual by cutting a deal with Hitler.
In his 2009 article, however, Putin still condemned the pact, calling it “morally unacceptable,” and sympathetically referred to Poland as having been “left without help.” Putin also said, “It is extremely harmful and irresponsible, however, to exploit memory, anatomize history, and seek pretexts for mutual complaints and resentment.” Ten years on, the Russian president has abandoned this cautious approach and outreach to Poland.
Putin’s changed historical narrative is radically changing the Russian people’s perceptions of their own history. This is a two-stage process.
During the first stage, widespread knowledge of a historical event disappears. In 2005, 31 percent of respondents in a poll had “heard nothing” about the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, while in 2019 that number had increased to 40 percent.
In the second stage, the general public learns about the event anew from official propaganda. When it comes to knowledge of World War II, this has reproduced a 1939 Stalinist cliché: 53 percent of a Levada Center poll respondents believed in 2019 that “the Red Army occupied part of eastern Poland in September 1939 in order to help the local Ukrainian and Belarusian population.” Only 16 percent of people knew that Stalin and Hitler had carved up Poland between them, while as many as 30 percent found it hard to answer the question.
Another example is the infamous 1940 Katyn massacre, in which around 22,000 Polish officers, policemen, and intellectuals were executed by the Soviet secret police. It took the Soviet Union nearly fifty years to admit to the crime. Although the Russian public had become better informed about the massacre after a memorial was opened on the spot, a semi-official Russian historical discourse—through publications on a state-run news agency website—is now rehashing the falsified Stalinist version of the event, suggesting that the Poles were massacred by the Germans.
Historical memory is even rapidly being erased in some cases of recent history, such as the war in Afghanistan. According to Levada Center survey data, in 1991, just 3 percent of respondents believed that the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was justified. Twenty-eight years later, in 2019, that number had increased to 22 percent, while the number of those who believed it was unjustified dropped from 88 to 55 percent.
The regime seeks to restore the country’s lost empire—in the public mind at least—through these historical reimaginings. The imperial narrative copies a strategy developed in 1941, when Marxist-Leninist discourse was no longer deemed sufficient to unite the Soviet people morally and politically, and the Soviet leadership rehabilitated heroic figures from Russian history.
Today’s pantheon of Russia’s historical heroes consists of the same names that Stalin listed in his speech marking the October Revolution at the parade on November 7, 1941, on Red Square, from which many of the soldiers on parade went directly to war. “Let the valiant images of our great ancestors—Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, Kuzma Minin, Dmitry Pozharsky, Alexander Suvorov, and Mikhail Kutuzov—inspire you in this war!”
Stalin himself, who was anathematized in the late 1980s and 1990s, is once again frequently added to this list. Thus far, the current regime has not exonerated Stalin openly and officially of his crimes. But nor has it opposed the creeping rehabilitation of Stalin by many. According to survey data, in just one year, the public’s “respect” for Stalin increased by 12 percentage points: from 29 percent in 2018 to 41 percent to 2019. The number of those who believe that Stalin played a positive role in the country has grown consistently, reaching 70 percent in 2019, while only 19 percent of respondents had a negative opinion.
This phenomenal rise in positive attitudes toward Stalin can be explained by contemporary politics. On the one hand, Russians express a demand for a firm hand. (In a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center and the Carnegie Moscow Center, 45 percent of respondents supported the idea of the concentration of power in the hands of a single person.) Paradoxically, on the other hand, other Russians voice support for Stalin because they are discontented with the current state of affairs in the country.
Surveys show that for many Russians, Stalin embodies a model of “order” (an attractive but abstract concept) and of “justice” (especially social justice, as there was no sharp division between rich and poor when he was in power). Russia’s current ruling class intuitively encourages a quiet rehabilitation of Stalin so as to benefit by association from these two concepts: if a politician supports Stalin, then by implication, they are also for order and justice.
This may explain why Stalin and Putin have mutually reinforcing popularity ratings. When Putin behaves in a more authoritarian fashion, Stalin also becomes more popular: a trend that helps explain the jump in approval for Stalin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The memory war is most visible in disputes over monuments and archival materials. In recent years, there has been a surge in reports of “popular initiatives” in Russia’s regions to erect monuments to Stalin. Generally, these are districts controlled by Communist Party legislators, such as Novosibirsk and Volgograd.
As some monuments are put up, others are taken down. In late November–early December 2019, the regional prosecutor’s office in the city of Tver set out to remove memorial plaques from a building now occupied by the city’s medical academy. In March 1940 the building housed the city’s NKVD secret police headquarters, in which 6,925 Polish prisoners of war were killed. The present-day municipal authorities questioned whether the shootings had indeed taken place in that particular location and whether the installation of the plaques in 1991 and 1992 had been legal.
Simultaneously, the pro-Kremlin Military-Historical Society is carrying out excavations near a memorial site to victims of political repression in Sandarmokh, Karelia, to prove that the Finns shot Red Army soldiers there during the Winter War: a move that will put out the message that Russians were the victims in that war. The local historian Yury Dmitriev, who was investigating Stalinist mass graves in the region, is in pretrial detention on what are widely regarded as falsified charges of pedophilia.
War memorials have also become a major part of Russia’s disputes with its European neighbors. The former Soviet-era Warsaw Pact countries of Central and Eastern Europe are especially sore spots for the Putin regime.
Now that real influence there has receded, a fight is being waged in the arena of history. Moscow periodically reminds those countries that the Soviet Union (now personified by Russia) liberated them from fascism in 1945. Soviet-era war memorials are markers of Russia’s former presence and claim to assert moral authority there.
Russia and the Czech Republic have come to blows over this topic recently. In November 2019, Pavel Novotny, head of the Prague suburb of Řeporyje, pledged to erect a monument or memorial plaque there to the Russian Liberation Army, which had helped in the liberation of Prague in 1945, at the cost of the lives of nearly 200 soldiers. The problem was that prior to the liberation of Prague, the Russian Liberation Army had collaborated with the Germans, and is regarded in Russia as an army of traitors. The decision triggered a backlash and condemnations in Russia.
Now the Czechs and Russians are rowing over the decision to relocate a memorial to Marshal Ivan Konev. Konev led the Soviet forces liberating Czechoslovakia in 1945, but is now considered a symbol of the Communist occupation and Putin’s current foreign policy.
Archival materials have also been used as a political weapon in the last couple of years. In January 2020, the Russian Defense Ministry published declassified materials about the Warsaw Uprising. The ministry engaged in an old debate over the Red Army’s failure to assist the Polish Home Army from its location on the other side of the Vistula River from Warsaw’s Praga neighborhood, where the fighting was taking place.
The Russian Defense Ministry accompanied its publication of the archival material with pointed remarks claiming that the uprising had been poorly prepared and overestimated the capabilities of the Red Army. Moreover, it was intimated that the leaders of the uprising may even have deliberately engineered its defeat. The Poles saw this as an insult to the memory of those who died in the uprising and to Polish national identity.
The new Russia defines its historical identity mainly in negative terms. If the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” as Putin has said, then the Russian Federation that sprang up from its debris is not a full-fledged state. That means that Russia can only be reborn after it becomes great again. It must strive to resemble the Soviet Union, having inherited and officially blessed that country’s historical myths and narratives.
It is in this spirit that a new state propaganda campaign is now rewriting the history of the Soviet Union, leaving many Russians oblivious to the true details of key events during World War II, Stalinism, and the late Soviet period.
This information campaign inculcates pride in the country, but—with the exception of the victory of 1945—mostly in negative, defensive terms. Russians are encouraged collectively to relive historical events as a narrative of trauma and humiliation. For example, in a speech at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem in 2020, Putin equated the wartime Siege of Leningrad as being a national trauma on a level with the Holocaust. The state aims to monopolize both the right to grieve and the nature of grief.
Putin also now talks about the 1990s exclusively as a time of national turbulence and humiliation. This simplified picture enables him to paint himself as the man who personally led the Russian people out of a time of troubles into an era in which Russia’s greatness is restored.
A bleak joke popular among certain Russian intellectuals goes, “Our dark past is our bright future.” What they are suggesting is that today’s Russian leaders are knowingly trying to create a future modeled on the blueprint of the Soviet past, with all its well-known horrors.
Russia’s history over the last century has been so turbulent and traumatic that a failure to confront it honestly shuts down essential debate about what kind of society Russia needs and how it should build relations with its European neighbors to avoid staying trapped in a Stalinist understanding of its own national history.
As the historians Ivan Kurilla and Nikita Sokolov noted during the discussion of the Russian version of this paper, history in Russia is now not so much a question of the past as of the future, of the country’s political priorities in the years ahead. The main question is “What past does the Russian future need?” In other words, it’s a question of Russia’s political priorities.
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