Over the past two years, as the Kremlin has annexed Crimea, waged a war of aggression against Ukraine, intervened in Syria, and otherwise threatened Euro-Atlantic security, the situation inside Russia has deteriorated. President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism has intensified.
Putin’s reputation as a champion against a supposedly predatory West has solidified among the public. Aided by an atmosphere of intolerance that enjoys unspoken Kremlin support, authorities have cracked down on civil liberties. Political opposition figures have been poisoned and killed. As anti-Westernism has become widespread and authorities have argued in favor of returning to “traditional values” at a time of worsening economic conditions, Putin has consolidated society around his regime—critical voices are now treated like enemies of the state. In doing so, he has revived the tradition of using history as a political weapon.
Putin has, to be sure, used history throughout his 16 years in power as a means of self-assertion, preserving the current political system, and legitimizing the Kremlin’s actions. But his recent manipulation of history poses a growing challenge for the West, since it helps to sustain the Kremlin’s confrontational foreign policy and fuel anti-Western sentiments within Russian society.
The controversy surrounding Sergei Mironenko, the long-time Director of the Russian State Archive, is a case in point. Last July, the State Archive published formerly classified correspondence between top Soviet officials from 1948. The correspondence deeply undermined the popular Soviet legend of “Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen”—the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, led by Major General Ivan Panfilov, who were said to have died while repelling a Nazi attack on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941. The soldiers were decorated posthumously: They each received the title “Hero of the USSR,” had streets and monuments dedicated to them, and were immortalized in Moscow’s city anthem. A film about them—funded by crowd-sourcing and backed by Russia’s Ministry of Culture—is due to premiere in Russia in November.
The correspondence published by the State Archive, however, showed that a war journalist had invented the story. Moreover, Soviet authorities had uncovered the fiction, but buried the evidence for reasons of political expediency. Not only had some of the supposedly-deceased men actually survived the attack, one of them—Ivan Dobrobabin—had surrendered to the Nazis and was later arrested by Soviet authorities for “betrayal of the motherland.”
Since becoming President in 2000, Putin has cultivated a conservatism in which the Soviet victory over the Nazis is of central ideological importance. As the reality of the Soviet past has receded into history, however, myth has taken its place—a substitution encouraged by Russian authorities. By far the most pervasive is the myth that the Soviet Union was solely responsible for defeating Nazism and defending Europe. Because the Soviet Union was on both sides during World War II, the Kremlin bristles at any attempts to question its black-and-white narrative. And because Putin is so closely associated with World War II, any questioning of the narrative is seen as a direct threat to him and his hold on power.
In the fallout that followed the revelation, Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s Culture Minister, criticized Mironenko for publishing the correspondence. The head archivist, Medinsky said, is “not a writer, not a journalist, not a fighter against historical falsifications … If he wants to change profession, we will understand this.” The state-backed makers of the Panfilov film, meanwhile, dismissed the correspondence as an attempt to “undermine this heroic feat.”
In March, Mironenko was dismissed from his position. Officially, this was the result of a “collective decision” by authorities. Mironenko’s colleagues, however, told the Russian daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that they believe he fell victim to a new official approach to history, of which Medinsky is the chief advocate. According to Medinsky, who is author of the book War: Myths of the USSR (published in 2013), history begins “not with facts but with interpretations.”
The Kremlin’s warped interpretation of history not only seeks to consolidate Russian society around an idealized past, but also to legitimize Russia’s aggressive foreign policy in a mythologized present.
Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote an article entitled “Russia’s Foreign Policy in a Historical Perspective” for the journal Russia in Global Affairs. The piece, which was published as the Kremlin basked in the success of its military operations in Syria, outlines a sweeping, paranoid version of Russia’s history from the adoption of Christianity in Russia in 988 and Rus’ survival of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke through to the Napoleonic Wars and the Cold War.
Throughout Russia’s history, Lavrov argued, Western Europe has always been biased against Moscow, seeking to isolate and victimize it. This is one of Putin’s favorite tropes. And Lavrov’s piece is replete with others: World War II started because of “the anti-Russian aspirations of the European elites”; the Cold War ended because an “unlucky chain of events” led to the dissolution of the USSR; those countries in Central and Eastern Europe that have joined the European Union and NATO since 1991 “can’t take any significant decision without the green light from Washington or Brussels.”
In spite of Europe’s conniving, however, Russia has always sought to play a constructive role in uniting the continent, reducing the possibility of conflict and war, and establishing international bodies to ensure peace and order. And without Russia, went Lavrov’s argument, Europe can only be exposed to chaos. “During the last two centuries,” he writes, “any attempt to unite Europe without Russia and against it has inevitably led to grim tragedies.”
This is not a new Russian message. But it is a message that Russia is keen to insert into mainstream European thought. In February, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made that clear while attending the annual Munich Security Conference. Medvedev may have made headlines with his talk of a new “Cold War” and his warning of the dangers of a “third global tragedy”—but just as significantly, he called for a revision of the “architecture of Euro-Atlantic security.”
Lavrov’s article, as mirrored by the sacking of Mironenko, reveals Putin’s desire to control Russia’s history.
Just as Mironenko’s document encourages Russian citizens to question official narratives surrounding World War II, Lavrov’s essay attempts to foreclose any subversion: his is a fundamental re-writing of more than a millennium that casts Russia as an innocent victim of global events. For Putin, what history teaches is that Russia’s enemies are tirelessly plotting to undermine the country, both from within and without. Controlling how history is remembered, thus, is more than an instrument to consolidate the nation. It is also a way to prepare Russians for war. And to keep them in a state of war readiness.
Having brought Russia’s media and politics to heel, the Kremlin has paved a path for the state to revise and re-write history. The state, in Putin’s eyes, is the sole caretaker of national memory. Leading up to the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Kremlin convened a Historical Truth Commission to combat the “falsification of history.” In 2014, Russia criminalized the rehabilitation of Nazism, including any activities that criticized the actions of the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1945. Last year, Putin initiated the unification of Russian history textbooks with the aim of creating a standard version of national history. With these developments, Russia is establishing a historical canon—a state-approved version of history.
Russia is not unique, of course, in seeing its history politicized. Nor is it unique in having a different understanding of history than its neighbors. What is special about Russia, however, is the extent to which anything is possible in the service of propaganda.
Take the state’s attempts to obtain a monopoly on the knowledge of history, which are visible in the Kremlin’s accusations regarding the “falsification” of history. By “falsification” the Kremlin means anything that is contrary to what it is saying today, because what it said yesterday and what it may say tomorrow are likely to be different. Also take the state’s attempts to control the interpretation of history, which means not only that the Kremlin disregards existing interpretations of history but also that it creates its own.
Faced with this situation, there are a number of practical steps the West could take to counter Putin’s use of history. Educational programs are needed inside of Russia that clearly distinguish between recognizing Russia and the Soviet Union’s role in history on the one hand, and rejecting Russia’s manipulation of history on the other. Russia’s attempts to “monopolize” the Soviet victory in World War II, and therefore to deprive other former Soviet states of this legacy, should also be rejected. The West should support research in the Russian and Soviet archives. Some historical materials located inside of Russia are not accessible, but others in the former Soviet states are.
Within Russia, few openly question the Kremlin’s official version of events. Instead, most take the Kremlin’s manipulation of history at face value, and, if left unchecked, this is only likely to have negative long-term consequences. As the Kremlin becomes increasingly authoritarian domestically and adopts a confrontational attitude towards its immediate neighbors and the West, Russia’s citizens will likely support this—safe in the knowledge that Russia’s history justifies Moscow’s actions.