Imposing the Past: Putin’s War for History
A great deal has been written about Vladimir Putin’s relationship with history: the way it fascinates him, the way it inspires him, and the way it distorts his thinking. Yet, insightful as much of this analysis is, it does not always convey the extent to which Putin is actually fighting the West over control of historical narratives. It’s not simply that Putin believes history has destined Russia for greatness. He also believes that appreciating this fact is a prerequisite for fulfilling it.
For the past decade, Russian politicians and state-aligned media have insisted that foreigners are waging a forever war against Russian history, allegedly aimed at destroying the very essence of Russian identity. In response, the Russian state has launched an onslaught of historical propaganda aimed at convincing Russians that they are part of a great nation resisting historical and cultural colonization. Putin invaded Ukraine, at least in part, to impose his view of the past on a country that he feared was wilfully and maliciously misremembering it.
The Importance of Russian History
In 2016, right outside the Kremlin, Putin unveiled a statue of Grand Prince Vladimir, the ruler of the Orthodox medieval polity of Kyivan Rus. It stands at a petty 10 centimeters taller than Ukraine’s statue of the same Grand Prince. Ukrainian and Russian historians have long sparred over the legacy of this medieval empire. To Putin, Rus is the first Russian state and the common point of origin for both Ukrainians and Russians. Furthermore, it is proof that Ukraine, as a country, people, culture, and identity, does not really exist. It is important for Russia’s leaders to maintain this belief because, if Ukraine is a separate nation and culture, then Russia’s claim to the civilizational legacy of Kyivan Rus would disappear with it, undermining the foundations on which the Russian state has constructed its post-Soviet identity.
But this is only one part of Putin’s narrative. The Great Patriotic War, Russia’s term for the Soviet Union’s war against the Nazis from 1941 to 1945, lies at the center of Russian memory politics and post-Soviet identity. Having nationalized the Soviet victory as a Russian one, the Kremlin sees the victory over Nazism as having confirmed Russia’s right to a sphere of influence — a right also endowed by Russia’s inheritance of Kyivan Rus. To question this post-1945 right, or to sully the memory of the Great Patriotic War in any way, regardless of accuracy, is criminal — in the literal sense. In 2020, Vladimir Putin ushered in sweeping new legislative amendments that amounted to a new Russian constitution and included codification of the duty to ‘defend historical truth’ and ‘protect the memory’ of the Great Patriotic War. Such phrasing reinforces the notion that memory and truth are under threat by alternative — Western — versions of the past.
In the Russian official memory — and law — there is no space for the Red Army’s mass rapes in Berlin or the post-1945 Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. In this context, restrictive legislation did not come out of the blue: the Russian government, media, and — to some extent — public had carefully laid the groundwork for it far in advance, working as memory makers to push history into the heart of Russian political and popular culture. The efforts they undertook formed part of the Kremlin’s intensive use of selective history to define what it means to be Russian, to justify its own rule, and to project power at home and abroad. And it worked. Arguably, the only truly unifying national idea for many Russians is the Great Patriotic War: it is one of the few topics on which almost all Russians agree, with 89 percent feeling pride in the Great Victory according to a poll conducted in September 2020.
Of course, historical propaganda is hardly unique to Russia. Glorifying the past is a fundamental facet of building national identities. Wars over historical narratives between and within societies are increasing around the world, from the battle between President Trump’s 1776 Commission and the 1619 Project to China’s rediscovery of World War II as a new form of anti-Western nationalism. As the historian Margaret Macmillan has argued, in secular societies in particular, history is frequently used to provide morality tales previously sourced from religion. Indeed, the active discursive reconstruction of the past has played an especially emphatic role in the post-communist space that emerged after 1989, as countries looked to create new futures but needed new pasts to justify them.
That said, these narratives play a special role in modern Russia. After the fall of communism, Russia was not in the same position as the other post-Soviet states. As the heir to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it proved unable to reject the Soviet legacy entirely or cast itself as the occupied, rather than the occupier. Moreover, Russia was and is too ethnically and religiously diverse for either religion or ethnicity to function as a cohering element. Managing ethno-nationalism had been a political priority between 2006 and 2012 and continued to be a prominent concern at the beginning of Putin’s third term. Although the government has flirted with ethnocentrism, notably during the annexation of Crimea in early 2014, outright ethno-nationalism has played a limited role in government discourse. Instead, there has been an imperial nationalism, with ethnic Russians as the primus inter pares, even referred to as the “state forming people” within the constitution.
Thus the invocation of history as the basis for Russian national identity has the advantage of meeting a wide range of demands: it appeals to the hereditary and genealogical elements of ethnic nationalism while still reflecting the polyethnic nature of the Russian Empire and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Russia’s political system, presidentialism, and prioritization of state over society have made it almost impossible to create a civic identity, which would require a popular political engagement and civil society, both of which the Kremlin has dismantled. Likewise, there is no coherent ideological set of principles to govern the way people live, as there was in the communist era. This only reinforces the significance of history in creating a unifying national concept or an answer to the question of why Russians belong together as a nation. Cultural memory and a sense of shared history are the only feasible options.
In his study of Soviet and post-Soviet historical narratives, the academic Thomas Sherlock demonstrates how the delegitimization of the Soviet past that took place under Mikhail Gorbachev had a deeply destabilizing effect on Soviet society, even contributing to the Soviet Union’s downfall. In many ways, the Russian establishment under Putin has set about reversing this destabilization, but this has not always equated to reinstating the old history. Instead, it has focused on reinstating old attitudes towards history, denigrating the critical approaches seen during the perestroika era.
Beyond Kyivan Rus’ and the Great Patriotic War, which function respectively as the foundation stone and ultimate, incontrovertible proof that Russia is special, the actual events that constitute the historical narrative matter very little. New bits can always be added, provided that they can be interpreted in such a way as to support three core arguments. These arguments are: Russia needs a strong state; Russia has a special path of development; and Russia is a messianic great power with something unique to offer the world. Whether the celebration of the state in question relates to Stalin or Tsar Nicholas I is less important than that the strength of the state being celebrated.
The government’s intensive use and propagation of selective interpretations of history to define what it means to be Russian, to justify its own rule, and to project power at home and abroad shift the focus from ‘what’ is known towards the ‘act’ of knowing and performing that knowledge. Put another way, within certain limits, it doesn’t matter whether you believe, or what you believe, it matters that you say and act as if you believe it. Ultimately, this is about Russian identity construction. The problem is that this identity has been, and is being, constructed atop Ukraine.
In 2012, Putin announced that strengthening national consciousness would be a priority for his coming term, declaring that the definition of Russian identity was vague and needed refining. He chose to refine it around a confected but emotionally powerful common past, declaring 2012 the Year of History and setting up new historical societies responsible for churning out blockbuster war films, exhibitions, museums, military history children’s clubs and camps, and World War II theme parks.
Subsequently, the Russian government created a multitude of different memory-centered activities and practices, offering plenty of opportunities for people to engage with history and, in so doing, bring to life its assertion that the Kremlin was leading Russian citizens to greater historical awareness and cultural consciousness. Most prominent among such bodies are the so-called government-organized non-government organizations, such as the Russian Military Historical Society and Russian Historical Society. Although clearly controlled by the government, these organizations present themselves as independent civil society bodies, disguising the state’s involvement in memory politics. In just seven years, between 2013 and 2020, the Russian Military Historical Society produced 3,000 memorial plaques, 650 open lectures, 600 documentaries and films, 300 monuments, 251 military history tours, 213 military history festivals, 155 military history camps, 70 conferences, 40 forty exhibitions; nine themed trains, seven historical commissions, six historical web portals, four museums, and countless branded exercise books, pencil cases, and pens.
The government has also commandeered genuine civil society commemorations, as exemplified by the hostile takeover of the nationwide Immortal Regiment movement, a procession developed by independent journalists in Tomsk to encourage people to retain personal memories of family members involved in the Great Patriotic War effort. When it became popular, the government cloned the organization and forced many volunteers to join its new, highly politicized, variant, where Putin now marches at the head of the Victory Day procession with various world leaders.
The Russian government has utilized historical interpretation as a byword for patriotic awareness, to spin a narrative of Russian counter-revolutionary consciousness against Western cultural colonization, which is (allegedly) most egregious in the sphere of historical falsification. The 2021 Russian National Security Strategy dedicates an entire section to cultural and spiritual values and historical truth, arguing that Russian identity and Russian people were under constant attack from efforts to distort and falsify Russian history. These threats emanate not only from the West but also from its agents in Russia (and what the Kremlin considers to be Russia), who are supposedly waging a campaign of cultural colonization.
As Putin wrote in his essay on the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine in June 2021, “Ukraine’s ruling circles decided to justify their country’s independence through the denial of its past…. They began to mythologize and rewrite history, edit out everything that united us.” He blames Western forces for pushing Ukraine to rewrite history. The Russian president is articulating an often repeated idea, namely that Western culture had caused countries to forget their own historical value, as happened to Russia in the 1990s. However, this process, under Putin’s ‘historical renaissance’, was being remedied.
Despite the supposed magnitude of the threat, Putin insists that Russia remains uniquely positioned to maintain its cultural sovereignty due to its attainment of cultural consciousness. To attain cultural consciousness is to be aware of history’s structural importance to everyday factors. It is to recognize attempts to distort history as attempts to distort reality and to reject them accordingly. Russia’s knowledge and experience of history are supposedly providing the nation with protection against cultural colonization and assuring its continued cultural sovereignty.
Able to resist the types of cultural colonization and historical alienation to which other countries have fallen prey, Russia now has a mission to help others rediscover their own cultural consciousness — to awaken them from an American-imposed cultural slumber. This argument has been promoted widely in the media since the 2015 intervention in Syria and depicts Russia as a beacon of cultural consciousness, showing other countries how to reconnect with and remain faithful to their history and heritage. It is this narrative that allows the Kremlin to claim it knows Ukraine’s true identity better than Ukrainians, and that Russia was best placed to restore and protect that identity in 2022. The battle is not only to convince Ukrainians of their history but, by doing so, to save and protect a particular understanding of Russian history, which depends on Ukrainian subservience.
Russia’s hubristic ‘special military operation’ to denazify Ukraine floundered on contact with real Ukrainians, who turned out to be very different from those constructed in the Kremlin’s mythomaniac minds. Russia found in Ukraine a nation where it believed there was not one. And yet recognizing this would have a deeply destabilizing impact on official conceptions of Russia’s identity. It would ultimately require rewriting Russian history and national identity from scratch — which is exactly what Putin is fighting against. In fighting to impose its memory on Ukraine, Russia is risking not only its future but also its past. Unfortunately, this could make for a long war.
Jade McGlynn is the author of Russia’s War and a Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London
Image: Wikimedia Commons