In recent years, or even decades, the top Russian officials’ rhetoric has frequently included mentioning historical personalities and events that underline the “chosen” nature of the Russian people and its “special mission”; this is the Kremlin’s version of the past. However, this past is actually used to cover up financial interests of Russia’s political elites, as well as the Kremlin’s wounded ego. How are such historical narratives used to justify today’s aggression, and how did the Russian government manage to monopolize history?
The mythological image of the “historical Russia” has become one of the most important, or maybe even the most important staple of the Kremlin rhetoric constructed around malleable narratives and legends that only the select few know: the Russian p0litical elites. Here’s just a few of them:
- “To prohibit rewriting of history, or any rewriting at all, we must be self-sufficient, strong in all kinds of ways, first of all economically,” said V.Putin in 2020.
- “And whatever attempts are made these days to rewrite the history of the days past, the truth is that the Soviet soldiers came onto the German soil not to seek revenge on Germans, but to fulfill the noble, glorious mission of liberation,” were the thoughts that V.Putin shared in 2021.
- “All the goals set by the president of Russia shall be fulfilled. It cannot be otherwise, as the truth, including the historical truth, is on our side. As general Skobelev rightly said, only our country can afford the luxury of fighting out of compassion”, — stated Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council of Russia, quite recently: in May 2022.
What’s wrong with these highly similar ideologemes uttered time after time by Russian officials and Kremlin propaganda, and why are they used so frequently?
Is it necessary to constantly rewrite history?
It would be wrong to think that history writes itself, and the past events automatically form a unified picture of the world that is understood by all and questioned by no one. Not at all. Hayden White, a well-known historian, literary critic and author of the book called Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (it was translated into Russian only 29 years after it was published!), underlines in his fundamental work that works of historians are reconstructions of historical chains of events where every historian is an author that writes a narrative according to literary laws. In other words, events in a work of history are nothing more than narrative elements around which the author constructs their story, and which they fill with a meaning.
The events are made into a story by the suppression or subordination of certain of them and the highlighting of others, by characterization, motific repetition, variation of tone and point of view, alternative descriptive strategies, and the like—in short, all of the techniques that we would normally expect to find in… a novel or a play,” — White explains in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (p. 84).
At the same time, history, while being a science, makes no judgments, as it’s interested in chronicling events and determining patterns of the historical process. Historians, while studying and critically analyzing sources of information, offer their own vision of causal relationships between events based on which they (events) gain certain meanings. Nevertheless, the author’s ideas about the past (we’re talking about specialists with various levels of competence) are not necessarily the ultimate truth; it is merely one of possible interpretations of history or its many episodes.
Some might wonder: What is a history book?
A history book is a narrative, a story about the “past reality” that has an author. The author has their own prejudices, views, goals and tasks. Denying such authorship is, according to the media researcher Johnson-Carthy, a “deliberate obfuscation of ideological measurements”, i.e. a conscious attempt to deny any ideological motives.
It should be noted that in modern understanding of history the task of a history textbook is to familiarize students with the subject, its methodology and approach, the ways to work with sources, etc., not to form their ideas about “how it really was”. However, in autocratic countries it’s almost impossible to avoid ideologizing the past. M. Pokrovsky, a Marxist politician, eloquently stated that in the hands of ideologues, “history is politics projected into the past”.
This is why critical approach to the past is essential and scientific at the same time. In this sense, rewriting history is a natural part of searching for truth: by gaining access to previously classified archived documents, complementing existing interpretation of events, historians study the past while living in the dynamically changing present. It means that perceiving the historical perspective, especially the recent one, as a closed chapter would be a major mistake.
The example of Germany is probably the most significant and progressive one: Germany had to rethink both its Nazi period and its identity. Besides, even now, in the 21 century, Germany keeps discovering new chapters of its colonial past — it’s completely different from the approach to history chosen by the Kremlin.
The view of the “historical Russia” from the Kremlin
While the sources of the “historical Russia” concept allow us to trace the radical changes of the concept itself, the “historical Russia”, when mentioned by the president, is a political argument described by Putin in his article called Russia: the National Question.
It’s no surprise that 2012 was the year when the Russian Historical Society was reinstated. As V. Putin said in his anniversary speech to the Society on 20 June 2022, it “united the state, the society and professional historians in an effort to form a unified Russian historical culture, preserve national memory and popularize objective historical knowledge both on the federal level and in Russian regions”. Considering what happened to the Memorial Society, we can hardly see this “objective historical knowledge” as anything other than making a joke of the search for this objective historical knowledge.
In the same anniversary speech, Putin justifies the hostilities in Ukraine by his “commitment to historical truth and respect for all periods of our past”. On the one hand, Putin is appealing to his beloved topic of restoring historical justice. On the other hand, he’s claiming to have an exclusive “right to the past”, thus not only infringing on the territory of a sovereign state, but also on the very idea of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
These are the suppositions that Russia’s president was making in his article On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. In it, Ukraine is robbed of its agency: Ukraine is presented as ”anti-Russia“, “a springboard against Russia”, “entirely the product of the Soviet era”. Putin doesn’t see Ukraine as an independent state; rather, he sees it as a territory that is historically tied to Moscow and, hence, subservient to the Kremlin. After all, Russia is the legal successor to the USSR, and the collapse of the Soviet Union is nothing but a “tragedy”, “demise of historical Russia”.
This is the basis for Putin’s claims for former territories of that same “historical Russia”. The right to return the lands constitutes the “historical justice” and, at the same time, “a deep understanding of righteousness” of Putin’s “deeds”.
The president himself spoke about it with complete openness; many of his historical narratives follow this line, and it seems that this is how he envisions his mission: “Apparently, such is out lot in life: to reclaim what was lost, and to fortify it”. This reference to Peter the Great, who “gave nothing away” and who “reclaimed” things , clearly points at future plans to “reclaim” other territories that now belong to sovereign states, but were once “torn away” from their original ”unique civilization”.
It’s unique because, according to V. Putin, it features many ethnic groups co-existing peacefully, but at the same time it possesses “Russian cultural core”. Separatism is the one thing that threatens it the most, also according to Putin. In other words, the entire thousand years history of Russia constitutes strong “ties” that bind together the past, the present and the future of “historical Russia”. At the same time, various ethnic groups have no right to self-determination, as the “choice of the Russian people” has already been made; any attempts are interpreted as incitement and provocation. Therefore, by protecting historical Russia Putin is protecting the Russian people, its choice, and even something bigger: “the state that is also a civilization”. Protects from whom?
After all, “this very same collective West is the direct instigator, the originator of what’s happening today”. “Why did the US organize a coup, and why did the countries of Europe spinelessly support it, thus encouraging both a division in Ukraine, and Crimea’s secession from it?” — said the president, cynically and deliberately confusing the concepts, denying the Russian state’s participation in the Ukrainian crisis and the following annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Putin’s historical Russia is a bastion of traditional values. It is a metaphysical force designed to counter the collective West. This is a special path, and it is what makes the Russian people special. It is the continuation of the Byzantine civilization. It’s the “Third Rome”.
However, those frames were not constructed recently. Thanks to the efforts of Vladimir Medinsky, and under the president’s direct orders, the approach to school education started to change in 2014 (!); the change was to incorporate more praise towards the present and move away from critically assessing the past. For example, in March 2022 Proekt published their detailed comparative analysis of textbooks before and after Medinsky. The main identified problems concern the Soviet period, especially how the cruelty of Stalinist times is downplayed, as well as excessive praise towards the glorious present, i.e. Putin’s Russia of today that is claimed to be undergoing a renaissance.
This new dawn is actively praised in Kremlin’s outlets that spread ideological canards and fairy tales. It seems like the more radical the method is, the better it works: we have insults by Vladimir Solovyov, utter absurdity of Dmitry Kiselyov, nostalgic undertones of Margarita Simonyan about the former glory of the USSR and even the Russian Empire. However, their “messages” have nothing new about them. They merely follow the instructions received from above, from the Kremlin.
Therefore, in the Kremlin’s discourse, the “historical Russia” is a politicized argument used to justify Russia’s claims to territorial, cultural and political heritage of the “big Russia”. It’s a political ideology that underscores the greatness of the “Russian world”, its role in the metaphysical confrontation with the hostile collective West. This makes history look fatalistic and devoid of personal choice.
Monopoly on history as a form of censorship
As in many other aspects of human life in today’s Russia, search for a historical truth is forbidden; therefore, any alternative opinions that can undermine the “historical greatness” of the Russian people are banned as well. The need to fight for “the own version” of the past was stated by Putin multiple times in 2020 and 2021 during meetings of various levels.
Another step towards controlling history was made last year when some “timely” amendments that prohibit falsification of history were made to the Constitution of Russia. The timeliness that Sergey Lavrov was talking about might be related to a certain progression visible in recent years: the number of trials has gone up (see the article People in Russia on Trial for “Falsifying History”: a Report by Agora). It should be noted that the original version of the report by Agora (an international human rights group) for 2018 is no longer available, and the website is down due to “technical difficulties”.
Memorial was closed on the same grounds. This organization spent decades uncovering the most painful episodes of the Soviet epoch to participate in “restoring historical truth and perpetuation of memory of victims of political repressions of totalitarian regimes” (from International Memorial’s Mission and Statute)). When talking to DW about Memorial’s closure, Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz, former German ambassador to Russia, said that the actions of the Supreme Court of Russia (and everything that stands behind that court) were an attempt to “deny the country’s own past, the past that is bad, sad and guilt-ridden; an attempt that cannot, in the long-term historical perspective, be considered a success.
With the current approach in place, Russia’s historical perspectives look grim. Alternative views of the past are persecuted; historicism is substituted with fatalism; existing facts are only used to shape the picture of the world profitable to the ruling elite.
In this picture of the “Russian world”, people have no choice. Either this choice was made for them by the Russian people of the past, or it’s being made today by “the lord’s Annointed”.