Politics of History and Memory about the Past of the Russian Federation

Author: Ian Rachinsky, Head of the Board of the International Memorial, Russian Federation.


By a quick look at what is happening with history in Russia may seem that endless pluralism reigns. In the capital, simultaneously coexist Andropov and Academician Sakharov avenues, Solzhenitsyn and Menzhinsky streets, the remains of white generals Denikin and Kappel are reburied in the Donskoy Monastery accompanied by the anthem of the Soviet Union while the mausoleum and burial places of Stalin, Vyshinsky, Zhdanov and other executioners remain on Red Square, monuments of Kolchak and Stalin are regularly re-erected in the country, Dzerzhinsky and the new martyrs are being revered.

The authorities do not interfere with the celebration of odious figures and explain this with a sly argument - all this was in our history and we can’t delete anything.

Upon closer examination, all this informational chaos and eclecticism reveals certain patterns, often repeated theses, which ultimately come down to the sacralization of the state and the justification of any of its actions - this applies to the current Russian Federation, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire.

Pro-Kremlin historians and political scientists usually say about the unsightly pages of the Russian history that all states acted in the same way, that dictatorships of the Stalin type were in all European countries in the 1930s, that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was no different from the other non-aggression pacts, all troubles came from the Munich agreement, and the crimes of Ivan the Terrible are nothing compared to the Bartholomew’s night, and so on.

Another way to justify the past mistakes and crimes is by saying that they were committed by specific people, not the state. For example, the individuals allegedly out of the control of KGB, whom the state then, arguably, punished, are blamed for the repressions. Soviet propaganda clichés are often reproduced – it is said that collectivization was a cruel measure, but "it allowed industrialization to be carried out and the war to be won."

On a number of issues, we see a return to the positions of the Soviet propaganda - for example, the invasion of Poland in 1939 is still called the “liberation campaign”. The same can be said about the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (a bill was introduced in the State Duma on the recognition of the participants of the invasion as war veterans).

However, current Russian government officials go much further than their predecessors.

For instance, there have never been monuments of Ivan the Terrible in Russia - neither before 1917, nor after. On the monument to the 1000th anniversary of Russia, erected in 1862 in Veliky Novgorod, there is no image of Ivan the Terrible; and Stalin, who was sympathetic to Grozny, did not erect his monument. In 2016, the monument to Grozny appeared in Orel, a year later - in Moscow, in 2019 also in Alexandrov.

Another example is the already mentioned Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Soviet government also liked to repeat that it was a common non-aggression pact, while the existence of a secret protocol was vehemently denied. The Communists understood the extent to which this protocol was unseemly (to put it mildly). During the years of perestroika, the alliance of Stalin with Hitler was condemned. This year, on the 80th anniversary of the pact, Russian officials repeatedly stated that the pact and the secret protocol were legitimate, and in the opinion of the Minister of Culture Medinsky, it even became a diplomatic triumph of the USSR.

This is by no means an accident. The victory of the people in the Great Patriotic War was appropriated by the state and nothing should destroy the glory of holiness in the "state that defeated fascism." The authorities want to ensure the consolidation of the population around the glorious past and mobilization against the mythical external enemy.

The state is above all - this is the main content of the historical policy of the Kremlin, which today has taken or at least is trying to take the place of communist ideology. Loyalty today is checked by the views on history.

The ideas about the special role and special path of the Russian state - that the Russian state (the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation) have always fought for peace, and if they used violence, were only encouraged or forced to do so, because there have always been enemies – are actively enhanced.

The resolution of the European Parliament of September 19, 2019, in which the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact is called the cause of the Second World War, destroys propaganda efforts to create a sentimental image of a peace-loving and infallible state.

The acute reaction of the officials from the Russian Federation is not difficult to understand.

The recognition of the state as a criminal is unacceptable for the current authorities - it does not matter that we are talking about the defunct Soviet Union, which deserves such an assessment. The recognition of the head of the state as a criminal is also unacceptable – for this, monuments of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible may be erected in the country.

Therefore, history today is very closely intertwined with politics.

Formally, censorship does not exist, but many separate facts add up to a slightly different picture.

So, for publishing the documents proving that the story of 28 Panfilovs heroically killed during the defense of Moscow is a myth and contradicts real facts, the director of the State Archive of the Russian Federation was dismissed from his post.

A blogger who reproduced someone else's article with the obvious assertion that Hitler and Stalin unleashed World War II, was sentenced to a heavy fine and even the Supreme Court could not appeal this sentence.

Another example - the historian Kirill Alexandrov defended his doctoral dissertation on the officer corps of the Vlasov army. However, after the "examination" in which the state security general, Aleksandrov participated, he was stripped of his doctorate. This was primarily due to the author’s position, which diverges from established propaganda stereotypes.

For the same reason, Aleksandrov’s quite objective article “Bandera and Banderovtsy - who they really were” published in Novaya Gazeta was included in the list of extremist materials. This is far from the only case of using accusations of extremism as an instrument of historical politics and censorship. For example, in Russia, the book of Yuri Shapoval with co-authors “KGB - GPU - NKVD in Ukraine: individuals, facts, documents” and a collection of articles by Polish publicist Jan Novak-Jezeransky “Eastern Thoughts” are banned.

All this destroys the memory of the past, and so 70 years of total Soviet propaganda have done their job. By the beginning of perestroika, people who remembered the pre-Soviet era were already at a very old age and could not actively participate in the public life. There could be no direct transfer of pre-revolutionary life experience and this significantly distinguishes the Russian situation not only from the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, but even from Ukraine, the western regions of which were annexed by the USSR only in 1939.

Clear legal assessments of the Soviet regime have never been officially formulated and they are also absent from the school textbooks; school textbooks do not contain any intelligible description of the crimes committed by the communist government.

It would seem that there are no special grounds for optimism.

However, the memory of the society is still different from what propaganda is trying to introduce. This is partly due to the obsession and primitiveness of propaganda - it gave rise to jokes and anecdotes even in the Soviet times, when sources of free information were difficult to access. Today, doubts and resistance arise much faster. The existence of the Internet and the openness of borders are natural opponents of any sort of propaganda.

But the main thing that opposes the efforts of propaganda is the memory of terror.

This manifests itself in different ways. For example, the public (except for some loyal organizations) usually does not support the installation of monuments of the murderers (Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Grozny) and the authorities often participate in these actions. The exact opposite picture is with the monuments of the victims of the state terror. As a rule, their installation is requested by the public, and the authorities not only are not initiators, but often hinder such initiatives either explicitly or covertly.

Другой пример – проект «Последний адрес», начавшийся в России, а сегодня действующий в Чехии, Грузии, Германии, Украине, Молдавии… Маленькие таблички, сохраняющие  память о людях, убитых государством, в большинстве случаев, как ни странно, устанавливаются не родственниками, а просто неравнодушными людьми.

Another example is the project “Last Address”, which began in Russia and is currently operating in the Czech Republic, Georgia, Germany, Ukraine, Moldova... Small memorial desks preserving the memory of people killed by the state, in most cases, are not set by the relatives, but just by the people who are not indifferent toward these issues.

Family memory also gradually comes to life. Under the Soviet regime, it was not safe to remember repressed relatives and keep family archives. But remembering the history of the kinship is a natural desire of man, and today, more and more people are looking for information about their ancestors. Alas, in many cases the fate of these ancestors is tragic, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the repressed come to us more often with questions.

Having learned the truth, they rethink a lot. Or, in any case, they approach the information on TV more critically. It is rather difficult to combine the memory of the executed ancestors with the justification of the state that has shot them.

The unit of history is not a state, but a person. And therefore, in the long term, family memory will be stronger than propaganda.