Russia's history wars

Boris Dolgin
22 May 2009

Russia celebrated Victory Day on 9 May by coming up with a new way of exploiting the Victory politically. It's all very well reminding ourselves that we didn't start it. But this doesn't make the politics of history any less dirty or any less important. If, of course, we really do want to do battle with the heirs of fascism.

Trying to establish the truth about the war and the repressions was a burning issue during the perestroika years.  Both these issues were left unresolved after the Thaw of 1954-64.   During Brezhnev's stagnation years people may have closed the door on memories that had started to unfreeze, memories of the terror inflicted by the state on its own people. But memories of war never entirely disappeared from public consciousness, as Arseny Roginsky pointed out in his paper The Memory of Stalinism. As Roginsky observes, it was then that the memory of The Victory, with all its fanfare and grandiose pronouncements, began to squeeze out memories of the war. In the Brezhnev years, the Patriotic War gradually began to edge the Revolution off its pedestal to become the defining event of the age.  

What were these truths about the war that people were looking for during perestroika? They wanted to be able

  • to criticise the decisions of the military commanders and the political leadership.
  • to be able to talk about the role our allies played in this victory 
  • hardship at the front, behind the lines and the occupation;
  • the state's distrust of people who had been prisoners of war;
  • punishment battalions and anti-retreat units;
  • the children of kulaks and the nobility
  • emigrés of the first wave who rose above their resentment to unite against the common enemy.

All but the most inveterate Stalinists stayed with the consensus thus far. Talk of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was more difficult, as was any discussion of the fact that our fellow citizens in the Baltic States considered that they had been occupied. It was hard to face the fact that our socialist brothers were fed up with expressing gratitude for their liberation and were much keener on reminding us that liberation was followed by a new enslavement. Some of our fellow citizens in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova were saying practically the same thing - in even stronger terms.

Some Russians were unhappy with this consensus view too. They started asking when and on what side the USSR entered WWII. There were honest attempts to suggest that the behaviour of Soviet troops in Germany didn't quite match up to the wholesome image projected by the propaganda. Unfortunately these attempts sometimes went over the top, with the Red Army being portrayed as a horde of thugs who robbed, raped and killed German civilians. Stereotypes were turned on their head and attempts were made to rehabilitate Vlasov and justify the whole notion of joining the fascists to fight against the Soviet Union.   Germany's attack on the USSR was portrayed by some as a necessary preventive strike, to head off a similar plan by Stalin. The intellectual laziness of such attempts is exemplified by absurdities like "We'd have been better off if we had been conquered by the Germans". This didn't fit in with family memories of the savagery of the fascists and of those who fought against them.

The same thing was going on at state level too. An established liberal state can accept citizens who dissent, but not those who go over to the enemy. The new Russia of the 90's was neither established nor liberal. The Civil War may gradually have become part of Russian historical memory. The dissident movement had been reluctantly accepted as the struggle for freedom that it was. But the appalling prospect of recognising that people had good grounds for defecting to the enemy, that had to be vigorously rejected.

The war of memories

The new Russia declared itself the legal successor of the USSR. It's hard to see how it could have done otherwise. However, it is unlikely that those who took this decision really understood the consequences. Yeltsin's leadership did not want to be identified with the Communists. But the Great Patriotic War was quite another matter. It was almost the only moment of Soviet history around which people could rally. It tallied with the new sense of continuity with pre-Soviet Russia that was in the air in the 1990s: we had always hammered the enemy and here we were, yet again, fighting for the Fatherland. So it was that Yeltsin finished the process begun by Brezhnev: the war was purged of its complexity, reduced to victory, reduced to the Victory, the central event of Russian 20th century history.

The post-Soviet states are unwilling to take part in any attempt to come up with an agreed version of the war years, though perestroika did improve things.  This makes it hard for Russia, given its chosen role as the legal successor of the USSR, and the new role it has accorded the Victory.  It was also uncomfortable for those states whose "national liberation" movements were allies of Germany. They have been carving out new identities for themselves by dint of opposing memories of the ‘old protector'. So they find themselves engaged in a war of memories with Russia.

A new history for the new Russia

Historians regard Kievan Rus, Muscovy etc to be completely separate states. But the current Russian regime has made considerable efforts to develop a historical memory which unites previous Russian states into one continuous line of history. The reworking of the Stalinist anthem, the imperial eagle and the flag of the republic are evidence of this desire.  They have been actively promoting an identity round which people can rally, albeit for a battle that is only virtual.

The basis for this identity is pride, rather than an ongoing battle for freedom or peace. They want people to be proud of the state as the chief agent of social development, to be proud of the rulers for making the state more powerful, and of the people for serving the interests of state.

In order to bring this about, in order to make people proud of Russia, the teaching of history had to change.  That was why Kreder's textbook was rejected even before the arguments about the teaching of history had really begun. They claimed it was because the book didn't cover the battle of Stalingrad in enough detail. No matter that the book was not obliged to cover it - general history in our schools is taught alongside Russian history, and Stalingrad was dealt with in the relevant textbook. What mattered was the need to signal the fact that we too were entering the great battle for history. And the central focus of that battle for us was The Victory.

So the pressure was on to come up with a wall-to-wall format for discussing national historiography (to use Alexei Miller's phrase).  It could come from many angles. For example, Viktor Yushchenko turned the spotlight on The Famine (Holodomor). This elicited a predictable response. But for Russia the Victory had to remain the main focus.  Enemy Number One may change: today it may be the Estonian authorities who moved a monument and graves, tomorrow it may be the Ukrainians who've started equating Ukrainian Insurgent Army veterans with those of the Great Patriotic War.

Beyond a negative identity

What is distinctive about the current Russian attitude to history is that its approach to knowledge is extremely utilitarian. It makes conscious use of historical arguments to resolve current political problems.   Both sides over-emphasise events or pass them over in silence. They publish selectively, regularly ‘unmasking' the "falsifications" of the other side.

Of course it is not only historians and journalists who are involved in this battle for history, but the so-called "youth movements" and politicians as well.  Sergei Shoigu put forward the idea that anyone denying Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War should be punished.  There was an intiative in the Duma supporting this idea (with more sensible wording).  It proposed adding an article about  the "Rehabilitation of Nazism" to the chapter on international crime of the Criminal Code.

The effect of this struggle over the politics of history is obvious. Not only does it polarise and radicalise positions still further. It encourages both sides to create a negative identity, based on hostility.

If this is not our aim. If we really want to stop the rehabilitation of fascism, or to preserve a degree of cultural communality with our neighbours, we need a completely different approach.

What we need to do is not to keep on "unmasking falsifications". We need to reconcile our images of the past so that we can come up with a non-confrontational identity for the newly independent nations. An identity based on human values. And we will thereby rid ourselves of the need to produce historical works and publications which have foregone conclusions.

We do not need a national law in order to prosecute apologists of fascism abroad or at home. We need to agree a legal basis internationally for prosecuting fascist organisations and activities. In this way each country would be able to implement its international obligations and deal with its own followers of Hitler.  Hungary, for example, would have to do something about its National Guard. Ukraine would have to deal with Tyagnibok's "Freedom Movement" and the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management. Russia would have to grapple with its Nazi skinheads and their political allies. 

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