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  Russia: ongoing disputes over history (1)

Viktor Denisenko
2014 12 17

Russia is often called „a country with an unpredictable past“. The Kremlin refers to history as an ideological influence tool, and in this regard the situation is very much alike the one in George Orwell‘s dystopian novel „1984“, where historical past is revised following the changes in the political conjuncture. One can easily discern similar tendencies in the current Russia‘s political realities.

The interest in history is not a specific exclusivity of the Kremlin. History of any state plays a very important role in constructing not only the worldview, but also the basis of modern statehood. Disputes on the historical truth is not Russia‘s invention. There were attempts to „divide“ the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania between Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. But Russia‘s approach toward history is different.

The current Russia had to adapt its past to a new reality. The 20th age distorted the country‘s relation with this reality. Russia entered this age as an empire with old traditions, but the October upheaval in 1917 determined the emergence of a new – soviet – empire. This empire denied the past and had negative attitude toward Russia‘s developments up to the year 1917. Yet this approach could not serve as the basis for a new ideology. Later the history of the Soviet union was adapted by giving a particular meaning to historical personalities: Aleksandr Nevskiy, Ivan the Terrible, Peter I and others.

The collapse of the USSR imposed similar challenges for Russia for it again acquired a new status. Twenty years ago it seemed that Russian Federation will move toward a liberal democracy, but the issue of reconciliation with own history didn‘t disappear; on the contrary, it became more acute. To some extent a new Russia has become a state without history: the Soviet union collapsed, and the horrors of the soviet empire and ideological oppression came to light. Then the country had lost the historic connection with the pre-soviet Russian empire, although there were attempts to restore this empire by putting emphasis on the role of the orthodox church in public and political life.

It is worth mentioning that other post-soviet countries were more successful in coping with the challenges of historical identity. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia asserted their identity on the basis of the pre-war republic and referred to the period of soviet history as the occupation. Having no clear evidence, other countries started developing their own historical narrative, or, in case of Turkmenistan, own historical mythology. In this respect Russia‘s task was especially difficult: having at its disposal the narratives which prevailed during different historical periods, the country couldn‘t merge them into a single story.  

Russia‘s historical haunting was also aggravated by the fact that it didn‘t go through the desovietization process. Despite the initial official statements on multiple shameful moments in the history of Soviet union (the red terror, Stalin‘s repressions, brutal interference in other countries‘ affairs, war with Finland, annexation of the Baltic States, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, etc.), the country couldn‘t move away from these moments.

Of course, we can criticize imperfection of Russian democracy which started showing its first signs twenty years ago, but it is also necessary to recognise the past achievements, and first of all the ones related to freedom of expression and thought. Later the absence of a uniform historical narrative incited wide-range discussions about history, different attitude dialogues and interactions. But when Putin took office, the history has again been treated as a keystone of ideology. Russia‘s road toward the authoritarian model determined the development of a relevant ideology requiring very clear and straightforward history without „dangerous“ interpretations.

It should be highlighted that Putin‘s regime did manage to „bridge“ the periods of Russia‘s history, and there is no surprise that today Russia lives with a slightly „updated“ coat of arms of the Russian empire, the tri-coloured flag and melody of the soviet anthem.

Russia has in principle chosen a new imperial narrative. Vladimir Putin and his team took all efforts to carefully coordinate the soviet paradigm with the old imperial narrative. Today the ideology is based on the adapted soviet historical background: inconvenient moments of the past are „damped down“ (soviet repressions are referred to as the „tax“ for industrialisation; a bloody dictator Stalin has become an „effective manager“), and achievements of the soviet period serve as the basis of ideology (nuclear weapons arsenal, the first manned flight to space, etc.). Victory in the great patriotic war is especially important in this paradigm, and Victory Day has become the epicentre of the political and ideological celebration.  Thus, it is no surprise that the narrative of the „fight against fascism“ has been currently blindly used in Russia.

But an ideological background based on the artificially „summoned“ different historic narratives is endangered by any historical fact contradicting the above ideological construction. Therefore, in order to protect the ideological background, Moscow needs to control history and develop an „adequate“ historical and ideologically „right“ narrative.

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