An armoured personnel carrier in Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade, May 2022

Putin’s assault on Russian memory

Nowhere is the weaponisation of history greater than in today’s Russia


This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“For many Russians,” writes McGlynn, “the road to shooting civilians in Bucha was paved with battle re-enactments and military dress-up.” In Putin’s Russia, warped memory has substituted for Soviet ideology whilst cultural consciousness has replaced class consciousness. Popular cultural assumptions have been enlisted in a massive push against truth. As McGlynn puts it, “the Kremlin is not dictating the history, so much as appropriating it.”

Putin’s regime drip-feeds patriotic pabulum into the minds of all children, not merely those specifically studying history, from their first day at school. Many Russian children aged between 12 and 17 belong to military history clubs or visit Country of Heroes, a network of camps where they are taught not only first aid and survival skills but also how to spread historical propaganda. There used to be six of these camps; there will be 28 of them by the end of next year. By 2019, more than 718,000 children had taken part in one of 33 available free tours, travelling on yellow buses to collect their special stamps.

Over the seven years from 2013 to 2020, the Russian Military Historical Society, which was established by presidential decree in 2012, “produced the following: 3,000 memorial plaques; 650 open lectures; (expert commentary and input into) 600 documentaries and films; 300 monuments; 251 military history tours; 213 military history festivals; 155 military history camps; 108 search expeditions; 70 conferences; 45 films and series; 40 exhibitions; nine themed trains; seven historical commissions; six historical web portals; four museums; and a stationery range”.

Former Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky has financed numerous popular films about the Great Patriotic War. One of these, Panfilov’s 28 (2016) portrays the guardsmen who died fighting German tanks during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. Some of those 28 martyrs were found to be still alive in the 1960s, and archival research in the 1980s exposed the entire episode as untrue. Nonetheless, the film sticks with the myth.

Memory Makers: The Politics of the Past in Putin’s Russia, Jade McGlynn (Bloomsbury Academic, £20)

Pavel Zheltov has organised several historical festivals in which adults dress up in uniforms and re-enact Soviet and Tsarist historical episodes. The Immortal Regiment, an apolitical Victory Day mass movement march that began as a popular grassroots organisation, was swallowed up in a hostile takeover by United Russia member of the Duma, Nikolai Zemtsov. It now controls most marches at the behest of the Kremlin.

McGlynn lived in Russia from 2011 to 2015. This important book, written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, is based on her PhD. She analysed almost 11,000 historical analogies produced by pro-Kremlin media and over 10,000 pages of government doctrines, strategies, and interviews between 2012 and 2021.

She describes the process, by which “Russian government and media have sought to assume power over cultural memory and to render historical narrative a matter of existential and everyday concern”, as “historical framing”. Its purpose is “not only intended to legitimise government policy but also to impose a revised understanding of patriotism, of the meaning of Russianness and even of truth itself”.

Nor is it essentially a matter of bolstering ethnic identity. Russian media pundits and the Orthodox patriarchate are as one in believing “that Russian identity can be claimed by non-Slavs (with correct cultural memory) but not by those ethnic Russians with political opinions opposed to those of the Kremlin”.

All “memory initiatives”, including “memory diplomacy”, must drive home three points: that Russia needs a strong state, that it has a special path of development, and that it is a messianic great power offering to save the world from the global hegemon that was the West. (It is such no longer, by implication.)

When it comes to the Kremlin appropriating history, consider the perception of Stalin and the Gulag. In 2015, one of Russia’s few Gulag camp museums at Perm-36 was deemed to be a “foreign agent”. Local authorities took control of it and reshaped its exhibitions to emphasise how inmates contributed to the Great Patriotic War and to de-stigmatise the KGB and camp guards.

Without any credible evidence, Vladimir Medinsky and the Russian Military Historical Society have claimed that 9,000 supposed victims of the Gulag in Karelia were in fact Soviet POWs shot by the Finns during the First and Second Finnish Wars. Again, the feel-good patriotism associated with the Great Patriotic War is used to whitewash the record of Stalinist repression.

The memorial archive, dedicated to preserving the testimonies of Gulag prisoners, was shut down in 2021. Whilst troublesome oligarchs fall out of high windows, two leading historians of Stalinist repression have been prosecuted for sexual crimes, in cases that are believed to be politically motivated.

For years, the Soviet Union blamed the massacre on the Nazis

One major omission from this book is the Katyn Forest massacre of 1940, in which 22,000 Poles were shot by Stalin’s NKVD. McGlynn does make a couple of fleeting references to Khatyn, the Belarusian village where 149 people were burned to death in a shed or machine-gunned by SS soldiers and Ukrainian collaborators in 1943. Katyn was the bigger crime, the result of state policy towards the Poles. For years, the Soviet Union blamed it on the Nazis. Norman Davies, the British historian of Poland, has claimed that the Soviet authorities used the Khatyn village massacre and the monument built there in 1969 to confuse foreign visitors who had heard of the Katyn Forest massacre.

In 1990, the Soviet government officially accepted blame for it, and in November 2010 the Russian State Duma reiterated such responsibility. In 2020 some prominent Russians reverted to massacre denial, however. Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń was even shown on Russia’s Kultura television channel. One Communist Duma member, Leonid Kalashnikov, claimed that the memorandum from NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria to the Politburo, in which he proposed the massacre, was a fake.

Another omission from McGlynn’s book is the 2016 prosecution of a private citizen from Perm, Vladimir Luzgin. He had shared an article on social media stating that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had invaded Poland in 1939. This prosecution was brought under a new statute, introduced following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, which prohibits the spreading of “intentionally false information about the Soviet Union’s activities during World War II”.

Luzgin was fined the equivalent of $3,240 and fled abroad. Russian rights group Agora has found 100 instances during the past decade of prosecutions that involve public speech on history-related subjects, including 16 convictions in 17 criminal cases.

McGlynn’s book is pithy and tightly argued. Although written primarily for an academic audience, it contains much that will be of interest to the general reader. She has coined some memorable terms — “policing the past”, “securitisation of memory”, “agitainment”. In her final chapter, she shows how historical framing is being used to advance agendas in other societies around the world, including our own, but nowhere is the manipulation or weaponisation of history greater than in today’s Russia.

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