Culture Supplement

Weaponizing Russian history as justification for the war in Ukraine

In an effort to rally as many people as possible to their worldview, the Russian authorities have tried to exaggerate the state's past victories while erasing the worst chapters of history. They have rewritten textbooks, funded numerous historical plays, and silenced—sometimes harshly—voices that challenged their narrative.

Earlier in February when Tucker Carlson asked Vladimir Putin about his reasons for invading Ukraine two years ago, the Russian president began to explain history. The 71-year-old Russian leader spent more than 20 minutes puzzling Carlson with dates and names from the ninth century.

Putin even gave him a file containing what he told him and emphasized that they were copies of historical documents that proved his views that "Ukrainians and Russians have always been one people and that Ukrainian sovereignty is just an illegitimate remnant." from the Soviet era".

Carlson emphasized that he was "shocked" when the history lesson was completed. But for those who know Putin's government, this was not at all surprising, because in Russia history has always been a propaganda tool, which has been used to advance the Kremlin's political goals. And the last two years have been just a continuation of the tradition.

In an effort to rally as many people as possible to their worldview, the Russian authorities have tried to exaggerate the state's past victories while erasing the worst chapters of history. They have rewritten textbooks, funded numerous historical plays, and silenced—sometimes harshly—voices that opposed their narrative.

Russian officials have regularly attacked Ukraine and other European countries for tearing down Soviet monuments, largely seen as unwanted legacies from past regimes, and have even put many European officials on wanted lists, in a move that made headlines this month. .

"In the hands of the authorities, history has turned into a hammer - or even an axe," said Oleg Orlov, co-founder of Memorial, Russia's oldest and most prominent rights group.

Participants in the "Immortal Regiment" march on the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II. Moscow, May 9, 2022 (Photo: AP)


From the early years of his quarter-century rule, Putin has repeatedly stated that learning history should make Russians proud. Even controversial figures such as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, according to Putin's arguments, contributed to Russia's greatness. There are over 100 monuments to Stalin in Russia, most of them erected during Putin's time.

The Russian president had previously said that there should be "a basic state narrative" instead of different texts that contradict each other. And he has called for a "universal" history text that would convey this narrative. But this idea, harshly criticized by historians, did not gain much attention for a while - until Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

Last year the government released a series of four new "universal" history textbooks for Year 10 and 11 students. One featured a chapter on Moscow's "special military operation" in Ukraine. It blamed the West for the Cold War and described the fall of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."

Some historians derided it as blatant propaganda.

"The Soviet Union, and later Russia, is described in the textbook as always a besieged fortress, which constantly lives surrounded by enemies. These hostile circles are trying to weaken Russia in every possible way and take its resources," said historian Nikita Sokolov.

The Kremlin's version of Russian history is also dominating the venues where historical exhibitions are held. These institutions are funded by the state and are in 24 cities across the country.

Those sites opened after a series of historic exhibitions in the early 2010s drew hundreds of thousands of Russians and drew praise from Putin. Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), a Russian Orthodox bishop, is reported to have been the driving force behind them because of his closeness to Putin.

Filled with animations and other elements, the exhibits were criticized by historians for inaccurate claims and deliberate glorification of Russian rulers and their conquests.

At the heart of the narrative of an invincible Russia is the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Marked on May 9 – Germany officially capitulated on May 9, 1945 – the Soviet victory has become an integral part of Russian identity.

For the authorities, "The history of Russia is a path from one victory to another," Orlov, whose group received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, emphasized. "The most beautiful victories are ahead. And the Kremlin says we should be proud of our history; history is a tool to instill patriotism. Of course, according to them, patriotism is the appreciation of leadership - whether it is the leadership of Tsarist Russia, the leadership of Soviet Russia or the current leadership."

The silence

As the Victory Day celebrations grew more vigorous over the years, Putin's government became less tolerant of any questioning or criticism of the Soviet Union's actions in that war – or in general.

In 2014, Russian cable networks dropped Dozhdi, the region's only independent television channel, after it aired a historical program about the 1941-44 siege of Leningrad and asked viewers to vote on whether the Soviet authorities should hand over Leningrad to save lives Famine in the city that is now St. Petersburg left more than 500 people dead during the siege. The question caused a stir. Officials accused the channel of crossing moral and ethical boundaries.

In the same year, the Russian government passed a law that made it a criminal offense to "rehabilitate Nazism" or "knowingly spread false information about the actions of the USSR during World War II."

The first conviction for these charges was reported in 2016. A man was fined 200 rubles for a post on social media after he said "communists and Germany attacked Poland together, starting World War II." In the years that followed, the number of convictions for the charges only increased.

Research and public debate about Stalin's mass repressions have also faced considerable resistance in recent years. Historians and rights advocates draw inevitable parallels with the current crackdown on dissent that has already put hundreds behind bars.

Two historians involved in researching Stalin's mass executions in northwestern Russia were jailed in recent years — prosecuted on charges related to their work. Memorial, Russia's oldest and most prominent human rights group that received international acclaim for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union, has closed. It continues to operate, but its activities in Russia have been significantly curtailed.

And the line of people waiting to read the names of the victims of Soviet repressions no longer exists in the central streets of Moscow. The tradition of reading them aloud once a year in front of a monument to victims of Soviet repression – called the Return of the Names – began in 2007 and once attracted thousands of people. In 2020, Moscow authorities banned it under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Authorities are threatened by attempts to preserve historical memory, and the situation has worsened since the start of the war in Ukraine, said Natalya Baryshnikova, producer of the film "Returning the Names", which was shown in dozens of cities abroad in 2023. and on the Internet.

"We see it very clearly" since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Baryshnikova said. "Any civil-based movement or statement about the memory of Soviet terror is inappropriate."


According to prominent history teacher Tamara Eidelman, the historical narrative that the Kremlin is trying to impose on society contains several key elements: the primacy of the state, whose affairs are always more important than individual lives; the cult of selflessness and willingness to give up one's life for a greater cause; and the cult of war.

"Of course, the latter was never written explicitly", Eidelman emphasized. Instead, the narrative is: "We have always strived for peace... We have always been attacked and simply fought."

This laid the perfect ideological foundations for the invasion of Ukraine, she said, and showed how the motto "Never again!" dedicated to World War II, in recent years it has become "We can do it again" - a popular slogan after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as the Kremlin has increased its increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards the West.

In the years leading up to the war in Ukraine, Putin mentioned the story more and more often. In 2020, during a reform that removed limits on his presidential terms, a reference to history was added to the country's Constitution - a new clause stating that Russia is "united by thousands of years of history" and "applies protection to true history".

In 2020-2021, Putin published two long articles on history – one criticizing the West for actions that led to World War II and another arguing that Ukrainians and Russians have always been one people. In a speech to the nation days before sending troops to Ukraine, he once again turned to history, claiming that Ukraine as a state had been artificially created by Soviet leaders.

"History has been used to legitimize the regime, especially since Putin came to power," said Ivan Kurilla, a historian at Wellesley College, in a recent article. And with the war in Ukraine, "it has taken a central place in the ideology of the state alongside geopolitical talks about sovereignty, the 'decline of the West' and the defense of traditional values".

Taken from "Associated Press". Translated by: Blerta Haxhiu