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Controlling the Past: the recent developments in Russia’s memory policy

By Dr Alina Cherviatsova*

On 12 July 2021 Russian President Vladimir Putin published an article ‘On historical unity between Russians and Ukrainians’ (here). Some days earlier, i.e. on 2 July 2021, he signed the Strategy of National Security of the Russian Federation (here) which stressed the importance of historical memory for national security. These are just two of the latest examples of the Kremlin’s engagement with history which is seen as a political tool to create legitimacy at home and in the international arena. This blog provides an analysis of the recent developments in Russian memorial politics in order to understand its methods and directions as well as its consequences, both internal and external.

Instrumentalised history

The fact that collective memories can be used to legitimize political power explains why states are preoccupied with their legal regulation. This is especially the case for authoritarian regimes: unlike democracies, they cannot refer to the present – the fair elections as a source of legitimacy. Instead, they turn to history to find the grounds for self-legitimation in the past. Constructing their historical truth(s), authoritarian leaders have to choose selectively among those concurring memories that are favorable for their image and authority and suppress those that pose a potential danger (here). This is a reason why the proliferation of legal regulation on collective memories, the so-called memorial laws, in Central and Eastern Europe goes in parallel with the democratic decline in the region. As George Orwell put it in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”.

Russia is an example of a country which actively uses history for its political aims. To implement its memory policy Russia widely employs criminal sanctions. As result, Russian ‘memorial’ laws violate human rights – freedom of speech and academic freedom (here) – as they are aimed to protect an ‘official truth’ by punishing the diverging opinions. In this sense, the methods and priorities of state memory policy are indicative of this state’s overall attitude towards human rights (here). From the point of view of free speech and democracy, there is no difference between the punishment for criticising the state’s current policy or its past wrongdoings (here).

The Kremlin refers to various historical facts to justify its geopolitical claims. For instance, the historical myth about an illegal transfer of the Crimea peninsula to Ukraine in 1954, was used to picture the annexation of Crimea as a ‘re-unification’ in 2014, and was called a ‘restoration of historical justice’. Putin’s newly published article (12 July, 2021) ‘On historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’(here) not only justifies the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, but challenges Ukraine’s statehood as such.

Russia’s official interpretation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939) (here) as an achievement of Soviet diplomacy and a statement that Poland fell victim to its own policy in the pre-war years, has political consequences for Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Romania and affect their relations with the Russian Federation. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had a secret Protocol that effectively divided Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the USSR and mapped out in detail the territory each party expected to gain at the expense of Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Calling this document ‘an achievement of diplomacy’, the Kremlin denies its co-responsibility for the outbreak of World War II. This position resonates with the position of countries from the former Soviet bloc, who consider themselves victims of both totalitarian regimes and promote the historical narrative of Nazi and Soviet occupation.

The official understanding of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Soviet role in the origins of the Second World War differed over the years. For fifty years the Kremlin denied the existence of a secret Protocol to the Pact, which Only in 1989, during Gorbachev’s perestroika, this act of secret diplomacy was admitted and condemned. In 2009, President Vladimir Putin confirmed that the Pact and the Secret Protocol were an “immoral” act of collaboration with Nazi Germany. However, recently, this interpretation has been changed. As Putin noted in 2014:

“People are still arguing about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to the present day. And they accuse the Soviet Union of carving up Poland. But what did Poland itself do when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia? They grabbed a piece of Czechoslovakia! (Laughs) They did that before the end of May [1939]! (Laughs) And then they got their payback”.

Considering that condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1989 legitimized the Baltic countries’ claims for independence (it was the starting point of the Soviet Union’s dissolution) and that praise for the Pact became Russia’s official narrative after the Crimea annexation in 2014, the changes in the Kremlin’s rhetoric indicate the political direction Moscow has taken over the last decades.

These cases show that the views on history expressed by Russian political leadership are not a matter of political rhetoric. For Russia, history has a practical implication, and it frames its politics towards the neighborhood and beyond.

‘Memory wars’ and criminal sanctions

In European memory wars, Russia finds itself on the defensive: to legitimize its geopolitical claims, it has to protect its mantel as Europe’s liberator. This historical narrative has been challenged by Central and Eastern European states who see themselves as victims of the two totalitarian states – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In December 2010, six EU countries from the former Soviet bloc (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Romania) petitioned the European Commission to criminalize denials of crimes committed by the former communist regime and to adopt a document similar to the Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia (here) on the basis of which many EU countries ban Holocaust denial. Although the proposal was rejected at the EU level (here), the criminal codes of these countries include articles to punish the denial of crimes committed by both totalitarian regimes.

In response to these legal initiatives, Russia amended its Criminal Code, adding Article 354-1 ‘Rehabilitation of Nazism’ (May 2014) which punishes ‘falsification of history’ – spreading of knowingly false information on the activities of the USSR during World War II. This provision aims to protect Russia’s glory of the past. Accordingly, the equalization of Nazi Germany and the USSR as totalitarian regimes means ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’ and is deemed a crime under Russian law. Article 354-1 makes it impossible to have an open discussion on the communist crimes, pre-war co-operation between Hitler and Stalin, war crimes committed by the Red Army or post-war Soviet occupation. In fact, everyone who raises these questions and challenges Russia’s official truth can be accused of being a ‘Nazi’ and punished by a hard fine or imprisonment up to five years (see, for instance, Luzgin case).

The recent developments in Russia’s memory policy prove that neither its methods nor its priorities will be revised. Moreover, as a result of Putin’s constitutional reform of 2020, a historical narrative of self-heroization was proclaimed on the constitutional level. The insertion of a new Article 67-1 in the Constitution of the Russian Federation (also ‘the Fundamental Law’) clearly defines the principles and directions of Russian memory policy: Paragraph 1, declares the Russian Federation a legal successor of the USSR on its territory and in respect to the international organisations and international treaties. Interestingly, the name ‘USSR’ hitherto completely absent from the Fundamental Law, got included in the text now, almost thirty years after the dissolvement of the Soviet Union.

Paragraph 2 refers to the historically established unity of the state and preservation of memory of ‘ancestors’, while paragraph 3 replaces ‘ancestors’ with ‘defenders of the Fatherland’:

‘The Russian Federation respects the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland and protects the historical truth. It is not allowed to diminish the significance of the heroism of the people in defending the Fatherland.’

The narrative ‘defenders of the Fatherland’ (nowadays it is mainly connected with the memory of the Great Patriotic War, i.e. participation of the Soviet Union in World War II) enshrined in paragraphs 2 and 3 Article 67-1, together with the provision of paragraph 1, means that Russia is not only a legal, but also a moral and geopolitical successor of the USSR.

In some cases, Russian memorial legislation has extraterritorial effects. In April 2020, a law establishing criminal responsibility for the destruction of Russian military burial sites (here) was adopted. A new Article 243-4 of the Criminal Code introduced responsibility for the destruction or damage of Russian and Soviet military graves on the territory of the Russian Federation and abroad. This article was adopted in response to the dismantlement of the monument to Marshal Konev in Prague. A conflict around this monument represents a memory ‘war’ between Russia and the Czech Republic: for Russians Konev is a hero of the Great Patriotic War, while many Czechs see him as a symbol of the Soviet occupation.

In April 2021, Article 354-1 of the Criminal Code was amended to punish public disrespect to the days of military glory as well as insults to the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland or humiliation of the honour and dignity of a veteran of the Great Patriotic War.

Finally, on 2 July 2021, the Strategy on National Security of the Russian Federation was signed. The document stipulates that one of the threats to national security ‘is the attempts to falsify Russian and World history’. Accordingly, ‘strengthening of the Russian spiritual and moral values’, ‘preservation of historical and cultural heritage of Russia’s people’ as well as ‘protection of traditional values, culture and historical memory’ are among the strategic priorities of the national security. The Strategy on National Security mentions the importance of protecting ‘historical’ truth and preventing ‘falsification of history’ mentions several times: in the context of state and public security, information security, international stability, and interstate cooperation.

On tendencies and perspectives

The recent developments in Russia’s memory politics – the constitutional amendment on historical truth (article 67-1 of the Constitution), the amendments to the Criminal Code to protect the past glory by the use of criminal sanctions (articles 243-4 and 354-1), the vision of historical memory as an element of national security, Putin’s statements on history – indicate three main tendencies: first, Russia promotes a narrative of self-glorification and self-heroization based on the legacies of the Soviet Union; second, its memory policy is getting more aggressive as more criminal sanctions are involved; third, historical memory is considered to be a matter of national security. These tendencies – unlikely to be changed in the future – define Russia’s policy path. It means that there will be a further decline of democracy, more cases of violations of human rights and freedom of speech, more interstate conflicts and tensions about history and its interpretation, which will give a new push to the proliferation of memorial laws in Europe.

* Dr Alina Cherviatsova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow, Human Rights Centre, Programme for Studies on Human Rights in Context, Ghent University

This publication is part of a project MELoDYE (‘TO DESTROY OR TO PRESERVE: MONUMENTS, LAW AND DEMOCRACY IN EUROPE’) that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 10132010.

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