A Year of Frustrated Hopes
No. 4 2014 October/December
Alexei I. Miller

Doctor of History
European University at Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Department of History
Center for the Study of Cultural Memory and Symbolic Politics
Research Director;
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Leading Research Fellow


ORCID: 0000-0001-8139-0976
ResearcherID: Z-1451-2019
Scopus AuthorID: 56321369000


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Adjusting Historical Policy in Russia

This article is part of a research project carried out with grant No.3-0300553а from the Russian Humanitarian Scientific Fund. It was published in Russian in Politeia magazine.

Exactly one year ago Politeia magazine published my article on the role of expert communities in shaping historical memory policy in Russia. At that time I believed that professional historians and non-governmental organizations addressing these issues would be able, irrespective of their political convictions, to work with the authorities on matters pertaining to memory politics in Russia.

In particular, I wrote about history textbooks in secondary schools, the central issue of memory policy over the past few years. In 2013, when the Russian authorities revised yet again the teaching of history in schools, they acted through the para-governmental Russian Historical Society. At the same time the organizers of a discussion about a “unified historical and cultural standard” emphasized repeatedly the need for an open, nationwide discussion and took into account a considerable portion of public criticism. Most importantly, the participants decided to organize a contest to prepare several history textbooks based on a new standard instead of publishing the originally planned standardized textbook.

On November 23, 2013, the Civic Forum held a round table discussion on historical memory and teaching history that largely focused on how to best compete in the contest with projects prepared under the auspices of the Russian Historical Society on order from the government. Potential authors of contesting projects were named and discussions were held about how to attract independent historians to the jury commission. Naturally, the opinion was expressed that the state’s participation in the contest and cooperation with the authorities on this issue in general made no sense, but at that point such an opinion did not prevail. With no illusions about the state’s willingness to cooperate, a majority of participants agreed that once the authorities left the window of opportunities open for such cooperation, it should be used at least to see what would happen next.

The authorities kept sending “luring signals.” In January 2014, at a meeting with the authors of a standard history textbook, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that work on creating a series of textbooks must be fully transparent. “There should be no place for monopolism,” he said.

Another sphere where interaction between the authorities and society looked quite encouraging was a project to preserve the memory of the victims of political repressions. Drafting a relevant program under the aegis of the Presidential Council for Human Rights and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy took several years. Officials, representatives of the liberal wing of the political establishment, Memorial (an international historical, educational, human rights, and charitable society), and the Russian Orthodox Church cooperated rather fruitfully. In short, this interaction proceeded beyond the customary division lines in Russian society. As a result of concerted efforts, a comprehensive program was drawn up and agreed on between various state agencies, and it seemed the government was poised to officially adopt the program. In June 2013, the RIA Novosti news agency even organized a presentation of a federal program to preserve the memory of the victims of political repression. Alexander Protasevich, Advisor to the Minister of Culture, participated in the program. Protasevich had an impressive work record in that sphere as Minister of Culture, Youth Policies, and Mass Communications of Perm Territory – a region renowned for its labor camp museum Perm-36. Protasevich was to supervise work on the program on behalf of the Culture Ministry.

In January 2014, a Facebook group emerged called Historians of Russia –Problems of Self-Organization. The group launched a debate about ways to organize professional communities, which indicated, among other things, that in the opinion of many historians the Russian Historical Society, organized under the aegis of the government, had failed to cope with its mission. However, when I came up with the initiative that an association should be established to provide historians with a collective say in discussing critical memory policy issues different from that of the state-controlled Russian Historical Society, a majority did not support my position. Many argued that the focus should be placed on purely professional matters, such as expert analysis, fighting plagiarism, etc.

Simultaneously, efforts were launched independently from the Facebook activities to create a Free Historical Society (FHS). All of its participants welcomed the idea of founding an organization that would be actively involved in discussing the teaching of history and memory politics issues. Opinion was divided between the minority, which understood the Free Historical Society’s tasks as similar to those of Memorial and expected that the FHS would be able to freely express its opinion on current issues of memory politics, and the majority, which argued that the FHS should be more reserved and neutral in its public statements.

These initiatives were certainly generated during a brief period in 2013 when there seemed to be promising prospects for a relatively open and constructive dialogue over memory policy issues. When I was writing this article in September 2014 the cautious hopes of autumn 2013 had vanished. I will attempt to analyze the events and circumstances that have created a situation in which the emerging formats of dialogue and cooperation in addressing historical memory-related matters have collapsed. Today historical memory policy is facing its deepest crisis of the post-Soviet era.


The crisis in Ukraine was the key factor behind changes in Russia in 2014. The Ukrainian issue gradually evolved into a confrontation between Russia and the United States and the European Union. It is worth reviewing how the crisis originated and evolved since it has a direct bearing on the topic under consideration.

On November 21, 2013 the Nikolai Azarov government announced that it was suspending preparations for an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. Protests against that decision lasted until the end of November in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan), eventually losing strength. On November 30, the standoff heated up after the police attacked several hundred demonstrators who had remained in the city center. The protests quickly became more radical and protesters seized public buildings in Kiev. The confrontation turned violent after a number of laws were adopted on January 16 tightening accountability for unauthorized public demonstrations. The first deaths were reported on January 22. The violence escalated drastically on February 18-20 when snipers killed more than 70 people in Kiev. On February 21, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition reached an agreement to end all violence and institute government reform. The agreement was formalized with the participation of the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers and made in the presence of Russian presidential representative Vladimir Lukin. However, the deal fell apart within a day. Yanukovich fled Kiev on February 22; the Crimean events began in late February, resulting in the March 16 referendum and subsequent reunification of Crimea with Russia. Thus the happenings at the end of February and the beginning of March ushered in an outright confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

The date of the Crimean referendum changed twice within a week. The wording of the questions was reconsidered and reformulated several times, indicating that Russia’s actions were largely improvised and the situation was perceived as highly risky. The sharp tightening of control over the public sphere was presented as a way to consolidate society in the face of an external threat. The “fifth column” rhetoric in Putin’s triumphant address to the Federal Assembly on Crimea’s accession to Russia was a landmark in the transformation of the social atmosphere in contemporary Russia. The “fifth column” rhetoric transformed dissent into an act of national treason. A large segment of society quickly interpreted that message not just as a temporary precaution in a critical situation, but as a new policy course the government was prepared to fill with corresponding content. These changes have fully manifested themselves in memory politics.

In January 2014 a high-profile debate occurred over a poll the TV channel Dozhd’ conducted on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad. The question was: “Should Leningrad have been surrendered in order to save thousands of lives?” The question remained on the Dozhd’ website for about three hours, after which the editor-in-chief removed it. The Dozhd’ affair should not be regarded as a turning point in the authorities’ historical memory policies. Rather, the ill-worded question was used as a long-awaited pretext for ousting the channel from cable networks. Remarkably, Diletant magazine, which actually conducted the poll, managed to get away with it.

The watershed moment came in the spring of 2014 when the authorities made a series of consistent moves that fundamentally changed the memory policy situation in Russia. On March 4, information was made public that the University of International Relations (MGIMO) was about to fire one of its senior lecturers, Andrei Zubov, for publishing an article in the daily Vedomosti, in which he claimed that the takeover of Crimea was not very different from Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Public calls for his dismissal followed, and although the official decision was repeatedly postponed for various legal reasons, the MGIMO administration said in summer 2014 that it would not renew Zubov’s contract.

This story has two important sides: first, aware of how scandalous the incident looked, the MGIMO administration sought to avoid a demonstrative dismissal at all costs, but the damage to its reputation was no longer taken into account. Those behind the decision saw it as intimidation, as a warning that the costs of oppositional statements had soared. Second, the mass media were flooded with publications in support of Zubov’s dismissal. In recent months we have witnessed how the mechanism launched in the spring of 2014 is being fine-tuned and expanding. This can be seen in the witchhunt of rock musician Andrei Makarevich (unprecedented in scale in post-Soviet Russia), in which a “public initiative” plays the key role.

It is quite clear that in Zubov’s case it was his opposition that entailed punishment and not a light-minded judgment of a historical event. In his reply to Zubov published in the Izvestia newspaper, political scientist Andranik Migranyan made several preposterous claims from the viewpoint of any competent historian. Migranyan stated, for instance, that if Hitler had stopped in 1938, he would have gone down in history as a great German politician. Migranyan got away with this, although Hitler’s record by 1938 had already included Mein Kampf and the Nuremberg laws.


At the beginning of April 2014, the Center for Political Information published a report on the problems of teaching history at Russian educational institutions that offered a sample of discursive strategies, as well as a set of notions and terms now considered suitable for use in historical memory politics. Stylistically, the report was close to the incriminating pamphlets of the late 1940s and early 1950s in which history was presented as a battlefield and as acts of ideological sabotage by the West.

Here is a quote that is quite indicative of the authors’ style and lexicon:

“The results of an analysis of the educational books used in teaching Russian history make it possible to conclude that most interpretations of historical events surreptitiously induce in students the thought of our country’s imminent collapse, which would allegedly allow ?oppressed peoples’ to achieve independence. In other words, history as an academic discipline has lost its function to raise morale. Rejecting the scientific postulates of the objective nature of the Russian state-civilization and the artificial division of Russia’s multi-ethnic population into the ?oppressor Slavs’ and ?enslaved’ peoples, as well as removing positive examples from the common historical heritage and simultaneously glorifying doubtful personalities upset the reproduction of values traditional for Russian society.” The report called for concerted efforts by “governmental agencies and the patriotically oriented scientific community” to consolidate the nation.

It is clear that such an interpretation provides no room for dialogue with opponents and no chance to make a critical analysis of the tragedy that afflicted Russia in the 20th century. At the same time it postulates “traditional values” and the self-sufficiency of Russia as a “state-civilization.” A new stage in official historical policy is becoming clearer: it focuses on “civilizational self-sufficiency,” purely positive heroes and episodes of national history, and the interpretation of the morale-shaping function of history in line with Benckendorf’s maxim: “Russia had a glittering past, its present is more than excellent, and, as for the future, it surpasses everything the human mind can fancy.”

In August 2014, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, made an equally ostentatious statement. He expressed hope that the “unified concept of a school history textbook would help young people overcome the ‘syndrome of historical masochism’ cultivated at schools in the 1990s.” This statement clearly reflects Patriarch Kirill’s attitude towards the problem of historical memory, which is markedly different from that of his predecessor, Alexy II, who believed that the misfortunes Russia experienced in the last century were punishment for the murder of the royal family. Alexy II maintained that Russia still needed to reflect on the experience of the 20th century and repent for its sins. Kirill is certain that Russia has atoned for its sins; hence the speculations about a “syndrome of historical masochism.”


Now let us return to the spring of 2014. Russia’s largest political party United Russia has repeatedly suggested drafting laws regulating public statements about the past since 2009 – when the notorious presidential Commission for Counteracting Attempts at the Falsification of History was created – but those initiatives have become mired in various stages of the legislative process. At last, the initiatives were given the green light in the spring of 2014. A bill submitted for debate by State Duma Deputy Irina Yarovaya from United Russia and which complements the Criminal Code with a new Article 354.1 (Rehabilitation of Nazism) was adopted in its first reading on April 4; in the second and third readings on April 23; approved by the Federation Council on April 29; and on May 5, that is, just one month after the beginning of the procedure, President Putin signed the bill into law. The new article establishes criminal responsibility for “spreading knowingly fraudulent information about the activity of the Soviet Union during World War II;” that is, it uses the same formula in which dissidents were sent to labor camps during the Soviet era.

At about the same time, the prominent museum Perm-36 faced the risk of closure. The museum, established at a former prison camp, has had many visitors over the past several years. Negotiations between the museum’s founders and regional authorities over the principles of public-private partnership had proceeded well enough up to a point when, in the spring of 2014, the regional administration made a decision that paralyzed the museum’s operation. In this case, just as with Zubov’s dismissal, the signal came from the top tiers of power.

Lastly, in May 2014 Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said the adoption of the program to preserve the memory of victims of political repression was inexpedient. He made an official statement on this matter in June. The reaction to this statement from Sergei Parkhomenko, one of the organizers of the public initiative “The Last Address,” was quite telling: “In reality this is the correct march of events: we should stop pinning hopes on this ‘bagwash’ and this false and treacherous state – with all of its programs, hypocritical intentions, and arrogant ministerial decisions. We should push ahead with this business on our own. Because only we have the strength. This is the reason why nobody and nothing will ever be able to substitute such ideas and projects as ?The Last Address.’ We should develop this idea by all means.”

“The Last Address” project, which places memorial plaques on buildings whose residents were arrested during the Stalin era, is a useful and noble initiative, indeed. But I find it rather hard to agree with Parkhomenko that the current march of events is correct. Preparations for the federal program were not easy, but this framework made it possible to establish cooperation and understanding among different political and social forces, including federal institutions and the Russian Orthodox Church. So it is utterly regrettable that in the spring of 2014 all these efforts ended with the disruption of the federal program, the closure of the Perm-36 museum by the local authorities, the Patriarch’s speculations about “historical masochism,” and the stoical declaration by “irreconcilable liberal” Sergei Parkhomenko that “it’s even better this way!”

In the spring of 2014 the authorities broke several taboos that had previously been strictly observed: people were fired from their jobs for their opinions; the “fifth column” and “national traitor” discourse was legitimated; and a special law was enacted under which making certain statements about the past was made a criminal offense. The chance was lost for a dialogue over historical memory issues based on mutual respect that had surfaced in 2013. At the end of May, a group of historians echoed Parkhomenko’s response with a call for colleagues to boycott the history textbook competition. Most of the founders of the Free Historical Society refused to support the appeal. At the same time, in May 2014, before the program for perpetuating the memory of victims of political repression was cancelled, I urged the Free Historical Society to present its own draft history textbook, but the proposal received no support. Incidentally, two weeks later, after Medinsky had made his decision regarding the federal program, I would have not made such a proposal.

Currently, the Free Historical Society is discussing the possibility of drafting an alternative history textbook for publication on the Internet. In other words, instead of an inclusive federal program encompassing various segments of society we have only “The Last Address” program left; and instead of an open contest of textbooks, the only possibility is a “standard” textbook proclaiming Russia’s civilizational self-sufficiency, and alternative draft books on the Internet.


Internationally we are entering a period of confrontational historical policy. This direction is quite evident in Medinsky’s recent initiative for unveiling a monument in Krakow commemorating Red Army soldiers who died in Polish captivity in the early 1920s. The underlying aim is to obtain an argument against a Polish initiative for erecting a monument in Katyn.

The bad news continues: in March 2014, Memorial held a workshop on “The Authorities and Society in the Struggle for Russia’s Past: Independent Historians and the Authorities’ Modern Historical Policy.” Regrettably, the wording of the issue runs counter to reality. In this dispute society is by and large on the side of the authorities.

This kind of situation is not uniquely Russian. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the first to demonstrate the possibility of mobilizing an anti-liberal civil society while relying on historical memory policy. A considerable number of Hungarians support Orban and his Fidesz Party. Importantly, this is the support of a consolidated civil society based on a broad grassroots initiative.

Historical memory plays a considerable role in the increasingly active position of pro-Orban civil society. Trianon museums have cropped up all over Hungary as local initiatives. References to the Treaty of Trianon – the separation of Hungarians by European politicians after World War I – have become an important component of Hungarian historical memory policy. It conveniently resonates with tensions in relations between Orban’s Hungary and the EU bureaucracy. The rehabilitation of Miklos Horthy as a strong leader who fell victim to Hitler is another significant feature of the same policy. And the high point is a new Nazi occupation memorial in central Budapest which symbolizes a new interpretation of Hungary’s place as a victim in World War II. It is noteworthy that Russian politicians, who have paid so much attention to the glorification of Nazism in the Baltic states and Ukraine, have not criticized these new manifestations of Hungarian historical policy.

It is quite possible that in the historical perspective 2014 will be perceived as the beginning of the long process of mobilizing civil society on a platform that will be not only anti-liberal, but also nationalist.