Historical Memory Policy
No. 1 2014 January/March
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


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7 (812) 386-7634
Address: 6/1A Gagarinskaya Str., St. Petersburg 191187, Russia

The author thanks the participants in the situational analysis “The Historical Memory Policy” held on April 8, 2013, who contributed to the discussion of the topic presented in this paper.

Active patriotism is a key element of a nation’s human capital. Fostering active patriotism requires a consistent policy of memory, including an integral concept of Russia’s past that would meet the strategic task of developing society and the state. The past twenty years have seen inefficient and inconsistent efforts to pursue such a policy. The result has been a semi-Soviet individual with almost no links with or emotional feelings for the history of his country and with no knowledge of it. World War II remains the only basic element of the memory policy; however, its emotional impact cannot but decrease with years. An active, consistent and competent policy of memory is needed. Attempts to do without ideology and without a policy of memory have led to disastrous results as regards the moral state of society. Like the state, society has lost its development vector. Instead of creative diversity, there is a destructive chaos in people’s minds.


History of Russia narrated as a sequence of only horrors and failures or, on the contrary, as a continuous string of victories and successes is equally unproductive for forming the individual and collective identity. Historical narrative cannot be flat and reduced to an answer to the question “What should we be proud of?” It also needs to pose the question “What should we be ashamed of?” and give an answer to it. There should be a tragic dimension in it; otherwise emotional involvement will not be achieved.

What elements of historical narrative are crucial and acceptable to all?

First of all, these are Russia’s origins – the rise of Novgorod and Kiev as equal centers of power. This factor suggested the openness of Russian lands to various influences (Northern Europe, Southern Europe – Byzantium, the Steppe) and their ability for synthesis. The acceptance of Christianity from Byzantium was a factor that involved Russia into European traditions, rather than put it in opposition to Europe.

The invasion of Russia by Batu Khan was a catastrophe that changed the vector of its development. The power of the Golden Horde was shaken off as a result of the consolidation of Russian forces.

The consolidation by Ivan III of Russian lands around Moscow and the formation of a strong center of power as a European tradition was crucial for the emergence of Russia’s statehood.

The reign of Ivan IV was the first fall into unproductive authoritarianism, when the authorities used terror as a means of mobilization. It was followed by the defeat in the Livonian War and the Time of Troubles as a consequence. The end of the Time of Troubles was achieved after society united and divisions in the elites and society as a whole were overcome.

Peter the Great’s rule was the culmination of a long process of borrowing European experience for the development of the army, the system of state governance, and culture. The achievements of that period were due to an ability to create positive motivation for the elites, without falling into total terror.

The years 1812-1815 stood not only for the Patriotic War I but also for Alexander I’s role in the creation of a coalition of major European dynasties and the subsequent Concert of great powers which brought Europe decades of peace. Alexander I did not humiliate France and defended the Napoleonic Code from European reactionaries. In other words, during that period Russia was a definitely positive force in Europe, and not only in military terms.

The 18th-19th centuries saw a successful social and economic development of Russia, the creation of an army that was competitive at the European level, of the first generation of industry in the Urals. Russia developed largely by borrowing foreign expertise and talent – the ability to assimilate foreign experience.

The economy of the late 19th-early 20th century showed a huge growth potential: the beginning of coal mining in the Donbass-Krivoy Rog coal basin; the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway; Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin’s reform of land ownership and resettlement program; the creation of scientific and cultural elites of the European level; plans to introduce universal primary education.

The formation of the Russian Empire as a universal form of existence of the great power at the time deserves special attention. The choice was not whether or not the country should be an empire but whether it should be a center or a periphery. Russia assimilated the notions of empire and nation simultaneously, and these notions were not in conflict with each other.

The narrative about the Empire has two major elements:

Rivalry between great powers was rational and largely ordinary. The imperial expansion was an element of this rivalry, and imperial excesses which should be denounced, were a norm then. This rivalry should not be described as an inescapable confrontation between Russia and an unequivocally hostile “West.” Some challenges came from Europe, but it was also there that Russia found allies to combat these challenges.

The formation within the Empire of the Russian nation that was ethnically open and included different groups, not only ethnic Russians. The creation of the national/imperial culture through joint efforts of people from different ethnic groups.

Russia’s history between the 1860s and 1917 was full of great achievements: the Great Reforms; the abolition of serfdom, which emancipated the people and opened the way for building a modern nation; the rise of local self-government, the establishment of the legal system; the growth of civic activity, especially at the grassroots level. The system of classical gymnasiums, founded by Alexander II and developed under Alexander III, was a major factor behind Russia’s economic growth and dramatic improvement of the quality of the nation’s human capital. The main breakthrough in primary education took place during the reign of Nicholas II, when the country came close to introducing universal education and laid the foundations for the eradication of illiteracy. On the eve of World War I, more than 60% of recruits were literate. Under Nicholas II, the government doubled spending on education every 5 years.

World War I was a test which Russia failed to stand as it was in a transition period of its comprehensive transformation. By 1917, despite military setbacks of 1915, Russia stood to win the war as part of the Entente.

In 1917, all social institutions collapsed due to internal factors. All groups of society were to blame for the revolutionary chaos which swept across the country. The monarchy lost touch with the reality and did not react to obvious challenges. The elites sought to tear down the monarchy, irresponsibly believing that they would be able to control further changes. Revolutionary counter-elites wanted to mobilize the destructive protest potential of the masses, in which they fairly well succeeded. Soldiers deserted en masse and served as a catalyst for the revolutionary chaos and violence.

The Soviet period, beginning with the Civil War, has to be described primarily as a tragedy – fratricide, moral decadence and cultural decline (the exodus and destruction of the educated classes and the clergy). Sustainable development with spectacular vistas was ruined by revolutionary impatience, bad management and lumpen attitude to property.

The Soviet state neglected its role of serving the people and viewed them as expendable. This policy culminated in the destruction of millions of the most talented, hard working and energetic people during massive repressions, other operations of the NKVD in the 1930s, wartime and postwar deportations. Russians must remember about the horrible victims of the 20th century, honor their memory and set up monuments to them. At the same time, we should not tear down monuments to the “Reds” if these are not monuments to active participants in the Red Terror.

Speaking of the Soviet period in Russian history, we will continue to take pride in the heroism of people during World War II and the achievements of scientists and workers who often had to work in extremely difficult conditions. We should be proud of individual exploits of people who in the face of the repressive regime defended their beliefs, dignity and faith, who preserved and created culture, and who saved the lives of their relatives, friends and complete strangers.

World War II is the core of collective historical memory of the 20th century. It can serve as an anchor for restoring other episodes in Russian history, which were “thrown out” in Soviet times, for example, World War I (the Second Patriotic War). Emphasis should be placed on heroism, self-sacrifice and patriotism. It is time to finally get rid of the Soviet formula, according to which the Victory of 1945 justified the crimes of the communist regime in the interwar period.

The post-Stalin period of Soviet history was marked by the end of the systemic terror, ease of control over communication and information. Yet it continued to reject private property as an economic institution. This period saw failures of reform, stagnation, psychological alienation of people from the common cause, formation of non-productive individualism, and eventual economic exhaustion of the country in the conditions of the Cold War and the arms race.

The breakup of the Soviet Union should be presented as a profound crisis and tragedy for millions, and at the same time a new window of opportunity. History shows that all countries that emerged in the core of empires went through a difficult transition period after their disintegration; however, if they did not slip into revanchism, over a historically short period of time they found themselves well ahead of the former provinces of the empire in terms of social and economic development. Russia is already confirming this historical trend. It is important that this tendency be further developed and implemented not only and not so much with reliance on natural resources as, first of all, on consideration for the man, the creation of a rule-of-law state, innovative economic development, new patriotism, democratic development, and stability of the political sphere.


It is worth taking into account the newest trends – young people read far less and in a different way. Visual methods of presenting information are ever more important. The ratios of TV, cinema, and Internet influences are changing dynamically, and this dynamics varies considerably by age and social groups.

Saying that the mass media today make an insufficient contribution to the policy of memory is just not enough; quite often their function is overtly destructive. On TV one sees formats of addressing history issues that are almost always inadequate. The worst harm is caused by “talk show duels” as a verbal clash of two gladiator journalists, while the television audience is invited to send SMS messages to vote for either side to decide who is right and who is wrong. The very understanding of history as a subject for a decent discussion by people adhering to different viewpoints is ruined; history begins to be regarded as a battlefield; the simpler, quite often more radical arguments gain the upper hand.

There is a need for a special weekly history program with an experienced, professional host with a university degree in history. History and memory issues should be discussed without SMS voting or picking a winner. Such a program must be aired on a central television channel in prime time. The target audience should be everyone, but teachers in particular. It is worth tapping the experience of the BBC in making historical documentaries – a charismatic host, several professional historians offering brief comments within the range of their competence, and meaningful and diversified video footage.

Cinema is a very special memory policy tool. Its mission is to provide strong, emotional images of the nation’s past. This requires films of great artistic merit made by outstanding directors. Opinion surveys after the screening of Katyn, by Andrzej Wajda, on the RTR television channel showed a shift in public opinion by tens of percentage points. Consequently, the state should finance not casual projects, but keep a renewable fund, with no spending deadlines set – in other words, to wait for decent applications and projects, without having to distribute everything here and now. The films should be shown on TV in prime time.

The task of the World Wide Web is to help school history teachers. On the Internet one should be able to find not only teaching aids, maps, etc. There should be created special compilations of clips from feature films and documentaries that would help arrange for discussions with students over moral and emotional aspects of various themes, including dramatic, tragic episodes of the national history, in particular, 20th century history. One of the main problems of teaching history at school is not that of memorizing facts and figures, but the lack of students’ emotional involvement.

In printed media we have no format for history discussions on the national scale. In the meantime, it is these discussions that leave a lasting trace in the public mind. It necessary to have two or three periodicals with large circulations to maintain a long discussion over this or that major history issue, the way it was done in Germany, France and Poland for discussing various events of the 1930s and 1940s.

The mass media fail to play the role of a navigator in the ocean of history literature. To a certain extent the task of drawing attention to good history books may be accomplished in the program Our History. The key history books and magazines must be easily available or free (which is still better) for Internet users – teachers and school and university students.

Symbols and commemorations

The existing set of historical symbols and characters is scanty and mostly accidental. The St. George Ribbon project is the sole major success due to several factors:

  • indirect involvement of the state;
  • non-Communist symbol, but a well familiar one since the Soviet era;
  • history roots going far deeper than 1917;
  • unmistakably Russian (non-aggressive) nature of this symbol, which is of particular importance for success in the post-Soviet space;
  • harmony with foreign symbol policy traditions (Britain’s red remembrance poppies worn in memory of World War I victims, ribbons as a token of support for public movements).

Unfortunately, the success of this project is being wasted. The universality of this symbol should be actualized and the St. George Ribbon made a symbol of commemoration of all those who gave their lives for the home country on all battlefields, and not just in World War II.

Russia has no calendar of commemorations and national and local political dates. The list of memorable dates must be expanded to include four or five permanent dates and the corresponding ceremonies featuring the country’s top officials.

The memories of World War I are weak, so an introduction of a National Day of Remembrance for Those Who Died for the Motherland, with representatives of all political forces and confessions taking part in a common ceremony (conf. Britain’s Cenotaph), would assert the idea of common history. The ceremony, including a procession from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to the Eternal Flame in the Alexander Gardens should be shown on TV. It is also important to create a special memorial in Moscow.

It is also advisable that a Day of Remembrance for the Victims of 20th-century Political Cataclysms (Civil War, repression, collectivization, deportations, etc.) be instituted. It will be more general than the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Political Repression, which should be left intact. A common day of memory will be essentially correct; in the 20th century many people in the USSR were physically or morally killed. A common day of memory will encompass practically everybody, not just those who suffered in 1937-1938, but all groups that fell victim to political repression at different stages, from the dispossessed wealthy peasants (kulaks), repressed clergymen of various religions and confessions and expelled nobles and dissidents to ethnic groups who suffered from special operations and deportations by the NKVD secret police. There is to be a special museum and memorial in Moscow, where an annual ceremony would be held with the president taking part.

Lastly, a decision is to be made what National Unity Day is all about and a proper ceremony created with the center at the monument to Minin and Pozharsky in Red Square. Today, National Unity Day is a symbol of missed initiative in the policy of memory; the nationalist Russian March is the most significant event. Possibly, this date should be renamed to the Day of Memory of 20th Century Victims and People’s Unity – especially as National Unity Day today is linked (in a very unclear way, though) with the end of the Time of Troubles/civil war.

An effective implementation of the policy of memory requires modernization of institutional support, including the opening of archives, the establishment of an Institute of Russian 20th Century History, and other measures.

The archives are now not commissions for declassifying documents, but commissions for classifying them. In other words, it is crucial to enforce compliance with the law saying that everything older than 30 years (or at least 50 years to ensure the whole Stalinist period should be encompassed) must be open to researchers (it might be a possibility of considering preferences for Russian historians for 3-5 years). The commission is to be empowered to classify certain things. The commission may be given a 2-3-year deadline. Everything that has not been classified is to stay open. Also, a certain limit may be set – no more than 10-15 percent of the documents can be classified. This would foment interest towards history and have a very positive response inside and outside the country.

The Museum of Modern History of Russia in Moscow requires revision and reorganization – its present exposition is an outrageous sample of Soviet and post-Soviet eclecticism. The museum’s Tsarist prison showcase, dating back to the Soviet era, still produces a far greater impression than the GULAG-related showcase.

True, the problem is partially being addressed within the framework of the president’s federal targeted program On the Commemoration of Victims of Political Repression and a parallel, inter-related program of the Moscow government. But it is very important that a monument to victims in Moscow be built. Such monuments have already been built in Kiev, Astana and in other capitals. But not in Moscow (!).



The hours reserved for history in the school curriculum have shrunk significantly in recent years. The concentric system of instruction that was introduced in the early 1990s makes the situation still worse. The entire history curriculum lasts from the fifth to the ninth year. In the tenth and eleventh years it is to be reviewed again with deeper analysis of theory and individual problems. As a result, the students and teachers have to literally gallop through the first cycle, which leaves no chance for discussing any fundamental issues.

The linear system of history instruction in school should be restored. In that case the 10th and 11th years will be devoted to the history of the 20th century and early 21st century. The most complex and sensitive themes will be raised in high school, when students are already prepared to perceive them adequately.

The tragedy of the 20th century is to be shown as an era of terrible losses, including an incredible waste of human resources and repressions against and deportations of small ethnic groups, which had an impact on inter-ethnic relations that remains relevant today. It is important to bring to students’ minds that everybody suffered, and that the Russians suffered no less than any other people.

The hours spent on history classes may be increased through integration with the studies of social science. In practice many sections of the social science course (in particular, such chapters as Human Being and Activity, Cognition, and Society), in particular, those taught in the fifth through eighth year lack clarity of the subject. Shaping school students’ legal mentality and ideas of the most important legal terms and notions should proceed at history classes, in combination with explanations when and in what social environment this or that legal term or principle emerged. From that standpoint, studying Magna Carta, the ideas of Hobbes and Locke, the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is far more useful than discussion of specific legal norms. Instruction in the history of philosophy, sociology and political science must be pegged to the history curriculum as closely.

Certain parts of the social science course should be dropped and a number of historical, legal and politological themes studied at high school history classes. It is expedient to re-orient the social science course towards modern times. It would be reasonable to end the history curriculum with the last days of the 20th century, while the events that have not become history yet should be studied at social science classes, conducted in a fundamentally different fashion, such as discussions, disputes and seminars.

A major role should be given to local history, with the focus made not on ethnic specifics, but on the history of successful creative efforts by local businessmen, sponsors and city mayors of the pre-revolutionary era – many of them take credit for the merits that are still in sight in cities (public buildings, innovations in urban infrastructures) and that may be shown to school students going on excursions and sight-seeing tours. The regional component of education in the autonomous republics should be harmonized with the national narrative.

A deeper and qualitatively different process of instruction in history would markedly raise the requirements the teacher is expected to meet.

It is necessary to revise the programs, first and foremost, those for universal history, in favor of more generalized and problem-targeted presentation of the content. Any talk of abandoning the plurality of manuals must be stopped. If the purpose of a unified history manual is to ensure a single interpretation of key aspects of history and to harmonize the mainstream course and the regional component, such a measure would be redundant.

Ordering schools to strictly abide by interpretations found in the manuals of certain authors and publishers would be fundamentally wrong. The choice of a manual should be left to the discretion of the teacher and a methodological association. The teacher must have the right to use any manual that has undergone proper scrutiny and bears the clearance mark. This evidence of official authorization would merely testify that the manual contains no historical mistakes, distortions, calls for violence or insulting remarks regarding this or that ethnic group, and that the presentation of the content and the methodology agrees with the age of students the manual is addressed to. All these issues may be successfully coped with at the level of expert examination, and not through the introduction of a “unified” manual.

At the same time it is essential to fundamentally increase the role of special teaching aids available through the Internet, including audio-visual ones (such as selected clips from feature films and documentaries and documentary footage supplied with commentaries by specialists), which will help the teacher achieve the key task of school students’ emotional involvement and ability to empathize. (It is still erroneously believed that this task should be addressed mostly at literature classes).


The policy of memory pursued during the 1990s-2000s was ineffective for a variety of reasons. The Russian authorities’ approach to historical memory problems lacked a coherent strategy and consistency. The lack of understanding as to what tasks should be addressed within the framework of the memory policy was largely due to the failure to resolve fundamental issues pertaining to the country’s future and the controversy of the identity model proposed by the authorities. Over the years, no mechanisms were created for conducting an efficient memory policy, which would meet the new social conditions in the country. There is no mass media infrastructure in Russia to implement this policy. Over the last 20 years, the memory policy was reduced to resorting to a very scanty set of symbols, events and figures of the past in a bid to mobilize national solidarity and resolve other tasks. In some cases, the state lost the initiative in the memory policy, which is especially evident in the case of the newly established National Unity Day which has for several years now been marked by nationalist Russian Marches. Historical memory gradually fragmented, as its group (including ethnic) variants developed in isolation from – or even in confrontation with – the general narrative. History teaching and the status of historical knowledge in society steadily degraded. Perhaps, the most important thing was the failure to create a concept of continuous Russian history and to bridge its pre- and post-revolutionary periods. The entire historical identity rests on the memory of World War II. This is absolutely not enough and unfair. Russia has a difficult yet great history, full of major achievements, brilliant victories and large-scale tragedies. They need to be brought back into people’s minds so that they feel responsible successors to previous generations.

The main tasks of the memory policy are proposed to be as follows:

  • forming a coherent and constructive national identity, intended to help bridge the gap in historical traditions and overcome ethnic disunity and acute economic inequality;
  • fostering active patriotism, not only intended to motivate people to defend their homeland against foreign threats but also to renew their country and environment here and now and to engage in civil and entrepreneurial activities;
  • legitimizing an evolutionary path of development and reformist values, and de-legitimizing social, political, religious and ethnic radicalism. However depressing the current situation may be, Russia can no longer afford a revolution;
  • developing and strengthening various levels of identity: family, kin, native place, its nature, and the whole of Russia;
  • legitimizing private property and business activity;
  • establishing democratic values ??and ideas of the rule of law in public and individual consciousness, which have not yet become dominant in contemporary Russia.

These objectives can be achieved only if the state pursues a policy of memory that:

  • rests on long-term, strategic development goals;
  • unites society to the fullest possible extent (complete accord is an unattainable and unproductive goal);
  • is coherent and consistent. (Today efforts to pursue a policy of memory are reduced to sporadic activities marking some historical dates.);
  • enjoys wide support among educated classes, including creative elites and teachers, which would let the state not only and not so much “dictate” history to society as play an indirect stimulating role in the policy of memory;
  • is open to constructive discussion as a common heritage (historical memory should be a “public affair,” res publica; today it is a battlefield);
  • rests on a well thought-out media structure and the latest trends in the development of the information space, including the increasing importance of the Internet and visual forms of communication;
  • is not in open conflict with history as a field of scientific knowledge. Actually, individual and collective memory, on the one hand, and history, on the other hand, are inevitably in conflict. The very nature of these approaches to the past is different. This state of affairs should be considered a norm. Memory is inevitably selective. In the strategic perspective, however, one cannot build an efficient policy of memory that would be in confrontation with historical knowledge;
  • provides a prominent place to local and group histories in the general history (in case of a collision between the general history and group, especially ethnic, history, if there are irreconcilable differences between them or if group history is not reflected in the general history, group history always wins);
  • proposes role models applicable in real daily life.

The policy of memory should be conducted by both the state (mainly indirectly) and the intellectual elite which now largely keeps aloof from this duty, crucial for any society. This accusation does not apply to small groups of the elite that have been engaged in this work, albeit often from opposite positions. There should be an intensive dialogue between these groups, which would broaden the scope of accord and help deepen people’s knowledge of their history – even though it is impossible to achieve complete accord. We should not even set such a goal.

* * *

Every nation deserves great history, but not every nation has one. Russia does have great history. In the last 600 years, Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to mobilize for successful defense against external threats: the liberation from the Mongols, the rebuff of the Polish invasion, the defeat of Napoleon and Hitler. Russians and other peoples of Russia showed their valor in the struggle for independence and sovereignty. Russians are a winner nation. Russia was the only one of the peripheral empires in Europe that in the 19th century joined the ranks of great powers despite its relative economic lag. Russia showed its ability to develop vast areas and achieve success in economic development. Russia rid itself of communism without outside help.

These points are acceptable to all but for orthodox communists and radical nationalists. They meet the interests and views of the authorities, the Church, reasonable liberals and reasonable nationalists. Within the framework of this “general line” any pluralism and discussion is possible; an attitude is fostered that treats the past as a common, public affair, res publica.

History should serve as a source of inspiration for creative efforts and cooperation among countries and various public groups in addressing development issues, as well as a warning against repeating mistakes of the past – revolutionary impatience, lack of consideration for the man, and discord between the state and part of society. The main values that must be established with the help of history are an ability to succeed through continued and constructive efforts, an ability to create individual success stories, sovereignty, recognition of the state’s value by all major sectors of society and recognition of the man’s value by the state, respect for various segments of society by the ruling elite, and an ability of social forces for dialogue.