The full version of this article will appear in the book “Historical Politics in the 21st Century,” edited by Alexei Miller and Masha Lipman.
The relationship between history and politics in Russia has changed radically over the past 25 years since the beginning of perestroika. One change began in 2009-2010, although its consequences are not yet evident, and affected the principles of the Russian version of ‘historical policy,’ i.e. the use of specially selected elements of the past for political purposes. This is something that has become popular in many post-Communist countries. These principles started taking shape in the first part of the 2000s. In Russia, the change in the discourse concerning the interpretation of history is linked to the country’s emergence into an era of broader social and political transformation, during which the post-Soviet political agenda, which was largely restorative after a total collapse, will give way to something different.
FROM THE FERVOR OF PERESTROIKA TO THE DISILLUSIONMENT OF THE 1990s
It is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future that public attention towards history in Russia will be anywhere near the level that was typical of the perestroika era. At that time new trends had a clear political relevance, such as the discovery of missing pages in history concerning the crimes of the Communist regime – above all, Stalinism – and the widespread popularity of such terms as ‘empire’ and ‘totalitarianism’ in reference to the Soviet Union, the use of which had been banned. Even perestroika’s idiomatic language was largely borrowed from historians’ vocabulary, i.e. the use of such phrases as “opting for a historical path,” “historic alternatives,” etc. The public began to crave all things historical. The situation was generally very unhealthy and showed signs of fervor. It was a period when demand definitely outweighed quality supply.
The second half of the 1990s, which was marked by shocks resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union and when life for the majority of Russians became very difficult, saw a noticeable drop in public interest towards history. The so-called trial of the Communist Party in 1992 revealed a profound split in society over the perception of its own past. The Soviet Union’s victory in World War II was the sole element of collective memory that evoked an emotional response across various social groups. Russian politicians sensed this and did not make many references to history in their key speeches. Boris Yeltsin, who remained a staunch proponent of anti-Communist rhetoric until the end of his presidency, no longer sought to make this position the only legitimate one. In the second half of the 1990s, the authorities stopped exploiting the subject of history for political goals and left history for the historians.
In contrast, the 1990s and the 2000s were very good years for historians. The “archive revolution” defined this period, when many documents were made accessible for the first time and a considerable number were published. Russian historians started active cooperation with their foreign counterparts – mostly Americans and Western Europeans – in studying the events of the 20th century. Dozens of scholarly books on the Soviet period were published, even though society paid far less attention to them than in the perestroika era. Overall, the Russian media did not cope with the job of focusing the public’s attention on new historical research. More precisely, it did not set this objective for itself.
Hundreds of monuments to the victims of political repression were erected at the time, most often at sites of mass executions or at Gulag camps. Yet these monuments did not occupy a central place in public consciousness, as they were located on the outskirts of urban areas, or even in hard-to-reach places. No national rituals for commemorating the victims of the Soviet regime ever materialized. The criminal nature of the Soviet state was fixed neither in juridical nor official political documents.
This period saw an assessment of 20th-century history, reflected – with distinct, but not principal differences – in the wide range of school textbooks published in those years. These textbooks assessed the Soviet regime as totalitarian and mentioned many of its crimes. However, this was not to diminish in any way the achievements of the Soviet era or the heroism of the Soviet people at work or on the frontlines. The nationalization of history was evident as well. In Russia’s case, this meant that there was no information about those regions of the Soviet Union that had gained independence in 1991. However, unlike other former Soviet republics, such nationalization was not accompanied by a radical revision of the pantheon of outstanding personalities. Rather, the pantheon was replenished with figures from the “White camp” (the anti-Bolshevik forces that were forced to emigrate after 1920 – Ed.), and the transfer of their remains to Russia. Attempts to expand the national “list of glorious people” with the names of those who had collaborated with Nazi Germany proved unsuccessful, but their all-out demonization gave way to “discussions, with a shade of understanding.” This distinguished Russia from its Western neighbors, above all, the Baltic countries and Ukraine, where wartime collaborators were portrayed as fighters against Soviet occupation.
2003-2008: THE ESCALATION OF HISTORICAL POLICY
Former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin employed a “reconciliatory comprehensive approach” to history at the beginning of his first presidential term when he resolved the legal problem of state symbols. In order to establish the tricolor Russian flag, he joined a coalition with the liberals and democrats in 2000, ignoring protests from the Communist party. A year later, however, he teamed up with the Communists to reinstate – despite liberal protests – a slightly-revised version of the Soviet national anthem. It looked as if the main idea was to accept the past in its entirety as “a common heritage.”
The result was not a synthesis, but a construct full of controversies, based on the principle of ignoring problems and disregarding responsibility. Attempts to use past events as symbols of reunification proved extremely awkward. This was graphically manifested by the introduction of a new national holiday, the Day of National Unity, in 2005. The “negation” part of the plan worked well – to replace a date linked with the 1917 October Revolution, which was viewed by the authorities as irrelevant. But the “positive” message of national unity failed, the new holiday, became, instead, the day of manifestations by extreme nationalists.
There was growing concern in Moscow over the intensification of East European historical policies targeted at Russia in the 2000s. There were many international incidents during celebrations of the anniversary of the victory in World War II (especially in 2005), when some former Communist countries refused to send delegations to festivities in Moscow. Subsequently, Russia started drafting a response. The government’s first reaction was fairly traditional – tightening the screws inside the country, “rebuffing slanderers abroad,” and setting up similar institutions to the ones that other countries use to badmouth Russia.
In Russia there was talk of setting up an Institute of National Remembrance modeled after similar institutions in neighboring countries. As early as 2003 Putin said at a meeting with historians at Moscow’s Rumyantsev Library that “concentration on negative facts,” which was justified while the old system was being dismantled, should be replaced by the pathos of creativity and instilling pride in one’s own history. “We need to get rid of the gibberish and scum that have accumulated over these past years,” he said.
The period from 2003 to 2006 can be described as a covert phase in the elaboration of Russia’s historical policy. Conflicts with Poland, where the very notion of historical policy came into being, became the catalyst for the process. Relations between Moscow and Warsaw, troubled by a tragic past, deteriorated in 2004 due to Poland’s active involvement in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Moreover, Russian-Polish relations grew into a full-blown crisis in 2005 after the election of Lech Kaczynski as president, a proponent of a tough anti-Russian policy. Moscow scaled back cooperation with Warsaw over the Katyn massacre, which had become a token element of historical policy in both countries. Moscow displayed a tough reaction to any gesture that had an anti-Russian tint in relations with Ukraine and the Baltic countries.
In 2006, a team of textbook authors, led by Alexander Filippov and Alexander Danilov, were given the task of writing a fundamentally new set of Russian history textbooks. The first products in the series, a teacher’s book on Russia’s contemporary history, a textbook titled “Russian History: 1945-2007” and a user’s guide for the period from 1900-1945, were published in 2007.
Alexander Danilov’s own summary of the concept of the textbooks contained the following significant statements:
“The main cause of the ‘Great Terror’ was resistance to Stalin’s policy of rapid modernization and Stalin’s fear that he might lose control over the country.”
“There was no organized famine in the rural areas of the Soviet Union.”
“In talking about victims of repression, it would be correct to devise a formula that would include only those who were sentenced to capital punishment or were executed.”
“It should be emphasized that the Red Army’s campaign in September 1939 concerned the liberation of territories transferred to Poland under the 1920 Treaty of Riga; in other words, it meant the liberation of part of the homeland.”
“Although there is no justification for the massacre of Polish prisoners of war at Katyn, it should be noted that from Stalin’s point of view the executions went far beyond the problem of political rationality, and were a response to the deaths of thousands of Red Army soldiers held in Polish captivity after the war of 1920.”
These quotes convey that many postulations (e.g. on 1939, the Katyn massacre or the famine) were motivated by the historical policies of neighboring countries and worded in the same propaganda-tainted mode of politicized history.
The authors said their textbooks were based on renouncing totalitarianism as a non-scientific tool borrowed from the Cold War era and on an analysis of the Soviet period from the viewpoint of modernization theory. Essentially, the textbook’s content concerns the discourse of today’s ruling elite, which addresses the past and is remarkably similar to the post-Stalin, Soviet narrative, with the exclusion of Communist rhetoric. Such talk suggests that the crimes committed during the Soviet era were unavoidable because Russia was surrounded by enemies and was going through a wartime mobilization. Furthermore, these crimes were kind of justified by the success of modernization, without which Russia’s victory in World War II would have been impossible.
The use of administrative levers to successfully introduce the new textbook as the “correct one” became a classical attribute of historical policy. The Russian government has not hesitated to use legislation to regulate the problems of history, which is typical of such an approach. In the winter of 2009, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the leaders of the ruling United Russia party, was the first to speak out about the need to pass a law threatening criminal prosecution for “incorrect” remarks about World War II and the Soviet Union’s role in that war. Two bills pursuant to this idea were soon submitted to the Russian parliament.
In May 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree to set up a presidential commission on historical falsification. This was the culmination of the historical policy that had gained momentum since 2003. The document not only fueled a wave of criticism from professional historians and the public at large, but also signaled the start of an aggressive propaganda campaign from those who harbored overt hostility towards scholars and historians.
Instead of creating an Institute of National Remembrance according to the Ukrainian or Polish model, Russia opted for a solution that was more technologically successful. It used the efforts of formally independent public organizations that could be assigned relevant tasks and given archival materials lucrative for the customer. In essence, this was a modification of the familiar technology for media leaks, in which case leaked information is not necessarily false, but can be manipulated. Historical research loses its scholarly nature and turns into a political-technological contract; decisions on financing and assessing works are made by the political authorities, not by the professional community.
Thus, all the key elements of historical policy can easily be found in Russian practices of the 2000s. First, there was an attempt to introduce a standardized history textbook edited by the political center. Second, there were specialized politically engaged institutions that combined the tasks of organizing historical research with control over archives and publications. Third, an attempt was made to regulate interpretations of history through legislation. Finally, all of these practices were supported by methods of legitimization and ideological support typical of all of the above-mentioned practices.
Historical policy was targeted at people inside Russia. Although some organizational solutions were quite original, Russian historical policy, in spirit and style, was in line with that of its neighbors. This was fraught with serious consequences for Russian international relations, since the promoters of an anti-Russian historical policy in post-Communist countries expected exactly such reactions from Moscow. The political atmosphere inside Russia was becoming quite depressing.
2009-2011: CONTRADICTORY TRENDS
Poland contributed to the strengthening of Russia’s historical policy, but events in Poland also had a contradictory impact on this policy. After Donald Tusk was elected prime minister in autumn 2007 (Tusk is the leader of Poland’s Civic Platform party and a political opponent of the Kaczynski brothers’ policy), a cautious dialogue began between Moscow and Tusk’s political camp. This dialogue encompassed many issues including historical ones. In July 2008, Dr Anatoly Torkunov, director of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and a co-chairman of the Russian-Polish Commission on Difficult Issues that had been recently set up, published an article called “The Paradoxes and Dangers of Historical Policy” in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Torkunov posited a public opposition to the line embodied in Danilov and Filippov’s textbook.
Vladimir Putin became Donald Tusk’s partner in this cautious and timid political dialogue. He visited Westerplatte, the symbol of the Polish Army’s resistance to Nazi occupation, together with other European leaders on September 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. This was a significant event for bilateral relations, as September 1 is directly related to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939.
On the eve of Putin’s visit, the Russian media launched a full-scale “preliminary bombardment” in the spirit of historical policy and tried to depict Poland as a country that had to share responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Naturally, the Molotov-Ribbentrop theme was widely exploited on the eve of the anniversary in historical policy discussions in Russia’s neighboring countries as well.
Amid these events, Putin offered an unexpectedly constructive approach in an article titled “Pages of History: A Pretext for Reciprocal Claims or a Basis for Reconciliation and Partnership?’ that was published by Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland’s leading newspapers, on the eve of his visit to Poland. Putin made a reconciliatory speech at Westerplatte in which he unequivocally denounced the Soviet-German treaty of 1939. Russian opponents of historical policy cautiously welcomed Putin’s speech, while outspoken policy proponents condemned it as a senseless concession to the Poles, who ostensibly do not have the ability to appreciate such gestures. The Kaczynski camp also rushed to take steps towards fueling the tensions and restoring the confrontational atmosphere that had begun to settle down. All of this clearly showed that the advocates of a confrontational historical policy in both Russia and Poland actually played into each other’s hands, using the provocative statements of their opponents to legitimatize their own policies.
The events of the spring of 2010 had a strong impact on the general situation. The Russian government increased its revision of historical policy after the Russian and Polish prime ministers attended a joint ceremony to honor Polish officers who were murdered at Katyn and, subsequently, after Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash near Smolensk three days later. The Russian authorities weathered the tragedy with dignity and opted for acceleration in meeting Warsaw halfway. The Kremlin ignored incendiary statements by some Polish media claiming that Russia should bear complete responsibility for the crash. Instead, Russia said it was ready to take further steps towards normalizing relations regarding the most painful issues of their common history.
Donald Tusk and his supporters were persistent in their commitment to reconcile with Russia, even though they have had to pay a large political price. Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS) party made the “betrayal of Polish dignity and interests” their main point in criticizing the government. It is quite obvious that PiS will put Lech Kaczynski’s “murder” and Russia’s responsibility for “genocide in Katyn” at the top of its agenda in the run-up to parliamentary elections this fall – a campaign that is likely to be nasty. The word “genocide,” which in reference to Katyn is questionable even for many Polish historians, has once again proven its efficiency as an instrument of historical policy. The power of the emotions it arouses blocks any rational reasoning.
The Moscow-Warsaw dialogue embraced people on both sides of the debate who wanted to ease tensions, while historical policy advocates sought to push the discussions back into verbal bickering. Both Russia and Poland (and probably the majority of other countries too) have distinct groups consistently targeted towards reconciliation, as well as no less coherent communities that want an escalation in confrontation. Both camps are seeking to win over the majority of people who have no clear position. The success of those who want reconciliation largely depends on whether their partners across the border are ready to ignore provocations, pushing them to the periphery of the public sphere and collective consciousness. Although tensions have not disappeared, they are no longer a decisive factor on the political agenda.
Withdrawing from a confrontation caused by historical policy is a long and difficult process with inevitable setbacks, like any recovery from a severe illness. In the early stages the proponents of reconciliation often have to face a difficult challenge: how to minimize the damage inflicted by attacks from their competitors who are betting on a confrontational historical policy while keeping the trust of their foreign partners. The conduct of Civic Platform representatives in 2010 and 2011 can be seen as a good example of such maneuvering. Moreover, the simple logic of political struggle appears to be an important factor in reconciliation: once politicians start the reconciliation process, they find it difficult to stop since they would have to acknowledge then that their political opponents were right. That is why proponents of reconciliation will abide by it strategically, even if they conduct various political maneuvers.
Russian-Ukrainian relations changed considerably in 2010. Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich and his team sought to remove the elements of historical policy that Russia found especially irritating. Moscow was also ready to ease tensions. Although there was no political rapprochement with the Baltic countries, the principle of “avoiding extra tensions” was extrapolated there as well. For the most part, the media simply ignored provocative acts on the part of Russia’s neighbors. It was the same case in relations with Moldova, although the historical policy intensified sharply in that country in 2010, along with a surge in internal political strife.
Some politicians in Russia started making statements in 2010 that contrasted sharply with the government’s historical policy of the previous years. After Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s death, Dmitry Medvedev and an influential part of the establishment started using anti-Stalinist gestures and rhetoric. Notable events took place in public life too. Alexander Danilov was not elected director of the Institute of Russian History, part of the Academy of Sciences, and there was an avalanche of public criticism after Alexander Vdovin and Alexander Barsenkov published a textbook endorsed by the Department of History at Moscow State University. The authors were accused of “a tendentious outlook and interpretation of history in the spirit of radical nationalism.” Sergei Karpov, the dean of the Department of History, had to apologize. This was probably the first time the opponents of the former historical policy went on the offensive, rather than remaining defensive.
There was a remarkable reaction among those who quite recently supported the idea of setting up a commission on historical falsifications and demanded that “the disciples of Dr Goebbels” among Russian historians “be straightened out.” These commentators wrote about the freedom of historical interpretations and in less official publications complained about an “attack on Russian scientists” organized by the “non-Russian liberal mafia.” This scandal greatly damaged the image of the Department of History at Moscow State University and Karpov personally. This is perhaps the main lesson that was learned. This will hopefully make the directors of scientific and educational institutions pay more attention to what their Academic Councils approve for publication either out of simple neglect, through an ill-perceived solidarity with fellow researchers, or out of sympathy for their disgraceful texts.
It is difficult to assess the role of different factors in the reorientation of rhetoric and – potentially – of the government’s policies that occurred in 2010. One can only list them without trying to define their significance. In the foreign policy sphere, the “reset” in Russian-U.S. relations luckily coincided with the arrival of political leaders in Poland and Ukraine who want to normalize relations with Russia. The easing of tensions offered a chance to abandon verbal wars over historical issues and Moscow clutched at this opportunity, together with Warsaw and Kiev. Concerns about improving Russia’s image abroad have forced the authorities to admit that attempts “to normalize Stalinism” are seen by Russia’s foreign policy partners as scandalous and are used by politicians and the media, who are driven by anti-Russian sentiments.
A few events that took place in early 2011 can be seen as attempts to establish cooperation between a public that finds it necessary to give a clear derogatory political and legal assessment to the wrongdoings committed by the Communist regime, and that part of the establishment ready to make that theme an element of its policy. Some of the members of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civic Society and Human Rights, led by Mikhail Fedotov and Sergei Karaganov, and the Memorial human rights group, have drafted proposals to implement a national state-public program for commemoration of victims of the totalitarian regime and work towards national reconciliation. Along with erecting monuments, opening museums and research centers, and appointing national commemorative dates, the authors have suggested holding a competition for a new history textbook and called on the government to support academic research in this field. The project also specifies important political and legal steps, such as juridical assessment and political condemnation of the crimes committed by the Communist regime. Furthermore, the project presupposes a ban on the denial and/or justification of these crimes.
The authors of the project wanted to write their own anti-Communist views into the president’s political agenda. The preamble of their brainchild mentions, among other things, the task of modernization and fantastical ideas about the consolidation of CIS countries. The somewhat awkward preamble and a number of inaccurately formulated practical proposals have made the draft an easy target for criticism from its opponents.
THE CRYSTALLIZATION OF POSITIONS
The future of the document remains unclear. Through the irony of politics, Medvedev handed the program to Chief of the Presidential Administration Staff, Sergei Naryshkin, who is also head of Medvedev’s commission on historical falsification, and instructed him to analyze “the important proposals.” Yet some things can already be stated. The draft has marked a transition in the public debate on history to a new quality level, where there are two opposing positions that are stringently formulated and politically anchored.
One position suggests that the condemnation of crimes committed by the Communist regime should be reduced. First of all, it should not overshadow the achievements of the regime, which include, in addition to the victory in World War II, industrialization, space research, successes in atomic energy, the eradication of illiteracy, etc. Second, the recognition of the crimes of Communism will weaken Russia’s foreign policy positions and may result in unpredictably large compensation payments to the victims of repression and their descendents. Finally, the implementation of the program is allegedly untimely, as it will split society and lead to a “civil war.” The latter argument is based on the conviction that today, almost a hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution and more than fifty years after Stalin’s death, which marked an end to mass repression, it is still useful to abide by the tactics of “superseding oblivion.”
Those who support this position are diverse and include Communists, who are ready to wave Stalin’s portraits at public rallies, and those who support a strong state, who do not love Stalin, but detest his critics even more. It was in precisely this vein that historical policy developed in 2003-2009. It progressed under the motto of a struggle against libels of the past and sought to understate the scale of repressions (Danilov’s proposal to rank only those who were executed as victims) or to present them in a relativist way (on the principle “others had sins too.”)
In many ways this was an attempt to rehabilitate the Communist-era discourse on the balance of Soviet achievements and faults, carried out in terms of the personality cult more typical of Brezhnev’s era rather than Khrushchev’s, but without defending Communism as an ideology. These ideas find support among those who are frustrated and look back to Stalin with nostalgia for an era of a great power, friendship among peoples and social security. These people are unhappy with the social disparity, corrupt government and other problems in today’s Russia.
The other side posits that society and politics should make the condemnation of Communist crimes an integral part of the political discourse about the past and a key element in the government’s political legitimization. Unless the remembrance of crimes and their victims is limited to self-identification with the victims – the simplest and most dangerous path – and if memory raises the issue of national responsibility for past sins, it may serve as an important lever in revamping social relations.
Russian liberals have traditionally criticized historical policy the most for its efforts to make Stalinism acceptable. At the same time, opponents of the efforts to rehabilitate the national memory portray them as a conspiracy of liberals. Although such attempts may prove successful in the tactical sense, they deliberately distort reality. The liberals are not the only group who want to strongly condemn the crimes of Communism.
“Russian History: the Twentieth Century” (edited by Andrei Zubov), a strongly anti-Communist book, was published recently. It became a bestseller and has produced a widespread public response. The book was written on the basis of religious – and partly conservative – positions, but shows no signs of the liberal ideological platform. Another major project, “History of Stalinism,” launched in 2008 by the ROSSPEN publishing house and the Boris Yeltsin Foundation, currently includes 50 volumes reflecting a wide range of opinions. In addition, more than 800 commemorative sites (museums, monuments, memorial plaques, etc.) dedicated to those who were killed in political repressions and erected across Russia mostly through local initiatives, show that the problem concerns not only “liberals who live in downtown Moscow.”
This policy can lean on a broad coalition of forces that are far apart on many other issues. The Russian Orthodox Church, particularly under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill, has been persistently anti-Stalinist and anti-Communist. When discussions of the draft program for commemorating the victims of political repressions were underway, the Russian Orthodox Church strongly supported its main idea – the political and legal assessment of the crimes committed by the Bolshevist regime.
It turned out that many people in the establishment have strong anti-Communist sentiment, although they are not consonant with liberal viewpoints. There are also people who are ready to support this policy out of momentary tactical considerations. For instance, in January 2011 a group of United Russia party officials said they were in favor of burying Lenin’s body. The party is ready to support the anti-Communist memorial policy by and large if it brings political rewards.
Given this situation, the memorial policy may become an important element in the overall political agenda and an important distinctive element of Medvedev’s positioning in the upcoming presidential campaign. Most importantly, it may help tap new ideas for legitimizing and transforming the incumbent regime, whose ideology has obviously become tattered. The condemnation of illegitimate repression and the Bolshevist class-based terror falls perfectly in line with the idea of a state ruled by law, democratization and political nation-building – a slogan that Medvedev has put at the center of his platform.
It is difficult to predict where this discussion will lead. The opponents of condemnation of the Communist regime’s crimes have mobilized to put the polemics back on the track of habitual historical policy – personalized attacks against opponents, purported distortions of their position and complaining about high treason. There is a chance, however, that efforts to defile the discussion will fail. It seems that both supporters of an anti-Communist memorial policy and its opponents have enough people ready for an essential dialogue.
Naturally, one cannot help but notice the absence of a traditional groundwork for public discussion in Russia, which David Art has analyzed using Germany and Austria. He highlighted the significance of printed media as the arena where different viewpoints confront each other and where shifts in public consciousness regarding collective memory and norms of politically correct speech are fixed. Russia does not have a single printed medium that might play the role of this kind of moderator. Attempts continue to give this role to the Internet and that is where the main action is taking place. In this sense further progress on memorial policy is of special interest to researchers, as this is one of the first instances of an Internet-based process.
Russia has escaped the outburst of historical policy that seemed inevitable in 2009. Today one can hardly expect that the tendency – whose culmination came with the creation of Medvedev’s commission on historical falsification and the Filippov-Danilov textbook – would successfully regain its previous power, audacity and confidence. It is equally obvious, however, that the heated public debate over the memorial policy will continue to gain momentum.
This will likely become an important, if not decisive, ideological element in reformatting the entire social and political sphere – something that is practically inevitable twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and because the related emotions and images are gradually disappearing from most peoples’ short-term memories. It is impossible to figure out, however, the historical myth that might appear in place of what has been the focal point of polemics over the past two decades.