As Vladimir Putin rewrites the past in order to control the future, Kseniya Kirillova reveals what it tells us about Russia’s strategic goals.
The State Duma Chairman, Vyacheslav Volodin, recently proposed creating an international institute for the protection of historical memory. The Russian parliamentarian proposed this initiative during a meeting of the inter-parliamentary commission of the State Duma and the People’s Assembly of the Republic of Serbia.
He believes that, today, “in a number of European countries, attempts are being made to distort the truth about the war and Victory” and these attempts must be resisted. However, Volodin’s version of “true” history is the thesis that “Russia never attacked or invaded; it repelled attacks” and that “today it protects the world from aggression against even more countries”.
Such statements fully reflect the course of modern Russian politics.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has initiated a historical dispute with Poland about the perpetrators of World War Two and anti-Semitism, while simultaneously promising to “shut up the filthy mouths of the forgers of history”.
The celebration of Victory Day has become not only a pompous propaganda event designed to unite the nation in a single burst of pride in the country, it serves political ends as it has acquired strategic importance in the eyes of the Kremlin and become the cornerstone of, not only domestic ideology, but also the country’s foreign policy.
Controlling the Future by Controlling the Past
The Russian authorities do not hide the fact that their interpretation of the history of the Second World War has become one of the ways they spread Kremlin propaganda and Russian influence in other countries.
Back in 2009, under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev in Russia, a commission was created to counter attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests. Its chairman was the current head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin. The commission formally ended in 2012, but the activities of the Russian authorities in promoting the “history in the interests of Russia” have only continued to increase since then.
One form of such promotion is the Immortal Regiment, originally created by the Tomsk TV channel TV-2 (closed in 2015 because of its opposition to Putin). Originally, the Immortal Regiment was simply a mourning procession of memory, without propaganda attributes. However, the idea was successfully “intercepted” by the Russian authorities.
Today, the Immortal Regiment is a procession with portraits of the deceased participants of World War Two, which has become an obligatory element in Russia for celebrating Victory Day, which is held on 9 May each year. In the parade, the paraphernalia widely presented includes the St George Ribbon which Russia used in its aggression against Ukraine, portraits of Joseph Stalin and the organisers of the Great Terror at the hands of the NKVD, communist symbols and the promotion of a Soviet version of history, which denies the facts of the Soviet regime’s crimes.
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Many see it as a form of Russian propaganda and even many Russians oppose it. They don’t deny the significance of Victory Day or support Nazism, but they simply consider this form of celebration blasphemous in relation to the memory of war heroes.
In 2015, the Immortal Regiment became an international phenomenon and today such processions are held annually in many large cities of Europe and America. The President of the Academy of Military Sciences, Army General Mahmut Gareev, has openly written that the cult of Victory was needed by Russia, not only for the patriotic education of youth, but also for the advancement of its modern interests abroad.
“We could not consolidate the Victory in the Great Patriotic War politically and economically,” complained General Gareev in his essay Some Conclusions for Modern Defence. “The proper conclusions have not been made from this even after the defeat in the Cold War.
“As for the country’s defence, it requires great frugality and efficiency, and the participation of the entire population. First of all, the wider use of the “soft power” – political, diplomatic, economic, informational, cybernetic and other forms of struggle… Now the reactionary forces in the world, led by the USA, have steered the course toward gaining dominance in the world, they openly call our country an enemy, they strive to deprive us of the glory of victory in the past war. Hence, the main place in the information war launched against us is the falsification of the history of the Great Patriotic War.”
He emphasised that it is precisely the fight against such “falsification” that is one of the reasons for improving Russian “soft power”.
General Gareev openly outlined the main essence of the cult of the war and the imposition of a pro-Soviet interpretation: it is not about the past, but the present and the future. As George Orwell correctly remarked in his immortal anti-utopia 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future.”
What goals are being pursued by the Kremlin in its struggle to control the past?
Substitution of Concepts
The first goal is the most obvious: an attempt to present the Soviet Union and Russia as a liberator and, therefore, impose a sense of obligation towards Moscow on the citizens of other countries.
The thesis that Russia saved the world from Nazism is actively broadcast, not only for the domestic Russian audience, but also on international platforms and articles on this topic are featured prominently on the website of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs.
The activity of such propaganda in Poland is also explored by Aleksander Ksawery Olech, an expert from the Warsaw Institute of New Europe and the Czech Institute for Politics, in his research Polish-Czech Relations and Russian Disinformation Attempts to Disturb Them.
“In the case of Poland, this narrative has not changed over the years,” Olech observes. “Russian propaganda keeps on glorifying the Russian engagement in World War Two and the Cold War events, by popularising alternative historical facts so as to change the general public’s opinion and perception of Russia. In the alternative historical facts, Russia is presented as a defender, not the aggressor, and Poland as a country ruled by an incompetent anti-Russian government and responsible for the outbreak of World War Two.”
The second goal of the Kremlin is using propaganda based on military topics to justify Russia’s current foreign policy.
Through the use of the same symbolism, misinformation, false analogies and false logical connectives, the propaganda transfers emotionally rich feelings and images from the past to new objects in the present. This is a classic trick of information manipulation: first, a term or image is instilled into the public consciousness that causes a sharply positive or extremely negative reaction among the masses, and then the shell of this term is filled with new content.
This is how the Kremlin justified its aggression against Ukraine, labelling the Ukrainians “fascists” and abundantly using the symbols of Victory during the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbass. Building on the thesis that “Russia that saved the world from fascism”, Russian propaganda media, justifying the annexation of Crimea, broadcast the myth that Moscow “saved people from Ukrainian fascists”.
Another narrative actively broadcast in the Russian media concerns the revival of Nazism in the Baltic countries, from which the Kremlin then draws an unambiguous conclusion: “Russia must once again save the world from Nazism”.
Divide and Rule
The third goal of such propaganda is to intensify divisions both between states and between different groups within Russia itself.
Through the technology of substitution of concepts and distortion of historical facts, the Kremlin is trying to tie all the negative connotations associated with fascism and Nazism to the US, NATO and sometimes to the ‘collective West’. This technology is used by propagandists both within Russia and, through content, targeted at an ‘external’ audience.
For example, at the end of the last year, the Military Review website, which is close to the Russian Ministry of Defence, began publishing a series of articles on the new version of the history of World War Two. According to the Russian military analysts, it is the US that unleashed both world wars.
“Who fought against whom in World War Two?” Russian military analysts ask. “Officially, it was an anti-Hitler coalition against Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and militaristic Japan. In reality, the United States started this war against the whole world in order to achieve world domination.”
The real history in this interpretation is turned upside down. The United States, which was a wartime ally of the Soviet Union and, according to official figures, supplied the USSR with 22,800 armoured vehicles (approximately 20% of the total number of Soviet armoured vehicles) and a huge amount of provisions under the Lend-Lease agreement, in the upside down reality of Russian propagandists takes Hitler’s place.
“These are predators, social parasites,” claim the authors of Russia’s Military Review. “Therefore, it was decided once again to ‘reload the matrix’, to break and remake the entire world order. The great war gave America a great chance for world domination.”
In the same series of articles, other ‘alternative facts’ created by today’s propaganda are presented. Thus, the authors claim that it was Poland, together with Hitler, that started the Second World War, and that the Hitler coalition was called the ‘European Union’. Thus, hatred of the modern West – the United States and Europe – is imparted to the Russians through images of war.
Accusations of Fascism
Similar attempts are being made using more recent events in Europe – not only from the 1940s, but also from more modern history.
An intriguing article about the Polish military presence in Czechoslovakia is an example. The author’s intention was to prove that the Polish military intervention in Czechoslovakia was necessary, given the highly likely aggression from the Federal Republic of Germany. It contains a standard element of a pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign – it names the main past and present enemy, i.e. NATO, which according to the author, together with the United States, supported the Federal Republic of Germany in its annexation plans, and in that way attempts to weaken trust in NATO and worsen relations with the US, given the latter’s military presence in Poland, explains Alexander Olech.
The Kremlin is no less active in trying to exploit historical conflicts between different peoples. For example, the Volyn massacre – the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Western Ukraine during the Second World War – is a favourite Russian method for increasing Polish-Ukrainian tensions. At the same time, media close to the Kremlin draw parallels between the events of past years and “today’s Nazis”. As Polish researchers note, Russian propaganda is widespread across the Polish media channels and carries out different attacks on, for instance, the Ukrainians, Israeli and Germans.
Unfortunately, such propaganda is quite effective. The difficulty of trying to refute it lies in the fact that Moscow declares anyone who does not agree with the modern Russian version of both the past and the present as “fascist”. This is why the most effective way to combat Kremlin misinformation is not to deny the Victory and not to hush up the topic of war, but to talk about it honestly and to try to separate the truth about historical events from the misinformation and its ideological layers created in today’s Russia.