This Is How Russia Successfully Exploits WWII Discourse
5 July, 2017

With the help of Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko, Hromadske is launching a new series of articles on the history of international relations.

Under President Vladimir Putin memories of Soviet victory in World War II have played an important role in official discourse. Russian history has been mobilized to serve political intrests and the regime continues to prioritize safeguarding a particular narrative of the country's Soviet past.

Writing for Hromadske, Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko explains the link between memories of World War II and official discourse on history in contemporary Russia.

Let us start with one of those events that may claim a notable place in the long history of political villainy.

On September 28, 1939, in Moscow, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop (the foreign ministers of the USSR and the Third Reich) signed the so-called Soviet-German Frontier Treaty. It was a very important supplementary protocol amending the infamous Pact, under which the same officials had put their signatures some four and a half weeks earlier. The new agreement addressed several details that needed to be settled in the matter of Poland’s division between the two occupying forces. Any “Polish agitation” or other attempts of restoring the Second Republic were to be suppressed on either side of the emergent border.

Vyacheslav Molotov signs the Soviet-German Frontier Treaty on September 28, 1939. Stalin and von Ribbentrop are standing behind him. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The map attached to the Soviet-German Frontier Treaty on September 28, 1939. It was signed by Stalin and von Ribbentrop. Source: Wikipedia.

The Soviet-Nazi debellation of Poland at the beginning of the Second World War is something one would hardly view in a positive light. However, this is not the case in today’s Russia. Having joined their forces, the Kremlin’s official historiography and the juridical apparatus left no doubt regarding one thing: the citizens of the Russian Federation will be much safer if they refrain from any criticism of the Soviet Union and its policies. That includes the matter of spectacularly amicable dealings with Hitler in dividing “the spheres of influence."

A Polish caricature satirizing the Soviet-Nazi Pact. Published in the newspaper "Mucha" in Warsaw on the September 8, 1939. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This strict approach was modestly inspired by president Putin himself, who, in early 2013, ordered the development of a “unified program for teaching history." The named process evolved under the supervision of Sergey Naryshkin, Chairman of the State Duma and former head of President Medvedev’s administration. He and Vladimir Putin, as it is rumored, have been closely associated since their days as young KGB officers. Between 2009 and 2012, Naryshkin captained a state body with a peculiarly long name: “the Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests.” The president’s decree that gave birth to this agency defined its formal goal as “defending Russia” against “those who would deny Soviet contribution to the victory in World War Two.” In 2012, the Commission was dissolved and Putin’s old colleague went on to chair the Russian Historical Society – the “revived” organization, which Emperor Alexander II had founded in 1866. The aforementioned establishment (in its new incarnation) coordinated a highly complex bureaucratic and legal work. In a short while, it resulted in the so-called Single Historical and Cultural Standard of Russia. In practice, this “Standard” has already become the tool to ensure that history is taught in “the right manner”. And it secures such “rightness” throughout the vast provinces governed by Moscow.

Alexander II of Russia (1818-1881), the founder of modern historical policies in Russia. In 1866, Alexander approved the charter of the Imperial Russian Historical Society. Its purpose, according to the Emperor, was "to contribute fully to the development of education in Russian national history." Source: Wikipedia.

Last September, Putin appointed his faithful comrade as Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. In view of the expected merger of all Russian secret and security departments into a single KGB-like force, Naryshkin has every chance of becoming its chief. It seems extremely likely that the “defense of Russian interests” in the realm of “true history” will remain one of his top priorities. And that concerns both external and domestic dimensions.

Sergey Naryshkin. The head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service was responsible for the development of the Single Historical and Cultural Standard. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The prospects are particularly dystopian. The rejuvenated KGB monster will guard the Kremlin’s uncontested authority in the narrative on Russia’s past. That authority will be shaping the single historical consciousness of all Russians, while criminal charges against those who’ll dare to disagree with the dogma are to prevent any debates or “misconceptions."

This gloomy picture reminds one of a satirical text popular with Saint Petersburg’s intelligentsia at the beginning of the 1860s. “Sovremennik” (The Contemporary), Russia’s most prominent literary magazine of the time, published a text by Kozma Prutkov – the fictional writer invented by count Aleksey Tolstoy (1817-1875) and a few other knights of the pen. Mocking the then social and political tendencies in the Russian Empire, they sarcastically presented to the public Prutkov’s “Project for the Introduction of Uniformity of Thought in Russia." The harmful divergence of views, according to this “document,” was to be tamed by the official publishing body. Its materials, reprinted by all other newspapers and magazines, would inform the populace of the “correct opinion” – that of the authorities.

Kozma Prutkov. Portrait by Lev Lagorio (c.1853). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Soviet regime diligently followed this path and the Russian Federation is doing exactly the same – especially when its functionaries explain “the great history of Russia”.

/Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD, is a historian and political analyst at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He was a diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU in 2002-2010