A besieged fortress that has been defending itself against Western aggression for centuries. At the same time, conquerors of Hitler, which in itself deserves a halo of sanctity. This is what Russia’s past looks like from the perspective of Kremlin’s historical policy.
Sacral imagery is fully justified here. Russia, isolated from the Western world, did not go through the school of the Renaissance, secularization, humanism, while rationalism arrived there in a superficial, instrumentalized form in the era of the Enlightenment’s opening to Western Europe, and never took root too deeply. Even Soviet communism, especially in the Stalinist era, resembled a religion, worshipping a leader, who was not accidentally labelled the “red tsar” – the Orthodox God was only replaced by an idol of communism.
The historical memory of the Russians, particularly the one promoted by the authorities is not the object of analysis or settlement, but indeed a cult. Only it is a very syncretic religion. Among the „saints” of Russian history, next to the soldiers of the Red Army, conquering Berlin, as well as the more boldly presented (thus far) on Stalin’s mental pedestal is Tsar Nicolas II, murdered by the communists, as well Minin and Pozharsky – leaders of the popular revolt against Poles on the Kremlin, conquerors of Napoleon, the Swedes, and Germans. Russia’s enemies, real and imagined, are connected by one thing – they are representatives of the West, be it Catholic, Protestant, or secular. Or the Unorthodox West.
It is no coincidence that one of the most popular songs of the Aleksandrów Choir, written to liven the hearts of the Red Army soldiers on the way to battle against Nazi Germany, is called “The Holy War”. The enemy is described as a “dark, fascist force”, which also evokes religious associations. The Great Patriotic War is, of course, the most important topic of Russian historical policy. But it is also the most profoundly and authentically lived event in the minds of ordinary Russians. Generally speaking, the grandparents of half of them were victims of Soviet terror. But the other half can already be proud of the grandfather, who conquered Berlin under the red banner, deserving to be called the hero of the fight against fascism. Often it was even the same grandfather…
Vladimir Soloviev – Kremlin’s propagandist and state television star – arguing on the air with a Ukrainian journalist about the Soviet past, assured him that he was proud of his grandfather, who died in 1943 fighting in the ranks of the criminal battalion, and was acquitted for his heroism…“And for that I ought to hate the Soviet government?!” – Soloviev asked rhetorically. His attitude towards the USSR is quite representative of the pro-Putin majority of Russian society. This view can be summarized as follows: Stalinist repression is no secret, it is condemned, but this does not change the fact that it was Stalin’s state that defeated the greatest evil in world history – the Hitler regime. There can be no question of any moral equation of these two dictators. And not only because of the state propaganda cultivating the memory of May 9th1. Equating the moral accountability of these two dictators would automatically lower the value of the blood sacrificed by the mentioned grandparents, whose grandchildren prefer to remember participation in the anti-Nazi coalition, rather than the Soviet terror….
“The Immortal Regiment”
One of the most original forms of celebrating Victory Day was created on the basis of a grassroots initiative. In 2011, three local journalists from provincial town of Tomsk decided to organize a march on May 9th, the participants of which would silently carry portraits of their relatives fighting in the Great Patriotic War. Today, the “immortal regiment” has become the object of a nationwide celebration, strongly supported by the authorities. Putin himself marches along the streets of Moscow with a portrait of his grandfather. “The Soviet people put an end to the nightmare of the Holocaust, saved the world from fascism. We cannot even imagine what would have happened to the world if it were not for the Red Army” – Putin spoke these words during this year’s anniversary celebrations, which due to the pandemic were organized not on May 9th, but at the end of June.
The Russian president stated that “the Soviet soldiers needed neither war, nor other countries, neither fame, nor honor. They wanted to finish off the enemy, win, and go home. And they paid a huge price for European freedom”. Naturally, the official rhetoric of the Kremlin does not recognize the fact that “freedom from fascism” was brought by communist enslavement for half of Europe. In this respect, the official rhetoric of the Kremlin does not differ much from that of Soviet propaganda.
However, there is still a line which the Russian authorities did not cross – Stalin is still absent from the pantheon of national heroes officially supported by the Kremlin. But he is implied. And indirectly, on the banners of the Kremlin acolytes. “Stalin is an idol of Russian history, an unsurpassed leader. He gave us a wonderful state, he pulled the Russian civilization out of the abyss to which it fell after the fall of the Romanovs” – this is the opinion of Alexander “the Surgeon” Zaldostanov, leader of the motorcycle group Night Wolves2, and Putin’s personal friend. The Night Wolves is a typical post-Soviet Russia red and brown mixture of chauvinism, imperialism, and admiration for the armed cause of the Red Army. For people with this set of views, Stalinist repression is a secondary issue. Even they generally do not question the atrocities of the “red tsar”.
The results of sociological research conducted by the independent Levada Center provide a very clear picture of the changes in the bottom-up socio-historical memory of Russians. Especially those carried out in 2016, two years after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the war in the Donbas. 76 percent of the respondents stated then that Russians should be proud of their imperial achievements, and more specifically – of the lands they had conquered since the 15th century, including Poland and Finland. Only 3 percent the conquests to be a cause for shame. The same 3 percent were ashamed of the Soviet past and the annexation of Crimea. As many as 40 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that the Stalinist period brought Russia more good than bad. For comparison, three years after the collapse of the USSR, when the pathos of settlements with the former regime was still alive and well, only 18 percent expressed a similar belief. Two years before the war broke out in Ukraine, these figures were at 27%. The approval rate of Stalin himself is even higher – in 2016 as much as 56 percent of the respondents considered him to be a figure who played a positive role in history. In subsequent studies, on average, 25% of respondents were inclined to justify Stalinist repression through political necessity. Leaders associated with democratization and liberalization – Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin – have significantly lower reputations. They are accused of bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Sentiment towards the USSR does not, however, equate to a longing for communism. The Russians simply want to be an empire again. It doesn’t matter if it is white or red. The goal is to rebuild power in foreign policy. In order to achieve this, national memory is in need of positive models, myths to which one can refer. “Victory over fascism” lends itself perfectly to this, as it is the greatest success of the Russian army in history. The cult surrounding this event, however, is absolutely not in contradiction with the cult of the tsarist empire.
The entire history of Russia, from the beginning of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the fifteenth-century to the presidency of Putin, is one great series of conquests, justified by the protection of Orthodoxy (“Moscow – The Third Rome”), or the idea of collecting Ruthenian lands. However, the present-day historical policy of the Kremlin, which draws on the rich propaganda patterns developed over the centuries by successive rulers, is not familiar with the concept of “conquest”. Russia has always deprived its neighbors only of what was “rightfully owed”. In the west, the lands “owed” to Russia invariably reach the Bug River, as they cover the entire area historically occupied by the peoples of the Eastern Slavic region.
Belarusians and Ukrainians are consistently treated as part of one big Russian nation. They have the right to local cultural specificity, but not necessarily to their own language, and certainly not to geopolitical independence. Every time Poland tries to drag Ukraine or Belarus into the orbit of Western influence, the Russian media tries to convince its “younger brothers” that Warsaw wants to re-colonize them. Again, because from Moscow’s perspective, Poland was a colonial imperial state, just like Russia. Both powers fought with each other for – using the modern phrase – the “Baltic-Black Sea Bridge”, until at some point one of them won, and things remained that way. It was all about strength. Russia, ascribing imperial aspirations to Poland and the desire to recapture Lviv, Brest and Grodno, not only seeks to create conflicts between Warsaw with its neighbors, but also naturally applies the same standards to its geopolitical rival, as if nothing has changed in the mutual relations of these two countries since the 17th century. It is symptomatic that the state television star, Vladimir Solovyov, called Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya the new False Dmitry3, hired by Poles to conquer Minsk on their behalf. And subsequently, if he were to succeed, also Moscow.
Russia needs Ukraine to be an empire. At any rate it must not allow Ukraine to turn over to the West. Besides the obvious geostrategic and economic reasons, there are also historical, ideological, and symbolic reasons. It is no coincidence that in 2015 a monument of Vladimir the Great, the Duke of Kiev, who was baptized in 988, was erected in Moscow. The heritage of Kievan Rus is common to all three East Slavic nations. Kiev is “the mother of Ruthenian settlements”. Ever since it was replaced as the symbolic capital of the Eastern Slavs by Moscow, its leaders have been trying to get it back. It is a pearl in the crown of the “Ruthenian lands” that Russia has been “collecting” for centuries.
When in 2014 there was a brief hope of conquering the Russified lands of south-eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin revived the concept of Novorossiya – because this was how these areas were defined when Catherine the Great occupied them in the 18th century. However, the ambitious plans did not amount to anything. Only the ribbon of St. George – a military order from the time of Catherine’s reign, the colors of which have become a symbol of pro-Russian separatism.
The Russians argued from the start that Ukrainian Crimea never existed, and when it did, it was by the grace of Nikita Khrushchev. The peninsula, as the mythical Tauris, a great resort and an important strategic point all in one, is very much inscribed in the Russian memory. Khrushchev donated Crimea to Ukraine on the 400th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav4. It is also an extremely important topic of Russian historical heritage. As in the Soviet times, also today the recognition of the sovereignty of the Tsardom of Russia by Khmelnytsky5 is presented as proof of the brotherhood of both nations (with the obvious seniority of one of them).
Russia is trying to be an empire by maintaining its spheres of influence in the region. But if the propaganda of Kremlin’s media is to be believed, Russia is permanently being threatened by someone. What Moscow has conquered is justly due to her. It is defending the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Donbas and Crimea on the same basis as in September 1939, when it liberated Belarusians and Ukrainians from the rule of Polish masters and saved them from the advent of fascism … Russia is supporting Minsk in the fight against the opposition in order to protect the Orthodox brothers from the imperial attempts of Poles and Lithuanians, who are most likely dreaming about a novel Union of Lublin, and most likely a novel Union of Brest as well.
Enemy from the West
Moscow is thus in fact a “besieged fortress” that does not attack and only defends itself. From what though? The entire history of Russia is a series of heroic struggles against the expansion of the broadly understood West. It all started with the expansion of Catholics and Poles who not only wanted to conquer Moscow, but also spiritually enslave it, subordinating it to the Pope, and depriving it of its Orthodox character. Although the holiday, established to commemorate the expulsion of Poles from the Kremlin, did not gain more popularity and, contrary to intentions, did not overshadow the anniversary of the simultaneously occurring October Revolution, it remains a distinctive holiday, uniting Russians of different views – from liberal to chauvinistic – under the banner of grassroots remembrance, even civic initiative, which was the popular uprising against the occupiers.
Exactly two centuries later, a great attack came from the West once again – this time in Napoleon. Again, the foreign invasion caused patriotic commotion, and the mythical “Russian people” stood up to the fight, presented with pathos as the subject of history in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. It was the first Great Patriotic War – it was not for nothing that it was this war that was referred to during World War II. It does not matter that Napoleon attacked imperial, tsarist Russia, and Hitler attacked the communist Soviet Union. In both cases, an innocent, peaceful Russia had to defend itself against invasion by a Western aggressor, against whom the people eagerly stood up.
Between the two patriotic wars there was also the “Entente march”, which was Stalin’s label of Piłsudski’s aggression against Soviet Russia. Yes, aggression – to this day, Russian journalists and historians blame Poland for unleashing the war of 1920. From their perspective, it was Piłsudski who was the first to throw the stone, organizing an expedition against the “mother of Ruthenian settlements”. And twenty later Poles got what was coming to them – In Katyn6, Stalin “avenged” the Soviet prisoners of war who, according to Kremlin propaganda, were deliberately led to death in “concentration camps”. This Russian propaganda campaign is often referred to as “Katyn lie”. The fact that the creation of the lie about the Polish genocide against the Red Army was ordered by the “liberal democrat” Gorbachev, thus wanting to reduce the effects of confessing to the Katyn massacre, says a lot about the unchanging rules of Russia’s ruthless historical policy. Despite the official apology, even though communist crimes as such are not a taboo subject in Russia, Polish victims are still downplayed there. In a 2011 poll, as much as 24 percent of Russians blamed the Germans for Katyn, which says a lot about the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda. In turn, the alliance with Hitler is treated as a tactical necessity – in the face of hostility from the West, the “besieged red fortress” had to secure its interests somehow…
One more thread of the centuries-long “defense” of Moscow against the West is worth noting. Russian state television made a documentary about Alexander Nevsky some time ago. The Orthodox saint, Alexander Nevsky, became famous for his victories against the Swedes and Germany. No wonder he became a hero of Soviet pop culture during the Stalinist era, when he was a convenient symbol in the propaganda fight against Hitler. But contemporary propaganda illuminates his life from yet another angle. Alexander ruled at the beginning of the Tatar-Mongolian captivity. He recognized the sovereignty of the Khan. He is even praised for this in a Russian document. He was an outstanding statesman – he rightly fought against the West and succumbed to the will of the East. For Ruthenia – from today’s perspective – it was better to succumb to the Tatars than to the Germans or the Swedes. The Germans and the Swedes wanted to convert the Orthodox Ruthenians to Catholicism and subordinate them to the Pope. The Tatars, on the other hand, were cruel, barbarians, but – as followers of primitive shamanic cults – they practiced religious tolerance and did not intend to convert the conquered societies. Using an analogy understandable for the Polish reader – the East only wanted to enslave the body, and the West – the body and souls of the Ruthenians.
In this context, it is worth noting the change in terminology in Russian historiography. In Soviet textbooks, that is at a time when, regardless of the confrontation with the West, the morbid striving for civilizational progress in the communist perception of the world made one feel ashamed of the Asian heritage, the Tatar period was described as “igo” (“yoke”). Today, when the Eurasian vision is prevalent among the Russian ruling elite, and the state is turning more and more boldly towards the East, a particular political correctness requires the use of the term “Tatar-Mongolian dependence”…
All these concepts and codes of memory would not exist if it were not for the strong leadership. Putin’s position is strong not only through his concrete actions, such as the annexation of Crimea, but also by references to great figures from the past. Even the president of Russia cannot directly praise the autocratic rulers who, especially in the minds of Western public opinion, are remembered as great criminals. But Putin’s followers are the job for him – by saying what Putin is probably thinking but cannot say out loud. A few years ago, a monument to Ivan the Terrible was erected in Orel. At the will of the inhabitants, supposedly. The governor of the Orel region, Vadim Potomsky, justified this initiative in the following manner: “There were three great leaders in our country: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin”. This “holy trinity” occupies a prominent place in Russian memory. And if any of them are the least suited to Putin’s Russia, it is probably Peter the Great. Not because of cruelty. But because he tried – by force, over dead bodies, superficially – to open for Russia a window to Europe. Today this window is closing.
This article was published in 2020 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine
1 May 9th in Russia is Victory Day, celebrating the culmination of the Patriotic War between 1941-1945
2 The Night Wolves are a Russian motorcycle club that is active in the political and social life of Russia
3 False Dmitry I was the Tsar of Russia for 11 months between 1605-1606, after he staged a coup against the newly chosen Tsar, claiming to be the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, Dmitry Ivanovich, and therefore the rightful pretender to the throne. Several similar impostors claimed to be Dmitry Ivanovich in the following years.
4 An act of the Cossack army led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in Ukraine to submit Ukraine to Russian rule, which was met with subsequent acceptance by the emissaries of the Russian Tsar Alexis I. The agreement precipitated a war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Tsardom of Russia (1654–67).
5 a Ukrainian head of state who led an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its magnates (1648–1654) that resulted in the creation of a state led by the Cossacks. As leader of the Cossack army, he concluded the Treaty of Pereyaslav with Tsar Alexis I.
6 Between April and May 1940, the Soviet Union executed nearly 22,000 unarmed Polish soldiers and intelligentsia in the forest of Katyn. The Soviet Union denied responsibility for act until 1990, though refused to classify it as a war crime or a mass genocide.