In Putin’s Russia, History Is SubversiveRoundup
Putin has, to be sure, used history throughout his 16 years in power as a means of self-assertion, preserving the current political system, and legitimizing the Kremlin’s actions. But his recent manipulation of history poses a growing challenge for the West, since it helps to sustain the Kremlin’s confrontational foreign policy and fuel anti-Western sentiments within Russian society.
The controversy surrounding Sergei Mironenko, the long-time Director of the Russian State Archive, is a case in point. Last July, the State Archive published formerly classified correspondence between top Soviet officials from 1948. The correspondence deeply undermined the popular Soviet legend of “Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen”—the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, led by Major General Ivan Panfilov, who were said to have died while repelling a Nazi attack on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941. The soldiers were decorated posthumously: They each received the title “Hero of the USSR,” had streets and monuments dedicated to them, and were immortalized in Moscow’s city anthem. A film about them—funded by crowd-sourcing and backed by Russia’s Ministry of Culture—is due to premiere in Russia in November.
The correspondence published by the State Archive, however, showed that a war journalist had invented the story. Moreover, Soviet authorities had uncovered the fiction, but buried the evidence for reasons of political expediency. Not only had some of the supposedly-deceased men actually survived the attack, one of them—Ivan Dobrobabin—had surrendered to the Nazis and was later arrested by Soviet authorities for “betrayal of the motherland.”
Since becoming President in 2000, Putin has cultivated a conservatism in which the Soviet victory over the Nazis is of central ideological importance. As the reality of the Soviet past has receded into history, however, myth has taken its place—a substitution encouraged by Russian authorities. By far the most pervasive is the myth that the Soviet Union was solely responsible for defeating Nazism and defending Europe. Because the Soviet Union was on both sides during World War II, the Kremlin bristles at any attempts to question its black-and-white narrative. And because Putin is so closely associated with World War II, any questioning of the narrative is seen as a direct threat to him and his hold on power.
In the fallout that followed the revelation, Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s Culture Minister, criticized Mironenko for publishing the correspondence. The head archivist, Medinsky said, is “not a writer, not a journalist, not a fighter against historical falsifications … If he wants to change profession, we will understand this.” The state-backed makers of the Panfilov film, meanwhile, dismissed the correspondence as an attempt to “undermine this heroic feat.”
In March, Mironenko was dismissed from his position. Officially, this was the result of a “collective decision” by authorities. Mironenko’s colleagues, however, told the Russian daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that they believe he fell victim to a new official approach to history, of which Medinsky is the chief advocate. According to Medinsky, who is author of the book War: Myths of the USSR (published in 2013), history begins “not with facts but with interpretations.” ...
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