The Use of History in Putin’s Russia

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The use of history as a propagandistic tool has always been a recurrent element in many political actors, whether they be governing in democratic systems or autocratic ones. Yet, Vladimir Putin’s crafted narrative of the past is one of a kind. History is a core feature of Russian foreign policy under the Putin presidency. The president has on various occasions shown his attachment to the Russian past grandeur, especially the imperial one, so much that former United States ambassador to Russia McFaul wrote that Putin wishes to be compared with Peter the Great or Catherine the Great. 

Putin is also profoundly attached to the Soviet past of the country. The leader of the Russian Federation (RF) was a young KGB operative in East Germany during the Soviet decline; the revolution in East Germany represented for him a profound scar that got even deeper with the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, in 1991. Indeed, the Russian president has never neglected his distress about the Soviet collapse, which he has described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.  

Nevertheless, the former leaders of the Soviet Union, particularly Brezhnev and Gorbachev, do not enjoy much esteem from Vladimir Putin, since he blames them for the dissolution of the USSR; conversely, he has several times proved to be deeply admired by the tsarist empire and by Peter the Great. When he was St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor in the 1990s he hung on his office wall a portrait of Peter the Great. In an interview for the Financial Times, he stated that Peter the Great was the leader he admired most, adding that “he will live as long as his cause is alive”. On the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great, Putin exclaimed “Return and strengthen!”, implying that the tsar did not seize anything but rather gave it back to Russia and strengthened it. This motto perfectly fits with Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, which, among others, should be considered as a mere desire of bringing Russia’s motherland back together.

Throughout his many years in office, Vladimir Putin has spent a lot of time and energy attempting to control history. The Kremlin makes a concerted effort to ensure Putin’s manufactured worldview, in which Russia’s greatness derives from its past glory and suffering, and that it is presented as reality in all media, schools, and academic debate. The president’s office keeps tabs on cultural organisations which can be very powerful to its aims, such as the Russian Military-Historical Society and the Russian Historical Society. The latter, headed by Sergey Naryshkin, chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service, was asked by the Federation Council to censor history textbooks and other humanities subjects in schools, considered a potential menace to the nation. Sergey Naryshkin was also heading the “Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests”, created by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009. The Commission, which ceased to exist on February 14 2012, aimed at “compiling and analysing information on the falsification of historical facts and events aimed at damaging Russia’s international prestige”. The Russian Military-Historical Society, which was founded in 1907 and dissolved after the outbreak of World War I, was reconstituted in 2012 by Order № 1710 under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, “with the goal of consolidating the resources of the State and the Society for the study of Russia’s Military-Historical past, facilitating the study of national military history and counteracting attempts to distort it, as well as to popularise the achievements of military-historical study, encourage patriotism, and raise the prestige of military service”. 

Moscow has spent a lot of energy crafting a new Russian identity. Indeed, Putin was aware that Russia’s return to the ancient splendour was only possible by developing a renovated state ideology, and by uniting the population in the name of a new Holy Russia. To this aim, the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church and a glorified view of the past were fundamental factors that helped the Kremlin to convince the population of its uniqueness in history.

The Eastern Christian Church prospered in the Russian Empire until the 1917 Soviet revolution took place. From 1918 to World War II, the Soviet leadership violently attempted to destroy the Church. Only after the demise of the USSR and its severe consequences on society, the resurgence of Orthodoxy became a prominent element under Putin’s presidency in Russia’s quest for a new ideology. Putin has frequently participated in Orthodox Church events and made public comments expressing how much he respects Christianity and its importance in Russian history, which he considers the political and moral foundations of the Russian Empire. Orthodoxy has seen a rise in influence and power during Putin’s presidency, since he has aided the clergy by funding its charitable and educational initiatives, as well as by facilitating the erection of new churches and monasteries. He was successful in creating and propagating a new, central state ideology. The ideological implications of this led to a revival and affirmation of the nineteenth-century imperial triad of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” (Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narondaost) as Russia’s official state doctrine.

Another fundamental goal of Putin’s crafted historical narrative is to develop within the society certain values which strengthen the unity and the identity of the population. The Kremlin has endorsed state policies in the name of the “Russian tradition” and has disputed any kind of social change considered adverse to that tradition, portraying it as something imposed from outside and detrimental to Russia’s path towards greatness. The president and his party United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya), which holds the majority of the Chamber since 2007, have theorised a project that can be defined as neo-conservative or neo-traditionalist with the help of institutions, intellectuals, and journals linked to the main party. For example, the Russian intellectual Sergei Volobuev, in one of his articles for the Centre for Social-Conservative Politics, promotes culture as one of the key pillars for the socio-economic development of the country. He strongly condemns Russian mass media which merely copy the “most common patterns and formats of Western mass culture”. The essential task of preserving the Russian people involves “the protection and development of their identity, which is based on the spiritual values of the thousand-year-old Russian culture”. According to Volobuev, this identity should be developed by promoting culture and historical memory in schools, televisions, museums, and libraries, and by renovating the educational system so as to adopt a coherent narrative of Russian history. 

In conclusion, the massive use of history adopted by the Kremlin over the last decades has been very successful. The population reunited together in the name of a new state ideology and common identity, eventually accepting drastic measures of domestic and foreign policy implemented by Moscow to protect the country from “external threats”. The invasion of Ukraine, on February 24 2022, is the latest proof of it.



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