WHY STALINIST HISTORY MATTERS TO PUTIN?
We don't know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has read Yevgeni Zamyatin's dystopia "We" or George Orwell's even more famous novel "1984." We don't know whether cadets at the KGB school in Okhta were Putin studied were taught about these forbidden books, while his actions in restoring authoritarian power in Russia have been both Zamyatinian and Orwellian in nature.
Russian special services are among the best in the world when it comes to manipulating the masses and public opinion. Chekists have over many decades polished to perfection the arts of deceit and creating false narratives and harnessed history to maintain their power and hide their crimes.
While the KGB archives have described "1984" as "one of the most disgusting books about the Soviet Union," one of its most famous quotes: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past," likely constitutes words to live by for every Chekist.
The main goal of Putin's recent constitutional coup is to ensure the longevity and consolidation of authoritarian power for an unspecified period of time. This is happening on the background of a mighty cannonade in defense of the Stalinist historical narrative as every step toward the truth would render Putin's plans vulnerable to attack in Russia.
That is why it is little wonder the president has decided to prioritize the struggle for "historical truth." Putin knows perfectly well that Russian national identity is built, over several generations, on the glorification of the Great Patriotic War and Stalin as a "brilliant military commander." That is the expressway into the Russian heart.
"May 9 is the greatest and brightest celebration for Russia. We are proud of the generation of victors, we honor their heroic deeds. Our memory is not just a show of respect for our heroic past but also serves our future, inspires us and strengthens our unity. We are obligated to defend the truth about Victory," Putin said in his annual speech recently. "What will we tell our children if we allow lies to spread like disease?" Putin asked, adding that "brazen lies, attempts to alter history need to be met with facts."
And so, the Russian foreign ministry launched a massive propaganda campaign to protect the Stalinist treatment of history and the Great Victory last summer, immediately before the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The tools employed in its service include selective memory, conscious lies and good old Soviet clichés.
Russia has made efforts to defend its "official" history in the past, but never before has it been done so persistently, using social media on a global scale.
About one-third of all tweets by Russian diplomatic services are tied to the events of World War II. It doesn't matter whether they're coming form the foreign ministry or embassies in Tallinn or the South African Republic – the patter is the same. What is acutely dangerous is how Russian diplomats have begun vindicating MRP and its secret protocols in defense of their truth.
Next to attempts of "bending back history," we are treated to venomous stabs at countries and peoples who suffered the most in the carnage of WWII.
On August 27, 2019, the Russian foreign ministry wrote this about WWII in a tweet sharing a brochure published in the Baltic region: "The Baltic peoples became independent in the early 1990s. It created hope that the Baltic Soviet Republics could become modern and democratic countries honoring rule of law, which, unfortunately, never happened."
In recent weeks, Russia has gone after Poland on the highest level, going as far as trying to make it look like Warsaw, alongside Nazi Germany, is responsible for unleashing WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust.
Putin held an impromptu history lesson for CIS leaders on December 20. He said he had requested a review of archives and documents presented to him. "When I started reading those documents, I found something interesting for all of us because we all come from the Soviet Union," Putin said before proceeding to give an hour-long monologue.
He said, in true Stalinist fashion, how the Soviet Union had no other choice but to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler's Germany. Apparently, no one reacted to Moscow's wish to create a new security architecture in Europe. This echoes a kind of threatening parallel with today and Russia wanting a new security architecture for Eurasia in the place of NATO.
Talking about the events of September 1939 in Poland, Putin said that the "Red Army never took hostile action against anyone, did not fight the Poles." What Putin didn't talk about were the hundreds of Red Army soldiers who lost their lives when Poland was carved up between Hitler and Stalin. Putin's history lesson also had no place for the Red Army and the Wehrmacht's joint parade in Brest or the NKVD's massacre in Katyn.
Talking to the Russian general staff on December 24, Putin went as far as calling Poland's prewar ambassador to Germany Jozef Lipski an "anti-Semite swine" and accusing Poland of collusion with Nazi Germany at the start of the war. Putin emphasized that when building up its armed forces, Russia must keep in mind that Europe tends to forget who freed it from Nazism.
Ushering in the spring session of the State Duma, Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin attributed hundreds of death camps in Poland during WWII to prewar mentality in the country, proceeding to demand the leaders of Poland apologize to the entire world.
Of course, as the former deputy chief of Putin's administration, Volodin couldn't possibly mention how many death camps there were in the Soviet Union before the war began. Russia has never seriously apologized for the horrors of the GULAG.
There are plenty of other examples. It is virtually beyond doubt that the Russian leadership will continue to up the information warfare ante until May 9. While it is to be expected the subject matter will very much stay on the agenda after that as Putin needs to have control over history for four main reasons.
The four reasons why Putin needs to control history
Firstly. History is of critical significance in any authoritarian society as it is the tool the elite or despot can use to keep the people consolidated and keep an eye on processes in society. Myths based on half-truths or outright lies help raise new generations in the "correct" spirit.
There has been only one brief period in Russian history where the disappearance of censorship, opening of archives and media freedom created the conditions for a new historical narrative to emerge. It was the era of Gorbachev's Glasnost in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
And yet, the archives were closing again even before Putin came to power, and treatments of the Soviet period and especially WWII went back to Stalinist myths that had become so familiar to the masses.
Mark Solonin's books based on archival documents have rather remained an exception and failed to bring about a shift in the general historical consciousness. The brief gust of democracy did not manage to set history free, schools went back to teaching history based on the old curriculum, while state propaganda that had found its footing once again with Putin clung to the Great Victory in order to try and manufacture patriotism.
It is little wonder then that Stalin's popularity reached new heights in 2019. A survey by the Levada Center showed that 70 percent of people questioned believe Stalin played a positive role in Russian history. It was the conviction of 54 percent of people in 2016.
In summary – the greater Stalin's positive image in Russian society, the more eager the regime will be in trying to protect the Stalinist treatment of history.
Secondly. The collapse of the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire is the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century for Putin. The Kremlin started taking back the old empire almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, calling it consolidation of the Russian world. The concept of near abroad was quickly introduced to separate the former empire from the rest of the world.
If the Chechen wars stopped Russia falling apart, attacking Georgia and Ukraine and information operations in the Baltics and Poland have clearly served Putin's revanchist goals – to take back territory where possible and establish influence elsewhere.
By vindicating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and taking a cudgel of history to its neighbors, Russia is protecting its aggressive foreign policy. Selective use of international law and proceeding from the Stalinist narrative is part of justifying both recent and potential future conquests.
Thirdly. Protecting the Stalinist narrative of history is part of information warfare that in turn is part of Russia's continued Cold War against the West. Its ultimate strategic goal is to dismantle NATO and Finlandize countries in Europe.
In the short perspective, history helps mobilize compatriots living in the West, split public opinion (how could one criticize the conquerors of fascism) and isolate Eastern Europe from Western Europe.
Labeling Poland and the Baltics a Russophobic minority that is poisoning European policy serves the goal of isolating them. Poland is a special target for Moscow also because it hosts U.S. military units sporting serious deterrence potential.
Fourthly. No authoritarian regime survives without violence and restricting its citizens' freedoms. This requires a repressive organ that in Russia is made up of the successors of the KGB.
Jealously guarding Stalinist historical narrative serves to justify or hide the crimes of Chekists. Defending the "truth, justice and inviolability" of terrorists who have killed dozens of millions of people, or the KGB brotherhood, is a sacred task for KGB lieutenant colonel Putin.
Russia fell into authoritarianism largely because its repressive organs have never been held accountable for their crimes against humanity.
The reorganization of the KGB in the 1990s did not involve a cleansing ritual nor holding murderers who were still alive accountable. This allows Putin to praise the heroism of Chekists and their services to the country when appearing in front of his comrades today.
Putin said, during the celebration of the KGB's anniversary on December 19, 2019, that it is important for our people to learn "recently unknown facts about the history of Russian special services to understand how hard it can be to achieve victory and success."
Naturally, he was not referring to the red terror that claimed millions of lives nor the fight against dissidents. Because there is only one historical truth that the Chekists will defend with sword and shield.
What can and must the West do in this situation?
First of all, we need to understand why Russia is doing it. It is not merely an episode from this spring but an inseparable part of the entire present and future narrative for Russia. It defines Putin's Russia as the authoritarian opposite of the West and its foreign policy as a zero-sum game.
History has shown that the West can rise to great challenges if it is united and supportive. That is precisely what is needed to resist Russia's information attacks.
The best deterrence against those who would warp history is history itself. The purposeful actions of free countries in defending facts and narratives debated by historians and the timelessness of crimes against humanity is a vital part of maintaining societies sporting a strong identity.
Steps like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's 2006 resolution condemning the crimes of communism or the declaration equally condemning Hitler and Stalin for unleashing WWII by the European Parliament last year help achieve it.
Similar declarations have come from the parliaments of Poland and Latvia recently that will hopefully be followed by one from the Riigikogu. Russia must know that Stalinist history is out of the question in modern Europe.
Many Western leaders will face a complicated choice as May 9 draws nearer. On the one hand, they would like to celebrate 75 years from the end of the war that claimed dozens of millions of lives. Europe has long since decided to remember those killed irrespective of their origin.
On the other, Russia is pushing its Great Victory mantra in a situation where Stalinist policy paralyzed half of Europe after the war and extended the suffering of many nations by half a century.
That is why Western leaders will have to decide whether to attend Russia's anti-Western propaganda event in the Red Square or to let a country that is still waging a war in Ukraine know from a distance that they have nothing in common with such a false narrative.
Even if the others cannot, the three Baltic countries and Poland at least should be abler to act in unison and not falter in this situation.