Since the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, the question of how to judge Soviet and communist history has frequently consumed the societies of Eastern and Central Europe. Politicians have frequently been drawn into these debates, which have on occasion spilled over into the realm of international relations. In the next two issues, we explore the issues surrounding the politicization of history in the countries that formerly constituted the Soviet Union. The next issue will examine the politics of history in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Central Asia. This issue concentrates on Russia itself.
Alexei Miller’s “Russia: Power and History” plays a dual role in this collection, serving both as a theoretical introduction to the concept of the politicization of history and as an empirical introduction to the political uses of history in Russia in recent years. The theoretical portion of the article begins with a discussion of the inevitability of the politicization of history. All historians live and work in contemporary society and find that their interpretations are influenced by this context. Similarly, Miller argues that the politics of memory is also an inevitable occurrence, as all societies and governments make decisions about which aspects of their history to commemorate and which to forget. The difference between these kinds of politicization and what Miller calls historical politics (istoricheskaia politika) is that the latter is an explicitly political phenomenon in which the government interferes in the work of professional historians for political reasons, usually to promote particular interpretations of history that match its political goals.
This interference occurs through such mechanisms as the establishment of institutes for historical memory, the creation of museums designed to enshrine a particular version of history, and state sponsorship of school history textbooks that promote certain historical interpretations while dismissing or ignoring other versions that are less favorable to the achievement of state policy objectives. Miller describes the four key concepts of historical policy as follows: (1) history and memory are viewed primarily as an arena of political struggle with foreign and domestic adversaries; (2) policy makers justify their actions by pointing to the universality of historical policy actions around the world; (3) policy makers argue that foreign enemies are working to establish an interpretation of past events that will harm their country if not countered; and (4) historical politics is justified by the poor state of education in the country in question.
All these factors are present in Russia’s recent history. Miller shows that historical politics in Russia has focused on the development of officially approved textbooks, the threat of prosecution of proponents of historical interpretations that conflict with state-approved positions, and selective releases of documents from state archives. All these policies are designed to promote government positions that seek to minimize Soviet crimes against people in those parts of Eastern Europe that were occupied by the Soviet Union in the 1940s and either incorporated into the Soviet Union itself (western Ukraine and Belarus, the Baltic states) or turned into communist satellite states (Poland, Hungary, etc.).
The other articles in this issue flesh out some of the issues raised by Miller. In “Overcoming the Totalitarian Past: Foreign Experience and Russian Problems,” Galina Mikhaleva focuses on how the example of other countries might be used by Russians to help themselves develop new forms of historical memory that are not tied to their country’s totalitarian past. She shows how Russia’s Soviet history is complicated because of the connection of some of its darkest periods, such as the mass repressions of the late 1930s and the deportations of the 1940s, with its greatest triumph, the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. She describes a range of positions on this history taken by various political actors—ranging from the Memorial Society’s efforts to ensure open discussion to the government’s instrumental position that seeks to protect national history from outsiders’ attempts at “falsification.”
Boris Dubin argues that one aspect of this falsification is present in “The Stalin Myth.” He shows how the last decade has seen constant efforts by the government to promote pro-Stalin propaganda in an effort to create an image of Stalin as the builder of a strong Russian state. Dubin shows that as a result of this propaganda, there are now two prevailing images of Stalin at war in Russian society. The first is the image of Stalin as a tyrant, which became dominant in the Gorbachev period and remained uncontested under Yeltsin. This image promotes the view of Russia as a victim. The second is the image of Stalin as the victor in World War II, which promotes the vision of Russia as a great power. Dubin argues that these two images are linked to and support each other. Together, they encourage the population to be passive, because they see themselves as victims who can only be saved by a powerful leader, such as Stalin in the past or Putin in the present.
Few efforts have been made by Russian society to overcome this historical legacy. One of the most public is the Yabloko political party’s resolution on “Overcoming Stalinism and Bolshevism as a Condition for Modernizing Russia in the Twenty-First Century.” This document, translated and reprinted in this issue of Russian Politics and Law, connects the legacy of Stalinism, and especially its promotion by the current government, to the rise in xenophobic violence throughout Russia in recent years. Yabloko calls for Russian society to overcome the Stalinist historical legacy, arguing that without a rejection of this history, there is no way for the country to develop its political system beyond what it calls the current criminal political regime. To overcome this legacy, Yabloko argues that the government must unequivocally condemn the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the repressions that followed it, take measures to eliminate the Stalinist–Bolshevik system of rule—which follows the principle that the end justifies the means—and establish a mass education program dedicated to promoting an objective account of the country’s history in the twentieth century.
The rest of this issue examines the controversy surrounding the establishment of the Commission to Counteract Attempts to Harm Russia’s Interests by Falsifying History. This commission, established by President Medvedev in the spring of 2009, was tasked with locating and opposing any and all cases where Russian history is falsified with the intent of reducing the country’s international prestige. The decree establishing the commission is found in the documents section of this issue.
In “For Whom Did the Tsar Bell Toll?” Pavel Polian has put together a polemical article that argues that the establishment of the commission has created a situation where the potentially vulnerable may be persecuted in order to defend the position of the politically powerful. He points out that, although Russia is already considered to be a safe haven for Holocaust deniers, the commission will not focus on that aspect of the Nuremberg Tribunal’s decisions. Instead, it will seek to counter any efforts by historians to show that East European states were victimized by the Soviet side during World War II by attempting to paint these efforts as supporting the rehabilitation of Nazism.
Polian also examines the origins of the commission, arguing that it is the brainchild of Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chair of the State Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Compatriots. He notes that efforts to use history for political ends are present throughout the region and argues that, instead of a set of inevitably biased national commissions along the lines created by President Medvedev, the public would be better served by the creation of an international historical arbitration system that would allow professional historians to pass judgment on various international historical disputes.
One aspect of the commission’s activity that drew significant negative attention was the Russian Academy of Sciences’ directive to its component institutes to “compile annotated lists of historical and cultural falsifications, indicating the ‘persons and organizations creating and disseminating each falsification’ ” (as Miller puts it). This directive is translated in the current issue.
The final article in this issue is a response by Valery Tishkov, the author of the directive, to his critics. In “History, Historians, and State Power,” Tishkov discusses the importance of distinguishing professional history from the efforts of amateurs who publish popular texts that do not meet the standards of the profession but nevertheless wield a great deal of influence over societal views of Russian history. In his discussion of the role of politics in historical interpretation, Tishkov focuses on the role played by East European states in prohibiting positive portrayals of various aspects of their history under communist rule. In effect, he argues that the widespread reaction against the establishment of the Russian commission on historical falsifications is yet another example of double standards at work, with Russia held to a different standard from other former communist states.
In the next issue of Russian Politics and Law, we will examine the extent to which historical politics is at work in these other countries and compare them to the Russian experience.