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Controlling Memory in Russia

Earlier today there were reports that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the immediate formation of a government commission empowered to fight back against “false history.”  It remains unclear exactly what these powers may include – it could be a reinvention of the Soviet GLAVLIT censorship bureau, or something much more mildly rhetorical – but in terms of linguistics, the high ground has been seized.  So swiftly a topic as vast as history, how it is taught, portrayed in media, or even remembered, has been placed into an unnatural dichotomy.  It is either “true” (what the Kremlin says), or “false” (which is anything the state chooses to disagree with).

The formation of this history commission was preceded by Medvedev’s comments in a May 7 video blog post coinciding with the Victory Day parades in Moscow:


Without being specific, Medvedev commented on increasing “historical falsifications” which have become more and more “determined,malicious and aggressive.”  Although Russia is progressing further and further away from the past as the years glide by, Medvedev notes, there are attempts – both through ignorance and deliberation – to put forward new interpretations of the Great Patriotic War.

I am not certain whose “false history” prompted this response to criminalize contrasting portrayals (although my first guess would be some spat with the Baltics once again), but I do believe it is a worrying sign of the further dismantling of perestroika and a closing gap for tolerance of dissent in the public sphere.  There’s no legitimate doubt in my mind that Russia played a critical and heroic role in WWII in the defeat of the Nazi Germany, and no serious historian has seriously attempted to imagine the equation minus Russia. 

Nevertheless, the people are now being told by their government that WWII is not a topic up for debate.  But what comes next?  With the near shuttering of the NGO Memorial, and the rewriting of school textbooks to portray Joseph Stalin as a blemished but accomplished national hero, there can be many guesses about where this trend goes next. Stanislav Markelov, though likely murdered in connection with his challenge to government over the official story in Chechnya, had also recently written about Ingushetia and other areas of historical inconvenience to the Kremlin.  Boris Sokolov, a talented columnist, was fired from his job for questioning the state’s official history of its recent invasion of Georgia.  The list goes on and on.

In some senses, Medvedev makes very strong points in his May 7th video.  He says that “history teaches us nothing but only punishes us for not learning its lessons.”  And he has also correctly identified a threat of history being rewritten – however this new commission should probably begin its work with Vladislav Surkov and the school textbooks case.

An initiative to establish a historical commission against false history is almost the complete opposite of lustration.  Such a proposal bears the clear imprimatur of the siloviki, which reminds all observers of Russia once again that President Medvedev must be strictly judged by his actions – not his words – as such games in nationalism do not seem to be his own style.  The President is more than bright enough to understand that with Russia’s long history in the area of thought control, these types of commissions set a tremendously dangerous precedent. A quote by the late Russian writer Viktor Astafyev, highlighted in a rather prescient Economist piece, captures it perfectly:  “The more you lie about the past war, the quicker you bring about the next one.”  If you add this to the recent suggested changes to the constitutional court, one begins to wonder whether if even on rule of law, Medvedev’s narrative is changing.

In political terms, the establishment of a history commission could mean one of two things.  That the President is attempting to broaden his base of support by reaching out to other nationalist elements within the government, or that we are just witnessing yet another moment in the long, drawn-out balancing act of ruling Russia from a diarchy, satisfying one clan this week, and another one next week.

For history’s sake, let’s hope that the fulcrum balancing power between these groups makes a positive shift.