Russia’s Struggle over History

Carnegie Moscow Center has released a new collection of working papers under the title “Engaging History: The Problems & Politics of Memory in Russia and the Post-Socialist Space,” tackling a subject of great interest to us. The contribution from Sam Greene, Masha Lipman, and Andrei Ryabav, quoted below, finds that the work of civil society organizations can have a big impact on popular opinion and conceptions of history, rather than the government’s inflexible imposition simply being a reflection of ingrained Russian cultural values.

Many of the “places of memory” associated with the World War II narrative are now located outside of Russian territory, creating a dilemma: the same historical “landmarks” have become part of differing and often competing historical narratives. In much of Eastern and Central Europe, including in the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, the narrative of World War II is no less central to identity but differs in crucial ways from the Russian discourse. The classic example, again, is of the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, one of numerous monuments to Soviet liberators throughout the post-Soviet space that, in local discourses, have come to be seen as monuments not to liberators, but to occupiers. These differences of perspective pose an existential threat to the official Russian discourse, to which the Kremlin is obliged to react: a construction in which Soviet forces are good triumphing over evil leaves no room for ambiguity. These same forces may later (say, in 1956 or 1968) be condemned for a different mission, but by the logic of the Kremlin’s historical architecture their role in 1945 must be singular and unchallenged. (…)

This phenomenon – in which Russians appear not to remember facts of history that are of importance to others – has been described by some as “absent memory.” We will discuss this concept at greater length below, but at this juncture it raises an important question: is public memory conditioned by the official discourse, or is the government bound to follow an ideology deeply ingrained in Russian memory and culture? There is nothing in the evidence to suggest that the discourse is static and that views are immutable. For example, while discussion of World War II continues to underemphasize the role of the Allies, their role is significantly more prominently displayed now than it was in Soviet times, and even than in much of the 1990s. As a result, when asked whether the USSR could have won the war without the Allies, in 57% responded yes (against 30% no) in 2010, compared to 71% yes and 21% no in 1997. If this is any guide, a concerted engagement with historical discourse can bring results.