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The Kremlin’s Fear of History

putin_kgb_112608.jpgA short while back I published an interview with Fredo Arias-King, in which we reviewed Russia’s brief flirtation with lustration law – a debate which at the time tapped into that difficult area of the politics of memory.  The lustration example, and the state’s resistance to it, was only the most recent in a variety of incidents which have illustrated Russia’s particular discomfort before its own recent history.  Grappling with the past and coming to terms with exactly how much history is beneficial and how much is destructive to national unity is something encountered not only by most post-Soviet states, but also an unavoidable experience encountered by any country after the fall of one regime and the transition to the next. 

So it was with great interest that I read this article in the New York Times, titled Nationalism of Putin Era Veils Sins of Stalin’s.  The article reports on the efforts of the beleagured historian Boris Trenin to uncover the mysteries of the disappeared under the reign of Joseph Stalin in the city of Tomsk, Siberia – but finds his research blocked by the administration, as the KGB files he is seeking to access have been sealed from public access.

What interest would the Kremlin have in denying public access to the archives of the Soviet Union?  What is behind this increasing effort to control the portrayal of history, manipulate the national memory, and, in some cases, whitewash the crimes of former leaders who have nothing to do with the current Russian Federation?


The shift in attitude toward archival access, and discussion of the crimes and abuses of the Soviet Union in general, is quite palpable.  I recall in the introduction to Steve LeVine’s latest book, he visits the offices of the NGO Memorial, and compares the practically desolate operation of today with the bustling and lively center it was in the late 80s and early 90s (the offices and museum “buzzed with researchers, journalists, visitors, and foreign dignitaries” at a time when “curiosity about the Stalinist was intense.“)

There is a long catalogue of issues highlighting the state’s current perestroika in reverse: the television program “Zhdi Menya,” the quickly forgotten fiasco of the Bronze Soldier in Estonia, the politics of identity with the Solovetsky Stone, the uncomfortably bellicose Victory Day parade which brought tanks back onto Red Square, and, of course, the now famous propagandistic new school textbookof Russian history produced by the Putin administration, which hassoftened the legacy of Stalin’s Great Terror to the point of ambiguity.  Many news outlets have reported on a steady stream of state propaganda and television documentaries eulogizing Stalin, and I even recall the the recent online poll which placed his popularity as high as #2 for the most important Russian individual in its history, who was just barely beaten out by Peter the Great.  Some have suggested that this “beatification” of the genocidal Soviet is a sign of the public’s desire for strongman stability.  Adrian Blomfield of the Telegraph wrote last summer:

For old Communists like Mr Usik, Stalin’s name issynonymous with stability in a country that has not had much of it oflate. (…) But they argue that it was a period in history when Russia needed a tough man at the top.And they argue that there is much more on the positive side of Stalin’s ledger, particularly in the Great Patriotic War.

Likewise, the Times article interviews Vasily A. Khanevich, a colleague of the historian Trenin and an active member of Memorial, who explains the exceptionally contraditory position being established:

“Russia positions itself as a completely different democratic countrywith democratic values, but at the same time, it does not reject, itdoes not disassociate itself and does not condemn the regime thatpreceded it,” he said. “On the contrary, it defends it.”

So what exactly is the benefit for the current government to distort the past in this manner, and what do they have to fear from history?  The most obvious answer is that the state is concerned over its territorial and cultural integrity in the vacuum left after the Soviet Union, and is hard pressed to create as many binding issues of common identity as possible, which in some respects require harkening back to the collective memory – even it if means rehabilitating it.  There is undoubtedly an important political expediency to use history as a tool of nationalism – and this is not a trend unique to Russia.

Secondly, we have to take into account that the Kremlin has become overrun with former agents of the KGB, and its successor, the FSB.  It is a natural outcome of this institutional culture to prefer secrecy, control, and to hold little trust in the public.  Furthermore, there are high-ranking officials in the current government who may be tied to crimes of persecution – even Viktor Cherkesov, the famous spy who has come out to fight the clan of Igor Sechin, was well known as the man who arrested Andrei Sakharov.

But lastly and most importantly, this trend of hiding or whitewashing inconvenient history I believe represents a fundamental lack of confidence in the government’s own legitimacy.  Opening the KGB archives, and allowing for discussion and possible efforts to bring grievances before courts of law over the abuses of the past regime would imply the emergence of some difficult questions.  This is a government that is very uncomfortable with questions, and unaccustomed to transparency. 

The people of the Russian Federation have a very strong history,colored by many notable figures and impressive achievements. Unfortunately, this history is not without its darkness, as is thehistory of any country (I believe Germany, the United States, and Japancan attest).  There is no conceivable reason to believe that Russians don’t have the confidence to withstand a thorough and true historical reckoning, and come out on the other end as patriots.  But this decision unfortunately is being made for them by the current leaders, who appear to lack this confidence and trust in their own legitimacy, in their citizens, in their nation, and their own patriotism.  I don’t think we should look at the historical manipulation by the Kremlin as a power over the past to control the future, but rather an innate and self-debilitating fear to confront criticism.