May 25, 2024

Memory Versus History: Russia’s War on Ukraine

Russian servicemen take part in the Victory Day military parade general rehearsal on the Red Square in Moscow on 5 May 2024.
Russian servicemen take part in the Victory Day military parade general rehearsal on the Red Square in Moscow on 5 May 2024.

Russia’s war on Ukraine, now in its tenth year, is a war over identity. The 2013/14 Revolution of Dignity emerged at a critical juncture, coinciding with the Russian government’s pivot post-2012 towards revisionism in a quest to solidify a cohesive Russian identity. Ukraine’s role in Russian historiography — its significance to Russia’s claims to Kyivan Rus, to its alleged inherent great power status, and to its civilisational identity — has made Ukraine an essential element in Russia’s self-conceptualisation.

When the Euromaidan protests commenced, there was a well-established repertoire of myths and interpretative frameworks at the ready — legacies of imperial and Soviet myths of Ukrainian treachery and extremism that had been further entrenched during Ukraine’s 1991 bid for independence and the 2004 Orange Revolution. For the past ten years, Russian propaganda has consistently promoted the narrative that Ukraine is an illegitimate Nazi state, a mere construct used by the west to advance its encroachment on Russia. This narrative framework positions Ukraine as an adversary comparable to Nazi Germany, thereby rendering it a legitimate target of Russian aggression. This portrayal rationalises Russia’s actions and justifies nearly any moral transgressions under the guise of historical retribution and a pre-emptive defence against the return of Nazism.

The manipulation of historical narratives by Russia to challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty is a multifaceted strategy deeply rooted in Russia’s national identity and its geopolitical ambitions. This strategy not only seeks to undermine Ukraine’s statehood but also reinforces domestic support within Russia, playing a crucial role in shaping Russian foreign policy and national security strategies.

Narratives are not only a means for explaining the world; they also function as evidence of the speakers’ frame for understanding the world. Many — this author included — have performed large-scale data analysis to understand the intricacies of Russian propaganda, to identify how and why it works. But while platforms and content are important, a large part of why audiences — in Russia and especially beyond — believe Russian propaganda about Ukraine, is because it is what they want to hear. Understanding why these narratives gain traction domestically involves examining audience receptivity and narrative resonance across sympathetic demographics, as well as the platforms amplifying these myths. 

Historical Narratives as Tools of State Policy

Russia’s use of history as a tool against Ukraine’s sovereignty involves portraying Ukraine not as a neighbour but as a historically integral part of Russia. This narrative is often presented through the lens of Ukraine being a land of “Malorossiya” (Little Russia), suggesting a diminished, dependent status rather than that of a sovereign nation. The figure of Stepan Bandera, and his portrayal as the epitome of anti-Russian” Ukrainian nationalism, serves as a central element in these narratives. Bandera is depicted not merely as a historical figure but as a symbol of what Russia considers to be the worst traits of Ukrainian nationalism — a separate identity entirely averse to Russian domination, which Moscow posits as being an intrinsically fascistic and extremist position, contrasting this “bad” vision of Ukrainian-ness with its ideal type of good Ukraine — subordinate to Moscow. 

Good versus Bad Ukraine:

Russia’s narrative construction around the concepts of “good Ukraine” and “bad Ukraine” is a central element in its broader geopolitical strategy. This dichotomy serves to delegitimise Ukrainian sovereignty but also to reinforce domestic support for Russian policies and perspectives, namely the notion that Russia’s genocidal aggression is a form of liberation of oppressed Russian-speaking minorities. The dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Ukraine helps consolidate a Russian national identity that is defined in opposition to a hostile “other.” In this view, Ukraine is what happens when you allow the west to interfere: the west is to blame for Ukraine’s tragedy and suffering, not Russian missiles, Russian soldiers, and Russian people. Understanding these narratives requires a closer look at what each entails and why they seemingly resonate so strongly within Russia. 

Vision of “Good Ukraine”: The concept of “good Ukraine” in Russian discourse portrays Ukraine as an extension of Russia’s cultural and historical landscape. In this narrative, “good Ukraine” is seen as culturally, spiritually, and politically aligned with Russia, embodying the ideals of Slavic brotherhood and unity. This compliant and cooperative Ukraine is popular in Russia as it reaffirms the idea of a Triunic East Slavic identity where Russia plays the role of protector and leader of Slavic peoples. This narrative is comforting to the Russian populace, reinforcing a sense of historical continuity, regional dominance, and a messianic sense of being a “chosen” people. 

Vision of “Bad Ukraine”: Conversely, the “bad Ukraine” is depicted as nationalistic, fascistic, and anti-Russian. This Ukraine is symbolised by figures such as Stepan Bandera, Roman Simon Petlyura, and Ivan Mazepa who are portrayed in Russian media in ways that emphasise their treachery, collaboration with Russia’s enemies, and general hostility towards Russia. The “bad Ukraine” narrative justifies both policies aimed at “protecting” Russian speakers and Russia’s borders from a supposedly hostile regime. This portrayal taps deeply into Russia’s historical mythmaking, which cultivates long-standing resentment at lost geopolitical status and fears of revenge by former colonies. It brings to mind Fyodor Dostoevsky’s observation that “people always hate those whom they have harmed.”

It would be remiss to not recognise the gargantuan efforts the Kremlin has put into spreading its own version of history and censoring alternative views. For example, the Russian state controls much of the media and educational content, allowing it to perpetuate these narratives unchallenged, especially since 2022 when there has been an incessant march towards the formalisation and indoctrination of militaristic education. Moreover, the Kremlin has introduced a raft of draconian memory laws that, in practice, render criminal almost any discussion of the darker chapters of the Soviet fight against Nazism (e.g., the mass rapes, the callousness towards men’s lives) and the USSR’s ensuing occupation of half of Europe. In international affairs, Russia aggressively promotes its selective view of Nazism as anything that is anti-Russia, appropriating a shared victory in 1945 for the purposes of demonstrating its right to commit all manner of war crimes, from urbicide to phosphorous bombs to the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Police stands guard at a newly opened exhibition of trophy military equipment in Moscow in the Victory Park on 1 May 2024, showing equipment captured by Russian servicemen during the Russian war in Ukraine. ZUMA Press/Scanpix


Russia’s strategic use of historical narratives is a potent tool in its geopolitical toolkit, not only used to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty but also to bolster domestic support through a curated national identity. Countering this requires not only direct responses to Russian propaganda but also a proactive strategy that promotes a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of history, as discussed in the recommendations below: 

  • History versus Memory: While Russia secures its identity through history, democracies should avoid such confrontations. Instead of transforming alternative historical views into conflicts, promote a unifying narrative that acknowledges diverse perspectives. In regions where this has unavoidable geopolitical ramifications, such as in Eastern Europe, it’s essential to specifically address contentious historical issues without moralising them. Encourage understanding that historical interpretation should not supersede moral norms. 
  • Engagement with Historical Truths: Russia often mixes truth with narrative (the Soviet 60% truth / 40% lies approach). Addressing the truthful elements openly can undermine the effectiveness of disinformation. Promote a balanced view of history that supports democratic values and individual rights, a task suited for civil society and journalistic endeavours. 
  • Proactive Education: Instead of merely countering disinformation, focus on educating through engaging content. Produce documentaries and develop interactive media, such as video games, that explore significant historical events like the Baltic states during World War II or the Holodomor in an informative way. 
  • Addressing the Roots of Propaganda: Propaganda thrives on audience receptivity, not simply engaging content. Tackle the social conditions — such as loneliness, alienation, and economic hardship — that foster susceptibility to propaganda. Also, support the expression of legitimate views to prevent them from being dismissed and driving individuals towards extremist narratives. 
  • Supporting Educational Initiatives: Encourage critical engagement with history among younger generations in both Euro-Atlantic and Russian contexts. This could involve supporting engaging and popular digital platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Telegram channels that explore history compellingly and factually. 
  • Counter-Propaganda Strategy: Understand why Russian propaganda resonates and address these emotional and informational needs. Instead of promoting a standard western narrative, tailor content to engage and resonate with the audience’s interests and needs, even if they are not our own. For this to happen, the Russian opposition would need to play a different role, one that sees them try to connect more with Russians ambivalent or supportive of the war, rather than assert that this is just Putin’s war. This would require a pivot away from targeting émigré audiences and western policymakers.
  • Memory Wars: Those countries often targeted by aggressive Russian memory-making should try not to react to Russian provocations. Instead, they should adopt a longer-term approach, with a consistent strategy of promoting their own historical achievements confidently, focusing on holding their own conversations and telling their own stories, rather than only responding to Russian falsifications.

Historical narratives are not merely recounts of the past; they underpin civilisational identities and serve as justifications for present attitudes. It is crucial to acknowledge that in the Kremlin’s hands these narratives are effective tools for indoctrination and are likely to persist. However, that does not mean Russia’s opponents need to mirror its approach, even if they do need to acknowledge and to counter its origins and effects.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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