April 24, 2020

Russia’s “memory wars”, Poland, and the Forthcoming 75th Victory Day

Russian Communist party supporters arrive to lay flowers at the tomb of late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during a memorial ceremony to mark the 67th anniversary of his death at Red Square in Moscow on March 5, 2020.
Russian Communist party supporters arrive to lay flowers at the tomb of late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during a memorial ceremony to mark the 67th anniversary of his death at Red Square in Moscow on March 5, 2020.

At the end of 2019, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, lamented the EU’s resolution on the Importance of European Remembrance for the Future of Europe,1 which condemned the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (1939), which de facto led to the outbreak of the Second World War (1939–45), claiming tens of millions of lives.

Specifically, Putin argued that the document’s authors accused the Soviet Union of triggering the war, thereby equating the USSR with Nazi Germany.2 Putin promised to “answer lies by presenting the truth”,3 obfuscating further details. His next speech clarified much of was had been left unaddressed. On 24 December, speaking at a session of the Russian Defence Ministry Board, Putin made an overtly emotional gesture: changing the topic of the discussion to the Second World War, he called a former Polish ambassador to Nazi Germany, Józef Lipski, “a bastard” and “an anti-Semitic pig”, pointing to his “full solidarity with Hitler”.4 In a broader sense, the Russian president specifically accused Poland of conspiring with Nazi Germany to destroy the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia and conniving with the Nazis in the eradication of Jews. Putin also claimed that the Soviet Union, practically betrayed and left alone by Western powers, had no other choice but to conclude the deal with Germany. With this statement Putin moved from shared responsibility of two dictatorships for the outbreak of the conflict54 to the Western and Central European states being responsible for the catastrophe. Putin’s speech had a viral effect, attracting the attention of both domestic and external audiences. Apparently spontaneous, it was a well-calculated move whose implications might be more far-reaching than they seem at first glance.

History as a Weapon: Continuity and Tradition

From the outset, the Soviet authorities used history as one of the main tools of their information-propaganda operations aimed at both external and domestic audiences. Initially lacking depth and sophistication, this strategy bloomed under Joseph Stalin, when the rewriting and falsification of history was put on a qualitatively new level. Stalin—who removed political opponents by physically eliminating them and destroying/vilifying their legacy—actively relied on history and historical analogies as a means to justify his crimes. On the one hand, a special role was allocated to mass culture—primarily cinematography (best exemplified through the 1944 movie Ivan Grozny)—when truly barbaric acts of violence and outspoken sadism against Russia’s own population were praised as wise leadership and presented as necessary acts for the survival of the state. On the other hand, the Soviets (this tradition long outlived Stalin) relied heavily on (pseudo)scientific tools, while distorting certain events and chapters of Russian/Soviet history. At this juncture, the pattern was set by Stalin himself, who eagerly “contributed” to the creation of The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1938)—one of the main brainwashing/propaganda tools for decades thereafter. Incidentally, as noted by Maria Lipman, a campaign of rewriting the history of post-1991 Russia was launched in 2004. She argued that “[Putin] reintroduced the old Soviet national anthem commissioned by Josef Stalin and brought back the style and some of the methods of the Communist government”.6

Another remarkable example of the weaponisation of history was Victory Day, celebrated on 9 May. While Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev despised it—allegedly, this was related to the popularity of Marshal Georgy Zhukov—Leonid Brezhnev added new and in many ways sacred meaning to the day, putting it near the top of the pantheon of Soviet holidays. This could be attributed to the lack of real socio-economic achievements during the Brezhnev Stagnation (which started in 1964), replaced by growing (neo)conservatism and glorification of the past to distract a frustrated Soviet audience from the despondent routine of daily life.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the celebrations seemed to fade into the past, but were (quite predictably) reinstated in 1995, although not quite as grandiosely as in Soviet times, of course. The trend got a new lease of life in 2008, since when each consecutive Victory Day has been grander and assumed ever-greater symbolic meaning. In 2012 in Tomsk, a grandiose “social initiative”—the so-called Immortal Regiment (Bezsmertnii Polk)—was launched for the first time.7 Interestingly, this new initiative signifying the (re)glorification of the Soviet legacy in general and 9 May in particular coincided with plummeting relations between Russia and the West. Meanwhile, Russia began to use this holiday increasingly as a means to pressure its political opponents—first, the three Baltic states (the 2007 cyber-attack against Estonia resulted from the infamous Bronze Soldier affair), and after 2014 Ukraine.

However, never before had any post-Soviet Russian leader openly unleashed such a wave of criticism against any country as did Putin against Poland in late 2019.

Poland – the “Exclusive Target”

The current expression of anti-Polish sentiment is by no means new to the Russian leadership. The public perception of Poland in Russian society has historically been entirely negative—a synonym for Russophobia and treacherous behaviour. This repulsive image began to be formed by Russian propaganda as early as 1815 (in Glinka’s tragic opera A Life for the Tsar) and continued virtually until the end of Imperial Russia in 1917 with some of Russia’s most famous poets (Alexander Pushkin), writers (Fyodor Dostoevsky) and intellectuals forming the vanguard of anti-Polish feeling. During the Soviet period, hatred towards Poland reached new heights following the unsuccessful Soviet–Polish war of 1919–21 (which derailed Soviet plans to “spread the fire of the Communist revolution” in Europe), whose result was bemoaned by the Soviet leadership and Stalin in particular. Beyond any doubt, the most painful episode in Soviet-Polish relations became the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocol, which was used by the USSR on 17 September 1939 to seize part of Polish territory, dismembering the country and trumpeting Soviet sovereignty on the pretence of increasing anarchy. The merciless eradication of Polish sovereignty, the hardships of the ensuing war and the subsequent imposition of brutal Communist rule after 1945 left a deep scar on the Polish historical memory.

After the dissolution of the USSR, the reborn Russia had no resources to pursue an assertive foreign policy in Eastern and Central Europe, while Poland and other former members of the Warsaw Pact rapidly moved towards membership of the European Union and NATO. At that time the Kremlin’s reaction to these aspirations—even though negative—did not go beyond rhetorical escapades primarily emanating from Russia’s conservative politicians and populists; but in the late 1990s and early 2000s the situation started to change. The decisive moment came in 2003 with the US operation in Iraq, which vividly demonstrated the lack of unity in the Western camp and put Poland under a fire of criticism from “old” European politicians;8 this was immediately noticed in Moscow. The Kremlin’s first attempt to use this disunity for its own interests came in 2005, during the grand celebration of the 750th anniversary of Kaliningrad/Königsberg. This event was conceived by the Russian side as an attempt to forge trilateral cooperation with Berlin and Paris, and at the same time was vividly tinged with anti-Polish/Lithuanian colours, whose leaders were conspicuously not invited.9

At this point it is important to note that Poland is by no means the only EU/NATO member subjected to this type of pressure. So-called “Baltic fascism” (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and “Baltic Russophobia” have traditionally been entertained by Kremlin-sponsored (dis)information outlets.10 But for a number of reasons these arguments failed to deliver a lasting effect, which stems from a visible controversy in the Kremlin’s own narratives: the image of these states, portrayed by Russian propaganda as weak, impoverished and abandoned by their populations en masse, contrasted sharply with a parallel story depicting them as posing a serious security challenge to Russia. Poland, however, is a different case. Even the most hard-nosed Russian information sources acknowledged the rapid economic growth and success achieved by Poland after 1991. A country of nearly 38 million people, and one of the continent’s staunchest allies of the US (in the realm of security) and Germany (economy), Poland is viewed by Russia(ns) differently. Furthermore, after the outbreak of the Euromaidan in Kyiv in late 2013, Poland strongly supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, causing great anger in Moscow. From this point, Russian state-sponsored media activated information campaigns against Poland, seeking to portray the country as an American puppet and the main Russophobe in Europe. Aside from a massive wave of (dis)information produced by Russian news/analytical agencies, emphasis was placed on (pseudo)documentary movies that, among other things, employed Polish experts vilifying current Polish policies in the realm of historical memory, and making overtures to the Soviet past.11

Another narrative actively promulgated by Russia is an attempt to justify the Katyn massacre of 1940, when 22,000 Polish officers were slaughtered by the NKVD as a reaction by the Soviets to so-called “Polish concentration camps during the Soviet-Polish war” that claimed the lives of Soviet soldiers.12 As noted earlier, Russian elites are now determined to present the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact not as a “necessary evil” (as the discourse went in the 2000s), but as a response to European (and Polish in particular) treachery and a brilliant diplomatic move by the Soviet ruling elites.

The Attack: Immediate Goals and Far-reaching Implications

The attack launched by Putin at the end of December had two main goals.

The first was concerned with achieving domestic objectives. Declaring 2020 “the Year of Memory and Glory”,13 Russia’s ruling elite has once again (akin to Brezhnev in the 1960s) added an element of sacred meaning to the legacy of the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), thereby nurturing the sense of pride among Russians in the absence of real socio-economic progress. Naturally, anyone (domestically or externally) who disagrees with Russia’s construct of history is automatically perceived as a Russophobe and, therefore, a Nazi collaborator. On the other hand, with Putin openly declaring his willingness to continue carrying out his duties after his current presidential term comes to an end and with all hope of reform and real socio-economic progress nearly gone, Moscow aims to use the rhetoric of the “besieged fortress” promulgated by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and later, which requires an enemy to be sought. Given the historically high level of anti-Polish sentiment in Russian society, this target appears to be one of the easiest and most convenient. (Closer to the 9 May celebrations, Ukraine and the three Baltic states might also be targeted.) Furthermore, another point made by Putin should be noted: he made it clear that the old trajectory in Russia’s relations with the West had changed, stating that “for the first time in history not we [Russia] but they [West] are trailing”. To emphasise the point, he mentioned hypersonic weapons, including the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile and the Peresvet laser—unique pieces of weaponry that no other country has.14

The second goal was premised on reaching out to a foreign audience. At this point, it should be acknowledged that the Polish side—and primarily president Andzej Duda—made a strategic error in adopting a reconciliatory tone towards Russia,15 which was taken by Moscow as a sign of weakness and spurred Russia into more assertive action. One objective behind this attack against Poland and the use of overtly counter-anti-Semitic rhetoric might be related to Russia’s desire to normalise ties with Israel, whose relations with Poland have stagnated. This initial assault on Poland in the guise of anti-Semitism might have far-reaching consequences and could later be redirected against Ukraine and the three Baltic states, all of whom have to some extent experienced a certain souring of political relations with Israel. In this respect, anti-Semitism should be seen—even though this phenomenon bloomed in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and post-1991 Russia—as a powerful trump card in Moscow’s hand. Moreover, there is little doubt that Russia will try to use its image as the main enemy of neo-Fascism and anti-Semitism to its advantage while appealing to certain members of the EU that suffered various forms of dictatorship and where socialist ideals have traditionally been strong.

In the worst-case scenario—that Moscow’s message reaches only a limited foreign audience (since domestic success is virtually guaranteed, especially given the forthcoming 9 May celebrations)—Russia still loses nothing.


1 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2019-0021_EN.html.

2 https://lenta.ru/news/2019/12/11/false/.

3 https://russian.rt.com/world/news/696637-putin-rossiya-vtoraya-mirovaya-voina.

4 https://ria.ru/20191224/1562780957.html.

5 A point he made in 2009; see: https://www.rbc.ru/politics/31/08/2009/5703d6099a7947733180ab16.

6 https://carnegie.ru/2004/03/22/rewriting-history-for-putin-pub-1486.

7 http://icds.ee/todays-russia-stalinisation-of-the-collective-consciousness/.

8 edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/02/18/sprj.irq.chirac/.

9 https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/others/48585-.html.

10 https://tsargrad.tv/articles/v-latvii-reabilitirujut-nacizm-na-dengi-evrosojuza_111236; https://tsargrad.tv/articles/jestonija-nichego-ne-mozhet-trebovat-u-rossii-potomu-chto-javljaetsja-nezakonnym-obrazovaniem_226715.

11 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXiMUrt-Z4U&t=1057s.

12 https://www.tvp.info/42085798/rosyjska-wersja-historii-opinia.

13 https://pobedarf.ru/2020/01/03/v-rossii-2020-god-obyavlen-godom-pamyati-i-slavy/.

14 https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4206751.

15 https://www.rubaltic.ru/article/politika-i-obshchestvo/26122019-putin-otkazalsya-ot-primireniya-s-polshey/.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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