“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Historical memories of diverse but interconnected tragic events in the 20th century have recently again become the subject of heated political confrontation and intensive disinformation campaigns. The Kremlin is widely known for its cynical, insolent and thus impactful ability to manufacture groundless accusations and shameless labelling based on highly questionable, mostly falsified or even just fabricated historical narratives. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is no big surprise to see many notoriously repetitive attempts by the deceitful Russian regime to project and empower its own versions and interpretations of catastrophic causalities and long-lasting consequences of that ugly war.
The Kremlin has recently taken several notable steps to strengthen the role of historical memories in its foreign policy, because any proper autocracy knows exactly how powerful collective memories can be exploited, equally effectively, for building national identity, shaping divisive prejudices, creating captive illusions for the domestic population or inflating confusing chaos at the international level. As the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery continues to spread various falsified narratives on an industrial scale in many countries, it is important to do some predictive analysis on what else might be expected in its arsenal in 2020 and beyond.
Drawing ideological frontlines
The Kremlin’s ideologists have reached an understanding on several significant points for planning and executing influence activities on historical memories of World War II. These are not tactical adjustments but, rather, strategic moves to be backed and promoted by—as commonly happens in decidedly power-vertical systems—political elites, the academic community, opinion leaders, journalists and, consequently, also the general public.
First, the Kremlin’s main narrative will be based on presumed memories that will be carefully designed to replace shared memories. The latter are very powerful and appealing because they are naturally related to people who have had common experiences that led inevitably to shared recollections, in time across generations and in space across different regions. Consequently, it is almost impossible to falsify shared memories but they can be substituted by some ideologically proven construct that seems more attractive to subsequent generations. Put simply, there are (especially in Russia) not that many people left who can say and prove exactly what happened 80 years ago and why. Add to this the fact that old memories fade and the human brain reproduces memories very selectively. All in all, this leaves fruitful ground for unscrupulous historians and other pseudo-experts to speculate with unpublished (or even non-existent?) historical documents and impose officially approved versions of historical events. In any case, it creates a vast grey area of deniability—exactly what is needed for the successful continuation of hybrid warfare.
Second, brutal rewriting of historical facts is no longer as effective. Giving wide exposure to some fictional victorious myth about the Red Army can often be even more dangerous and damaging to Russia’s image than the potential gain from some fabricated story. The Kremlin would rather shift the focus away from unpleasantly incriminating facts. To do that, it will more often promote the so-called telescope technique and avoid microscope procedures. A wider timescale of World War II will become one of the cornerstones of the narrative. The Kremlin will insist on the new version, according to which the war began with Japanese military intervention in China in 1937, not in Poland in 1939 as “Eurocentric” historians stipulate. This would provide a good opportunity to blame “Imperial Japan” for starting the war, so the Kremlin hopes to zoom out the general picture and leave many Soviet war crimes against Poland and the Baltic states outside the frame.
Third, the Kremlin is actively seeking new ideological allies who could support it in shifting the focus and sharing an alternative version of World War II. As mentioned, China is considered likely to become one of the most powerful allies in this ideological battle. To marginalise Europe, the Kremlin will try to appeal to China by satisfying proposals to synchronise historical narratives based on the new time frame for the war (1937–45), which would mean that it started and ended in Asia. Referring to the role of the Red Army in liberating China, the Kremlin can please Beijing by agreeing to a greater heroisation of the Chinese part in combating global fascism. Among other target countries, the Kremlin will expend some effort on Spain and Greece due to the bitter and complicated memories from their civil wars and the relatively strong position of leftist movements in those countries. Finally, the Kremlin will intensify propaganda dialogues with academic and political communities in Germany, France and the US in order to debate a joint construction of a new historical narrative about World War II. It would be naïve to underestimate the number of Kremlin sympathisers in those countries. Finally on this point, Israel was charmed, enlisted and presented as one of the Kremlin’s ideological allies in masterly fashion.
Fourth, the Kremlin will try to keep the Holocaust on the global information agenda as frequently and for as long as possible. The core idea is aimed simultaneously at two points: strengthening Russia’s “undisputable” contribution to defeating the Nazi regime (thereby saving many Jewish lives in Eastern Europe) and highlighting, exaggerating and interconnecting various cases of collaboration among the population in the Nazi-occupied territories (and potentially implicating some nations and whole countries in assisting the Holocaust). Moreover, by informationally misusing the Holocaust tragedy, the Kremlin is attempting not only to equalise victims from the past but also to align anti-Semitism with present-day “Russophobia”. The new ideological formula inspired by the Kremlin should be as linear as possible; by referring to the enormous cruelty and countless crimes of the Red Army and later the communist regimes in Poland, the Baltic states and the Ukraine, these countries are automatically, almost peremptorily enlisted as Nazi supporters, Holocaust accomplices and anti-Russian provocateurs. The Kremlin promotes the vision that Nazism was the absolute evil, compared to which the communist regime of the Soviet Union was much milder, more humanistic and always peace-oriented. The Kremlin thus denies the right of many Eastern European countries to seek justice and raise their historical voice about the tragic events that occurred during Wold War II. In parallel, the Kremlin will continue spreading in Western countries messages recalling and underlining the actions of the autocratic regimes in interwar Poland, Romania and the Baltic states.
Fifth, there will be impressive campaigns to burnish the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s image worldwide by usurping, in information terms, the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations and promoting the Soviet contribution to drafting and adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The main message will emphasise the Kremlin’s peaceful intentions and its willingness to contribute to building a more just world order, as opposed to the Treaty of Versailles, which is considered by the Kremlin highly unjust and one of the main roots of World War II and part of the West’s collective guilt over the ensuing catastrophe. The Kremlin’s UN campaign will be accompanied by highlighting the 45th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act—a document that should (in the Kremlin’s logic) again prove its justness, readiness to cooperate and openness to diplomatic dialogue. Meanwhile, burying its communist past, the Kremlin wants to portray Russia as a root country for a larger movement on social equality and egalitarianism, a kind of origin of modern social democracy, which should resonate on a bigger scale in various countries around the world.
Preparing for “memory wars”
Why is there little doubt about the Kremlin’s motivation to achieve the goals of and complete ability to succeed in all the actions to establish a new historical memory about World War II? First of all, the Soviet regime succeeded in shifting the focus from the war narrative to the victory narrative. This happened during the 1960s and 70s, when propaganda directed public attention away from human tragedies, suffering and victims to the farce of the “great victory” and state-promoted celebrations. More than 80% of Russians now associate World War II exclusively with the Victory Day celebrations on 9 May, not with the catastrophic events around the world of 75–80 years ago. There is no place for human sorrow, collective mourning or silent grief in the Kremlin’s version of the national memory. It is substituted with deafening parades, fake costumes and artificial pride. National memory in Russia is sacrificed for imperial patriotism.
The Kremlin sees in that victory complete justification for itself to dictate to others how to interpret the causes, events and results of World War II. It will guard that monopoly over the victory jealously because it is a strong symbol of supremacy. The Kremlin regime knows that more than 70% of Russians share the view that the victory in World War II belongs exclusively to Russia, not other countries. As human memory is highly selective and manipulable, the Kremlin stimulates the false greatness of the victory, which is glorified by various ritualised actions on an industrial scale. All of this is supported by the continuous militarisation of education, everyday culture and symbols, and aggressive styles of communication in which sad memories about massive defeats suffered by the Red Army in 1941–2 are entirely ignored. Due to a kind of national forgetfulness, there is no serious public discussion in Russian society about the real price of that victory, or mention of the Allies’ contribution and other help. Contrary to the Western leitmotiv of “Never again”, the Kremlin promotes “We can do it again!”.
The Kremlin can succeed also because it knows that the absence of actual punishment predefines permissiveness. Since repentance and concessions have no place in the Kremlin’s narrative on Russian ideology, the nation will remain a hostage, pathologically obsessed with the glorification of falsified history.
Challenging the Kremlin
What can be done to challenge the Kremlin on historical memories? Primarily, Western politicians and opinion leaders must recognise that there will be some escalation of “memory wars”. Preparedness would do no harm. Moreover, the Kremlin is not just a player in a board-game of memory wars but tries to shape the conditions and define the rules. Who else is visibly active on that scale?
Furthermore, there should be no illusions about the Kremlin’s strategic goals, as it has no single intention to overcome the conflicting issues in recent history but, rather, to weaponise its narratives, use them as an instrument in modern politics and international relations, and therefore provoke more ideological clashes. The Kremlin knows that, when historical memories become politics, there will be blood.
As a monopoly on history is so precious and essential to the Kremlin, it religiously fears any emphasis on the collective nature of the victory, especially the role of Ukrainians and Belarusians—nations whose victims are still in the shadow of the Soviet myths about World War II.
Another useful tip would be to understand that the time when the Kremlin desperately sought the West’s attention or respect for its history is over. Attendance at the 9 May commemoration in Moscow should not be overestimated; although it will be a highly symbolic event, it is still just one visible action among many strategically planned, publicly or covertly executed activities and measures.
Any illusion that a sense of guilt could be cultivated within or inserted into Russia is dangerously misleading, as the abolition of presumed (i.e. ideologically constructed) memories requires a huge effort to achieve informational supremacy over the cognitive space in the country. This is not the case now, and is hard to imagine in the near future. Backed by a strong nostalgia for Soviet times, more than 70% of Russians think that their country is still a great superpower. Such pride leaves no room for historical doubt or moral surrender in Russia.
Memory wars cannot be won by economic sanctions or military deterrence. The only effective solution is to invest in intellectual power and skilful diplomacy. On the battleground of historical memories, there is no place for sporadic, amateurish responses by impatient politicians or incompetent experts. Challenging the Kremlin seriously will require a deep, up-to-date knowledge for a realistic understanding of its intentions to build a new national memory, and in order to predict what it will do in the future.