History is abused to support Putin’s Russia policy
Russia’s war in Ukraine is as much about the past as it is about the future. Three days before the start of the massive military invasion of Ukraine, Russian state television broadcast an hour-long speech in which President Vladimir Putin claimed that historically Ukraine has always been linked to Russia. For him, the independent Ukrainian state is the result of a historic mistake first made by the Bolsheviks who granted Ukraine the status of a republic within the Soviet Union. According to his account, this contradicted the historical roots of Ukrainians in the Russian state and sowed the seeds of a radical nationalism that made Ukrainians susceptible to the West’s false promises when the Soviet Union collapsed.
When the Russian army entered the Donbass after Putin’s speech, it continued the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity that began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s claims about Ukrainian history weren’t entirely new either. In July 2021, his essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” argued that Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians were “one people”, organically linked by their common history, culture and territory. Putin’s account denies that Ukrainians can tell their story differently and contradicts what historians know about Ukrainian nationalism. Its interpretation is also not legally relevant. However we write the history of Ukraine, the invasion is an attack on a sovereign state whose borders are subject to international law. And yet, Putin’s historical narrative cannot simply be dismissed as an irrelevant delusion of a madman: it is a crucial instrument of his political actions domestically and internationally. The story is used to underpin Putinist Russia policy.
Putin’s account denies that Ukrainians can tell their story differently and contradicts what historians know about Ukrainian nationalism
Laying out an ideological foundation for the war, Putin’s February 21 speech also marked the culmination of a domestic trend in Russia, where the state has become the ultimate watchdog of historical narrative. The consequences for those who write and think about history have been significant. Remarkable is the fate of Memorial, a human rights organization whose origins date back to the years of perestroika. Memorial played a crucial role in restoring truths about the Soviet totalitarian past, compiling lists of more than three million victims of state terror.
Memorial’s headquarters in Moscow houses a rich archive documenting personal stories of political repression and has served for many years as a space for critical debate about the present as much as the past. Under pressure for years, the organization has been accused of supporting ‘terrorism’ and breaking Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ law, leading to the Russian Supreme Court’s decision to ‘liquidate’ Memorial in December 2021. On February 28, as Russian and Ukrainian delegations were meeting for negotiations on the Belarusian border and Russian units shelled the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Memorial’s appeal against this decision was rejected. The verdict ends three decades in which professional historians and activists have shed light on human rights abuses in both Soviet and post-Soviet times.
Meanwhile, the distortion of history takes physical form in Ukraine. On February 28, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry announced that 25 paintings by famous Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko had been destroyed after the museum in Ivankiv, a town near Kiev, was hit by Russian fire. In an attack on Kiev’s television tower, reports suggest that Russian forces also damaged the Babyn Yar memorial site which commemorates one of the biggest massacres of the Holocaust. The following day, Kharkiv National University, an important center of learning since the early 19th century, was heavily damaged by a Russian missile. Putin’s narrative has countless blind spots. It disregards the fact that much of Ukraine’s territory lies outside the borders of Imperial Russia and refutes stories of nationalistic expression to which the empire responded with strict Russification measures. Likewise, he is silent on the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s and the Holocaust and has nothing to say about the broad popular support for Ukrainian independence in 1991. The war is now turning historical reductionism into tangible destruction. .
Given Putin’s previous career as head of the KGB, his policies have been mislabeled as an attempt to revive the Soviet Union. Yet while he called the Soviet collapse the major geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, his history and politics defy simplistic attributions. They combine the imperialist aspirations and conservative values of the Russian Empire, the glorification of military prowess that was central to Soviet identity after World War II, and frustration with the Eastern European countries that define their national policy more and more by turning towards the European Union, and not Russia. Putin’s story is not a step back in time: it is rather the creation of a new past, one that responds to the contexts of the beginning of the 21st century.
While he called the Soviet collapse a major geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, Putin’s history and politics defy simplistic attributions
Putin’s distorted language about Ukraine, the crackdown on narratives that do not match those of the state, and the catastrophic damage already done to people and places in Ukraine are intrinsically linked. Since the start of the war, Russian authorities have detained thousands of anti-war protesters and shut down the few remaining independent media outlets in the country. Scholars, journalists, scientists and others published and signed open letters calling the war a war and calling on the government to stop it. Many historians have joined these initiatives. Words, signatures and protests may seem insignificant in the face of tanks and airstrikes, but it all matters. Mobilizing the past in service of the present is by no means Putin’s only domain, but this horrifying iteration must be recognized and denounced for what it is: a violence that seeks not only to distort and erase the past, but also to legitimize, galvanize and authenticate the encroaching actions of an autocratic regime that now threatens the lives of millions beyond Russia’s borders.