As a Russian historian, I could not help but notice the not so subtly obvious. Every night on Rossiya 1 and Perviy Kanal, the candidates have been talking about Russian history like it is going out of fashion.
They and the Russian public are well aware of the urgent issues. Indeed, I could use up my words listing them. Yet, conduct a simple Google or Yandex search and the candidates are all stood by historical monuments.
President Putin has laid flowers at a cemetery dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Siege of Leningrad. He also visited the historical park in Volgograd on the anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. In both locations, he spoke to veterans of the Great Patriotic War, many of whom thanked him for his leadership.
Ksenia Sobchak has been to the Golden Ring city of Vladimir to meet with youngsters at Vladimir State University. In Ingushetia, Sobchak visited a memorial to victims of Stalin’s terror, and said, “If we remember more, maybe some will stop calling Stalin an ‘effective manager’.
Pavel Grudinin, the KPRF, and the alternative Communist Party (Communists of Russia) have laid wreaths in Lenin’s Mausoleum. Zyuganov, at a campaign event for Grudinin, used the opportunity to evoke the centenary of the October Revolution as a comparison for the challenges facing Russia today.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky was caught playing with various types of rifle and hanging out with veterans. He wants to ban foreign words and replace them with traditional Russian equivalents. For instance, instead of ‘bar’ he believes Russians should use ‘kabak’.
Sergei Baburin recently laid flowers on a monument dedicated to the veterans of the Afghanistan War. He has also pledged better pensions and medical care for military veterans.
So, why the fixation with the past when the election is about Russia’s future?
Public politics are very limited in Russia. Most Russians do not vote, show interest in elections or even join political parties. Russians do not write to their national representatives as Americans or Britons do. Protests tend to be relatively small scale and are, relatively speaking, a new phenomenon in contemporary politics.
History has been a high profile national topic ever since the USSR’s collapse. People are always willing to discuss Russian history, one of the main drivers of democratic change since Perestroika. It is an area where politicians can score points.
Evoking the memory of the Great Patriotic War, notable figures and cultural traditions can unify the Russian population. The past is used as a way of explaining the current situation and justifying a particular policy. The past, after all, is something much bigger and more meaningful. It is familiar and plays on people’s emotions.
Russia has a democratic framework in place. Candidates are receiving equal television coverage in accordance with Russian law. The last Duma elections were praised by the OSCE as the most transparent since the Soviet collapse. However, Russia is a young democracy and the democratic culture is still maturing. Politicians are still not wholly accountable and there is a real fear of anarchy, revolution and chaos amongst the population.
Focusing on a past filled with heroism, military glories or rich cultural traditions serves as a healthy distraction. The presidential election, be sure, is not a vote on Russian history and which version is preferable. Nor will a candidate’s particular stance on historical events see them elected.
Perhaps the best equivalent one might use is the role of religion in US elections. No American (except perhaps Mr. Trump) can seek elected office without professing anything but profound faith. Faith is something much bigger and is often used as a policy’s moral justification, whether it is guns, abortion or healthcare.
The same is true of history in Russian elections. It is a necessary talking point and the candidates must be well versed in it.
Russia is not the only country who relies on a positive history for moral and policy justifications. But this election shows what the West really does not get about Russia. Putin did not happen by accident. Neither did Perestroika for that matter.
There are important historical circumstances, which explain Putin’s rule, the country he governs and the system as a whole. In 2000, the Russian population was ready for someone like Putin. And to say, as many do, his re-election is certain completely misses the point. For all the problems Russia may have today, its history shows that the Russians are not ready to see him leave (yet).