The Past and Contemporary Russia

  • Rusia
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  • 18 June 2020

The breakaway region of South Ossetia announced in May that its capital, Tskhinvali, would also be known as Stalinir.  Co-naming the capital after the former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, its president – Anatolii Bibilov – stated in his decree that the move was to ‘preserve historical memory in connection with the 75th anniversary of  Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945’  – until it had to be rescheduled for June.

This is not an isolated case. In Russia, there have been several attempts to permanently change Volgograd back to Stalingrad. Whilst these have all failed in the State Duma, it is still renamed Stalingrad six times a year to commemorate key turning points of the war.

In the last decade alone, numerous busts of Stalin have popped up across Russia. These are counterbalanced with reconstructions of churches and other historical figures from the Russian Empire. School textbooks have been re-written twice in the twenty-first century, and ‘history parks’ commemorating the monarchy recently opened in major Russian cities.

The most recent case of historical politics came just last week: a massive new Orthodox cathedral dedicated to the country’s Armed Forces opened. The cathedral drew controversy during the building stage for initial plans, which were eventually scrapped, to decorate its interior with mosaics depicting President Vladimir Putin and Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

The past is a part of the everyday discourse in contemporary Russia. A necessary political talking point and key object of reform, it has undergone several transformations since the Soviet collapse. Initially necessary to liberate the past from Soviet ideology, it has been mishandled by every post-Soviet government.

Re-writing history in Russia, is nothing new – it has happened on four notable occasions throughout its history. Under President Vladimir Putin, its pace has picked up and the tone becomes more defensive, stressing the need for a patriotic (uncritical) focus on key episodes and figures. Each time the national history has undergone revisions, it is usually at the initiative of the state, seeking new forms of legitimacy at home and abroad. For Putin it has meant reasserting a sense of national identity and a cohesive one at that.

Although it is used to unite the population (The Great Patriotic War especially), it also shows important episodes from its past have not yet been reconciled with, which can hold the country back and pit Russians against each other.

In 2017, I visited countless exhibitions in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladimir connected to the centenary of 1917. Two things they all shared was an absence of assessment, and the state keeping its distance. They ranged from children’s literature, art exhibitions, destroyed church memorials and fashion shows. Kod Revolyutsii even displayed never before seen artefacts like the pistol used to shoot the last Tsar, and porthole of the Aurora. But visitors had to draw their own conclusions. And when St. Isaac’s Cathedral was returned to the Orthodox Church as a token of reconciliation, protests occurred.

Unlike certain Eastern and Central European countries, Russia had no democratic legacy to locate in its 1,000 year long history to act as a model for the democratisation process. The October Revolution also meant it could not deflect the blame; some admission of guilt was necessary, though undesired by most. And yet, it this lack of liberal democracy is used by the state to justify its governing style; stability through the state’s ability to express its sovereignty.

The opening of the archives during Perestroika meant exposing the full extent of the Stalinist terror. The national history, so long constrained along strict ideological lines, exploded to the point where exams had to be cancelled. In the nineties, Yeltsin stopped condemning the USSR when it became unpopular to do so. Putin quickly understood that part of ‘bringing Russia up from its knees’ meant restoring a sense of national pride depicting glories and promote patriotic loyalty. This involves downplaying the darker sides of its history and resurrecting old traditions and historical figures.

The government wants to have its say became the accepted norm. Under Yeltsin, you had an explosion of textbooks and history books. In Perestroika, history was a front page news topic. Exams were cancelled towards the end of the 1980s because the old Stalinist textbook was now outdated. Strict ideological control, chaotic open discussion and now a managed open discussion of a preferred narrative that is contestable.

First came the return of the Soviet anthem, then following the Colour Revolutions, the creation of youth groups and Patriotic Education Programmes impacting the history curriculum sprung up. What has caught the attention of most analysts is the over-reliance on the Great Patriotic War and handling of the Stalin-era.

A 2007 textbook series backed by the Kremlin glossed over the terror and labelled Stalin an ‘effective manager’. Failing to catch on, the 2015 series erased this and has a more anti-revolutionary undertone to make it stand out. Teachers have very mixed views on the state’s new history and many pedagogical methods remain unchanged since the Soviet era, though the ideology is long gone.

A few years ago, a friend of mine remarked that Putin ‘gave people permission not to feel guilty about the USSR any more’, and that the government still relies on the legacy of the Great Patriotic War because ‘it lacks any achievements of its own.’ Ones’ opinions aside, both statements show that the state and society desire to move on from the Soviet legacy in an orderly fashion; there is an underlying fear chaos due to the recent past if not.

It was not just the immense sacrifice and bravery of those who fought to defeat fascism that the Russian state wishes to capitalise on. Victory in the war brought the Soviet people together and gave it an achievement all could be part of and lay claim to, still referenced in many foreign policy statements.

Russia’s past has become a progress marker and way of consolidating a cohesive national identity to avoid instability below. It has been used as a replacement for the taboo or political topics to explain democratic development and economic hardship, but also serve as an example of what to avoid.

This narrative, however, is running thin. The historical patriotism fervour that followed Crimea has gone. The long-standing socio-economic problems require urgent attention in a post-quarantine Russia. No patriotic past of any era will explain these away.

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