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Constructing History: Putin’s historiographical nationalism

Written by: Anna Perkins

“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future”   

George Orwell

To outside observers, President Vladimir Putin’s presentation of Russia’s national history may seem oddly ambivalent. Both celebrating and minimising events of the Soviet past, the 2018 opening of the ‘Russia- my history’ exhibition in Moscow’s VDNKh (exhibition of the achievements of the National economy) is a perfect illustration of this contradictory national nostalgia. In a series of interactive displays, short films, primary documents and other presentations, visitors of the exhibition are presented with a heroic and glorified version of Russia’s national history. Russia’s role in the Second World War is specifically highlighted, yet other events of the same period are notably minimised. The exhibition ensures the horrors of Stalinism are conveniently glided over, while the details of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact are similarly downplayed.  

This cherry-picking of national history has not been confined to the ‘my history’ exhibition. Since succeeding Dimitry Medvedev in 2000, Putin has monopolised the channels through which history is commemorated, taught and recorded in Russia- celebrating certain aspects of the Soviet past while ignoring others. The Culture Ministry’s support for the production of patriotic films, the replacement of older history textbooks in schools with new, state-approved versions and the introduction of new national holidays such as national ‘Unity Day’ on the 4th of November, which commemorates the expelling of Polish-Lithuanian occupational forces from Moscow in 1612, are all examples of Putin institutionalising his selective history.  

The incomplete, selective memorialisation of Russian history and the manipulation of the Russian national memory is not innocently patriotic, but intricately calculated. Far from lazy historicism, this re-writing of history is reflective of his intention to instil a ‘useful’ history- one that will accommodate nostalgia towards the Soviet era while bolstering support for the present government and for his new style of sovereign democracy.  

Putin is far from the first leader to use history to construct national identity and restore national pride. The ability of elites to determine political outcomes through distorted presentations of their national history has been well demonstrated throughout history and is a frequently repeated motif seen in nationalist governments. From the mythical origin stories of Rome outlined in Virgil’s Aeneid to the creation and spread of the ‘stab in the back’ myth by the Nazi party, history has proven a vital tool in the construction of national identity and nationalist ideologies, and in the present day, no leader understands and intentionally utilises this tool so well as Putin.  

A self-declared “good student of Russian history”, Putin’s manipulation of the past demonstrates his recognition of the power of the historian, particularly in regards to their role in identity construction. His curation of a new national narrative is advised by this understanding of the role of history, and is used to respond to the challenges he perceives in fostering national unity. His millennium manifesto outlines the values behind a “new Russian idea” as patriotism, collectivism, solidarity and derzhavnost- the belief in Russia’s destiny as a strong and powerful state. To achieve this ‘Russian idea’ and the principles of ‘narodnost’ (the nationalistic celebration of ‘Russianness’) in the 21st century and in post-Soviet Russia, he realises he must grapple with two contradictory aims. Firstly, nostalgia and appreciation for the enduring strength and “unquestionable achievements” of the Russian state must be appeased and encouraged, but secondly, the conclusion of this nostalgia must be the desire for a new chapter in Russian history, and a clean break from the Soviet period, as in his own words, it would be a “mistake not to realise the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment”. Russia, the great and strong motherland, must not be presented as weak, yet, the failures of the Soviet era must be recognized so that Putin is accepted as Russia’s new historical protagonist. 

Thus, Putin’s ‘useful’ history resolves to separate the mistakes and weaknesses of past Russian states from the unfaltering power and righteousness of the Russian nation, allowing modern Russians to celebrate their historical ‘successes’ as displays of true ‘Russianness’, while glossing over deviations from their historical omnipotence. Of course, Putin’s inability to intervene in the personal memories of Russians living under Soviet Rule ensures he will never thoroughly monopolise or dictate Russian history, but in controlling the national narrative through historiographical nationalism, he has offered and proliferated a vision of Russia that balances the need to move forward and embrace post-soviet Russia, with the nationalistic memorialization of its past as a global superpower.

Featured image by Alexandros Michailidis

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