Tag Archives: historical memory

Criminalizing History

This past week, historical interpretations of the Second World War have again been making headlines in Russia. Parliamentary deputy Elena Yampolskaya demanded legislation to prohibit writings which claim that Nazism and Soviet communism were morally equivalent. President Vladimir Putin agreed. Russia, he said, should have laws like those in other countries which prohibit denial of the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, a regional Russian court declared the murder by German troops of 2,000 Russians in north-west Russia during the war to have been genocide. This was a first. The ‘g’ word had never previously been applied to Russian victims.

All this is a reaction to efforts by some in Europe and North America to paint the Soviet Union as equally guilty for the Second World War as Nazi Germany, in the hope thereby of discrediting modern Russia. I discuss all this in my latest article on RT, which you can read here. I won’t therefore repeat everything I said there, but I feel that it’s worth expanding on my conclusion, to explain my position more fully.

At the end of my RT article, I note that Russians are rightly sensitive about the memory of the Second World War, but that legal prohibition of certain historical interpretations is not the right way of dealing with the problem. Let me explain this a bit more.

A good place to start is the example Putin used – laws prohibiting genocide denial. I’m against such laws. If the law is specific – i.e. it prohibits denial of a specific genocide – then one has to ask why this particular historical event has been singled out and others have not been included. As I have argued before, the answer is inevitably political. Such legislation is often not really interested in historical truth, but in targeting a given nation whom a particular group wants targeted. When Ukrainian-Canadians, for instance, request that the Canadian parliament recognize the Soviet deportation of the Crimean Tatars as genocide, it’s obviously a political act, designed to worsen Russian-Canadian relations. It’s got nothing to do with history. I don’t see that this is productive.

The second problem is one of definition. What is genocide? And who determines whether a given case fits the definition? Many Ukrainians claim that the famine which struck Ukraine (and other parts of the Soviet Union, notably Kazakhstan) in 1932-33 was an act of genocide. Should we therefore ban Holodomor genocide denial?? I’d say not. The use of the term genocide in that instance is highly debated. Some historians agree with the label, but others insist that it is inappropriate. Do we really want to leave it to politicians to adjudicate historical disputes, determine which cases are genocide and which are not, and then punish those who disagree with them? As a historian, my answer is quite categorically ‘no’.

Do I think that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were equally guilty for the Second World War, and committed equally reprehensible crimes? As I’ve said before, no, I don’t. But does that mean that the Soviet Union was guilt free? No, also. Were Nazism and communism morally equivalent? Overall, I’d say not, but I do think that there is some value in considering similarities (as well as differences) and putting them both within some common context of a collapse of liberal institutions, an era of radical extremism, and so on. Legislation of the sort proposed by Putin and Yampolskaya would put a stop to quite legitimate historical discussion.

As usual, there is a domestic political element to all this. On Wednesday night, the Russian political talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ devoted a considerable amount of time to this issue, with one of the guests being Ms Yampolskaya herself. After she had reiterated her reasons for legislation to regulate historical discussion, the political analyst Sergei Mikheev had his say. Mikheev has joined Zakhar Prilepin’s new nationalist ‘For Truth’ party, and his comments give a bit of a flavour of how the Russian right thinks.

The problem, said Mikheev, was that the people who say this stuff equating communism and Nazism have a ‘roof’ – i.e. somebody in power is protecting them and allowing them to get away with it. A certain radio station was mentioned, without being named, but it’s pretty obvious that Mikheev had in mind the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio. Something needs to be done, Mikheev implied.

Host Vladimir Solovyov then named some names – Dmitry Bykov, for instance. Bykov praised Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who joined the Germans and raised an anti-Soviet army. Yet newspapers still publish him. Why? Who’s protecting him? Film director Karen Shakhnazarov had an idea – it was the ‘comprador intelligentsia’ who were to blame.

This is where one begins to get a little worried. For legislation liked that proposed by Yampoloskaya could end up being used to reckon with political enemies, especially among Russia’s few remaining liberals. You can see how this could play out. Somebody on Ekho Moskvy says something which somebody interprets as contrary to the new law on historical interpretation. Ekho Moskvy then gets slapped with a big fine or closed down (unless of course, its ‘roof’ somehow protects it). And so, the room for debate in Russia gets even smaller than before. And that, perhaps, is the purpose. The legislation isn’t really about history. It’s about grinding Russian liberals even further into the dust.

You might say that the liberals deserve it, for adopting an idiotic and, it must be said, incredibly unpopular position on the topic of historical memory. But I say, let them suffer for it at the ballot box, as they surely will. There’s no reason to chuck the law book at them.

Basically, when it comes down to it, as a historian I think that these matters are best left to historians and to readers of history to decide. It’s not for politicians to provide cast-iron interpretations of historical events which all must legally accept, in fear of punishment if they do not. I guess that you could accuse me of narrow professional self-interest, seeking as I do to protect my profession from state interference. Well, so be it. I don’t want the state telling me what I can and cannot write. And I don’t think anybody else should want that either.

Joint Statement on the 75th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War

Co-signed by the foreign ministers of a bunch of Eastern European states, including Hitler’s one-time allies Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, the following statement of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on the website of the US State Department yesterday, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Nazi Germany gets one brief mention. Thereafter, as you will see, it’s all ‘The Soviets were evil, the Soviets were evil’. To say the least it’s a very odd way of commemorating WW2. Just who does the State Department think was the enemy?

Best of all, stuffed in the middle is a complaint about ‘a regrettable effort to falsify history’. Go figure!

 

The following is a joint statement by the U. S. Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

Begin text:

Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, we pay tribute to the victims and to all soldiers who fought to defeat Nazi Germany and put an end to the Holocaust.

While May 1945 brought the end of the Second World War in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. The central and eastern part of the continent remained under the rule of communist regimes for almost 50 years. The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed and the iron grip over the other captive nations was enforced by the Soviet Union using overwhelming military force, repression, and ideological control.

For many decades, numerous Europeans from the central and eastern part of the continent sacrificed their lives striving for freedom, as millions were deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms, subjected to torture and forced displacement. Societies behind the Iron Curtain desperately sought a path to democracy and independence.

The events of 1956, creation and activities of the Charter 77, the Solidarity movement, the Baltic Way, the Autumn of Nations of 1989, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall were important milestones which contributed decisively to the recreation of freedom and democracy in Europe.

Today, we are working together toward a strong and free Europe, where human rights, democracy and the rule of law prevail. The future should be based on the facts of history and justice for the victims of totalitarian regimes. We are ready for dialogue with all those interested in pursuing these principles. Manipulating the historical events that led to the Second World War and to the division of Europe in the aftermath of the war constitutes a regrettable effort to falsify history.

We would like to remind all members of the international community that lasting international security, stability and peace requires genuine and continuous adherence to international law and norms, including the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states.  By learning the cruel lessons of the Second World War, we call on the international community to join us in firmly rejecting the concept of spheres of influence and insisting on equality of all sovereign nations.

End text.

Memory politics

The Russian-language version of the journal ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ has published a section in which various commentators say 500 words or so about the conflicts over historical memory which have become prominent in recent times (e.g. the spat between the presidents of Russia and Poland about the origins of the Second World War). You can find them all on the journal’s website here, and among them is a piece by my good self. In case you don’t speak Russian and want to read what I have to say, an English version is below. This is what I had to say:

***

History is a political tool. It is through references to the past that we legitimize or delegitimize our political and social systems. It is no surprise, therefore, that different groups compete to control their society’s historical memory. Where competing narratives are incompatible, this competition can be quite bitter in nature, as can be seen, for instance, in the dispute in the American south over Confederate monuments, and by that  in Ukraine over the memory of the Second World War.

The logical way to resolve such issues is through objective historical research (insofar as such a thing is possible). In the 1980s, there were sharp disagreements among historians about the number of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror. In the context of the Cold War, some historians regarded it as important to keep the numbers high in order to delegitimize the Soviet Union, and so resisted attempts to revise the numbers downwards. In the end, however, the dispute was settled in favour of the revisionists. For once the Soviet archives were opened, it became possible to adjudicate the dispute on the grounds of firm evidence.

Unfortunately, the power of history is such that politicians are all too often not content to leave it to the historians. This can be seen, for instance, in legislation passed in various countries declaring certain atrocities to be ‘genocide’ (for instance the Armenian genocide and the Ukrainian Holodomor). The selective nature of such declarations as well as the often disputable nature of the judgements, points to these being essentially political statements, designed to enforce one form of historical memory over another.

Inevitably, the political nature of such acts is evident to those who feel that their own historical memory is being traduced. Politicized historical memory thus often backfires. This is true on the international as well as the national level. As Robert Jervis has pointed out, states often fail to realize that other states perceive things differently. This applies to the field of historical memory as much as any other, as we can see in the recent argument between Poland and the Russian Federation about the Second World War. The Poles’ belief that the Soviets, in liberating them from the Nazis, subjected them to a new form of occupation is perceived in Russia as an attack on the legitimacy of the Russian Federation. But the Russians’ insistence that that the Soviets were liberators, not occupiers, is perceived in Poland as a sign of unwillingness to repent of past sins, and thus also as an indicator of possible future aggressive intent. The more each side insists on its righteousness, the less it convinces the other.

Disputes over historical memory are part and parcel of political competition. It is no surprise, therefore, that the debate about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War should have become so sharp at a time of rising East-West tension. When that tension subsides, the historical disputes will probably become less tense too. In this sense, they are perhaps more a symptom than they are a cause of conflict.

A Tale of Two Museums

Back in June, my students and I had the good fortune to receive a guided tour of the Russian State Duma. The highlight for many of the students was a meeting with hockey legend (and Duma deputy) Vladislav Tretyak, but far more of our time was spent participating rather unexpectedly in an opening ceremony for a new institution – the Soviet Lifestyle Museum.

soviet life
Display case for Soviet Lifestyle Museum

Continue reading A Tale of Two Museums

Rehabilitating Stalin

Bryan MacDonald posted an interesting thread on Twitter today, which serves as a useful indicator of why it’s worth following RT as well as other more ‘mainstream’ journalistic outlets and why the former can occasionally provide a welcome counterpoint to the latter.

Those who follow Russia-related news will be aware of the regular complaints of the Western press that Vladimir Putin is working day and night to rehabilitate the memory of Joseph Stalin. I’ve dealt with this issue before, pointing out what egregious nonsense it is.  Unfortunately, my influence on public debate appears to be approximately zero, so the idea that Putin is busy promoting Stalin continues to gain traction. As Bryan points out, both The Washington Post and The Guardian have recently run stories on the matter. Let’s take a look.

Continue reading Rehabilitating Stalin

Book review: The Long Hangover

Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent on The Guardian, has a new book out, entitled The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. It advances the thesis that … and this is where I run into a problem because he never explicitly says what his thesis is. But it’s sort of something like this: in an effort to unite the Russian people and raise the country’s patriotic spirit, Vladimir Putin has focused on a narrative of victory, above all victory in the Second World War. This focus has contributed to a situation in which Russians have failed to come to terms with the negative aspects of their Soviet past. This in turn helped to provoke and sustain the war in Ukraine.

I say ‘sort of something like this’ because it’s never fully developed. Instead, what Walker gives us is a series of stories of events he has witnessed and people he has interviewed. Weaving them together is the theme of historical memory. These stories are all rather negative in character, in the sense that they focus entirely on the bad aspects of Russia’s (or more often the Soviet Union’s) past. Walker, for instance, visits Kalmykia and discusses the deportation of the Kalmyks in the Second World War; goes to Chechnya and discusses the Chechen wars of the 1990s as well as the deportation of the Chechens in 1944; goes to Magadan and visits old Gulag sites; and goes to Crimea and talks about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

The patriotic mood associated with celebrations of victory in the Second World War have made Russians unwilling to confront these dirty secrets of their past, Walker claims. This, he suggests, goes a long way towards explaining Russia’s behaviour today. Walker rounds off his book with descriptions of his visits to war-torn Ukraine and of his interviews with rebel soldiers and leaders. Essentially, he says, Russians are suffering from a ‘long hangover’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s efforts to unite the nation by celebrating victory in 1945 is making it harder for the country to get back on its feet by perpetuating this hangover. Simply put, the idea is that if you celebrate 1945 then you start thinking that maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad after all, and next, before you know it, you’re starting a war in Ukraine.

long hangover2

Continue reading Book review: The Long Hangover

Memory wars

Following the recent kerfuffle in Russia over a statue of Ivan the Terrible, the issue of monuments continues to make headlines. Two differing approaches to historical memory are on display. Both create their own historical distortions. By eradicating monuments of an entire era, one paints that era as bad in every single way. By sanctifying an autocratic ruler, the other whitewashes the imperfections of the past.

According to the Ukrainian television station Espreso TV, the last remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine, located in the town of Novgorod-Severskii, has been taken down. There were once more than 2,000 Lenin statues in the country. As a result of a 2015 law prohibiting communist memorials and symbols, Ukraine is now Lenin-free.

Meanwhile, a bell-tower dedicated to Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, was formally opened in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, on Tuesday. Attending the opening was Duma deputy and former chief prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaia, who has acquired something of a reputation as a monarchist, and whose idea the bell tower was. Poklonskaia told reporters that, ‘For me, my colleagues and friends, this isn’t simply a bell tower, but an entire church. And this church is not simply a building but a holy one, in which will be carried out, with full rights, all the services and liturgies as laid down in the church canons.’

poklonskaia-nikolai-ii
Natalia Poklonskaia pays homage to Nicholas II

The first story illustrates an approach to historical memory which is destructive and coercive; the second an approach which is constructive and voluntary. If there is one thing the participants can agree on, it is that they aren’t fans of communism. But as these examples show, the victors of today’s memory wars aren’t always the victors of tomorrow’s.