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The Past is not a Foreign Country: Putin’s abuse of History

There are three major strands dominating the historical master narrative that is used in Russian foreign and domestic policies. But in the end, the overall common denominator is toxic nationalism. Historians need to respond to this.

By Sergey Radchenko, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC

One day in December 2019, Vladimir Putin held a strange meeting with leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States to discuss history. He brought a thick stack of archival documents to the meeting, which, he claimed, showed important truths about the Second World War. He selectively cited from these documents (most, if not all, of which are well known to historians) to prove that the West and, oddly, Poland, were responsible for the outbreak of WWII. It was not what Putin said that seemed strange. The Russian propaganda had long peddled similar takes. That autumn we witnessed an exchange of accusations between Russia and the West on the same subject. At the time I opposed not just the Putinist rubbish but also the moves by the European Parliament to present the “correct” version of history. As a historian, I oppose fiery proclamations paraded as historical truths. I look for footnotes.

Putin the Historian

But what really struck me was just how invested Putin became in the historical debate. What we saw was not just that he was drawing on historical narratives. He was writing historical narratives and even living them. He seemed so obsessed – he went about with stacks of archival documents, needing them to prove not just to others but above all to himself that History itself was on his side. Putin the Historian understands neither the historiography nor the meaning of historical evidence. He does not know the difference between the past as it happened and history as it is written. Putin turns to history to legitimize a worldview, to provide a foundation for present-day narratives. The great British historian E. H. Carr wrote that history “is a continuous process of interaction between and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” Putin prefers monologues. He tells us how it was because he wants us to embrace his vision of how it is.

Putin’s history of the Russian nation

What history matters to Putin and why? Let me discuss three relevant strands. The first is what one may call the history of the Russian nation. Putin sees the Russian statehood going back a thousand years and more, to the murky days of Kievan Rus. Russia grew larger, defeated external enemies, at last spanning Europe and Asia. Empire and nation become one in Putin’s mind, and he endows with Russian-ness all peoples of the far-flung empire, including, most poignantly, Ukrainians. Contrary to the claim that Putin seeks to re-build the USSR, he has been very critical of the Soviet project, blaming the Soviet leaders – Lenin in particular – for the crime of having set up titular republics, thus allowing non-Russian nationalism to take root.

Moscow’s protective wings

When observers speak of ideological underpinnings for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they refer to this interpretation of Russian history, i. e. the view that the Russians and the Ukrainians are the same people and should be reunited under Moscow’s protective wings. Those who resist are described in Putinist propaganda as “nationalists”, even though the entire Putinist narrative is itself underpinned by toxic nationalism, the driver of Russian imperialism.

Russia’s WWII cult

The second strand of history that preoccupies Putin is that of WWII. This entails blame-shifting. Blaming Poland for the war’s outbreak has been an especially cynical ploy. Putin presents Moscow as the liberator of Europe from Nazism. But he is unwilling to acknowledge Stalin’s responsibility for the war, or the crimes committed by the Soviets in “liberated” Europe. Russia has succumbed to a WWII cult, a source of legitimacy for Putin. The Victory Day, with its parades and marches of the “immortal regiment” across Russian cities, co-opts the Russians into the state cult. The titanic WWII struggle is conflated with the current war in Ukraine, which is presented as an effort at Ukraine’s “de-Nazification.”

NATO enlargement and humiliation

The third strand is the history of NATO’s enlargement. Putin has cited from an arbitrary selection of documents, including one well-known conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker, where Baker spoke of NATO not moving “even one inch” to the East. Historians have written extensively about this episode, providing the context, which Putin ignores. He wants to frame the argument to suit his political agenda: promises were given; promises were broken; thus, Russia is justified in pre-empting NATO by invading Ukraine. The end of the Cold War, which Putin greeted in the GDR, adds a personal element to his historical musings. He feels that his country – and he personally – were humiliated by the West, and the war in Ukraine is a payback for this humiliation.

The role of historians

Putin lives in a world where the past and the present are indistinguishable. Russia fought wars, and it’s still fighting wars, and it will always fight wars against a great enemy out there, the “Nazi-America” of his imagination that has always sought Russiaʼs demise. Too many Russians unfortunately buy into Putin’s narrative. For as long as they do, they will struggle to free themselves from his political visions. Our role as historians is to derail political narratives that misuse history for self-legitimation. The weakness of Putin the Historian – and others like him – is that they are not actual historians. Their narratives are like houses of cards that may look superficially appealing to poorly-informed observers but fall apart at the slightest poking by serious professionals. The historian’s role is to mercilessly poke suspicious narratives paraded as history – and not just by Putin but by any political players who claim ownership of historical truths for an obvious political purpose. History is inevitably political – we know that. But good history will always at least attempt to keep a safe distance from politics, and good historians will generally tend to know each other from those who are clearly in the business to attain expressly-political objectives. Our goal is to tenaciously keep this distinction in place.

Sergey Radchenko
Sergey Radchenko Foto: SIAS

About Sergey Radchenko

Sergey Radchenko is the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins Advanced School for International Studies. He is a historian of the Cold War and Russian and Chinese foreign policies. Radchenko is the author of “Unwanted Visionaries: the Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War” (2014) and the co author (with Campbell Craig) of “The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War” (2008). His next book, a history of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, will appear with Cambridge University Press in 2022.

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