On November 10, 1982, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died. The editors of Pravda, the country’s main newspaper, confronted something of a dilemma. A black frame would surround the front page to indicate mourning. But how thick should it be—the same size as for mere mortals, or special in some way? Eventually, someone thought to look in the newspaper’s archives to see what size had been used when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died, in 1953. The paper used precisely the same frame to announce Brezhnev’s death.
This thick black quadrangle continues to hold Russian and Soviet history captive, bounding current understanding with myths about the past. The country’s politicians are obsessed by Soviet glories. They have declared themselves heirs to all the victories of their socialist predecessors—whether on the battlefield, in space, or in feats of engineering. This history is really that of the state and its war machine, rather than that of the nation.
For many ordinary Russians, national pride remains fixed within this Soviet matrix. Among historical achievements, some of the most popular are the territorial acquisitions of the imperial and Soviet eras—not to mention the post-Soviet annexation of Crimea. This latter addition boosted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings: many saw it as a restoration of long-lost Soviet military glory.
Putin in his speeches frequently compares his achievements to the victories and acquisitions of the Soviet past. The message is clear: whether Soviet or not, the country is in the same position as it once was.
THE POLITICS OF THE PAST
Russian officialdom has lately developed an enormous appetite—bordering on patriotic hysteria—for historical politics. The interest is partly linked to the 80th anniversary of 1939, the year World War II broke out in Europe. Among the crucial events of that year for the Soviet Union was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, in which Stalin and the German Führer Adolf Hitler concocted secret plans to divide the European mainland between themselves. The two dictators split up Poland, an act that, in the long run, drove the United Kingdom and France to enter the conflict. Less than a month after the start of hostilities, Stalin and Hitler signed yet another accord: the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, which delineated spheres of influence between the two powers and gave Stalin the military flexibility along his western frontier to start the Winter War with Finland.
Soviet leaders took 50 years to admit to the existence of the secret protocols. When they did so, they also admitted that they were a mistake: in 1989, the era of President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Congress of People’s Deputies denounced the actions of their predecessors—among them, the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1979 and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
So it may come as some surprise that in recent months, articles have appeared in Russia reclaiming the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a feat of Soviet diplomacy. Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s minister of culture, and Sergei Naryshkin, the head of foreign intelligence—as well as steward of the Russian Historical Society—have both made statements to this effect. Medinsky practically denounced the 1989 conference as a terrible misstep. What is more, deputies of the current Russian parliament have spoken out to justify the Soviet Union’s Afghan adventure.
Because of the historic tension between Russia and Poland, reignited by statements like the ones above, Polish authorities did not invite Putin to Warsaw for ceremonies commemorating the start of World War II. Russian political figures, like the Speaker of the Parliament Vyacheslav Volodin and former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, responded by attacking Polish leaders and labeling Poland a “satellite” of the United States.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is perhaps the most florid, but not the only, contentious piece of Soviet history that Russian authorities have looked to rehabilitate. The country’s Military Historical Society—under Medinsky’s de facto control—has begun excavation work in the Sandarmokh forest in Karelis, near Finnish border, where Stalin’s secret police shot and buried Soviet political opponents en masse. The aim of the excavations? To show that in fact the victims were not dissenters but Red Army prisoners of war—executed not by the Soviets but by the Finns.
In Russia, World War II is known as the Great Patriotic War, and the Soviet victory is the glue of the nation. No one can doubt the feats of the Red Army or the enormous sacrifice of the Soviet people. But mythologizing that victory has come to entail glorifying Stalin. In recent years, TV propagandists have represented World War II not only as a war with Nazi Germany but as a battle against the West. Russians remember the role of the Allies less and less. Meanwhile, the ritual celebration of Victory Day on May 9 grows in pomp and ceremony with every passing year. Putin has used the fête to strengthen his authority. He has essentially privatized the victory and become its living symbol, although he was born seven years after the war ended.
Russia is neither practically nor formally the legal successor of the Soviet Union. It is a new state formed on democratic principles. But under Putin, the Russian Federation appears to be the direct heir to the Soviet Union. When senior officials say “we,” they mean the Soviet Union, too. Even the bloody repressions of the Stalin era no longer seem so dreadful to ordinary Russians. In sociological polls, respondents increasingly say that these actions were “politically justified.”
The reason for declaring the Russian Federation a successor to this mythical Soviet Union is simple: the Putin regime—which has now ruled the country for 20 years—has no history or achievements of its own, other than turning a democratic state into an authoritarian one and burning through colossal reserves of petrodollars.
Russia did enjoy an economic upsurge in the early 2000s, but not because of Putin. Rather, oil prices were high, and Russia had made a successful transition to a market economy, thanks to a process that the reformer Yegor Gaidar had set into motion in the early 1990s. Full credit, however, must go to Putin for the current economic downturn, which is a consequence of Russia’s self-imposed isolation under his leadership, as well as his increasing the state’s role in the economic system. And so the current regime is forced to make do with the achievements of the bygone Soviet era, which are largely fictitious, thanks to the use of official statistics to warp reality.
Official history is being Sovietized—or rather, Stalinized. The Stalin regime’s achievements have become a source of pride. And all of a sudden, officials rush to defend the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Winter War, when, in fact, these were utterly catastrophic decisions that sent many to their graves.
Whoever controls the historical narrative controls the nation. What is more, the leaders of nations tend to look to the past for an image of the future. In Russia’s case, the image they see is that of a harshly authoritarian state, both militarized and ideologized, controlling the economy, politics, and even people’s souls. The Russian elite can justly be described as the grandchildren of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.