Dealing with the past – a Russian history

  • Themes: Russia

In modern Russia, the past is being rewritten to suit Vladimir Putin's script.

People carry portraits of their relatives - soldiers of the Second World War - as they take part in the Immortal Regiment march in downtown Moscow. Credit: Aleksey Fokin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
People carry portraits of their relatives - soldiers of the Second World War - as they take part in the Immortal Regiment march in downtown Moscow. Credit: Aleksey Fokin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

According to the old anecdote, in the Soviet Union the future was simple and predictable. The problem was that the past kept changing. This anecdote raises questions about the constant features of Russian history and what drives change, reform and revolution, predictability and unpredictability. More specifically it raises questions about the return of history in the late 1980s and how it is used today.

Soviet official history is characterised by eradication and construction. The first famous textbook used to control history was History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) – known as Short Course, published in Russian in 1938 and in English in 1939. It was written during the Great Terror (1936–38), when the old party elite and military elite were physically eradicated. The Short Course clearly shows that official Soviet history writing was a tool in the service of the propaganda, a decree about how history should be, rather than how it was. In the introduction it is said that the study of the history of the Communist Party ‘helps us to master Bolshevism and sharpens our political vigilance’.

Blank spots were created not to be mentioned or researched at all. These included the First World War, the repression, the Gulag, and the famine in the 1930s. People were literally eliminated from history and became ‘non-persons’. When Security Chief Lavrentiy Beria (1899–1953) was ousted after Stalin’s death in 1953, the editors of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia sent a new article and asked the subscribers to cut out the article on Beria and replace it with a new entry on the Bering Strait. Hardly any country has had so many official anniversaries to remember different historical events as the Soviet Union: the battle of Borodino, the first man in space, the day of the Soviet air defence, etc. It was an effort to beseech history – to try to control it so that nothing unwanted would turn up from the past. Initially, Mikhail Gorbachev was not enthusiastic about looking back. In June 1986 he noted: “If we start to dig in our past, we will lose all our energy. We must look ahead.”

Nevertheless, in the late 1980s history returned, and became an important agent for change and, ultimately, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is an irony, perhaps, that Boris Yeltsin as party boss in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) in 1977 decided to demolish Ipatiev House where the Tsar and his family were murdered, and in the 1990s as President of Russia he allowed the remains of the Romanovs to be buried. Now, a cathedral, the Church on the Blood, stands on the demolished grounds of Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg.

The end of the 1980s was a time of curiosity and revelations. Many of the previously ‘secret’ parts of history were re-discovered, in books covering everything from the murder of the Tsar’s family to the First World War and the Civil War, from political repression to the Gulag system. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was published. Osip Mandelstam’s and Anna Akhmatova’s previously unpublished poems came out. The early revolutionaries Lev Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin rose from the grave of silence. The NGO Memorial dedicated to covering political repression was created with a mission to literally dig into the past. These are just a few examples. History had come back with a vengeance.

It was an almost uncontrolled flood of ‘discoveries’.

The current use of history in Russian policy includes the political leadership’s search for a national identity under the name of patriotism. This is one of the classic questions throughout Russian history, Kto my, Who are We?, and one that President Vladimir Putin has labelled “a Russian national sport”. One reason for this might be that Russia (within 70 years) lost two empires: the Tsarist empire in 1917, and the Soviet empire in 1991. History tells us that losing an empire is never easy for any country.

The policy of patriotism under Putin has developed slowly but steadily, with use of history its vital component. This is a policy with wide implications, since the use (or abuse) of history by the Russian leadership goes way beyond rhetoric; it is an integrated part of Russian policy that has a direct effect both on domestic politics and on Russia’s neighbours.

The military aspect is vital (though often ignored). The Russian Armed Forces have a key role in implementing Russian policy by ‘correcting historical injustices’, as Putin has phrased it. To fight against the ‘falsification of history’ is regarded as an important task for the Armed Forces. The Military Doctrine – a document where the main objectives for the Russian Armed Forces are described – also includes the task of defending Russia’s history. It is a part of the ‘wider battlefield’ in these times of so-called hybrid warfare.

The current trends in Russian policy-making revolve around the dominant major schools of strategic thought in Russia. Simply put, one line emphasises the imperial tradition, where territories are seen as an important instrument for Great Power Russia, and serve as a buffer zone in order to secure Russia proper. This policy is associated with, for instance, Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855).

The other school argues that to make Russia great, it should focus on advancing its own resources, develop the economy, and devote resources to its own population such as education, infrastructure, and health care. At the international level Russia should show its strength at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield. This school of thought is associated with Tsar Alexander II’s Foreign Minister, Aleksandr ­Gorchakov (1798–1883), who coined the famous phrase: ‘Russia is not sulking, she is composing herself.’

At the moment, Russia seems to be both sulking and composing herself. But these schools of thought often co-exist, and are not mutually exclusive. The result is a policy that oscillates between two poles. During the Soviet Union, major revisions of the official history were made several times. Today, many versions are still allowed, but the tendency for the centre to take control of the official history is very clear.

To illustrate the importance the current political leadership attaches to the official writing of Russian history, I will give a few examples, evolving around three themes (inspired by the book Post-Memory by the Russian poet and essayist Maria Stepanova): Corpus, Document, Monument.


One of the distinctive features of the period after Vladimir Putin first came to power was the re-burials. Most well-known is the last Tsar’s family, shot in 1918 but buried in St Petersburg in 1998. Later, the widow of Alexander III, Maria Feodorovna (1847–1928) was re-buried. She was Princess Dagmar of Denmark and mother of Nicholas II. She had come to Russia in 1866 to be married, and left the country in 1919. She was re-buried next to her husband in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, 87 years after she left the country.

Another prominent re-burial was that of General Nikolai Batiushin (1874–1957). He had served as the Head of Military Intelligence in the Army during the First World War. He fought on the White side during the Civil War, fled abroad, and eventually died in Belgium. In 2004, his remains were transferred to Moscow where he was buried with military honours.

In 2005, the remains of Anton Denikin (1872–1947) were brought to the cemetery at Donskoi Monastery in Moscow. Denikin was Lieutenant General in the Imperial Army, and he had also fought on the White side. His grave is close to that of philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954) who had been forced to leave Russia in 1922. His highly contradictory ideas and thoughts have gained some momentum in post-Soviet Russia, and Vladimir Putin quoted him in his annual address in 2005. At the same cemetery rests the author Ivan Shmelyov (1873–1950) who died in Paris and was reburied in 2000. These different fates – two military officers, one philosopher, and an author – have found significance in a country that desires to be reunited with its history. At the same time, Lenin in the mausoleum on the Red Square in Moscow still awaits his funeral.


In February 2013, Putin ordered the Ministry of Education to create new history textbooks for schools that would contain a single interpretation of Russian history. No ‘contradictions or double interpretations’ were to be allowed. This proved easier said than done. A conceptual document was compiled, the so called istoriko-kulturnyi standart (historic-cultural standard). Its purpose is to be a basic document to be used in the re-writing of textbooks for schools. Incidentally, all this was preceded by the presidential commission on ‘fighting falsification of the history against the interests of the Russian Federation’ which was short-lived, and existed only between 2009 and 2012 when it was dissolved – ironically the very same year that was the official ‘Year of Russian History’.

In the guiding document, no unity could be reached on how Russia’s, and then the Soviet Union’s expansion in Caucasus, Central Asia and the Baltic states should be described. According to Aleksandr Chubarian, Head of the Institute for General History at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who led the expert group, almost all former Soviet states except Belarus call the times under Russian/Soviet dominion ‘colonialism’.

This cannot be accepted by Russia.

Furthermore, the very existence of such a conceptual document has been questioned in Russia, because it is a reminder of a totalitarian order dictating history from above. Phrases such as kulturnaia revoliutsiia are associated with the Short Course. The phrase ‘Stalin’s socialism’ is still there, in spite of promises by Chubarian that he would not approve it. These phrases are strongly loaded and are associated with Soviet-era propagandistic history. This illustrates the conflict between the political leadership’s ambitions and the professional historians’ approach.

In 2016 the president put the Russian Federal Archives, Rosarkhiv, under direct presidential control. The longtime Head of the Federal Archives, Sergei Mironenko, had published a document that clearly indicated that one of the most revered stories of heroism during the Great Patriotic War, the tale of Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, was a deliberate falsification by Soviet officials. Mironenko resigned from his post.

As a consequence, the Rosarkhiv is now one of the so-called power ministries. There are a total of thirteen federal ministries, services and agencies that are directly subordinated to the president, including the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Defence, and the Interior Ministry. Certain subjects of research are becoming increasingly difficult to examine, such as the Red Army’s violent actions in Germany at the end of the Second World War, the partisan movements in Ukraine, and the histories of the Baltic states which fought against the Red Army.


If the 1990s was the era of tearing down monuments, the 2010s proved to be the era of erecting new ones. This echoes what the architectural historian Vladimir Paperny has called Kultura dva (Culture Two). He describes the early Soviet state’s obsession with the destruction of the past, and contrasts this with its development in the 1930s when hierarchy, order, and vertical power all came back – the development, according to Paperny, is like a pendulum swinging from one side to the other.

First, it should be said that Victory Day, 9 May, during the last twenty years has become a fundamental part of Russia’s identity building – a monument in itself. The military parade has grown over the years, and since 2015 civilians march in the so-called ‘Immortal regiment’. This practice of marching with portraits of family members who died in the Great Patriotic War (1941–45) began as a grass-roots movement in the city of Tomsk in 2011, but has since largely been co-opted by the government.

Equally important, however, are the other examples of newly erected monuments. On 1 August 2014 in Moscow, President Putin inaugurated the first official monument ever to the soldiers of the First World War. He said that Russia almost won the war, but the victory was betrayed. He stated:

Russia withstood the attack and was then able to launch an offensive. The Brusilov offensive became famous throughout the whole world. But this victory was stolen from our country. It was stolen by those who called for the defeat of their homeland and army, who sowed division inside Russia and sought only power for themselves, betraying the national interests.

In the wake of the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donetsk and Luhansk, the underlying message was very clear: ‘Those who are against us in Ukraine are to be seen as traitors.’ In his speech on 18 March 2014, when the Crimean Peninsula was formally included in the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin used words such as ‘fifth column’ and ‘national traitors’ to describe those who were not in favour of the annexation.

Another example is the monument to Prince Vladimir erected on 4 November 2016, the Day of National Unity. Prince Vladimir christened Russia in 988, and a monument in his honour is now standing close to the Kremlin in Moscow, facing the Christ the Saviour Cathedral. He was never in Moscow, but according to some sources he was baptized in Crimea.

It is noteworthy that during the centenary of the ‘Great Russian Revolution’, which is the official name for both the February and the October revolutions, no official commemorations involving the political leadership took place. However, President Putin inaugurated a monument to Tsar Alexander III with the quote attributed to the Tsar attached: ‘Russia has only two allies, its army and its navy.’ A second inauguration in 2017 involving the president was the cross to Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich (1857–1905) within the territory of the Kremlin in Moscow. Sergei Aleksandrovich was murdered in 1905 by a terrorist, and the memorial cross was erected three years later, only to be destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Putin said:

Russia’s history is regaining its unity. We treasure each page in this history, no matter how difficult.

In view of the fact that monuments to honour Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’) and Stalin are being erected in today’s Russia, it is evident that a blind eye is being turned to the darker side of Russian history. These two were rulers with several thousands and millions of lives on their conscience. Putin in 2016 formulated his approach to Russia’s past:

We need history’s lessons primarily for reconciliation and for strengthening the social, political and civil concord that we have managed to achieve… Let’s remember that we are a single people, a united people, and we have only one Russia.

It is clear that the current political leadership in Russia puts its future in the past and it is a policy that has led to tension, both at home and abroad. As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

Dealing with the past – a Russian history by Gudrun Persson was first published in On Russia, 2013, Axess Publishing


Gudrun Persson