Owen Matthews

Vladimir Putin’s history fetish

The Russian leader has published an extraordinary essay about the Soviet role in World War Two

Vladimir Putin’s history fetish
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Russia, the old joke goes, has long been a country with an unpredictable past. On September 22, 1939, for instance, Soviet Brigade Commander Semyon Krivoshein stood alongside German Generals Mauritz von Wiktorin and Heinz Guderian in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, to review a joint parade of Wehrmacht and Red Army troops who had recently occupied the town. The street was decorated with joined swastika and hammer-and-sickle banners celebrating the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in Moscow less than a month before. Under the terms of the now-infamous secret annexe to that agreement, Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide Poland and the Baltic states between them - and less famously but more importantly to Berlin, the Soviets agreed to provide millions of tons of raw materials to fuel the German war machine. Stalin exchanged long personal letters with Hitler and Pravda printed cordial official birthday greetings to the Fuehrer. 

Today, posting photographs of the Brest parade on Russian social media can get you imprisoned under a 2014 law criminalising “spreading intentionally false information about the Soviet Union’s activities during World War II” and “desecrating symbols of Russia’s military glory.” 

Vladimir Putin cares deeply about the memory of the Soviet role in World War Two. Over his twenty years in power has ramped up to the point that the war has become a touchstone of modern Russia’s collective identity. Russian schoolchildren dress up in wartime uniforms and the annual celebrations of Victory Day in Moscow have been restored to a Soviet-style parade of Russia’s modern military might, complete with mobile nuclear missiles. But Putin’s latest attempt to co-opt the glory of the Soviet victory to reflect his own global ambitions is perhaps the strangest yet - a lengthy historical essay published last week in the American magazine The National Interest. 

Like all the best polemicists, Putin introduces his revisions amid a phalanx of truths. He points out that the USSR made a far greater sacrifice than the other allies to defeating Hitler. This is certainly true. Germany suffered nearly 90% of its casualties on the Eastern Front, not the Western - a point conceded by historian Anthony Beevor even as he presented his book on D-Day, which compared to the titanic struggles at Stalingrad, Kursk and Warsaw looks like a minor side-show. Putin also points out that the Western powers dragged their feet over a military alliance with the USSR in 1939, secretly hoping that Hitler and Stalin would attack each other. Even as the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed the pact with his German counterpart, a British delegation headed by Anthony Eden was in Moscow with orders to extend negotiations for as long as possible. Stalin concluded that he could look for no help from the British and signed his deal with the devil. 

As Molotov claimed to a biographer in 1982, “we knew the war was coming soon, that we were weaker than Germany, that we would have to retreat. We did everything to postpone the war. And we succeeded – for a year and ten months. We wished it could have been longer, of course.”

Putin follows Molotov’s line that the pact with Hitler was a desperate marriage of convenience. But Putin also places blame for World War Two squarely at the feet of the treacherous Britain and France who capitulated to Hitler in what he describes as the “Munich Betrayal” that allowed Germany to occupy part, then all of Czechoslovakia. Putin also makes much the outspoken anti-semitism of many Polish leaders, deploring “the silent acquiescence – or even direct abetment – of some European politicians in the barbarous plans of the Nazis.”

Where Putin veers into radical revisionism is his attempt to whitewash the Soviet occupation of Poland and the Baltics. "In autumn 1939, the Soviet Union, pursuing its strategic military and defensive goals, started the process of the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia,” he writes. “Their accession to the USSR was implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities. This was in line with international and state law of that time … The Baltic republics within the USSR preserved their government bodies, language, and had representation in the higher state structures of the Soviet Union.”

The Baltic republics themselves remember it differently as a nightmare of mass arrests and executions that decapitated their nations’ political and cultural elites. In Poland, the Soviet secret police systematically massacred 22,000 officers and intellectuals in the forests of Katyn in April and May of 1940, then lied about it to the world for half a century.

It’s no surprise that Putin plays down the violently imperial aspect of Soviet occupation. 

But what’s more intriguing is why he chose to couch his latest views of Russia’s role in the modern world through the coded prism of a historical essay. The most obvious answer is that the Soviet Union’s victory in 1945 laid the basis for all that remains today of Russia’s greatness. Moscow’s seat on the United Nations Security Council, its moral legitimacy and even its nuclear arsenal all have their roots in World War Two. Even seventy five years after the event, the vastness of the Soviet sacrifice - including the death of Putin’s own infant older brother during the siege of Leningrad - in the struggle against Nazism still resonates. 

But Putin is also emphasising history because he feels that the memory of wartime alliance is fading. Russia is now being viewed both by the West and by its own near neighbours as an unremittingly hostile and intractable foe. When Boris Johnson spoke of his changing attitudes to Russia, he mentioned the war. “I really thought, as I think many foreign secretaries and prime ministers have thought before, that we could start again with Russia,” Johnson said last year. “That it’s a great country we fought with against Fascism. It was very, very disappointing that I was wrong.” 

That bothers Putin, who has reportedly become obsessed with what he calls the Great Patriotic War. He’s spoken about the war in meetings with former Soviet heads of state and at top-level meetings with generals and businessmen. He has also convened panels of historians to unearth new evidence of Western perfidy during the run-up to the conflict. It’s even possible that Putin penned large parts of the essay himself, since he has spoken publicly about his scholarly work on the topic. The translation, with its combination of clunky formalisms and glib modern buzzwords, has the ring of Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s English. But what’s clear is that for Putin, making sure that the world shares Russia’s pride in its victory is clearly something very personal. Russians “usually say that the war has left a deep imprint on every family’s history," writes Putin. “Behind these words, there are fates of millions of people, their sufferings and the pain of loss. Behind these words, there is also the pride, the truth and the memory.”

In addition, there’s a deep desire to push back against attempts by Eastern Europeans to impose revisionist history of their own - with an added dash of paranoia. In 2018, Poland passed its own “memory law” that made it illegal to accuse the country of complicity in the crimes committed by the Third Reich on Polish soil. Ukraine has lionised Stepan Bandera, a nationalist leader who collaborated with the Nazis in the name of Ukrainian independence. To Sergei Naryshkin, chief of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, "Ukraine and the Baltic states now have laws rehabilitating Nazi collaborators … and according to our information, the coordination of these allegedly ‘grassroots’ efforts is handled from a single center across the Atlantic.” To Naryshkin and probably all the former KGB men who run the Kremlin, “all these ‘ripples’ only confirm that the Western elites are looking to overhaul the existing system of global governance or, simply put, take control over it.”

For Putin, as for his predecessors in the Kremlin going back to Lenin, controlling the narrative of the past is the key to controlling the present. With his sophisticated propaganda machine, Putin has had no difficulty getting Russians to buy into his fetishisation of a war very few of them now remember as a cornerstone of their national identity. It remains to be seen whether his foray into historical polemic will sway many in the West behind his view of Russia as the saviour of Europe.