Regular readers of the blog know that I am very interested in the way Putin uses a particular view of the past to justify his invasion of Ukraine. I talked with historian Bruce Berglund about this in Episode 96 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, but over the weekend I learned more about the public memory law the Russian State Duma has passed in 2021. University of Wisconsin historian Francis Hirsch has more at the Law Fare blog. Here is a taste of her piece, “Putin’s Memory Laws Set the Stage for His War in Ukraine“:
Two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian State Duma introduced a bill attaching fines and prison sentences to a 2021 law banning “any public attempt to equate the aims and actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II, as well as to deny the decisive role of the Soviet people in the victory over fascism.” What does this bill have to do with the invasion of Ukraine? In short, everything. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rewriting of the history of World War II has set the stage for his war in Ukraine.
Over the past week, Putin has cynically used the language of “denazification” in a barrage of propaganda to rally Russians behind a war against Ukraine. He has misrepresented the unjust invasion of Ukraine as a humanitarian intervention. And he has falsely accused “the Kyiv regime” of committing “crimes against peaceful people” and carrying out the “genocide” of Russians—using the language of Soviet and international war crimes trials after World War II.
In claiming to rescue Russian “victims” in Ukraine, Putin is building on a foreign policy strategy from the 1990s. The Russian political scientist Sergey Karaganov, who served as an adviser to Boris Yeltsin and to Putin, has long argued that Russia should present itself “as the defender of human rights of ethnic Russians living in the ‘near abroad’” in order to expand its political influence into those regions. This has played well domestically with those Russians who experienced the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a tragedy.
But Putin has taken this strategy to a new level by falsely depicting Ukraine’s leaders, including its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as “Nazis”—and by accusing the West of “turning a blind eye” to the murder of women and children.
Putin is tapping into the deep emotions surrounding the memory of World War II. The Soviet Union lost 27 million people in the war. Victory Day, celebrated every year on May 9, remains the most important Russian national holiday. Many Russians believe that the rest of the world has never fully appreciated their sacrifice. For the past year, the Russian state media has fed this grievance while publicizing thousands of declassified documents about Nazi war crimes during World War II and simultaneously hammering home a false narrative about a neo-Nazi takeover of present-day Ukraine.
In some circles, this effort to link the struggle against Nazi Germany to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been succeeding. An old friend in Moscow told me with disgust that I couldn’t possibly understand the Russian actions in Ukraine because my grandfathers had not marched to Berlin and my uncles had not died defending Leningrad.
Putin has already cemented the memory of the Second World War as a cornerstone of Russian state ideology. The addition of fines and prison sentences to Russia’s memory law is the culmination of a decade-long effort to impose total control over how the war is talked about and remembered. One of the bill’s co-authors, Alexei Pushkov, has described the memory law as “a moral imperative.” One of its stated aims is to prevent people from “insulting the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland.” Russia is not alone here. Poland has adopted a similar law criminalizing “public speech claiming that the Polish state was responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”
Read the rest here.
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