Russia’s Phantom Battles
01/07/2020Grigorij Mesežnikov, political scientist and the President of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Slovakia
Moscow’s Memory Wars with Central and Eastern Europe
The current Kremlin leadership does not plan to change its approach toward its interpretation of the key historical events of the 20th century. It is highly probable the memory wars will continue.
A look to the past (both personal and shared with other countries) has become an integral part of Russia’s foreign policy in the last decade.
After the Second World War, the Western European countries managed to overcome the painful legacies of the past, based on the shared values of freedom, democracy and human rights, and this helped them not only to improve their mutual relations but also to create inter-state integration structures (the European Union and NATO). Historical rivals and enemies — France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, etc. — became members of these structures.
Conversely, current relations between Russia and some countries of the former Soviet bloc (the so-called “socialist camp”), have been marked by conflicts and mistrust, including those happening due to divergent views on history.
- Peaceful coexistence or a war of narratives
- Who are we fighting with?
- A phantom of “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe”
- The vicious circle of Soviet heritage
Peaceful coexistence or a war of narratives
It is quite natural that individual nations have their own historical narratives, their own interpretation of historical events in which they, these nations, have been directly involved. These narratives may differ from each other, sometimes significantly.
First, this applies to the narratives of neighbouring nations that had complex relationships in the past due to the prevailing circumstances. It particularly concerns those nations that were put into a common state but did not have equal rights there.
For example, the narratives of the Hungarian state’s history and the interpretations of the reasons that led to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy are very different for the Hungarians and the Slovaks (as well as for the Czechs, the Romanians, the Serbs and the Croats). Other nations also have their examples of divergent historical narratives.
Very often, such narratives — of both neighbouring and distant nations — coexist more or less peacefully, their mutually contradictory nature does not lead to an escalation of tension in inter-state relations, nor does it lead to open conflicts. Regarding the relations of some Central European states with Russia, as recent events have shown, this is not the case. The question is why?
The answer is surprisingly simple — because Russia today is probably the only state in the world that is forcing other countries to accept its interpretation of history, its historical narratives, and if it does not happen, it pressures these countries, threatens them or tries to punish them for it.
Understandably, this approach is perceived with controversy in these countries. Firstly, because serious historical studies often do not confirm the facts proposed in the Russian narratives, which are, in fact, myths rather than documented and factually substantiated evidence of the specific historical events.
Secondly, because these narratives contradict the officially adopted state doctrines of certain countries, as the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Central and Eastern European countries recently emphasised in a joint statement on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe.
Who are we fighting with?
Moscow has so far conducted (or is currently conducting) – with differing intensities – ‘historical wars’ (or ‘memory wars’) with six countries – with the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), with Ukraine, Poland and, more recently, with the Czech Republic (Bulgaria may also be on the list in the near future).
Four of the states mentioned were, in different historical periods, Republics of the Soviet Union, two (and three with Bulgaria) were in the Soviet bloc (members of the CMEA (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) and the Warsaw Pact).
During the forty years of its existence, the Soviet bloc occasionally produced internal cracks, which Moscow, in most cases, attempted to repair with military intervention, primarily to save the communist governments it appointed there and to maintain its geopolitical domination (GDR – 1953, Hungary – 1956, Czechoslovakia – 1968; the communist regime in Poland managed to suppress protests of the citizens with its own forces in 1981).
In the early 1990s, after the popular anti-communist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, the Communist bloc collapsed. Due to the defeat in the Cold War with the West and the subsequent internal collapse, the Soviet Union also ceased to exist. Its disappearance is perceived differently in the world. For many, it was the liberation of the nations (including the people of Russia) from the oppression of a totalitarian regime.
The current Russian leadership, led by Vladimir Putin, however, considers the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. It perceives the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War in the same way.
It is difficult for the Kremlin to accept the fact that, after 40 years of experience in the communist order brought in from the East, Central and Eastern Europe preferred Western liberal democracy and rejected the authoritarianism of the Eastern type.
The authoritarian rule in Russia after the short, less than 10-year-old democratic intermezzo government of Boris Yeltsin, consolidation of this rule and the country’s imperial-revanchist geopolitical excesses (Georgia – 2008, Ukraine – 2014) confirmed the previous and subsequent rightness of those social and political forces in the Central European countries which, in addition to introducing liberal democratic regimes, promoted a clear orientation towards EU and NATO membership.
A phantom of “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe”
If the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” (this assertion by the Russian President now prevails in the public, political and media discourse of Russia), everything related to the USSR and its foreign policy – from the Kremlin’s point of view – automatically has a positive meaning.
It concerns the establishment of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War, creation of the “socialist camp” under the aegis of Moscow, and the attempts of the USSR to preserve the unity of the “socialist camp”, including its military invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, etc..
While everything that led to the weakening of the USSR, to its disintegration and to its legacy, is negative and harmful (attempts to introduce autonomous reforms in socialist countries, dissident and civil movements, the collapse of the communist regimes in the late 1980s, the establishment of democracy and accession of the former Socialist countries to the EU and NATO).
The self-identification of the Kremlin with the heritage of the USSR through the Soviet interpretation of the historical events of the 20th century, especially in its second half, i.e. during the period when the “socialist camp” emerged, could not but stumble upon fundamentally different narratives, which were established in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communist regimes.
Today, this clash concerns the circumstances of the outbreak of the Second World War, its course, the final defeat of Nazism and fascism, the division of spheres of influence between the West and the USSR, the establishment of the communist regimes and other consequences of the post-war order in Europe.
Everything mentioned above forms some historical background against which Russia is conducting ‘memory wars’, and it is quite understandable and even logical that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are the targets in these wars. They – seen by today’s rulers in the Kremlin – “escaped” to the West and thus, finally “buried the body” that remained after the Second World War from Stalin’s plan of the 1930s to liberate Europe from the capitalist yoke, which had to be accompanied by the territorial expansion of the USSR over the entire European continent.
A careful analysis of the statements and foreign policy actions of the current Russian leadership, particularly in the context of the previous historical events, leads to the conclusion that a revanchist corporation is currently in power in Russia. This corporation inherits both the Russian Empire and Stalin’s USSR in geopolitics (in both cases we talk about state entities that were characterised by external territorial expansion).
This authoritarian corporation is hostile to liberal democracy, rejects the project of European integration and considers the West its main enemy. The aim of this corporation is to minimise as much as possible the consequences of the USSR’s defeat in the Cold War with the West (ed. the second analytical report of iSANS titled Renaissance of the Empire elaborates on this in detail).
The question may arise of would it be better and more profitable for post-Communist Russia to derive maximum benefit from this defeat for itself, by engaging in intensive cooperation, partnership, or even an alliance with the West, in particular?
The current Russian leadership does not seem to ask itself this at all. One of the ways with the help of which it is possible, in the Kremlin’s opinion, to weaken and soften the mentioned defeat, is precisely to unleash “memory wars” with the former “brotherly” countries or with the former union republics, stirring up disputes about individual events and concrete historical figures.
Therefore, Russia is entering into a dispute with Poland over who is responsible for starting the Second World War and is fighting with the Czech Republic to preserve the monument of Marshal Ivan Konev in Prague at its initial position.
Also, it tries to prevent the memorial plaque honouring the Russian Liberation Army (the Vlasov Army) soldiers who died during the liberation of the Czech capital in May of 1945.
These ‘memory wars’, in fact, are like phantom flashes of the Cold War that became a thing of the past. The Kremlin is trying to prey on this lost war, decades after it ended — leading it against those it considers traitors who have defected to the enemy’s side today.
The vicious circle of Soviet heritage
The way a professional ‘kitchen’ may look when preparing targets for the Russian ‘memory wars’ is testified by the transcript of a discussion of the historians who were close to the Russian government. The transcript was published by Russia in Global Politics magazine at the beginning of 2020 under the heading ‘Historical Memory — Another Space Where Political Tasks Are Solved’.
It is a strange reading. During the discussion, the historians discuss how historical narratives can be used to discredit one state for the benefit of another state, and which specific interpretations can be used to strengthen partnerships with particular countries.
It is worth quoting the part of the discussion in which its participants elaborate on how in 2020, the year of the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazism, it is possible to promote the Soviet narrative of the Second World War in Europe. They discuss how this can be done in the context of current relations between the individual foreign states with all their problems and nuances.
Associate Professor of the Faculty of History of Moscow State University, Fyodor Gayda explains what needs to be done to promote the Russian-Soviet interpretation of the outbreak of World War II. He proposes the following: “In terms of constructing the concept, it is necessary to work on the contrast (to reveal light and dark), to bring others’ concepts to the absurd (thank God, no great effort will be required here)”.
And he continues: “There are enemies, there are allies. We have the ultimate scapegoat – Poland. If we, together with Euro-bureaucrats need to find a common enemy, Poland will probably be the first candidate. The role of Poland, in my view, should be illuminated most strongly, which is now being done. Our main ally, yes, is Israel”.
The university historian’s degree of cynicism is breathtaking. The problems that exist in the current Polish government’s relations with the European Union are well known, as are the tensions that have been observed in Polish-Israeli relations due to the critical reaction of the Jewish State to the Polish legal system, which regulates the history of the Second World War.
These problems, however, have their own content and dynamics; they have nothing to do with each other and they have nothing to do with the relations of the two countries, as well as those of the European Union, with Russia.
However, in the transcript of the historians’ discussion, perhaps the most striking thing is not even this cynicism, but the mental and ideological umbilical cord that connects its participants to the painfully familiar Soviet narrative. They do not speculate that it is time to give up all these ‘victorious’, hysterical-solemn narratives, actually glorifying the Soviet regime and completely contradicting the truth and the human dimension of heroism, tragedies and crimes, that Russia and its citizens have experienced.
In the debate, they are constantly moving in a vicious circle of interpretations that, even with the best of intentions, cannot be adapted to the present day, not to mention that it is hardly possible to build a strong partnership in Europe on that basis.
Among other things, this discussion shows that the current Kremlin leadership does not plan to change its approach toward its interpretation of the key historical events of the 20th century. This means that the ‘memory wars’ of Russia with its former satellites, which are now free and democratic states of Central Europe, will continue with a high probability.
This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund. A Russian version of this article is available on Reform.by.