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A war of narratives: Russia’s disinformation abuses history

Putin has continued to promote a vivid narrative in defence of his decision to invade Ukraine. Focused on the Great Patriotic War against Nazism, this outlook promotes the idea that the current conflict is connected to such events. However, the influence of this narrative in Russia appears to be somewhat waning.

January 23, 2023 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

Exposition in the Great Patriotic War Museum in Moscow. Photo: Lyudmila Sh / Shutterstock

Since February of this year, Russia has been waging a brutal war against Ukraine. It is not by accident that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has discussed the invasion in terms of an historical narrative. Claims that Russia is saving Ukraine – Russia’s “historical lands” – from “Nazis”, “fascists” and an impending “genocide” place the war into the framework of the struggle of the Second World War.

The narrative of the Second World War

The Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia, in which the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany, is of immense importance for Russia’s collective memory. Polls conducted regularly since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 demonstrate that the Second World War was the most important event for Russia in the twentieth century and is seminal for its collective memory.

Throughout the Second World War, Ukrainian soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder with Russians in the Red Army. Indeed, Nazi Germany occupied the entirety of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. As a result, Ukraine suffered significantly higher numbers of civil casualties than the Russian Soviet Republic. That, however, was quickly forgotten.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin quickly moved to amend history. Vast districts of Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltics, and Western Russia were looked upon from Moscow as somehow collaborating with, or at least allowing the German occupation to take place. Very quickly the historical narrative was changed.

From then on, it was the Russians who had saved the Soviet empire from fascism. Russians, as a result, became the pearl of the Soviet Union. For the Soviet elite, Ukrainians became problematic.

Ukraine under Moscow’s rule

Until 1991, Ukraine was subjugated to the centralised control of Moscow. It was not equal but rather represented as a subaltern entity within a union of states controlled by Moscow. Throughout the Brezhnev era, nearly 20 years after the end of the war, a narrative of joint effort in the war began to gain traction. The cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who lived under German occupation in the Smolensk region, was one of the first public figures to break the post-war taboo.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed relatively peaceful cooperation between Moscow and the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. This abruptly ended in 1986 with the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl. From that moment on, the relationship between Moscow and Kyiv grew evermore tenuous. In the final years of the Soviet Union, Ukraine and most of the Soviet republics started pushing for greater autonomy from Moscow. With that, the Soviet narrative of a collective war effort began to erode, as did the Soviet Union itself. In 1991, the country fell apart.

The turmoil of the 1990s in Russia made it nearly impossible to ruminate on Russia and Ukraine’s historical legacies. Politicians were focused both on shortening breadlines and stealing from the state’s coffers. Historical reappraisal was not on the agenda. In the minds of Russia’s elite, the collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring an end to the geopolitical notion of the Soviet empire.

It did not take long for the Russian elite to reaffirm what they believed to be the historical dependence of Russia’s new borderlands. Already in 2005, Vladimir Putin infamously spoke of the fact that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” Though Putin claimed at the time to be steering Russia down a democratic road of reform, it was hitherto evident that the Russian president lamented what he views as historical mistakes that ended Russia’s great power status.

So, he set down the path of changing history. Over the past two decades, Putin’s politics have focused on “regenerating” Russia, both in the post-Soviet space and on the world stage. This policy has not only touched on the economy and attempts to return Russia to great power status, but has also focused on turning the clock back on history and highlighting the moments of Russian greatness.

Lies and an extension of the Great Patriotic War

Framing the current war in terms of fighting for liberty against Russia’s greatest historical enemy, Nazism, is an attempt to inspire national regeneration. Over the past eight months of war, Putin and his system have been using historical untruths and excessive nationalism to proclaim Russian greatness and the country’s self-perceived distinct place in history.

The narratives of the Second World War propagated today by the Russian regime are often counterfactual, supported by the historical revisionism of the Stalin era. Consequently, the notion of Russians being the first amongst equals has become official government policy. In Moscow, this idea, and therefore aggressive nationalism, have been brought to their logical conclusion: the existence of the Ukrainian nation is being actively denied. Ukraine, subservient to Moscow for centuries, should return to its traditional status as the subaltern in a greater empire led by Russians, for Russians.

A narrative built upon lies and manipulation seldom stands up to scrutiny. Though a loud minority in Russia, Putin’s people such as Margarita Simonyan, Maria Zakharova and Vladimir Solovyov continue to propagate the lies of the regime. This includes ideas surrounding Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” and “NATO’s responsibility for the war”. However, the narrative is rapidly unravelling. Many Russians are waking up to the reality of what is happening.

From the first days of the war, it was apparent that many Russians believed the reasons for the Russian invasion. Only a small, disillusioned minority took to the streets to protest. They were brutally beaten down by the regime, with protest all but disappearing within a month.

With the recently announced mobilisation and Russia’s poor performance on the battlefield, Russians are now beginning to critically ask themselves if the war against Ukraine is representative of their wishes. New waves of protest, especially in regions such as Dagestan which have a non-Russian majority, demonstrated that the official narratives hold little resonance in mainstream Russian society. At the same time, over 800,000 Russians have left the country since mobilisation was announced. Russia as a collective nation, as well as millions of ethnic Russians, have faced a rude awakening. The days of a multi-national empire directed by Moscow are no more.

In Putin’s Russia, history is again being remoulded, revised and manipulated to serve political objectives. The critical narratives of the war surrounding Ukraine’s “dependence” on Moscow and NATO’s desire to “destroy Russia” are losing traction within the country and dissatisfaction is growing. Once effective, Putin’s regime is alienating its own people by means of the very narratives it employed to win them over. How this battle of narratives will develop in the coming months and years, no one knows. For the sake of both Ukraine and Russia’s future, we can only hope that in the end, truth will prevail.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics. @jrkroeker on Twitter.

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