"The Armored Train of Memory": The Politics of History in Post-Soviet Russia

Nikolay Koposov, January 2011

The exploration of historical memory is a growing international phenomenon. In Russia, it manifests itself in a special form because post-Soviet historical memory is highly politicized. This is partly due to the legacy of the Communist regime whose legitimacy, which had been based on the Stalinist conception of history, was undermined during the perestroika period by a radical reassessment of the Soviet past. However, after the fall of Communism, history lost its appeal. It was the future, not the past, and economy, not history, that interested Russians in the 1990s.

In the 2000s, the evolution of Vladimir Putin’s regime was accompanied by a new revision of history that has again become central to the new “Russian ideology” whose proponents proclaim that after the collapse of the traditional ideologies, “politics of history is the only possible form of politics.”1 The “defense” of the national past against the “blackeners” is seen as the foundation of national cohesion. However, Stalin’s figure, even after his partial rehabilitation in the official discourse, history textbooks, and movies, seemed too problematic to be chosen as the key historical symbol of post-Soviet Russia.2 Instead, it was World War II that became central to the new “history politics” (or, to use a term that is probably more familiar to historians in other countries, the new “memory politics”).3

The Second World War had strongly marked Soviet society. Some historians consider it as the formative experience that forged the collective identity of the Soviet people. In the 1970s, the mythology of the war was cultivated by Leonid Brezhnev’s administration. Its promotion to the role of the nation’s foundational myth under Putin was thus well prepared.4 However, there were other possible choices as well. The Putin regime’s historical ideology reflects the prevailing trend in the public opinion. After a profound crisis of self-confidence caused by the collapse of the USSR, many Russians feel a resentment toward the West that Russia has failed to “join” as easily as they expected. The relative economic prosperity of the 2000s, which drew upon the Soviet legacy, has further increased due to the rise of oil prices. These economic developments have thus favored aggressive and nostalgic reaffirmations of Soviet values. This, in turn, increased Russian antipathy to the West. The authorities could either moderate this resentment or exploit it to build the nation’s historical sensibilities.

Looking back into the past in search of unifying myths, especially after futuristic expectations are frustrated, is a universal phenomenon, and is by no means unique to Russia.Nor is a government’s unwillingness to accept an image of the past depicted as a series of crimes without parallels in other countries (though one has to keep in mind the particular gravity of Stalin’s crimes). Seeing a “roman national” (as Pierre Nora calls national history) as a criminal chronicle, as a chain of misdeeds of the ruling classes, has indeed become normal due to the “democratic revolution” in Western historiography after World War II. The shift from political to social, and then cultural history, and to a “history from below,” cultivating compassion toward the victims of the historical process, has paved the way for the current memory vogue, in which a group seeks to justify its place in history by presenting itself as a victim of it. In the West, the tension between the need for a “masterable” past and the impossibility of neglecting the “voices of the victims” has resulted in an emphasis on cultural memory and on a “cultural patriotism” that is particularly characteristic of the memory politics of today. American multiculturalism and European integration do not favor “nationalization of history” in the 19th-century style.

In the 1990s, the memory politics of Boris Yeltsin’s government, spasmodic as it was, followed this model, emphasizing not so much Russia’s imperial glory but rather its cultural attainments, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, that many Russians consider as at least comparable to those of the West. Peter the Great, perhaps the unrivaled champion of the popularity rankings of historical figures over the last 20 years, incarnates not only the idea of a great Russian Empire, but also those of cultural growth and opening toward the West. Building national consensus by stimulating “cultural patriotism” was (and still is) an option for the new memory politics. Yeltsin’s government tried to exploit it by promoting the cult of the great poet Alexander Pushkin. However, society’s response to these unskillful attempts was just ironic distancing.

Under Putin, the state has replaced culture as the key theme of the new memory politics. The cult of the state is the core of the “new Russian ideology,” which aims to justify the immense increase of the president’s power, the growth of the state bureaucracy, the domination of the executive power over the legislative one, the destruction of the multiparty system, and the return to a neoimperial stance in foreign policy.

What about historians? They are losing control over historical memory worldwide. In Russia, especially under the Soviet rule, they never had such control, in any case. Most Russian historians are more liberal-minded than the population at large, though many of them, out of convictions or pragmatic considerations, support the present regime’s historical propaganda.5 What is worse is that socially and intellectually the profession is not equipped to resist the state. Historical associations exist only on paper. The profession is dominated by a docile academic bureaucracy that yields too easily to the government’s pressure. Historical education follows the inherited Soviet model, political history being the core of the curriculum. Nevertheless, important changes have occurred in Russian historiography over the last 20 years. A wide variety of Western methodologies have their supporters and practitioners in Russia. However, the profession as a whole is still focused on political history. More nationally than democratically oriented, it has not succeeded either in immunizing the population against national myths or in creating sympathies for the victims of the historical process. Although current research on World War II does not reinforce its Stalinist conception, the latter continues to dominate the memory of the war.

The new mythology of the war emphasizes the unity of the people and the state, not the state’s violence against the people. It stresses the peaceful character of the Soviet foreign policy and defends the memory of the state against charges such as complicity in initiating the war, the violence carried out by the Red Army, and its seizure of independent states with subsequent installation of puppet “popular democratic” régimes. It underlines Russia’s role in the victory over Fascism and claims for the country the right for universal recognition and, implicitly, for the part of the world that it conquered. It “victimizes” history for Russia’s sake by acknowledging the price of the victory and promotes the memory of the war as the privileged expression of the experience of horror and atrocities, foreclosing the memory of Stalinist repressions.6 It exploits the old anti-Fascist logic “who is against Communism is for Fascism,” substituting Russia for Communism in this cowardly formula. It has a strong anti-Western component, but can also justify an alliance with the West, or more exactly with the great powers, ruling out Eastern Europe seen as Russia’s sphere of influence.

These new narrative arcs have provoked a strong reaction in Eastern Europe, an understandable development in light of the region’s history. The fluctuations of the region’s historical memory follow rhythms similar to those of Russia: after a spectacular rise in the late 1980s and a decline in the 1990s, history has regained public attention in the 2000s, when countries like Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia set up the infrastructures of new nationalist narratives (like institutes of national memory) that, among other things, accused Russia of initiating the war, genocides, and so on. Memorial laws forbidding the negation of the criminal character of Communist regimes were proposed in several countries. As in Russia, a part of the historical profession in these countries is also engaged in this struggle for the contested/politicized “realms of memory,” (to use Pierre Nora’s phrase) while another part criticizes it for politicizing and simplifying history in this process.

Victimization in history is an important aspect of the search for identity typical for the new independent states (as in other places). The need for the new national romans is even stronger here than in the Russia that had inherited a Soviet historical narrative almost completely reduced to Russian history. In a sense, Eastern Europe (including Russia) is now living through a belated nation-building project accompanied by a nationalization of history. However, writing national history today is highly problematic, given a profound change of intellectual perspectives brought about by the advances of social and cultural history. The politicizing of history relies on the archaic figures of thought borrowed from the 19th and early 20th century. This results in a widening gap between the vanguard of new historical research and the anachronistic, rearguard defenses of nationalistic politics of memory.

Russian authorities pretend that Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries have initiated the memory wars against Russia. In order to “defend the memory of the war” the Russian government started an impressive memorial campaign.7 In May 2009, President Dmitri Medvedev created a commission to address the “falsifications of history to the detriment of Russia’s interests.” The wording of the decree is very telling indeed: Falsifiers of history was the title of a pamphlet published under Stalin’s supervision in 1948 to defend the USSR from similar accusations of initiating the war.

Also in May 2009, the governing United Russia party proposed a law against the “rehabilitation of Nazism” making it a culpable offence to “violate the historical memory of events which took place during the Second World War.”8 Significantly, according to its early draft, the law was to be operational within the borders of the former USSR as defined on June 22, 1941.

Although surveys have suggested that 60 percent of people supported the idea of such law, it was met with a barrage of criticism. Russian historians protesting against the law in the name of the freedom of historical research were supported by several learned societies abroad (including the AHA).9

Later in the same year, the Russian government supported the principle of the law, but turned down the proposed project because of the vagueness of its terms: just what kind of statements about the past should people be sent to prison for? The members of the Russian parliament have done further work on the law and have once again presented it to parliament in April 2010. But they have yet again failed to find an appropriate way of formulating it. Instead, what they have proposed is that it should become illegal to deny facts established by the verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal. But the text of the verdict is neither readily accessible nor easy to interpret.10 And it is far from clear whether Russian citizens can be legally obliged to know its contents. It remains uncertain what “violations of historical memory” could be criminalized. The law might open the gates to the persecution of historians for political reasons.

One has to appreciate the uniqueness of the proposed law. Memory laws as they exist in the West defend the memory of those who suffered from crimes committed by the government or with its support. In contrast, the Russian law intends, above all, to defend the memory of the state, more precisely, that of the régime which many consider criminal.

The prospects of the law are not assured, though. The memorial campaign reached its peak in May–July 2009. But the improvement of Russia’s relations with Poland and especially the United States, has made aggressive memory politics inappropriate. Both Putin and Medvedev took care to dissociate themselves from it. The latter unambiguously condemned Stalin’s crimes, declared the memory of the repressions to be as “sacred” as that of the heroic exploits during the Second World War, and attempted to liberate the story of the war from the taint of neo-Stalinism.11 But in a recent interview Medvedev indirectly supported the law by saying that it should be prohibited to “revise” the decisions of the Nuremberg Tribunal.12

It is not certain either whether the authorities will manage to work out a “soft” version of the war narrative and adjust the memory politics based on it to the rapprochement with the West (if it is going to continue). It is difficult to condemn Stalinism and to keep insisting on the Stalinist conception of history at the same time. The project of the law is still under consideration in the parliament, like the armored train from the Soviet song, waiting for its hour in the days of peace.

Nikolay Koposov is director of research at the Collegium Helsinki, where he leads a seminar on “History, Memory, and Politics.” He was the founding dean (1998–2009) of Russia’s first liberal arts college—Smolny College, a joint venture of Saint-Petersburg State University and Bard College, New York. His recent publications include De l’imagination historique (2009) and (with Dina Khapaeva) “Les demi-dieux de la mythologie soviétique,” Annales ESC (1992, Nos. 4-5).


1. Gleb Pavlovsky, “Plokho s pamiatiu – plokho s politikoi,” www.russ.ru, December 9, 2008.

2. Jonathan Brent, “Postmodern Stalinism,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 2009.

3. The phrase, “history politics” is a literal translation of the German term, “Geshichtspolitik,” which was first propounded by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. “History politics,” has come to be used by European historians writing in English to signify the various ways in which the struggle over national memory and the construction of national narratives has been politicized or appropriated by the state. In this essay, “memory politics” has been used in various instances instead of “history politics.”

4. Amir Weiner, Making Sense of War. The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of the World War II in Russia (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

5. Thus, 16 percent of Russian historians evaluate Stalin’s role in Russian history as positive and 59 percent as negative. The corresponding figures for the population at large are 35 and 42 percent (the surveys were conducted by the author in collaboration with Dina Khapaeva in Saint-Petersburg, Kazan and Ulianovsk in 2008 and 2007 respectively).

6. Dina Khapaeva, “Historical Memory in Post-Soviet Gothic Society,” Social Research, 76/1 (2009), 359–394.

7. For surveys of the campaign, see Thomas Sherlock, “Unhealed Wounds: The Struggle over the Memory of the World War II,” Ab Imperio, 2 (2009), 459–71 (and, in Russian, other materials of this issue); Nikolay Koposov, “Le débat russe sur les lois mémorielles,” Le Débat, 158 (2010), 509–59; Koposov, “Memorialnyi zakon i istoricheskaya politika v sovremennoi Rossii,” Ab Imperio, 2 (2010), 249–74. For various materials, in English and in French, related to the law (text of the project, protests of the historians, and so on) see www.lph-asso.fr.

8. www.duma.gov.ru, law project number 197582-5.

9. www.historians.org/press/Medvedev_Letter_June_17_2009.pdf.

10. See my “History and Truth” (University Values. A Bulletin on International Academic Freedom, Autonomy and Responsibility, www.scholarsatrisk.org and www.nearinternational.org) and “Does Russia Need a Memory Law?” (http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/nikolai-koposov/does-russia-need-memory-law).

11. http://blog.kremlin.ru/post/35/transcript (October 30, 2009).

12. http://news.kremlin.ru/news/7659, May 7, 2010