Memory Politics and History as a Moving Target
Analyse Diplomatie & Buitenlandse Zaken

Memory Politics and History as a Moving Target

07 Oct 2020 - 14:37
Photo: Moscow Victory Day Parade in 2020. © - Wikimediacommons
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Memory disputes are a wider phenomenon, increasingly linked to identity politics. In Eastern Europe, they tend to revolve around the Second World War and its aftermath. Russia, still in search of legitimacy, plays a central role in these controversies but is not alone in instrumentalising the past. These memory rows carry risks because they may evolve into real security issues.1

Few leaders are such history wonks as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The Second World War tops the list of his favourite subjects.

Earlier this year, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, he wrote a lengthy article in the American magazine The National Interest.2  The article was also published in the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

According to  Putin, the war’s lessons centre around the “Munich Betrayal”3 rather than the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact4 , as a number of European countries would argue.

Putin also seized the opportunity of the recent start of the school season, a big event in Russia known as ‘Knowledge Day’, to give an open lecture titled “Remembering is Knowing”. The president told his online audience, primarily consisting of seriously looking schoolchildren, to be aware of self-proclaimed victors of the Cold War.

These, Putin stated, are trying to upset the post-Second World War order by rewriting history, and he compared them to wartime “collaborationists”.5

In a pre-recorded video address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, delivered on 22 September, Putin raised “the politicized attempts to arbitrarily interpret the causes, course and outcomes of the Second World War and twist the decisions … of the Nuremberg Tribunal (where leading Nazi’s were tried)” as a “direct and devastating blow to the very foundation of the post-war world order”.6

Understandably, in Russia’s ambiguous history the victory over Nazi-Germany, which claimed an estimated 20 to 27 million Soviet lives, has always served as a powerful lieu de mémoire.


Klijn-Russian Air Force helicopters over Red Square as part of the flypast for the 2015 Victory Day Parade. Wikimediacommons
Russian Air Force helicopters over Red Square as part of the flypast for the 2015 Victory Day Parade. © Wikimediacommons

This epic achievement, which Moscow believes is still vastly underrated in the West, established the Soviet Union as a great power. The victory is commemorated even more ardently under Putin, for whom it embodies Russia’s refound national pride and core values.

Meanwhile, it concerns a historical narrative with legal ramifications. In addition to an amendment to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation in 2014, prohibiting the dissemination of “false information” about the USSR’s war record, Russia recently adapted its Constitution.

It now says: “The Russian Federation honours the memory of defenders of the Fatherland and protects historical truth. Diminishing the significance of the people's heroism in defending the Fatherland is not permitted.”7

Decreeing national history, or history in general, is not an exclusive Russian affair

Already for some time, Moscow has been annoyed with alternative views on the origins of the Second World War, especially since 2019 when the European Parliament added fuel to the fire by adopting a resolution on European remembrance that apportions blame evenly over Germany and the Soviet Union: “two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest”.8

Eastern approaches
Decreeing national history, or history in general, is not an exclusive Russian affair. For instance, countries like France and Spain have adopted memory laws on, respectively, colonial involvement in Africa and the Franco dictatorship period.

Besides, a large number of countries have criminalised the denial of the Holocaust, whereas some have outlawed the denial of the Armenian genocide (which has been recognised by many parliaments). On the other hand, Turkey prosecutes those who use this term.

In Eastern Europe, too, more countries revert to historical revisionism combined with legislation to drive their individual messages home.

In 2018, an amendment to the Polish Act of the Institute of National Remembrance entered into force that, among other things, criminalises those who publicly attribute to Poland or the Polish nation the co-responsibility for Nazi crimes or “in another way diminish responsibility of the actual perpetrators of those crimes”.9

Three years earlier, Ukraine adopted a package of so-called ‘decommunisation’ laws that forbid to question the legitimacy of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) or the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA); formations that collaborated with the Nazi’s and were involved in ethnic cleansing operations of Poles and anti-Semitic pogroms during the war.

Klijn - Painted battle tanks at the World War II Memorial, Kiev, Ukraine. Wikimediacommons
Painted battle tanks at the World War II Memorial, Kiev, Ukraine. © Wikimediacommons

Another (broader) law proscribes denials of the criminal character of the Soviet period in Ukrainian history. At the time, critics feared these laws would impinge on the freedom of speech and limit academic research into this period.10

Furthermore, over the years several memory rows have erupted after city administrations in former communist countries decided to relegate Soviet monuments to the outskirts of the cities or museums.

Last April, Russian prosecutors started a criminal investigation into the removal by Prague’s district authorities of the statue of General Ivan Konev, the Red Army commander who in 1945 drove German forces from Czechoslovakia but was also involved in the preparation of the Soviet-led invasion to quell the Prague Spring in 1968.

Memory equals security
Some of these measures may have been inspired by the unapologetic ways in which Russia is imposing its own historical interpretations on neighbouring countries, including by means of extraterritorial legislation.

Russia, in its turn, will point to post-communist Eastern European leaders who increasingly have been “equating the crimes of Hitler and Stalin” and have depicted 1945 as a “replacement of one occupier with another”.11  Other instances may be part of renewed nation-building endeavours, such as Ukraine’s efforts to distance itself from its Soviet past.

Klijn-Posters with the images of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Wikimediacommons
Posters with the images of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. © Wikimediacommons

But developments like these also seem to fit into a more general pattern of emerging authoritarian leaderships who tap into the “demand for dignity and the politics of resentment”, as Francis Fukuyama has phrased it. 12

The combined ingredients of globalisation, supranational tendencies, economic inequality, anxiety about rising migration numbers and emancipatory ambitions of minority communities have contributed to a surge of populist nationalism, from which liberal democracies are not exempted.

These political currents feed on the cultural conservatism of an idealised national past to reinforce ‘identity’ agendas – strategies that also featured prominently during the Brexit debate in the UK while US President Trump recently announced a new “pro-American” curriculum in the nation’s schools to help “restore patriotic education”.13

As stated above, in Eastern Europe many of these controversies still revolve around the Second World War and its aftermath; an era whose undigested business is much livelier than many Western Europeans imagine.

By and large, the Soviet empire, including its Cold War satellite states, was a colonial enterprise and, as other European powers can testify, the unravelling of such entities is a cumbersome affair, maybe even more so when the former dominions are adjacent, instead of overseas.

Klijn-Detail of Mosaic Portrait in the Stalin Museum in Gori Georgia. By Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada - Detail of Mosaic Portrait - Gift to Stalin on 70th Birthday - Stalin Museum - Gori - Georgia, CC BY-SA 2.0
Detail of of a mosaic portrait in the Stalin Museum in Gori Georgia. © Adam Jones from Kelowna, CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimediacommons

Russia’s status as the USSR’s successor state is still a matter of debate. As  Robert Service puts it: “Russia’s basic territory was never defined during the Russian Empire and was redrawn several times in the Soviet period.”14 In 1991, no fewer than 25 million ethnic Russians found themselves outside Russia’s borders.

An additional complicating factor is that Russia strongly feels it has not been sufficiently involved in Europe’s post-Cold War reordering. As Russia is no longer an absolute superpower, it has adopted a post-imperialist (rather than neo-imperialist) posture. However, post-imperialism is problematic enough. Russia’s stakes in the long-running conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine reveal an influence-through-nuisance strategy, with the outright annexation of Crimea as a notable exception.

History should concern a never-ending scholarly, not a political debate

The employment of history and accompanying legislation as instruments in these controversies brings a considerable risk, because historical engineering has often been a precursor of conflict. As Maria Mälksoo has stated: “The securitization of historical memory by means of law tends to reproduce a sense of insecurity among the contesters of the ‘memory’ in question.”15

Multilateral guidance
History should concern a never-ending scholarly, not a political debate. Governments do, however, have an important role to play in providing the preconditions for an open public discourse on historical issues.

There is sufficient guidance on policy-making with regard to history, history education and memorials, emanating from multilateral bodies to which the countries concerned belong. For instance, the UN’s Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (the Rapporteur) produced a report on history writing and teaching in 2013, and a subsequent one on memorialisation processes in 2014.16

In the first document, the Rapporteur identifies the challenge “to distinguish the legitimate continuous reinterpretation of the past from manipulations of history for political ends”. History is an important component of nation-building processes, but it is equally important to give space to “articulating differences freely without fear of punishment”.

Klijn-Vistors at Auschwitz in 2019. peterolthof - Flickr
Visitors at Auschwitz in 2019. Peter Olthof / Flickr

The second report contains the warning that, in many cases, “memory has become an intense battlefield, with opposing sides investing heavily in memorialization to justify their moral, legal and ideological superiority”. The Rapporteur calls on authorities to manage public spaces and museums in consultation with citizens and civil society, “taking into consideration a wide array of narratives”.

In 2018, under the auspices of the Council of Europe, a booklet with principles and guidelines on Quality History Education in the 21st Century was published.17  Already in 2001, member states had adopted recommendations on this topic, such as the avoidance of the “misuse of history” as an instrument of ideological manipulation, as well as the promotion of “the European dimension in history teaching”.18

The current practices of several governments are a far cry from being sensible

Earlier this year, the High Commissioner on National Minorities (The High Commissioner) of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)19 sent out an open letter on symbols in public spaces “to prevent tensions within our increasingly diverse societies, as well as between States”.20

In this letter, the High Commissioner refers to the dilemma that specific historical events are a cause for celebration for some, but may be traumatic for others; the so-called ‘mirror of pain and pride’.

Next to this, the High Commissioner raises the point that efforts to erase memory, for instance by removing historical statues, “carries the risk of forgetting difficult pages in our past and the lessons learned since”. Of course, all this guidance applies universally but may have special significance for Eastern Europe, where many of these controversies occur.

Weaponised history
These guidelines and recommendations – binding and non-binding – make tremendous sense. Of particular importance are those pertaining to history education because schools and universities will inform the view of future generations. However, the current practices of several governments are a far cry from being sensible.

Klijn-Moscow Victory Day Parade in 2013. Wikimediacommons
Victory Day Parade in Moscow, 2013. © Wikimediacommons

It is to be feared that today’s political tensions between countries are not conducive to ‘historical restraint’, and that for the foreseeable future, memory fights will endure. Still, the important lesson should be kept in mind that, as the French historian Pierre Nora has stressed, the discipline of history should not celebrate the past as memory does, but study the ways in which the past is celebrated.21

What is needed, therefore, is an open and multi-perspective public debate, informed by expert views from various points. The aim of this endeavour should not be to reach definitive consensus but to provide a factual body of knowledge, on the basis of which participants can draw their own conclusions while allowing others to formulate different theories.

Enacting legislation to cement zero-sum ‘sovereign’ versions of history while criminalising alternatives is certainly a dead-end street and will only serve to protract a reconciliation process that, sooner or later, will have to mitigate tensions in the region concerned. Worse still, history teaches that battles over history may grow into real frontlines.


Hugo Klijn
Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute