New Podcast: Russia's Memory Wars with Aleksey Miller

PONARS Eurasia
06 Jul 2020

In this week's episode of the PONARS Eurasia Podcast, Maria Lipman chats with Aleksey Miller (European University at Saint Petersburg) to learn more about historical memory in Russia, and ongoing conflict over the memory of World War II in particular.

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Maria: Hello everyone, this is Maria Lipman and our PONARS Eurasia Podcast featuring a series of discussions about Russia and Eurasia, about the region’s politics, and about other Russia and Eurasia related topics.

We’ll talk today about historical memory.

The Soviet Union is often referred to as a nation with unpredictable past. Today’s Russia has been routinely criticized by domestic, as well as foreign observers for being immersed in the past and lacking a vision for the future.

These days, however, obsession with the past has become an international phenomenon that has reached the scale of a pandemic. Politics of history, both national and international, has grown increasingly conflicted, even confrontational. All around us discussions, or rather revisions of the past are gaining urgency.

In the United States, the American past is reinvented as a history of oppression instead of the familiar history of freedom. The urge to rectify the present by erasing inappropriate history has become radical, even revolutionary. So much so, that monumental symbols, historical statues are being turned down. Even Britain, that is commonly associated with centuries-long uninterrupted traditions - has engaged in this iconoclastic frenzy, if on a smaller scale.

A war on statues, as a form of settling historical scores with neighbors - or rather one neighbor, Russia - has been waged in Eastern Europe. In Ukraine the iconoclastic ardor has been especially strong.

In the Soviet Union we actually had three bouts of iconoclasm. The first one was launched by Lenin in 1918. Decades later, Nikita Khrushchev presided over a new iconoclasm – and thoroughly got rid of Stalin’s statues; every street, factory and collective farm named after Stalin was renamed. As we know today, this radical annihilation was not followed by an equally radical change of the political system or public perceptions.

In early 1990s Russia was getting rid of statues of Lenin and his brothers-in-arms, but that iconoclasm was half-hearted, at best. In particular, Lenin’s relics are still on display in the Mausoleum in the Moscow Red Square. Yet, Marxist-Leninist ideology has long been abandoned. Which should probably give us some food for thought as we watch frenzied crowds demolish statues - driven by the desire to get rid of wrong values.

Today's Russia does not tear down statues. We experience an opposite obsession: a mass-scale erection of new statues, a monument fever of sorts. Most of those hundreds of new monuments are commemorating the history of WWII, or the Great patriotic war as it is referred to in Russia. The latest among them was opened in late June.

And - Russia is also engaged in its own memory wars. There is no shortage of controversial and conflicted issues inside the country (the figure of Stalin being the most obvious example), and, of course, Russia responds in kind to the anti-Russian “memory wars” waged by Eastern European countries.

Putin’s article about WWII published in June in the National Interest journal may be seen as yet another move in these wars. The commemoration of the Great patriotic war was an inherent part of the Soviet symbolic politics. Under Putin the celebrations of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany have grown grander by the year.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Victory over Nazi Germany, and the Victory parade on May 9, as well as other festivities, were to have been especially magnificent. Yet because of the coronavirus pandemic, Putin was forced to postpone these celebrations. He rescheduled them for June 24 even though from the epidemiological point of view, a public event of such scope appears risky.

June 24 is still an appropriate date for the parade. This is when the actual victory parade was staged by Stalin back in 1945, but the event itself this year is bound to be more modest than it would have been. Almost no foreign leaders agreed to attend, and Moscow city authorities called for Muscovites to stay home and watch the parade on television.

My today’s guest is Alexey Miller, Russian historian, professor at European University of Saint Petersburg, and Director of Center for Studies of Cultural Memory and Symbolic Politics. Hello Alexey.

Alexey: Hello Masha.

Maria: We speak on June 22nd, which happens to be an important and a very tragic date. On this day in 1941, Hitler's army invaded the Soviet Union. We'll talk about the treatment of history in particular, history of World War II in today's Russia, about Putin's article, and about memory wars. And let's begin with memory wars.

My first question to Alexey is, how do you explain why historical memory has become such a conflicted issue in recent years, both in international relations and, now as we speak, also in the United States? And where does Russia stand in this process?

Alexey: Well, I would say that there are many different reasons for the intensification and antagonization of memory politics in various places in the world. But let's start with Eastern Europe, because actually, the very concept of memory wars appeared in relation to this region.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, new States searched for their new status and new place in international relations, in international alliances. And they were also very much concerned with nation building, because in many of these countries, borders were new and the composition of population was pretty heterogeneous. So we had the nationalization of memory politics, and we had also a very intensive use of memory politics in claiming a status of not only equal, but in some cases even privileged actor vis-a-vis the European Union - and NATO, because the majority of these new states or Newly Independent States were trying to join this organization. And instead of joining them as poor relatives, they wanted to join them as those members of the family who were betrayed previously, so that they would have the status of victims, and also the status of countries, nations, who were betrayed by the West, so that now they had new symbolic capital in dealing with a much richer and much more influential, old Europe and United States. And, in doing so, they promoted the idea that basically since the end of the Second World War, these countries suffered under Soviet occupation, which was equal to and which replaced the Nazi occupation of early 40's.

Another very serious reason for intensification of memory politics was the changing of the understanding of the very nature of - what does it mean, what is the purpose of addressing the past? Because in the old European Union, it took several decades to develop an approach which was described by some scholars as a “cosmopolitan approach” to memory. And that meant that, we address the past in order to overcome conflict, in order to create a common narrative, a common understanding beyond the, previous conflict. And, expression of that was co-authored textbooks, first German-French, later German-Polish.

So we look at the past as the space where we can overcome the political, if you wish, because politics are about conflict. And this approach dominated in old Europe, if we use this Donald Rumsfeld formula, 'til the late nineties. But in the 21st century, to a significant extent under the influence of new members from Eastern Europe, this approach changed. And more and more, understanding of this memory domain, the domain of the past, as the space where politics are being done by different means, but it is still about politics and it is still about conflict, this understanding prevailed.

And of course the main constitutive other, if you wish, the main target of this new antagonistic memory politics, was Russia. In this case, you are not engaged in dialogue about the past in order to establish some common narrative, some understanding. Rather, you fight for imposing your version of the past inside your own country, but also in international relations. And we can see how Russia was gradually engaging herself in this type of memory politics. And we're now fully in the game in 2020.

If we look beyond Europe, we can see that there is yet another factor which is extremely important for these developments, and I would call it identity politics. So many groups claim the victimhood legacy, which of course resonates with practices in Eastern Europe. And you need a narrative which justifies your claims for this status of the victim in order to promote your politics of identity.

So, there are plenty of various reasons, which, unfortunately, lead to the dominance of this antagonistic approach to memory all over the globe.

Maria: Right. So, you were talking about cosmopolitan memory as an approach that was practiced in Western Europe. What was going on in Russia, or rather the Soviet Union at the time when Western Europe was shaping its cosmopolitan memory? And how did the commemoration and the perception of World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it is referred to in Russia and was referred to in the USSR, how did it evolve? From the Soviet days to the very late Soviet days, the eighties, nineties, and why has its role grown even further in Putin's Russia?

Alexey: Well, I would say that at the essence of cosmopolitan memory was the idea that nobody in Europe can claim the status of the main victim, particularly because of this role was assigned to the European Jewry, which became the victim of Holocaust. The Holocaust, since 1970, became extremely important part of the memory of World War II. And gradually, it took really a lot of work, a lot of pain, and a lot of time for European countries to recognize that their nations were sometimes passive bystanders, but sometimes collaborated with Nazi Germany in, performing the Holocaust.

In the Soviet Union actually, a strange version of cosmopolitan memory was also in place. Because instead of talking about the Holocaust as a common responsibility, in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust was simply marginalized. And if they commemorated the victims of Holocaust, they commemorated them as “peaceful Soviet citizens”.  That was done to some extent because actually, many nations who became, let's say, the members of the brotherly family of the Soviet nations, were implicated in Holocaust in Eastern Europe. It was not an industrial process of concentration camps. Eastern European Jews were killed by bullets and sometimes by sticks on the spot, and some people of Ukrainian, Latvian, Estonian origin participated. And in the Soviet Union, they decided not to address this issue.

If we look at the last years of the Soviet Union and the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we can see that Russians actually expected some re-addition if you wish, of this cosmopolitan memory, because they wanted to be part of all those nations who could claim that they were the victims of communist oppression, communist politics. That they fought communists, they suffered, and now together with all the rest, they had overthrown communism. And that would be the way to implement this cosmopolitan approach, which aims at overcoming conflict in dealing with the past.

But soon they discovered that they are not welcome among the victims, and basically, all of what was done by the communist regime is attributed to Russian imperialism. So gradually, we can observe this intensification of conflictual potential, growth of conflictual potential of memory politics in the region. And if we look at one very important dimension of memory politics, I mean, institutionalization of memory politics (you need organizations to pursue various politics), we can see how post-communist countries created, institutes of national remembrance, commissions which studied past crimes of communist past and calculated, potential claims towards Russia, various museums of occupation, et cetera, et cetera. And we see it all in place already in the 1990s. Russia actually joined this race of creating special institutions, be it a state or a non-state, to address these issues, since approximately 2006-7. And, I would say that since that time, we see how this antagonistic approach to memory politics dominates also the Russian political scene.

Maria: Well, indeed in Russia we do not yet have an institute of national remembrance, but we might have it in the not very remote future, I think. We have other organizations that may actually appear non-governmental, but in fact, operate under the government auspices. But are there other actors in Russia operating in this field of historical memory? Or is it totally, in your view, monopolized by the state?

Alexey: Well, not totally, of course. It's a pretty complicated landscape. To begin with, we have several organizations which are actual branches of the state: the Russian Historical Society and Russian Military Historical Society, two big organizations which are chaired by former prominent state dignitaries. One was the Chairman of the Duma. And the other was, for years, the Minister of Culture, and now is the Advisor on Cultural Matters to the president.

We have some organizations which we inherited from 1990s. First of all, Memorial, it's a whole network of organizations, which has been pretty important until now, although the significance of this organization is diminished by now. This organization is genuinely public, non-state, and it addresses the issues of memory, memory about communist repressions, but also human rights issues.

We have a very important actor which actually won a lot of space vis-a-vis Memorial, and this is Russian Orthodox Church. We can say that Russia at the moment is entering some, so to say, post-secular stage in memory politics. Religious forms of commemoration, also commemoration of victims of the communist regime, have started to prevail. And we see it also in the commemorative activities of 2020, which is the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.

But we also have to mention a lot of smaller, new, public initiatives which are connected to commemoration not only of victims of communist repressions, but also to commemoration of victims of the Second World War.  I'm talking about various associations, for example, of survivors of the Leningrad Blockade. Leningrad was under siege for more than a year with over a million people dying from starvation, and commemorating these people is now an extremely important element of these memory politics in Saint Petersburg and beyond.

We have an initiative which is called The Last Address, which is aiming at marking, with special small signs, the walls of the buildings, of the houses, from where people were taken on their last journey by NKVD, to the arrest, and then they were killed. it is a Russian version of a German initiative of “Stolperstein,” such metal bricks which are installed in front of the houses from where Jews were taken to extermination camps by the Nazis in Germany. And also in many other European countries they have such initiatives.

We also have a very special institution, which is not organization, but it is a practice. It is extremely important and significant for Russia. It is the commemoration on the day of the memory of the victims of communist terror, which takes place in the central square of Moscow, just in front of the building of the former KGB NKVD, where there’s a huge stone from Solovki, an island where one of the first concentration camps of the Gulag was organized.

And here we have a whole day long process of reading these names, which engages thousands and thousands of people. And a year ago, authorities were trying, under the practice of renovations, to move this ceremony from the central square. And the reaction was so powerful that they very soon, just after two days, retreated from this land, dropped it, because they realized that they will face a huge backlash.

So in my opinion, the landscape is very, very complicated. Also, if we go to the regions, there are many, many actors, but of course, they lack these huge resources to which organizations connected to the state are directly connected.

Maria: Yeah, indeed. The picture that you have drawn is diverse, it is complicated. It is conflicted in places. But apparently there is one issue that is not conflicted, and that is the memory of World War II, of the Great Patriotic War, which is, in large part, monopolized by the state. So, I was asking you earlier and you didn't have a chance to answer that question, why the role of Great Patriotic War grew to such an extent that the farther we get away from those days, those years, the grander the celebrations of victory become?

And there is no denial of the fact, I think it is impossible to disagree, that memories of World War II are the most important ones in Russia. So why do you think that the memory of the war has grown to such immense proportions and would you agree that the official narrative over the war helps bring the nation together? Whether you believe that the government narrative is accepted universally and in full, or maybe not really.

Alexey: Well, I would, as historian start from the pyramids, which means from the 1940s and 50’s. Because, since 1949, there was no parade on the Red Square. And this practice of parades was renewed only in 1964. Some interpretations, I would say liberal interpretations of this, were pretty naïve - that Stalin was simply afraid of the war veterans.

In reality, these commemorations, also with parades, did take place, but in places which were the stage of the war, I mean, Western parts of the Soviet Union. And exactly from there came the initiative to re-instate this practice of parades on the Red Square. It came from Kyiv, from Ukrainian communist leadership. And by that time, Leonid Brezhnev, who came from Ukraine, was number one in the Politbureau and they had an ear to talk to.

Now when we look at early post-Soviet Russia, Yeltsin stopped the practice of parades, and there were no parades 'til 1994. At this period, we had two very important developments. Number one, the October Socialist Revolution, which served as a foundation myth for the Soviet Union for so many years, disappeared in this capacity. The victory commemoration, the May 9th of 1945, actually worked as a confirmation of the right choice made in 1917, during the Soviet time.

When Yeltsin came to power and presided over the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he tried to establish as a foundation myth the events of August 1991, when during three days of so-called military putsch, Muscovites defended the White House (the Moscow White House) and basically blocked the attempts to reestablish the communist control.

However, it didn't work. We shouldn't engage now in the question of why it didn't work, but very soon we discovered here in Russia that, basically, the victory of the Second World War is the only, the main, foundation myth of this country. And it resonates very much, of course, with two, elements of Russian identity narrative, if you wish, which resonated powerfully in the country in 1990s and continue to resonate today.

Number one is that Russians never surrender. That if we fight, we win. It's a myth, but as all myths, it can be really powerful. And second, that we never lost, we Russia, we never lost our sovereignty. And this fight for our sovereignty and our independence in the Second World War was the biggest possible, biggest imaginable sacrifice in history, in human history, not Russian history.

So that explains why commemoration of the Second World War became very important already under Yeltsin. And gradually, it acquired many new meanings, additional meanings. First of all, many people in communist countries who had sympathy to Russia would celebrate these anniversaries together with Moscow.

Not necessarily Russians abroad, but of course, more than 20 million Russians abroad, first of all. Second, this commemoration of Soviet victory and Soviet narrative, which gradually became Russian narrative, became very important for this memory war with Eastern Europe. And since 2019, it is very clear that it became an extremely important part of the memory war which Russia feels it is being engaged in, not only with Eastern Europe, but with West as such. Because certain steps taken by Western politicians in 2019 and 2020 convinced many people in Russia that, okay, the West, as collective West, had joined Eastern Europe in their memory war against Russia, which is based on the assumption that the story of the Second World War is the story of the war which was initiated by two totalitarian regimes -  Nazis and communists  - which bear the responsibility for all the atrocities of the Second World War. And this narrative replaces the narrative which claims that the Soviet Union, together with allied Western countries, fought against the evil regime of the Nazis to save the world, to save Europe, and to establish a new, more human order in international relations. So, since 2019, Russian leadership and many Russians feel that they are in such war with the West.

And, there is one more thing. Russia is quite a heterogeneous country, in ethnic terms. In Russia we have 21 federal subjects, which are autonomous ethnic republics. So, these are mostly places where people of various ethnic origin live together with Russians. And if you look at how this memory of the Second World War works in Russia - and I am now engaged in a big project which studies exactly this regional level of memory - it's just very clear that this Second World War is the war in which all the nations (because in Soviet Union, these ethnic groups were called nations and had status of nations), so all these nations fought together.

There were plenty of other occasions previously when these ethnic groups fought each other. So it is very important that on May 9th, they all come together in the March of the Immortal Regiment, where hundreds of thousands of people in many, many towns, in the Soviet Union or in the space of the former Soviet Union as well, but first of all, in Russia, go through the towns, demonstrating portraits of the members of the family who fought or even perished in the Second World War or Great Patriotic War as it is called in Russia.

Maria: Indeed. The unifier role that you've outlined is very powerful in Russia, but there is also a role of World War II memories as a weapon, it can be said, that it has been a weaponized recently in what you described as Russia's engagement, full force, in memory wars. But before we get to this and get to Putin’s article, which of course was an important contribution to these memory wars, I would like to ask you another question.

So, what you described as the main element of the memory of the World War II is a reminder or even commemoration of the fact that Russia has always been sovereign, Russians never surrender. This a victorious narrative. How does it look in today's world in which victimhood and repentance appear to be increasingly important in how nations shape their pasts. And I would say in some places, and you've spoke about that too, those trends have even become dominant. Doesn't this victorious narrative sound a bit anachronistic in today's world?

Alexey: Well, sometimes being late to a certain train is a very good option. But, let me begin with making a distinction. In old Europe, “old” European union, this victimhood narrative was about the crime of the crimes, and this crime of the crimes was the Holocaust. So the discussion of victimhood was not a discussion of your own victimhood by the European nations. It was a discussion of your responsibility vis-à-vis the victimhood of somebody who is actually, since the Holocaust, largely missing in Europe, that is European Jewry.

The new approach to victimhood politics was introduced by Eastern Europe, where it is our nation which claims this victimhood role, this victimhood memory. And this victimhood is somehow marginalizing the victimhood of the Holocaust. And actually, it is supplemented by, sometimes, a heroic narrative. But it turns out that in the Baltic States and in Ukraine, those people who, after the war, fought in guerrilla movements in Lithuania or in Ukraine against the Soviets in 1941, ‘42, ‘43, actually participated in Holocaust.

So the Russian narrative is also not at all just about heroism. And it is very clear today that in the Russian narrative of the war, victimhood is being stressed. First of all, since the 2000s, Russians started to stress the Holocaust because it's a comfortable topic to fight the memory war with Eastern Europe. Second, more and more, the issue of the suffering of Russians comes to the fore, particularly when it becomes clear that it is also a space where  memory wars are being fought in Europe.

If you look at contemporary Germany, you will see that there is an ongoing debate about the construction of a documentation center and memorial to the victims of Germany's war of an annihilation in Eastern Europe. There are people who say that this center should embrace the history of all the victims - Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusian, Russians. But there are also people who say that it should look at, precisely, non-Russians - Poles, Ukrainians, Belarussians - who are the victims, while Russians are more, so to say, perpetrators.

And you can imagine that these debates, these discussions, have a very clear meaning. So these discussions of, “were Russians even able to do something good?” can be quite obvious, and, I mean, in a certain sense, breathtaking in their arrogance. Because the leadership of the European Union, I mean the three main figures, in January 2020, when issuing a statement about liberation of Auschwitz, which is perceived everywhere as, so to say, the symbol of Nazi Extermination – they failed to mention that the camp was liberated by the Red Army. So, it is a space of memory war. And every nation deserves a brilliant heroic past, but not every nation has it.

Maria: Well, let me interrupt you here. We are a bit short on time, and this is a beautiful line, but we need to discuss Putin’s article. The way you talk about memory wars, of course, naturally brings us to Putin, whose very recent article in National Interest Journal, which was a somewhat strange choice, I think may be seen (I wonder what you think) as Putin’s contribution to memory wars.

Putin himself announced the article as a piece of historical research, and thereby exposed himself to very harsh criticism as, of course, not a professional historian. But would you agree that the article is actually not a piece of historical research, but a contribution of Russia's leader to memory wars? And from this perspective, what do you think he sought to achieve by publishing the article? And that will be my last question.

Alexey: Okay. Again as a historian, I shall start not from the article, but this time not from the pyramids, either. I shall start with December 2019, when Putin gave a sort of an almost one-hour-long speech, or a lecture, to his allies in the Eurasian Union, discussing the shameful role of the Poles in the pre-war period.

And that was his reaction to the resolution of the European Parliament in September 2019, which exactly stated that totalitarian regimes are responsible for all bad things which happened to the world in the Second World War. It took him four months, and during these four months, not a single prominent Western politician criticized this European Parliament’s resolution.

Putin’s speech in December was extremely aggressive – in words, in claims – and actually I was pretty afraid of what was going to happen in January when Putin was supposed to go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. Because he was not invited by Polish leadership, which organized the ceremony on the spot in Auschwitz itself.

And I was delighted to listen to Putin’s speech, which was very reconciliatory. It was not very aggressive. He mentioned, with several critical remarks, the shameful role of Polish leadership, of the Baltic States’ leadership before the war. But his main accent was on the necessity to establish some sort of a mutually respective dialogue about the causes of the war, about the consequences and the lessons of the war. And he was inviting Western leaders and particularly the members of the UN Security Council to a meeting to discuss these things, assuming also that certain elements of the world order, like the UN Security Council itself, should be preserved as the legacy of this arrangement.

And exactly in December, January, he promised an article. And I think that this article now came as fulfillment of his promise, although he didn't hope that it would achieve his aim. And I understand that his aim was, and still is, to have such a meeting with American, British, French, and Chinese leadership in order to fix some new consensus about the Second World War, because the narrative which is offered by this “tale of two totalitarianisms” is absolutely unacceptable to Russia.

If you look at the reaction to what Putin claimed to be historical article research, people found one factual mistake and quite a few omissions and concentrated on them.

What is important here is that he forced the debate into things which were themselves omitted in the narrative which was coined by the European parliament resolution. Because now, the Munich Agreement of 1938 is again in, and all the under-the- table negotiations are in, and the fact that Brits are still keeping secret the documents of negotiations with Nazis in  1940 is in. So what he did – he forced this new agenda. He did it by his own intervention, because probably he assumed that, well, there is a point in coming with the ultimate resources into this debate.

So that shows two things, in my opinion. One – that he takes it extremely seriously. Second, he reiterated in this article that he wanted dialogue. And he said that he wanted historians from various countries to engage in research of new archives. I mean, newly opened archives. And he promised, and he already partly referred to, opening of Russian archives and publication of Russian archival sources. And they are now really publishing a lot that’s extremely interesting things.

And I think that this is something that we should evaluate very positively, because also for the Russian stage itself, such suggestion means that you cannot claim that we should fight rewriting history. Historians rewrite history every single day. That is their job. And I hope that this point should work also for the domestic arena in Russia.

And I would also call your attention, last thing, to his point that the evaluation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by the Supreme Soviet in 1989, when the secret Protocols were published finally, and the very pact was condemned – that this interpretation is valid. Because there were a lot of people, quite prominent people in Russia, who were arguing that we should interpret this agreement with Hitler as a huge victory of Soviet diplomacy, and there is a draft of a law submitted to Russian State Duma which proposes exactly such an interpretation and such a statement.

So he blocked certain, most notorious initiatives inside the country also by this article. If you ask me what I can say about this article as a historian, it is full of omissions, but it also brings in all those facts, many facts, which are extremely uncomfortable for people in Eastern Europe who are engaged in memory war against Russia.

Maria: Right. Well, if we are to trust you, and Putin indeed seeks an international consensus, I'm afraid he's not likely to achieve that. Based on what you've been talking about, I think we're in for more confrontation on the global scene and more memory wars. Thank you very much for this discussion.

Alexey: Thank you very much for having me.