In Russia, the state and state-aligned actors have come to dominate the scene of the politics of memory

Maria Lipman & Alexey Miller
23 Jul 2019

Russian Historical Society (RHS) was created in 2012. Technically a public organization, RHS is chaired by Sergey Naryshkin (left side, third from left), formerly the chairman of the State Duma and currently the head of Foreign Intelligence Service.

► In a Point & Counterpoint interview last year on historical politics, Russian historian Aleхey Miller discussed the clash of memory cultures and how they have evolved over the past 10-15 years, namely the way that the “cosmopolitan memory” culture that dominated Western European discourses became superseded by that of “antagonistic memory.” Maria Lipman and Alexey Miller revisit this theme to talk about other recent trends in the field of the politics of history.


Lipman: In your very recent article in the Russian journal Politeia you mention “the third wave of memory studies”? What does this “third wave” imply?

Miller: The term originates from the History & Theory article, “Entangled Memory: Toward a Third Wave in Memory Studies.” I won’t go into how the first and the second waves are defined, but the authors of that article—most of them political scientists—came up with a few clear distinctions that they claim to be essentially new. One of them is that the space in which interactions in the politics of memory and the political use of the past occur is a space of conflicts.

An earlier concept had it that these interactions sidelined politics, as it were: the political realm is generally characterized by conflicts and irreconcilable interests, while the discussion of the past aims at reconciling the discord and make peace. The assumption was that the talk about the past would be confined to the past and would not concern contemporary interests that are, as a rule, antagonistic. The idea was that we should revisit dark pages of history, fill in the “blank spots” in order to make peace with our neighbors with whom we have painful historical memories. For instance, we should talk about Katyn in order to make peace with Poles.

Yet, if we decide that we cannot make peace with the Poles because we are currently divided by irreconcilable political interests, then discussions of Katyn gain a radically different meaning. 

"An earlier concept had it that the talk about the past would be confined to the past and would not concern contemporary interests that are, as a rule, antagonistic."

If we look at French historian Pierre Nora's famous “realms of memory” project, we'll see that it generally comes down to a description of those realms shared by the members of the French nation. He looks at the way they took shape, the way they have been maintained and experienced by the nation.

Meanwhile, in the new approach, the issues include the conflicted narratives related to various realms of memory—not just between the French and the Germans, but also within the French nation; the way these conflicts evolve, which narratives are marginalized, suppressed, or tabooed and which become dominant.

If we look at these things from this perspective, this would raise the issue of the actors: Who are engaged in these activities? Who is the suppressor, marginalizer, and censor and who is the target?

This also draws attention to institutions, since the space of memory becomes intensively institutionalized. We observe this process in Russia, but of course, it is also going on elsewhere, and I would say Russia even lags behind in this respect.

Lipman: Can you give other examples of irreconcilable conflicts in the memory realm—besides Katyn and the conflict between Russia and Poland? Also, you use the term “mnemonic warriors”? Who are they and what do they fight over?

Miller: Another characteristic example is Poles and Germans. For a long time, they were engaged in historical reconciliation, and this effort seemed to be successful. Lately, however, the conflict between Euroskeptics, who came to power in Poland, and Berlin came to the fore. President Lech Kaczynski appeared willing to play this card in the political tensions between the two countries. And now Poles plan to demand new compensations from Germany.

Or take the example of Japan and Korea. The Japanese apologized and paid some kind of compensation; they even made the Koreans sign a document confirming that they received the money and would no longer lay any claims on the Japanese. Yet, time passes, economic and political conflicts get aggravated, the same painful issues are raised, and the Koreans lay new claims on the Japanese.

If we look at more familiar examples, at the time of perestroika and early post-Soviet years the sense was that we in Russia have more or less made peace with the Germans. But this sense is not around anymore. Public sentiments get stronger.

Such conflicts arise not just between countries, but also within. For instance, the question of how the Civil War in the United States is remembered seemed to be more or less settled, but today, the passions are running high again.

In Russia, those on the 'Red' side occasionally vandalize commemorative plaques to Admiral Kolchak.

The term “mnemonic warriors” was coined not too long ago in order to designate those groups or individuals who are anxious to aggravate conflicts because those conflicts help them further their causes. For instance, in Ukraine, some refer to Stepan Bandera as a hero and stand ready to fight for that, while others say that there is no place for Bandera statues on Ukrainian soil. Some blow up Red Army monuments, while others blow up Bandera statues, and so on. And they would not listen to those who may call for reconciliation.

Such actors who engage in uncompromising struggles for their views are referred to as mnemonic warriors. They may be simply rambunctious, but there are also individuals and groups for whom this struggle has lasted for decades. For instance, the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States or Canada who fight for the holy Bandera—they are mnemonic warriors in the pure sense of the word; they are highly-principled, quite effective in their own way, and entirely irreconcilable.

In Russia, we recently had the centenary of the Civil War and the Bolshevik revolution. There are those in Russia who identify with one side or the other in regards to the Civil War. For example those on the “Red” side occasionally vandalize commemorative plaques to Admiral Kolchak. But even if these people qualify as mnemonic warriors, in this particular case, they failed to incite passions in Russian society.

Statue of Admiral Kolchak (in Irkutsk, Siberia), the head of the "White" movement during the Civil War that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; executed in 1920, remains a controversial figure in today's Russia.

I would like to emphasize one more important point made by the authors of the “Entangled Memory” article: they ridicule the idea that those who study the politics of memory are themselves objective scholars, distant from their subject. This perception is justified because, firstly, each of those scholars has his and her own political views, and those views affect their research approach. Secondly, at present, the public tensions related to historical memory are highly acute—one of the reasons for this is that the time has passed when the victory of liberal democracy appeared to be an undisputed fact. Instead, there is a rising understanding that liberal democracy has lost its overwhelming authority and it is not clear what is coming to replace it. In this environment, the struggle for the past has evolved as one of the venues where new political competition is currently unfolding.

"The community of memory scholars who until recently pretended—or genuinely believedthat they were objective and did not take sides, are now faced with a serious challenge."

Scholars of the politics of memory have grown involved in this competition and openly admit that. And we see, these conflicts unfold in university campuses or in academic publications; students disrupt lectures because they deem their professor insufficiently liberal; academics publish articles calling for all the memory scholars to join the ranks against Trump because his presidency is conducive to a return of fascism. As a result, the community of memory scholars who until recently felt quite comfortable and pretended—or genuinely believed - that they were objective and did not take sides, are now faced with a serious challenge.

Lipman: You said that Russia was relatively late in opting for instrumentalization and institutionalization of the politics of memory. What do you mean by that and what are the actors and organizations operating in the Russian politics of memory?

Miller: If we look back at the 1990s, we will find very few nongovernment actors in the realm of the political use of the past. Of course, we’ll find the Memorial Society. There was also Pamyat’, an “anti-Memorial” of sorts, but it proved to be short-lived. There were local initiatives aimed at erecting monuments—new monuments were numerous. But compared to Eastern Europe, in Russia, such actors were few. In the post-Communist world, the 1990s was a time of intensive construction of new structures, such as commissions that examined the damage inflicted by the Soviet occupation, and museums of genocide (in those cases the Soviet Union was regarded as a perpetrator of genocide against local titular populations). At that time, Russia obviously lagged behind in these kinds of activities.

If we look at the government programs of patriotic education—in Russia, patriotic education inevitably comes down to the heroes and victories of the past—in the first half of the 2000s, the only recipients of budgetary funds allocated for the implementation of this program were government agencies (those in charge of culture and mass communications).

In the programs of patriotic education adopted in later years, recipients were no longer reduced to just those agencies, but also included a large number of newly created government agencies that dealt with youth problems and many others.

"In 2012, two powerful 'nongovernment' organizations (NGOs) were created. One, the Russian Military Historical Society, was headed by the minister of culture, and the other, the Russian Historical Society, was headed by the State Duma chairman."

By the time the current program of patriotic education was adopted in 2016, the landscape had changed quite substantially. In 2012, two powerful nongovernment organizations (NGOs) were created. However, they are “nongovernment” to the extent that one, the Russian Military Historical Society, was headed by the minister of culture, and the other, the Russian Historical Society, was headed by the State Duma chairman. The Military Historical Society is especially influential, but both operate as umbrella structures for a range of patriotic organizations that have recently multiplied in Russia. About one hundred of them are listed on the Popular Front website, but they account for just a small part of such organizations. That’s what I mean when I say that the landscape has significantly changed.

So, 2011-12 was an important turning point when this realm began to rapidly institutionalize. The year 2012, when both of the above-mentioned Societies were created, was also when the first historical exhibition was launched that eventually evolved into the theme park, “Russia. My History.” It was also in 2012 that the foreign agents legislation was adopted that effectively endowed the Russian government with the role of the key sponsor of NGOs, in particular in the realm of the politics of history.

At the same time, in 2012-13, there was a sense that government structures were becoming more open and willing to enter a dialog and cooperate with civic (non-government) actors. For instance, in 2012, the government undertook the creation of a history-and-culture standard that would serve as the basis for teaching history. Reasonably open public discussions were organized. Further, the government and civic organizations were able to initiate a kind of partnership in order to design a program for the commemoration of the victims of political repressions which was supposed to have been launched in 2014.

This was also the time when the “Last Address” project was launched. [This is a civic initiative to commemorate individuals executed during Stalin’s terror by installing small plaques on buildings of the last known residential addresses of the executed. The government authorities took no part in this project, but they did not get in the way either. –M.L.]

Last Address memorial plaques installed on a Moscow building commemorating executed individuals who resided here at the moment of their arrest. About one thousand such plaques have been instanlled in Russia and other countries since the Last Address project was launched. (credit: The Last Address Foundation)

However, in late 2013 and early 2014, when the crisis in Ukraine broke out, the government’s benevolence disappeared. It can be suggested that the government either had never been willing to cooperate, or that in the atmosphere of the crisis around Ukraine, the incorporation of Crimea in the Russian Federation, etc., the Kremlin realized that it had expanded its control over the public space far enough and no longer needed to bother about such partnerships.

Lipman: What is your explanation?

Miller: I think at first, after Crimea, the government was concerned about the reaction of the West, the effect of sanctions on the economy, and the potential outburst of public discontent, and it responded by hardening its policies and cracking down on civic activism.

"The government did not resort to a 'scorched earth' policy, but their interest in cooperation was gone, especially with the liberal constituency."

But when they realized that the economic effects were not dramatic, and public support for the incorporation of Crimea was very broad, they backtracked. By late 2014 and early 2015, the program to commemorate the victims of political repressions was resumed and the “Last Address” initiative safely continued its operations. The Memorial Society came under strong pressure but still survived. So on the one hand, the government did not resort to a “scorched earth” policy, but, on the other hand, their interest in cooperation was gone, especially with the liberal constituency. Apparently, the Kremlin decided that there was no point for them to cooperate with liberal actors. Meanwhile, cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church as an important politics of memory actor was on the rise.

Lipman: When we spoke one year ago, you said that academic historians were still free in their professional work. Is that still the case today?

Miller: I can repeat it in the sense that a professional historian is free to research whatever theme he or she wants, and they can publish what they want. But I am talking from a St. Petersburg or Moscow perspective. I’m not at all certain that historians in provincial universities enjoy the same degree of freedom. Personally, when I get invited to speak in provincial centers I have not faced any restrictions, nobody tells me what I am or am not allowed to say. But reports of restrictions or political censorship have been common lately.

Lipman: The government needs professional historians and their knowledge for its own political purposes. This should face historians with a choice. How do such invitations affect historians’ lives and work?

Miller: Yes, this may be a tough dilemma. Take the “Russia. My History” theme parks that I mentioned earlier. They have been reproduced in about two dozen cities now. Professional historians are invited to cooperate in the capacity of hired internal experts. A person who gets such an invitation has three options: to say point-blank that he or she refuses to cooperate with these organizations. But then that historian no longer has a moral right to complain that something is not right in those parks. Another choice is to accept the invitation, get paid, and find oneself restricted by the “corporate norms,” as it were. A third option is to agree to be an expert but refuse to be paid and remain independent. I don’t think anybody made this choice so far. And I am not sure such a deal would be acceptable to the administrators of the history parks.

Lipman: If a person makes the first choice and refuses to cooperate, does he or she risk being black-listed or face other obstacles in his or her professional activity?

Miller: One can always refuse politely. Nobody will be fired.

Lipman: Since the government has intensified its participation in the politics of history, the space for nonstate actors, those who would not cooperate with the government is shrinking. Would you say that there’s still some space left? You already mentioned the “Last Address” initiative and that the Memorial Society still continues to operate…

Miller: I would re-emphasize the significance of the foreign agents legislation, and not just to historical memory. Its adoption meant that organizations could no longer accept donations from abroad, and as I mentioned, it transformed the whole system of funding. If you are a Russian NGO, you would know better and not accept foreign donations. In the European University where I work, we shun any foreign funding—we know that we have to run away from it as far as possible.

The government meanwhile has launched a large-scale grant operation and has increasingly played the role as the primary source and distributor of funds to NGOs. The state may not impose a single line for all organizations, but if you want to receive those grants, you are bound to exercise self-censorship.

I am myself a recipient of a government grant. I was awarded a grant from the Russian Science Fund and used part of it to write the above-mentioned article in Politeia, which  is on the same theme that we are now discussing. For my part, I can say that I didn’t censor myself in that article.

Lipman: The state thus plays on the same field where nongovernment actors operate that may consider themselves as oppositionist or critical toward the government. This applies, in particular, to the sphere of the commemoration of the victims of political repressions. In 2017, a monument, The Wall of Sorrow, commemorating the victims of repressions, was erected in Moscow on Putin’s initiative. What is the difference in the government approach to commemoration from that applied by nongovernment actors?

Miller: Originally, such a memorial was included in the program initiated by the President’s Council on Human Rights. The idea was that the Russian public would collect money for that monument so it would be a genuine people’s memorial. That program was killed, then resuscitated, but in the process, the idea of grassroots funding was lost. This was how the monument reemerged as an initiative decreed by Putin. It bears just two names—that of the sculptor, Frangulian, and that of Putin. This memorial is markedly depersonalized; it is a wall with large-size, impersonal figures. This is a distinctive feature of the government approach, it is depersonalized, with the same approach applied to the commemoration of soldiers killed in WWII.

"In contrast to the government approach, civil initiatives emphasize the individual aspect. This is the way the Butovo Memorial is designed."

In contrast to the government approach, civil initiatives emphasize the individual aspect. This is the way the Butovo Memorial is designed. [This is the site of mass executions in the outskirts of Moscow. A new memorial was erected there in 2017. -M.L.] One  walks along a corridor with countless names engraved on the walls. The same approach with lists of names is found in the Kommunarka Memorial. [This was erected in 2018 on another site of mass executions in the Moscow outskirts. -M.L.]. Likewise, the “Last Address” project is focused on the fates of individuals, and there is also the “Return of the Names,” a ceremony initiated by the Memorial Society in 2007 where people gather in Lubyanka Square in front of the headquarters of the Soviet and now Russian state security agency to read the names of the executed.

The “Return of the Names” ceremony is an interesting case. Last year, the Moscow city authorities made an attempt to move it away from Lubyanka to the newly erected “Wall of Sorrow” memorial mentioned above. Suddenly it turned out that institutionalization concerns not just the institutions established by the government, but also established public practices, such as the “Return of the Names.” The government authorities realized that the forced movement of the ceremony might cause mass civil disobedience over a cause that has become all but sacred in the eyes of the public, and they backtracked.

The Return of the Names, a yearly ceremony held in front of the state security service headquarters, in which the participants read the names of those executed during Stalin's terror. (credit: Russian Historical Society. Photographer: David Kriheln, provided by the Archive of the Meshdunarodnovo Memorial)

Overall, it can be concluded that the state plays an increasingly important role in the politics of memory and has largely become a dominant actor in this sphere. (Other prominent actors include, first and foremost, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which has comparable power in this sphere. The ROC is mostly compliant with the state, but its interests and intentions sometimes differ from those of the government.) It should still be pointed out, however, that some independent public initiatives have also been established, and they are not very easy to uproot.

Finally, I would like to mention a small example of non-state institutionalization in the realm of historical memory. At the European University, we launched a memory studies center. It has only existed for one year, but we have organized two conferences, published three books, and we are currently working on two more publications. So far, we have not experienced any encumbrance!


Alexey Miller is a Russian historian and Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg. His professional interests include histories of Russia, Poland, Ukraine, empire studies, problems of historical memory, and politics of history. He has authored several monographs and numerous articles and is actively engaged in public discussions of history and historical memory and its political implications in today’s world. He is currently the director of a Russian Science Foundation grant for research on politics of memory in Russia and Eastern Europe.