Professor Putin: the Kremlin Tries its Hand at Teaching History, with Ominous Results

by Lincoln Pigman, a first year student of War Studies at King’s College London currently involved with a Russian NGO called Memorial.

Between Stalin’s purges, two world wars, and the collapse of communism, the past century has not been kind to Russia. To many observers, its recent incursions into Ukraine and Georgia seem reckless, threatening to add to a long list of catastrophes. Yet despite economic crisis and international isolation, President Vladimir Putin remains popular with Russians, capitalizing on a legacy of tragedy to justify not only aggressive foreign policy but also authoritarian governance.
That history would figure heavily into any Russo-Ukrainian conflict is a given; after all, since the mid-17th century, Ukraine has spent the better part of its history either as part of or directly subordinated to Russia. During the annexation of the Crimea, the Kremlin claimed to be defending Russian citizens threatened by the new Ukrainian government. Since then, however, it has redefined the peninsula’s union with Russia, now a corrective measure taken in light of the “illegal” nature of the 1954 transfer of Crimea, according to Russia’s Prosecutor General. [1] The Russian government’s tacit obligation to correct the errors of its Soviet predecessor reveals continuity of policy, as does its portrayal of the Ukrainian government. Russian analysts and politicians contend that followers of the late Stepan Bandera – Ukrainian nationalist and perennial foe of the Soviets – dominate Poroshenko’s government, drawing the ire of Russians who still despise Bandera for his collaboration with Nazis in the Great Patriotic War. [2] Likewise, Putin exploits long-standing fear of NATO encroachment by holding the military organization accountable for all that has transpired since the Euromaidan protests of last year: chaos in Kiev, war in Donbas, and the international community’s resurgent vilification of Russia. [3] By perpetuating conflicts of old – between a harmless Russia, a nationalistic Ukraine, and an expansionist NATO – Putin generates popular support for and consent to continued military involvement in Ukraine, further undermining Russia’s international standing.

To Putin’s supporters, fighting Bandera’s neo-Nazi ilk and resisting NATO’s eastward expansion are worthwhile causes. On the home front, a separate war fought by propagandists and jingoists rages on against dissent. The Kremlin’s case against political opposition also draws heavily from history, most notably from the First World War, in which Russia, embroiled in civil war, sued for peace. On the war’s centenary, Putin disingenuously blamed the events of 1918 on “national betrayal” by “those who sowed dissension [and] longed for power”, an attack on Lenin’s Bolsheviks that brings to mind the stab-in-the-back myth promulgated in interwar Germany. [4] Behind the rhetoric, Putin’s argument targets opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny, whose dissent has made him the President’s – and his supporters’ – greatest enemy. Although his brother currently sits behind bars, a hostage of the government, serving a prison term for alleged embezzlement, Navalny plans to continue his political campaign against Putin and his cronies. To Navalny’s supporters, his commitment reflects perseverance and courage; but to his opponents, it confirms Putin’s argument: that Navalny is an agent of betrayal, set to bring about a comparable defeat through dissent and unchecked ambition. Few protest Navalny’s exclusion from local elections.
The marginalization of Navalny and his Party of Progress epitomizes a greater development in Russian politics: Putin’s embrace of authoritarianism, reinforced by the Kremlin’s historical narrative. In Russian textbooks, efficient administration defines Stalin’s rule, completely sanitized save the occasional claim that his purges stabilized Russia. [5] Putin’s students must think repressive measures today would, too. Recent surveys by Levada Center highlight three attitudes widespread in Russia: that a return to Soviet-style repression is imminent [6]; that Stalin bettered the country [7]; and that a Stalin-like leader in Russia would enjoy significant support today. [8] Putin has taught his subjects well. Only time will tell whether history, as the saying goes, truly repeats itself.
[1] “1954 Transfer of Crimea to Ukraine Illegal – Russian Prosecutor General,” Sputnik, accessed 8 October 2015,

[2] Raisa Ostapenko, “The Success of Russia’s Propaganda: Ukraine’s ‘Banderovtsy’,” Cambridge Globalist, accessed 8 October 2015,

[3] Bryan MacDonald, “Do you realize what you have done? – Putin gives the war party a bootin’,” RT, accessed 8 October 2015,

[4] Peter Rutland, “By Glorifying WWI, Putin Ignores Its Tragedy”, The Moscow Times, accessed 8 October 2015,

[5] Cathy Young, “Stalin’s Ghost”, Forbes, accessed 8 October 2015,

[6] Thomas de Waal, ed., Maria Lipman, Lev Gudkov, Lasha Bakradze, The Stalin Puzzle: Deciphering Post-Soviet Public Opinion (Moscow: Carnegie Endowment, 2013)

[7] Sarah E. Mendelson and Theodore P. Gerber, “Failing the Stalin Test”, Foreign Affairs, accessed 8 October 2015,

[8] Ibid

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