Norms and Values
Historical Memory Battles in the 21st Century: How Can Russia Defend Its WWII Narrative?

The Russian-backed narrative, where Nazism is an absolute evil and the Soviet Union played a key role in crushing it, is giving way to the dominant counter-narrative promoted by the countries of Eastern Europe. The idea that the Soviet Union bears equal responsibility with Germany for unleashing the Second World War is gradually becoming pan-European mainstream sentiment, which entails important consequences for Russia’s status in the international arena.

The inadmissibility of revision of the results of World War II is the most important postulate of Russian policy in the field of historical memory. Judging by the media coverage, the most emotional reaction in Moscow is caused by incidents targeting monuments to Soviet soldiers and the glorification of the forces that fought against the USSR on the side of Germany. Is it true that these issues are the most important ones for Russia?

The demolition of monuments offends, hurts and annoys, but this is not what worries Russia most in these cases. The most important question for us concerns the role of the USSR and, therefore, Russia in the narrative about the Second World War. The narrative that we defend — and it would be strange if we did not do this — depicts the struggle between good and absolute evil, which is Nazism. We play a key role in this narrative as the force that made the decisive contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. The opposing narrative assigns us the role of “unrepentant totalitarianism”, one of the two responsible for the outbreak of World War II and all the horrors that happened in the twentieth century. This question directly determines the status of the country in the modern world. This or that answer to this question, this or that role that is attributed to the Soviet Union and, consequently, to Russia, has a huge impact on our position in the world.

Although the main developments troubling Russia in terms of historical memory are taking place in Eastern Europe, this process is receiving intellectual and media support in the West. Is it possible today to talk about the existence of a single Western narrative, of which the Eastern European one is only a part?

The narrative, in which the Soviet Union is a force of evil, starting a war in Europe along with Hitler, fits well with the image of modern Russia, which in Western perception is also a force of evil. The power of such narratives should not be underestimated: it dominates the minds in Europe today. The vote on the European Parliament resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe in September 2019 showed that it dominates almost completely. And it is no coincidence that this moment forced the Russian leadership to reconsider the imaginary geography of the historical memory politics. We believed that this position — blaming the USSR for the Second World War — is characteristic of Eastern Europe, and we tried, ignoring Eastern Europe, to address to Berlin and Paris our complaints against the new EU members, which, from our point of view, are indecent in the field of the historical memory. But in 2019 it suddenly turned out that representatives of old Europe were voting for such resolutions. And when we call to shame the Eastern Europeans, silence is triggered in response — even in the most egregious situations.

Why is this happening? Are the countries of Western Europe afraid to unwittingly find themselves on the same side with Russia, promoting what they call “Kremlin narratives”?

Relations with the countries of Eastern Europe are very important for the countries of Western Europe, especially for Germany as its hidden hegemon. The Germans in no way want to enter into confrontation with them, because they can get a lot of problems, and the gain will be dubious. Some time ago, we naively believed that the smaller countries of Eastern Europe could be easily ignored. The Germans cannot do this even more so, and in this sense we need to correctly formulate our request toward Germany: what we want from it, what we can really achieve from it on these matters. And appreciate what they are doing in the right direction. For example, the Center for Documentation, Education and Memory of the Victims of World War II and the Nazi Occupation, which is under creation, will cover all victims of the extermination war in the East, despite the fact that both Poles and Ukrainians demanded that the Russians were not there. It would be worth appreciating in public space, too. Turning on the confrontation mode is clear and simple. It is worth learning how, apart from the confrontation mode, to tap into moves and gestures that are not necessarily identical to your position, but are rather to your benefit.

Ideological Constructs of the Second World War in Modern Discourse

And, nevertheless, a change of narrative is taking place.

Yes, we can say that the former narrative, in which Nazism was an absolute evil, and the Holocaust was a crime of all crimes, the narrative that we fully supported, is giving way to the dominant counter-narrative promoted by the countries of Eastern Europe. And this is very dangerous for us.

At the same time, we should understand that the narratives of World War II are very diverse and do not necessarily correspond to the narrative that was established as dominant during the Nuremberg trials. Note that the history of Nuremberg suddenly became a subject of great interest for both historians and filmmakers, be it in our country or in America. The reason is simple: if you want to bury or, conversely, defend an old narrative, you go to where it was formed, in this case to Nuremberg. This is a very serious struggle, and Russia’s foreign policy is facing a very serious task.

Does Russia have allies in defending our narrative?

Yes, but you need to understand that we are not talking about countries, because every society is split in the memory of the last world war. Of course, by no means should we abandon our narrative, also because it is an important part of identity politics within the country. But it would be simply unrealistic to assume that we can make other countries accept it. We need to understand what elements of this narrative should be defended, and who our allies are in this.

We definitely have an ally when it comes to a significant proportion of Israeli society. And this is not only Israel: there are Jewish organisations in other countries that under no circumstances will give up the narrative about Nazism as an absolute evil and the Holocaust as the worst of all crimes. We saw well how this worked in 2020 when the tow parallel celebrations of the liberation of Auschwitz took place in Yad Vashem and in Oswiecim. These were two different stories.

There are left-wing forces: these are people who consider themselves the heirs of those who fought against fascism from the very beginning — the Italian and French partisans, and so on.

If you stand in the middle of any Italian street and sing Bandiera Rossa, there will be someone to sing along with you (as well as people who do not like it).

Our farewell to communism does not mean giving up solidarity with the people who fought against Nazism and fascism under communist slogans.

What are the dynamics and what is the scale of revisionism in different countries? Indeed, there are those in Eastern Europe who “simply” deny the liberating role of the Red Army (for example, Poland), and those who, in addition, whitewash collaboration with the Nazis (the Baltic States or Ukraine). Could it be said that there is a united front among the revisionists?

The essence of revisionism is the question of what role we attribute to the Soviet Union and Russia. In this sense, there is no difference between Poland and the Baltic states or Ukraine in its present form. They are really a united front, entrusting the Soviet Union with equal responsibility with Germany. And the symbol of all this is the Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, established on August 23. That is, on the day of the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.

Indeed, the Baltics and Ukraine whitewash cooperation with the Nazis for those people whom they claim to be heroes in their national narratives. But they declare them heroes not because they collaborated with the Nazis, but because they fought against the Soviet regime. These people’s wrongdoings before or in addition to this struggle are a kind of collateral damage. In the understanding of many people in these countries it can be justified, because they had such a terrible enemy.

At the same time, we should understand that in recent years Poland has partially approached the positions of the Baltic states and Ukraine on this matter. Today, there is a rehabilitation and glorification of the so-called “cursed soldiers” — those who, contrary to the orders of the Armia Krajowa leadership, did not lay down their arms and continued — mainly through terrorist methods — the fight against the pro-Soviet regime that was established after the war. Many of them committed crimes against civilians, but here the idea is the same: it is less important than their heroism in the fight against communism.

A powerful project to reshape historical memory is underway in Ukraine. Soviet symbols are prohibited, official documents regulate the use of words or expressions, including those pertaining to World War II. What are this project’s chances for success?

The things taking place in Ukraine in terms of ideological work are in fact not very different from other countries. It’s just that in Ukraine, all this looks somehow straightforward and shameless. It is clear that any society has words or phrases that are considered inappropriate. For example, we can cite the Polish law prohibiting accusations of the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust. As for the chances of this work being successful, they are not bad — if we accept as the criterion of success not the general belief that things are exactly as they’re presented by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, but that there is a significant proportion of people in the country who really believe in it.

Is the widespread acceptance of this narrative something unexpected, or was it present in Ukraine before, but in a “dormant” state?

This narrative has always existed, but, deprived of the opportunity to express itself in the public sphere, it was limited to a relatively small segment of society. It was, in particular, the overseas Ukrainian emigration who learned to work with this narrative in the USA and Canada, using a mixture of outright lies and complex arguments. And it behaved differently inside the country, where it had allies and people who supported it.

The incidents that we observe in Ukraine — demolition of monuments and so on — are a combination of peasant straightforwardness and ecstasy that “now it is possible, at last”: now we will take a hammer and use it to hit the granite Lenin or the bronze Order of Victory.

But the Ukrainian diaspora is a completely different matter. It is a well-organised force which has no doubts and is able to mobilise financial resources. It is a powerful and efficient political actor (also a mnemonic one) working in the field of memory politics. These people do not act like peasants at all, they oftentimes work quietly and very efficiently.

As a result, today we can say that the segment of society that shares this narrative is quite large. This is part of the narrative, within the framework of which the Ukrainian must realise that his main, eternal and inescapable enemy is Russia and the Russians. In a sense, the success of these efforts has already been achieved. In December, the Washington Post published an article about whether it would be possible to organise a powerful guerrilla movement in Ukraine in the event of a war with Russia. Meanwhile, Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke about this even before 2014: that is, the idea of making war with Russia to the very last Ukrainian has been intriguing the Americans for a long time. The idea, frankly, is monstrous. But the presence of people who are ready to fight in this way is a fact that certainly affects the possible scenarios in that country.

The narrative that we considered to be inherent in Eastern Europe has now entered the common European mainstream. You said that Russia could not at one time ignore Eastern Europe — do we have a chance today for a dialogue with someone in this region?

It can be compared to computer games, where you have to go through the first level, second and third. And at the fourth level, the countries of Eastern Europe will be waiting for us. That is, first you can try to come to an agreement with the Americans — this is what is unfolding before our very eyes. Then with the Europeans — at least with someone in the “old” Europe. Then — with someone else, and then — perhaps the time of Eastern Europe will come. It is not united either.

Ten years ago, [former Polish Prime Minister] Donald Tusk looked like a very promising partner in normalising relations with Russia. Can we imagine the appearance of such a person again? Yes, it is quite possible. But it does not depend on the person, but on the situation. In the current situation, Tusk is a completely irreconcilable person, no less useless than Kaczynski in solving these problems. But in the future, why not? What can be expected from such people? Obviously not repentance, not hugs, not gratitude for lengthy care under the communist regime. But some kind of normalisation is possible. However, this is the fourth level of the computer game.

If we look at the vote on the recent UN General Assembly resolution on combating the glorification of Nazism, we see a united front of Western powers that abstained, with the exception of the United States, which voted against it, and Israel, which supported the resolution. Why does Europe act in this way? Is it afraid of the involuntary spread of the Russian narrative?

Europe has been acting this way for a very long time, because it believes — and not unreasonably — that there are some current political interests behind this resolution. Accordingly, it has a problem: it does not want to vote against the resolution, because voting against a resolution condemning the justification of Nazism looks rather strange. It does not want to vote for it, because it does not want to support Russian politics, which it considers not devoid of a modern payload. Therefore, if anyone abstains from such a vote, I would say that this is a very valuable position. Taking into account the fact that the Americans voted against, it turns out that the Europeans just do not show their solidarity with the Americans. And success is not always about getting other countries to vote the way you do. Maybe the success will be in the fact that some countries will not vote in a united front against you. Given the current position of Russia in the world, this is a good result.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.