Russia and its visions of the past


"He who controls the past controls the future, 
and he who controls the present controls the past"

                                              – George Orwell


Victory day in Russia: 16 thousand men in uniform, war canons, missiles and tanks are rolling through the Red Square in Moscow. As every year, Russia is celebrating the triumph of the Red Army and the end of the Second World Wa on May 9th. However, the celebrations that took place about two weeks ago were special this year. After the Russian invasion of Crimea, the festivities holds an even stronger symbolism than usual. Putin is flexing his muscles and he wants the world to see. Yet what is often neglected is the underlying historical narrative that allows Putin to play his cards this way – an understanding of history that largely differs from our own.

Russia’s history is packed with important events, but the Second World War constitutes perhaps the most important element to understand what Putin is trying to do today. The "Great Patriotic War", as it is called by Russians, was won on the eastern front. Had Hitler not turned towards the USSR, it is likely that the end of the war would not exist as we know it. By far, the Soviet Union had the greatest losses in this war.

In the four years of war following Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, casualties are estimated to about 27 million (one in three people died in Belarus). The UK's losses in contrast, are estimated to well below 0.5 million. Needless to say, the losses of the USSR did not merely consist in human lives – the economic and infrastructural losses were massive. In 1945, the USSR had finally won the war. Stalin had won the war. Communism had won the war. Yet for the people of the USSR, the period that followed would not mean liberty and prosperity. The eastern states had to live through starvation and misery once again under the reign of Stalin. 

Today Putin has chosen what to remember from the country's virulent past. He has chosen to remember the victory and the greatness of Russian culture, and to forget the sad story of Soviet reign. According to this narrative, Stalin is the man who won the war and Russians are the ones who sacrificed themselves for their motherland in honourable obedience to this man's authority. Never would Europe have the the guts and courage to do the same. Never would Europeans sacrifice their lives for their country.

Taking from Putin’s rhetoric, it is with this understanding that the president has created a new proud identity for Russia. What makes the Russians superior is their willingness to sacrifice themselves to authority and to die for their country. Europeans, in contrast, are understood as to have been swallowed up by individualisation and lost connection to their Christian values. 

Putin’s propaganda machine is what brings life into this narrative, playing on anti-homosexual and anti-transgender opinion to argue for the loss of Christian values. The narrative also says that Europe is falling apart because of its numerous economic and political problems. Europe is weak and divided – and is thus nothing but a puppet to the United States trying to push Russia into a corner.  

Concerning Ukraine more specifically, one speaks of the "fascists in Kiev", which in large embodies the classical enemy that was defeated in World War Two. This has been followed by independent initiatives in Russian civil society where Russians have gone to Ukraine to fight for their motherland (most likely in line with Putin's strategy).

Opinion polls in Russia show that 48 percent of Russians think that going back to Stalinist repression is possible – 17 percent believe it would be justified. 17 percent (!) of Russians believe it would be justified to go back to Stalinist repression. Propaganda is dangerous and should not be underestimated.

More than ever, Europe needs to let people see for themselves that democracy is the only way to go. We need to show that when democracy is strong, so are countries. Europe has to show that despite an economic crisis, it will again prosper economically. EU member states need to show that regardless of their differences, they are united in the ground values stemming from human rights – united in democracy. More concretely, this could mean further supporting of powers inside Russia that work for transparency and democracy-promoting. Europe has an obligation to, and should, host and finance journalists who are forced to flee from Russia. The EU should also further finance cultural and social exchange between the two parties in order for people to discover reality for themselves, independently of any propaganda.