A Confined Mainstream: Creating a Single Historical Narrative in Putin’s Russia
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
James C. Pearce
The construction of a single, preferred historical narrative has become a core theme of Vladimir Putin’s political agenda. While it is not uncommon for states to use history for legitimisation purposes, the meticulous cherry picking of positive episodes has left important ‘sub plots’ in Russian history marginalised, particularly those that conflict with the overarching message. This message reinforces stability, national unity, sovereignty and ‘great powerness’ or derzhavnost’. The Russian state is preoccupied with upholding stability; so much so, that Russian history was written into the Doctrine of National Security (2009). ‘Differing’ versions are often labelled ‘falsifications’ by the state and relegated to the peripheries.
A notable example came in the centennial year of the 1917 revolutions. The Russian state found itself obliged to provide an official narrative of these events, which proved a tricky line to walk. Putin had to condemn those who murdered the Tsar and his family without condemning the Soviet regime. Liberal groups criticized Putin for not condemning 1917 enough, whilst communists accused him of denying the achievements of the revolution. The compromise was that little official commemoration occurred and the state distanced itself from centennial events. Confining the revolution to the periphery of official narratives of Russia’s past meant that the government could minimize the risk of social discord and avoid meaningful scrutiny of its own record.
Rewriting history and trying to create a single narrative of the past is nothing new in Russia; it has happened on at least four occasions. The goal each time was to uphold the appearance of continuity in the Russian state. This was one of the motors behind the 2009 commission ‘On the Falsifications of History’, set up by then President Dmitry Medvedev. Apart from ‘combatting’ the falsifications of history, it contained a particular focus on retellings of the Great Patriotic War: ‘if a country is defending its interests, it cannot be labelled an aggressor’. Perhaps unknowingly, he echoed Leonid Brezhnev’s comments to writer Konstantin Simonov decades earlier: ‘The main truth is that we won. All other truths fade before it. The time will come for your diaries’. This is significant because it shows that peripheral histories (in this case ‘sub plots’) are considered harmful to the relationship between state and society.
In 2017, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky was the only government official to take part in any commemoration. This included opening the Moscow exhibition Kod Revolyutsii (code of the revolution), the largest full-scale exhibition related to 1917 held inside Russia. Elsewhere, small-scale exhibitions took place on a range of themes connected to the revolutions. These included children’s literature, art from the revolutionary period, a quietly unveiled monument in Novocherkassk and a series of public lectures. Boris Kolonitsky referred to this as a private discussion in the public sphere, as it happened on the peripheries of civil society. In Putin’s own words:
This is a good moment for looking back on the causes and nature of these events in Russia. Not just historians and scholars should do this; Russian society in general needs an objective and deep-reaching analysis of these events. This is our common history and we need to treat it with respect. This was a generation that was fated to go through not just the difficult trials of the first global world war, but also the revolutionary upheaval and fratricidal civil war that split our country and changed its destiny.
National unity appears to have become more important than objectivity. Historical patriotism is promoted, particularly in Russia’s education system. Four patriotic education programmes have been introduced since 2000, all of which promote loyalty to the state, civic duties, the military and some connections to the Orthodox Church. The central theme is that respect for the history of one’s motherland (having the ‘correct’ interpretation of history) makes one a loyal patriotic citizen. In more direct terms, citizens are unlikely to challenge the legitimacy of the state. In 2007, the government funded a history teacher’s handbook. This was the first time since the Stalinist era that the Russian state created its own ‘textbook’ version of history. Filippov’s teacher handbook was widely criticised in liberal circles for glossing over the Stalinist terror and for being anti-Western and nationalistic. The textbook was not widely adopted and in 2015 a new set of state-backed textbooks were published. These contain no nationalistic overtones, yet champion a strong state and are anti-revolutionary. L. M. Lyashenko, author of one of the textbooks and a historian of populism at Moscow State Pedagogical University, for instance, overuses the word ‘autocracy’. He also states that the zemsky sobor’s purpose was to ‘combat liberal society’, and that the first Duma that was ‘full of liberal publicists’. In the same series, Volobuev, a professional historian at Moscow State University, stresses that strong state institutions are necessary for security and development. On the Bolsheviks securing legitimacy, he writes ‘to protect the new powers from internal enemies, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commissions (VChK) was created to prevent counter revolutionaries and sabotage’.
The term ‘revolution’ has negative connotations in contemporary Russia, and 1917 is associated with chaos and a bloody fractious civil war. Available polling by Levada in March 2017 showed huge splits still exist in public opinion surrounding 1917.
Table 1: Question 1 from, ‘The October Revolution’, Levada Tsentr.
SOME ARGUE THAT RUSSIA NEEDS TO MOVE FORWARD AND NOT DWELL ON WHAT HAPPENED IN 1917. OTHERS SAY THAT RUSSIA NEEDS TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE PERIOD, IN ORDER TO AVOID REPEATING ITS MISTAKES. WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING STATEMENTS MOST ACCURATELY EXPRESSES YOUR OWN POINT OF VIEW? (one response)
Table 2: Question 4 from, ‘The October Revolution’, Levada Tsentr.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION PLAYED A POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE ROLE IN RUSSIA’S HISTORY?
This lack of consensus was visible when the government tried to return St. Isaacs Cathedral to the Orthodox Church in February 2017. No obvious antagonisms existed on the surface, yet this move by the government ignited large protests. Protestors regarded the transfer of the cathedral from public hands to the Orthodox Church as a political move, rather than as a symbolic reconciliation between state and church. Similar historical controversy surrounded the film Matilda (2017). Matilda was a story about Tsar Nicholas’ affair with Polish ballet dancer, Matilda Kshchesinska. Nicholas II and his family were canonised by the Orthodox Church, and so depicting this affair upset religious groups. One MP, Natalia Poklonskaya, tried to have it banned.
Confusion over historical memory is also evident in remembrance of the Stalinist terror. Every year, Memorial, a historical and civil rights society that began during the Perestroika period, host an event to remember the victims of the great terror. In recent years, Memorial has also become a vocal form of political opposition. Yet, in Vladimir in 2018, the local government backed billboards honouring those who served in the Cheka. Although the government officially condemns the terror, its narrative surrounding the Stalin era is not cut and dry. Not distancing itself from the economic, technological and military achievements of the period makes meaningful condemnation peripheral by default. Moreover, calls for legal investigations into crimes committed by the Soviet government are confined to the political fringes.
The open discussion surrounding the past is managed by asserting red lines to curb perceived threats to the fabric of society. A student of mine recently argued that the Russian government over relies on the Great Patriotic War as a unifying message. In her view, despite all the talk of stability and a national recovery, the state lacks any achievements of its own. Therefore, it must present itself as the heirs to the victory and the only force who can maintain stability. Maria Lipman perhaps wrote it best in her article for Open Democracy Russia in 2017 - the truth did Russia no good during Perestroika. Exposing the true extent of the Stalinist terror opened up too many inconsistencies to bear. As long as loyalty to the state is implied, one can worship Stalin, the last Tsar and the secret police who murdered his family.
James C. Pearce completed his PhD, 'The Use of History in Putin's Russia', at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge in 2018. His research focuses on how history is rewritten and repackaged in contemporary Russia, and the impact the past has on policy and culture. His thesis paid particular attention to history in schools and public celebrations, where the new narrative assumes more concrete forms. His most recent publications are with Ofer Fridman and Vitaly Kabernik; Hybrid Conflicts and Information Warfare: Old Labels, Mew Politics (Denver, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2018); and Anastassiya Yuchshenko, 'Defending Russia, Securitising the Future: how the past shaped Russia's political discourse regarding Crimea', Europolity, 12:1, 2018. James currently lives in Moscow.
 Edwin Bacon, Perspectives for Russia’s Future: The Case for Narrative Analysis. Ukraine and Russia People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives, p.231 ISSN N/A.
 ‘Putin’s Russia and the ghost of the Romanovs’, The Economist, available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IWWAIS-tE4> accessed 17/01/2019.
 Grigory Yavlinsky, ‘Bez sroka davnosti: rastrel sem’I romanovykh; Ekho Moskvy, available at <https://echo.msk.ru/blog/yavlinsky_g/2242048-echo/?fbclid=IwAR1lAD0QHiPsYNwt7Wa5VvV12oplHvExwDhSOUfR7AczgrXunGSbK8kMyLs> accessed 17/01/2019.
 These were during the fifteenth century, reign of Catherine the Great, during the USSR and following its collapse.
 The Russian President’s decree No. 549, “O Komissiy pri Prezidente Rossiyskoi
Federatsiy po protivodeistviyu popytkam fal’sifikatsiy istoriy v ushcherb interesam Rossiy,” at
http://graph.document.kremlin.ru/page.aspx?1;1013526. Accessed 17/01/2017.
 Dmitry Medvedev interview on RT, September 2009.
 Andrei Kolesnikov, ‘A Past That Divides Us’, Carnegie Centre, available at <carnegie.ru/2017/10/05/past-that-divides-russia-s-new-official-pub-73304> accessed 09/07/2018.
 For Kod Revolyutsii see ‘Vtoroe zasidanie orgkomiteta posvyashchennoe 100 letiyu revolyutsii 1917g’, Rossiskoe Istoricheskoe Obshchestvo, available at <https://historyrussia.org/proekty/100-letie-revolyutsii-1917-goda/vtoroe-zasedanie-orgkomiteta-posvyashchennoe-100-letiyu-revolyutsii-1917-g.html> accessed 13/08/2018; for the children’s literature exhibition see Ola Cichowlas, ‘How a Group of Writers and Illustrators Revolutionized Children’s Books in Early Soviet Russia’ The Moscow Times Online <https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/how-a-group-of-writers-and-illustrators-revolutionized-childrens-books-in-early-soviet-russia-56960> accessed 12/06/2018.
 He made this comment during a presentation on the revolutions’ centenary in Cuma, Italy, 2017.
 Vladimir Putin Annual Address, December 2016.
 Vladimir Putin’s speech at a ceremony unveiling a monument on Poklonnaya Gora to the heroes who gave their lives in World War I.
 See for instance Pravitel’stvo RF, O Gosudarstvennoi programme ‘Patrioticheskoe vospitanie grazhdan RF na 2001-2005 gody, Postanovlenie ot 02/10/2001, no. 122’, <http://base.garant.ru/1584972> accessed 10/10/2015.
 A. V. Filippov, A. I. Utkin, and S. V. Sergeev, eds., Noveishaia istoriia Rossii, 1945-2006gg.: Kniga dlia uchitelia (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 2007), available at www.prosv.ru/ebooks/Filippov_Istoria/ index.html (accessed 12 August 2009).
 L.M. Lyashenko, O.V. Volobuev and Ye.V. Simonova, Istoriya Rossii XIX- nachalo XX veka, (Moscow: Drofa, 2016), p.177
 Ibid. p.49
 ‘The October Revolution’, Levada Tsentr, https://www.levada.ru/en/2017/04/21/the-october-revolution/ , accessed 29/11/2018.
 ‘They Served in the Cheka’: Provincial Russian Billboards Honour Stalin’s Executioners, RFERL, available at <https://www.rferl.org/a/they-served-the-cheka-provincial-russian-billboards-honor-stalin-s-executioners/29570512.html> accessed 17/01/2019.
 Maria Lipman, ‘Putin’s nation-building project offers reconciliation without truth’, Open Democracy, April 12th 2017, https://www.opendemcracy.net/od-russia/maria-lipman/putins-nation-building-project-reconciliation-without-truth accessed 08/05/2017.