The broken record effect, or on the advantage and disadvantage of historical analogies for life

January 31, 2023
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Visiting Research Scholar, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies
Ilya Kalinin analyzes the arsenal of historical and mythological tools used by the Russian regime to justify its war against Ukraine and explains the essential flaw of the state narrative.
In Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's vision of the world, current international relations only repeat the historical realities of the past. Source: Wiki Commons
Over the 11 months of the full-scale war against Ukraine, the top people in the Russian leadership have repeatedly made statements that in one way or another reference the Great Patriotic War to describe what is happening. Considering the repeated nature of such patriotic rhetoric, which over the past two decades has managed to fuse tightly with the political language of the ruling regime, these historical analogies are of little surprise to anyone – even though they do not fit well with the bureaucratic concept of a “special military operation,” which continues to be the official name of the war. They are differently projected depending on the discursive temperament of the speaker, his target group, media format, official position, etc.

On unity and struggle of opposites

At one of the ends of the spectrum is Dmitri Medvedev’s Telegram channel, whose author outwardly resembles a man with the same name who once served as president of Russia and unsuccessfully tried to modernize it. His grotesque style convulses between the exaltation of a religious fanatic and the insolence of a low-class kid, recalling a danse macabre or the speech of a demoniac and making you think less about the meaning of what is said and more about the idea of the frailty of human existence. The scandalousness of the analogies put forward by Medvedev has to do with how he says it as opposed to what he is saying. Thus, his statements naturally do not lead to public protests by officials, instead triggering a completely “symmetrical response” in the form of internet memes, ironic comments and quiet bewilderment.

The opposite case is presented by the statements of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who, with his characteristic unhurried, focused and stubborn consistency, articulates his vision of a world in which current international relations only repeat the historical realities of the past.

The mechanism for deploying his thoughts works like a Swiss watch and is as unstoppable as a road roller going downhill. If Russia’s historical mission is to fight against Nazism, then the central goal of any war Russia enters is the denazification of the enemy, whoever that may be. If a Jew is at the head of the country being denazified, then he is one of those Jews who are the most “ardent anti-Semites.” Since the historical analogy represents the best and most irrefutable evidence for this type of mindset, the “Jewish blood” of Nazi Hitler was put forward as confirmation of the “anti-Semitism” of the Jewish Zelensky.

After that statement, Putin had to apologize for the syllogism of his own foreign minister during a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. However, the logic of repetition and continuity guides not only the perceptions of history that are characteristic of Russian politicians, but also their actions. Nine months after mentioning the Jewish roots of anti-Semitism, Lavrov again provoked outrage from Jewish organizations with his historical imagination. This time it went like this: since an alliance of Western countries is acting against Russia currently, and Russia, by definition, is waging a just war, defending its security in the face of an external threat, the alliance, therefore, is a repeat of the military coalitions that fought against Russia in the past. Examples include the armies of Napoleon and Hitler that attacked the Russian Empire and the USSR in 1812 and in 1941, respectively. Consequently, the US, leading the current coalition, is repeating what the French Empire and the Third Reich already tried to do. True, here the character structure of the historical series told by Lavrov gets more complicated, as Russia is playing two roles at once: a victim of international aggression – the goal of which is “the final solution of the ‘Russian question’” – and a character who is bound to win, since what happened twice cannot but repeat itself a third time.

Resource curse

Wrong are those who see in Lavrov’s statements just a PR strategy, a pure desire for affective sublimation, for media hype, or an attempt to demonstrate to Putin his own readiness for further political radicalization. In the same way, wrong are also those who see Lavrov’s statements as a manifestation of the absurd. More precisely, the latter are right, but not in the sense in which they use that word.

For the official representatives of Israel, the US, Ukraine and other European countries, the absurdity of Lavrov’s statements lies in their ridiculousness, senselessness, offensiveness and demagogy. Nevertheless, these statements indicate the embodiment of the ironclad logic of historical analogy. And that logic is so unforgiving to immediate reality and common sense that it reduces to absurdity the internal inconsistency of the original point. Socrates liked to use this technique when arguing with his disciples and opponents, leading them to a dead end as he elaborated their positions. In our case, we have a self-disclosure session that exposes the incorrectness of the initial historical comparison, the consistently employed logic of which puts the speaker in a comical position.

However, uncovering the empirical emptiness and logical spoofs in statements used to describe the armed aggression against Ukraine in terms of the country’s liberation or to present the “special military operation” as “an attempt to stop... the war in the Donbas” is a redundant task, owing to its triviality. It does not require special fact-checking skills, media literacy or the competencies of an analytical philosopher. Something else is more important here.
"In the abovementioned stylistic and logical gaps, one can see signs that the symbolic resource on which the Putin regime built its power is running out."
The logical and semantic contradictions that come to the surface when the war in Ukraine is identified with the patriotic wars waged in the past by the Russian Empire and the USSR testify less to a conscious willingness to neglect the obvious inconsistencies and more to the absence of any other way to justify and describe this war. In other words, it is not so much a rational strategy as a symptom that reveals the dependence of the Russian political class on the single source of symbolic legitimization for its power. The historical imagination cultivated by this regime has made it a hostage of its own constructed past (the “historical Russia“ that satisfies its imperial fantasies). It is the same resource dependence that overtook the Russian economy and became the basis for rent-seeking, which was monopolized by the regime and cemented it.

From the current perspective, Medvedev’s words from back in 2010 seem like an ominous slip of the tongue made not by the then-president, but rather the unconscious of the Russian leadership: “Essentially, the outcome of the Great Patriotic War is us and our future. The future of our children” (the title of that blog post by Medvedev, “The Great Patriotic War will never be a historical abstraction for our people,” is now colored with grim eloquence).

Twin myths

The significance that the memory of the Great Patriotic War took on in ensuring the political stability of the regime, its ideological framework, discursive infrastructure and social consensus is well known and has been detailed many times. Additional stability to the constructed myth about the war was given by the opposite myth about the Revolution. The former spoke about national unity, sacrificial devotion to the Motherland, widespread heroism, collective faith in commonly shared values, the leading role of the elites and the unquestioning trust of the population in them, about the victory achieved thanks to all these factors and the strengthening of the state. The latter spoke about civil conflict, national betrayal, personal ambitions, ideological and value divisions, the crisis of the state apparatus that was taken advantage of by external forces and internal enemies, about the collapse and weakening of the state.

These mythological constructions arose in parallel as a response to actual political challenges. They resonated with current processes going on both within Russia and abroad, and at the same time were a reaction to the historical experience of the 20th century. That experience was structured through a chain of traumatic events: the 1917 Revolution, the Civil War, collectivization, accelerated industrialization, mass repressions, the fading and subsequent collapse of the socialist project, the defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of the state, the economic crisis and the uncertainty over values in the 1990s.

The immediate horizon of the turn of the century, to which all these events led like a scroll, lacked clear symbolic coordinates – societally recognized landmarks toward the near future and at least relative agreement regarding perceptions of the recent past. The only exception was World War II, one of the most tragic events of the 20th century, which, in the case of Soviet and post-Soviet history, made it possible to rationalize both the traumatic events and processes that preceded it and followed it. The Victory provided a teleology and thus made it possible to justify the victims of both the war and what happened before it (dekulakization, forced modernization, terror). It also gave hope that the descendants of those who won that war would be able to win victories in the future. It provided recipes for how to achieve historical victories.

The myth about revolution absorbed the social and political tendencies that threatened the basic values of the Putin regime – unity and stability, which more and more degenerated into a rhetorical shell hiding its only internal motive – staying in power. Perestroika and the “wild 90s” produced overtones of the Bolshevik Revolution, and later modern realities began to add on to that mythological framework, including the color revolutions regularly flourished in the post-Soviet space (the most traumatic for the early Putin regime was the Orange Revolution of 2004 in Ukraine) and protests in Russia itself. By the centenary of the Revolution in 2017, this negative myth that identified any protest against or opposition to the authorities with a desire for the revolutionary destruction of statehood had finally crystallized.

Ars Magna Combinatorica

As they took shape, these historical/mythological narratives began to exchange plot elements, motifs and devices, complementing and strengthening each other. As a result, the statist political theology reached a stable and reproducible totality.
"The polarized plot archetypes generated by it led to a Manichean worldview, which presented history as an ever-repeating clash of good and evil."
Historical events and social processes comprehended in terms of these myths could be directly confronted or transformed dialectically. An example of the former practice is the discrediting of the protest movement of 2011-12 as a revolutionary threat to statehood, which was supposedly overcome thanks to the patriotic unity of the people, verbalized through references to the memory of the patriotic wars of the last two centuries. An example of the latter is the description of Ukraine’s Maidan as a coup d’etat that brought “Nazis” to power, with whom Russia now must wage a people’s war for the liberation of Ukraine.

The potential from combining these mythological constructions seemed inexhaustible and made it possible to justify, confirm, neutralize and deny anything. They worked both diachronically and synchronically, giving meaning to the historical past and the political present. They could be used for both foreign and cultural policy. They were suitable for the analysis of international relations and for attempts to artificially synthesize the unity of the post-Soviet space under the patronage of Russia. They described the vices of the Western world and the virtues of the Russian world.

Referring to this or that myth or to a tactical constellation assembled from the individual elements of each of them, it was possible to explain: the cancelation of governor elections and the voter turnout threshold; interference in the internal affairs of neighboring states and the growing confrontation with the West; the annexation of Crimea and support for Belarus’s dictator Lukashenka; the liquidation of internal opposition and the expulsion of international NGOs; gas wars and memory wars; the adoption of laws against “insulting the religious feelings of believers” and on “prohibiting LGBT propaganda;” the revision of school curriculum and the rewriting of the constitution.

Russia is great, but there is nothing to remember

In the justifications offered by the authorities for the elimination of civil rights and freedoms in Russia, as well as for the ratcheting up of their aggressive foreign policy, there is hardly anything that could not be directly or indirectly (after one or two logical steps) reduced to these two myths – that about a victorious people’s war and that about a revolution that destroys the very idea of Russian statehood. Their dazzling synthesis, capable of contending with Hegel’s Absolute Idealism, was the mantra: “There is Putin – there is Russia; there is no Putin – there is no Russia.”

The limit to the explanatory capabilities of the war myth was revealed in the most unexpected place.
"It turned out that anything could be described in terms of war except for war itself."
Bumper sticker “1941-1945. We can repeat it!” Source: VK
The memory of the Great Patriotic War – which thanks to the state’s history policy, has turned into a concept with an unlimited scope and nearly no content – is still trying to find its limits. And these limits do not allow one to contain an invasion of a foreign country, exposing the semantic emptiness, logical inconsistency and ethical failure of attempts to do so.

This also explains the scandalous gap between the criminally enforced prohibition to call the “special military operation” a war and the periodic slips of the highest officials of the Russian state who do just that. It explains the discursive hysteria of propaganda, which tries to cover semantic agony with rhetorical fervor. It explains the logical rake that the Russian Foreign Minister stubbornly keeps stepping on, submitting to his inclination to see historical analogies through to their end. It explains why the examples used by Putin from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, as well as his attempt to link Napoleon’s invasion with Hitler’s invasion and then build a bridge from these events to the current war with Ukraine, are fully effective only in conversations with “representatives of public patriotic associations.” Because it is too hard to present the siege of Bakhmut as the blockade of Leningrad or the attempt to take Kyiv as the defense of Moscow (more precisely, it is possible to do that theoretically, though the historical analogies do not work in favor of the current Russian regime).

The official historical narrative that has been constructed over the past decades relied on accentuated rhymes and repetitions to substantiate the idea of the continuity of the Russian state and apologize for its expansion and strengthening, sometimes broken by periods of unrest and revolutions from which the state supposedly emerged even stronger. Thanks to this idea of repetition, inactive and passive mass patriotism rose by leaps and bounds, though all the resulting energy only could make people buy the bumper sticker “1941-1945. We can repeat it!”
"Reiteration failed the moment it changed modality. First, it became clear that 'we can’t repeat it.' And second, gradually it emerged that it is not the right thing being repeated."
Therefore, there are no queues at conscription offices, and fifteen-year-old boys are not forging passports and giving themselves an extra three years of age to go to the front. Therefore, the songs of Oleg Gazmanov and Denis Maidanov (whose last name which derives from "Maidan" as in Ukraine's "Maidan revolution" forces you to explore the oedipal origins of Denis Maidanov’s political creativity) fall short of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. There's no way they can repeat it!... they need to change the record.

PS. Do not forget that the Russian political regime has another myth in its arsenal – that about revolution, which makes it possible to suppress any criticism of the authorities as an existential threat to the state. There is no doubt that the more the myth about a victorious patriotic war fails, the more that about the revolutionary threat will come to the fore. Still, the degree to which they have managed to fuse with each other could cause the fragments of one myth to destroy the architectural unity of the other, meaning that the twins will not outlive each other by long.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy