Russian propaganda overturning the historical experience of overcoming Nazism

June 30, 2022
  • Ilya Budraitskis

    Political and social theorist, previously based in Moscow, now nonresidential visiting fellow at GW's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies

DOXA delved into the intricacies of Russian historical policy and spoke with SHANINKA professor, political philosopher Ilya Budraitskis about rethinking the Soviet experience, returning to the ideas of internationalism, and the correctness of comparing modern Russia with Nazi Germany.
Justifying its aggression against Ukraine, the Russian regime likes to appeal to history. When he announced the recognition of the DNR and LNR, Vladimir Putin delivered a real lecture to Russians about the history of the Ukrainian state, which was created, in his view, by the Bolsheviks and personally Lenin. One of the goals of the invasion of Ukraine was said to be the "denazification" of the country – supposedly Russia is carrying on the work begun by the Soviet Union, which struggled against Nazism and fascism in the 1940s.

The peculiarities of Putin's historical policy

Now we retrospectively see the historical policy pursued by the Russian state in the last decade as preparation for the war with Ukraine. This policy has several key features. First – a tendency, common to our time, to lose sight of the future and instead look for justification of the present in the past.

Second, the history of Russia is seen exclusively as the history of the Russian state, which in various forms (be it the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union) and at different stages of its existence reproduces its unchanging essence. In this view, Russia is equal to its territory, biologically understood nation and essentialist culture. Russian propaganda constantly speaks of a “civilizational code” [cultural code], which clearly indicates that Russian culture is seen as something innate, assimilated at the genetic level. In this framework, the cultural code is the same as a genetic code, meaning it can’t be changed.

Finally, the history of Russia is reduced to the history of the state’s struggle with external enemies and the conquest of new territories. Internal political processes, as well as the development of society and culture, in such a model play a subordinate role and fade into the background.
Vladimir Putin at the Museum of Contemporary History of Russia (2014). Source: Press Service of the President of Russia
The cyclical view of history and neoliberalism

Russian historical policy offers not a linear, but a cyclical model of history. The linear narrative – characteristic, for example, of Soviet historiography – supposes that every moment in the past or present is part of a process of becoming that unfolds over time and has some purpose in the future. Meanwhile, there is no idea of becoming in Putin's historical model.

The axis or core of that model is the confrontation between Russia and the West. From ancient times to the present day, the collective West, under various guises, has tried to deprive Russia of its identity and sovereignty, while Russia has successfully resisted these attempts. Such an approach strips every historical event of its uniqueness and specificity.
"There can be nothing new in Putin's view of history: the Battle of the Neva, the Battle of the Ice, the invasion of Napoleon, World War II, the conflict with Ukraine – everything is seen as a reproduction of the same pattern."
Another important feature follows from this – the idea that Russia must inevitably succeed. Vladimir Medinsky, while still the culture minister, constantly spoke about the competitiveness of Russian culture. The entire history of Russia is a success story based on its values, culture and religion.

Orthodoxy is also regarded functionally as a religious choice most conducive to achieving success. In the mid-2010s, Patriarch Kirill stated that Saint Vladimir's choice of Christianity was a rational decision that led to foreign policy victories. The conservative cyclical view of history surprisingly overlaps with neoliberal notions of efficiency.
"All crises and revolutions in Russian history are seen as the result of external interference, as the very concept of the Russian state excludes the possibility of any failure."
When analyzing the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, attention is placed on the fact that in reality these revolutions were inspired from outside and had no real social, political or economic foundation.

At one time, I was greatly impressed by the exhibition Russia – My History, which presented the modern Russian historical concept in great detail. I had expected the exhibits to call Lenin a German spy, but it turned out that, according to the exhibitors, the uprisings of the Decembrists, Yemelyan Pugachev and Stepan Razin were also driven by foreign interference.

Liquidation of Memorial

During the proceedings against Memorial, the prosecutor's office explicitly stated that the reason for “liquidating” the historical society was its alleged denigration of Russian history. This thesis is very important. Memorial had presented the history of Russia not from the standpoint of the state, but from that of those who had suffered at the hands of this state. Memorial had considered it vitally important to give people the opportunity to hear the voices of victims, regardless of who they had been. Therefore, assertions that Memorial advocated a liberal view of history strike me as incorrect. We know that many communists were among the victims of Stalin's repressions – Memorial never denied this fact, and, on the contrary, very much emphasized it.

The understanding of history advocated by Memorial can be characterized as genealogical – the history of losers, not winners. Memory of the losers and the opportunity to identify with them makes us people and citizens, constantly reminding us of the boundaries that the state shouldn’t cross in its self-justification. In this sense, Memorial was an important symbolic opponent of the dominant Russian ideology, and Memorial’s liquidation was one of the steps toward what happened on February 24.
Historical park "Russia - my history. Source: DOXA
Rethinking the Soviet experience and Putin's anti-communism

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union has played an important role in shaping Russian ideology and historical policy, primarily because the Putin regime understands the Soviet Union as another reincarnation of “historical Russia.” However, the attitude toward the Soviet Union is somewhat more complicated. At one time, Putin called the Soviet collapse the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. If we compare this statement with his speech two days before the invasion of Ukraine, in which he declared that the current problems with Ukraine were rooted in the nationality policy of the Bolsheviks, then we can say that over time Putin has come to the conclusion that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was not the collapse, but the creation of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was based on the principles of self-determination of nations and anti-imperialism, as well as a fundamental revision of the foundations on which the Russian Empire existed. It is precisely these concepts that are expected to be revised with the invasion of Ukraine. In this sense, Putin is a deeply anti-Soviet and anti-communist politician.
"What Putin's Russia is doing in Ukraine today can be seen as an attempt to definitively draw a line under the Soviet experience."
The idea of Russian-Ukrainian friendship and brotherhood was possible only when the equality of nations, together with their legitimate right to possess a national culture, language and identity, was recognized. Thus, in light of today's discussions about whether normal relations between Russians and Ukrainians can exist in the future, a rethinking of the Soviet experience is necessary. At the same time, of course, the numerous imperial relapses of Stalinism and such terrible events as the Holodomor should not be forgotten.

A reassessment of the Soviet experience must be based on an understanding of its contradictions and inhomogeneities – for example, an understanding of the gulf between the positions of Lenin and Stalin on the issue of national self-determination. The Soviet cannot be "gotten rid of” as a whole by renaming streets or destroying monuments – it must be accepted as a part of history where extremely reactionary features existed alongside progressive, liberating elements, which can become the basis for future democratic development.

On internationalism and the illusions of the Western Left

When I spoke about the need for a return to internationalism in a recent interview with Spectre, it was addressed primarily to the Western Left, which for the most part has underestimated the potential for an aggressive imperialist policy by Russia in recent decades.
"The idea that imperialism can only be American predominated, the upshot being that anyone who resisted American imperialism was automatically part of historically progressive forces."
This view is fundamentally wrong. Many leftists in the West now understand this and are trying to develop a different view, though so far their success has been limited. The idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend has penetrated so deep into the consciousness of the Western Left that it’s very hard for them to return to the ideas of internationalism, like solidarity with the oppressed, including oppressed nations that are faced with colonial aggression. Internationalism, which goes beyond national borders, separates the current capitalist states into more progressive and less progressive and looks at imperialism not as the property of any one country, but as a potentially dangerous condition of the world, full of the potential for wars. This kind of internationalism was demonstrated by the European Left during World War I. Today, it should be rethought and updated.

How Russian propaganda is redefining the concept of Nazism

I’ve already said that Russian historical policy offers a cyclical model of Russian history. In this regard, the history and lessons of World War II are also undergoing a fundamental reassessment. Since there was nothing unique in World War II and the defeat of Nazism – after all, it was just another victory of Russian civilization over Western civilization – then there is nothing unique in Nazism itself. If you are against Russia, then you are a Nazi, and if you are for Russia, then you are an anti-fascist.

When the Russian Ministry of Defense speaks of its intention to hold an "international anti-fascist congress," it means a gathering of all the forces sympathetic to the current Russian foreign policy. The major difference between this initiative and the congresses for peace put on by the Stalinist Comintern in Europe in the 1930s lies in the fact that the Soviet Union represented an alternative to Nazism, at least at the level of values. It talked about democratic rights, the equality of nations, internationalism and the value of human life regardless of race or nationality.
"Even during Stalin’s reign, the Soviet Union spoke the language of universalism, which stood in stark contrast with the anti-universalist rhetoric of Nazism."
The understanding of Nazism that Russian propaganda offers is in itself anti-universalist. It is based on the fact that Nazism, like anti-fascism, represents a certain entity. Recently, a number of propaganda materials surfaced in which denazification was equated with de-Ukrainization.

It turns out that every person who considers himself Ukrainian and believes that the Ukrainian state has the right to exist is a Nazi. Russian propaganda completely overturns the historical experience of overcoming Nazism in the second half of the 20th century. The ethical lessons of World War II have been forgotten – several generations have passed, and the idea of Nazism is open to the interpretation of the state in pursuit of its own political interests.

Comparing Putin's Russia with Nazi Germany

Historical analogies are rather dubious because they take us away from understanding the specifics of a particular moment and try to re-describe it in terms of what happened in the past. In this sense, comparing today's Russia with 1933 or 1939 Germany doesn’t quite work. When Germany started World War II, Hitler's regime was not in decline. Today, we are witnessing the fascist transformation of the Russian regime in the context of its extreme degradation. The disappointments, to put it mildly, suffered by the Russian army that marked the first stage of the invasion of Ukraine clearly indicate this.

However, the study of the Nazi dictatorship allows us to understand some very important mechanisms, which, unfortunately, are also at work in modern Russian society. Claudia Koonz, in her book The Nazi Conscience, claims that at the time of Hitler's rise to power, most of German society didn’t share Nazi ideas. The Nazis, though they enjoyed some electoral support, were a political minority. However, thanks to mass propaganda and the introduction of certain social practices, they managed to fascisize German society. The changes Koonz describes — conformism, the atomization of society, the spread of fear across society — bear some resemblance to those that began to take place in Putin's Russia after the attack on Ukraine.
First International Congress of Writers in Defense of Culture (Paris, 1935). Source: Gisele Freund
Lessons from philosophy of the 20th century

Now, a large corpus of texts written in the 1930s and 1940s have become accessible to us in a new light – in that critical period, social and political philosophers realized their limitations and inability to change the world according to their ideas while at the same time recognizing that they had powerful tools with which to study the causes of what had happened. In this regard, all the major authors of the period who analyzed the nature of Nazism and the causes of World War II are of great interest. Besides the now-much-talked-about works of Walter Benjamin, recall The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, who tried to reconstruct how humanity had ended up in such a tragic place.

At the core of all the approaches to the study of Nazism lay the bitter realization that what had happened was not a deviation from the plan or a turn off the highway leading to prosperity, democracy and liberal freedoms, but rather represented a logical consequence of the development of capitalist society.

"Today, we must also understand that what seemed normal, objective and inevitable, was in fact carrying the seeds of destruction."
This concerns both the development of Russia over recent decades and the state of the world overall. Putin's Russia is not a unique society. It may have taken certain tendencies to the extreme, but these tendencies are global in nature – we see them in various authoritarian and right-wing populist movements, as well as in the anti-humanist market idea of constant competition and struggle, which in its political form can lead to new fascisization.

The original text in Russian was published in DOXA.

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