Historical Politics: Ideologisation of society as an attempt to change Post-Soviet identity

Ivan Kurilla
Mary L. Cornille Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities Wellesley College

The politicised version of history has become the core of the new ideology of the current Russian regime and serves as a disciplining framework for loyalty since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The initial attempts to introduce an official ideology based on Orthodoxy and traditional values took place in the mid-2010s but did not imply its compulsory nature or the forced exclusion of groups with different values. However, in the second half of the decade, there was a growing expansion of historical politics, with the central narrative defining Russian statehood as an alternative to the West, opposing its constant expansion and hostility. In the early 2020s, this version of history was increasingly consolidated as the only true and acceptable one, while alternative versions and their associated values were seen as instruments of hostile Western influence. As the Russia-Ukraine war has evolved into a protracted conflict, its legitimation has also increasingly become integrated into a single historical narrative of confrontation with the West, now reinforced by state coercion and repression.

Over the three decades of post-Soviet history, the ideologisation of the Russian authoritarian regime has replaced the era of ideological opportunism of the 2000s, which was characterised by the rejection of any ideology and official cynicism designed to demobilise society and marginalise groups with strong value priorities. The ideological opportunism and eclecticism of the 2000s was in turn designed to neutralise the value baggage and liberal aspirations of the perestroika and post-perestroika era. The current stage of ideological expansion by the state is designed, on the one hand, to definitively exclude and 'cancel' the liberal segment of Russian society, and, on the other hand, to change the identity of the part of society that absorbed the ideological opportunism of the 2000s.

From ideological opportunism to revanchist ideology

Throughout the first and part of the second decade of this century, the Russian regime, despite the presence of ideological 'markers' such as the anthem, emblem, and flag, could not be considered ideological. Indeed, the revamped Soviet anthem, the coat of arms of the Russian Empire, and the flag used by democratic Russia were designed to unite the ideologically different epochs of Russian history into a common fabric, making almost any attempt at ideological justification of such unity eclectic, except for perhaps broadly interpreted patriotism.

Moreover, in practice, the regime demonstrated cynicism, constantly reminding observers that public explanations for political decisions did not describe their true motives. This was evident, for example, in the 'dispute between economic entities' during the closure of media not controlled by the Kremlin, the ban on the import of Moldovan wines and Georgian mineral water into Russia (formally due to sanitary claims, but in reality as a reaction to actions by the leadership of these countries that Moscow did not approve of), and even in the description of the annexation of Crimea and the role of Russian armed forces during this. The creation of an atmosphere of general distrust, the slogan 'Everybody lies', and the propaganda asserting that the truth is impossible to find (what would later be called 'post-truth') directly contradicted any attempt to promote an ideology that would require mass trust in a certain picture of the world. 

As a result, a broad layer of ideological opportunism was formed in society: the rejection of communist ideology was followed by disillusionment with liberal values, and the relative economic upturn in the 2000s created the illusion that any idea could be 'monetised'. Supporters of communism and adherents of liberalism were transformed from agents of a hegemonic discourse into minority groups for whom the ideology meant something. It seemed that a turn towards the ideologisation of society and the state was no longer possible, and that the authorities would resort to other approaches more typical of the poststructuralist era. However, public fatigue and the bureaucratic machine's weariness of cynicism, coupled with a decline in trust in the regime, especially evident during the protests of 2011–2012, forced the Kremlin to reconsider the Soviet and post-Soviet experience and once again test ideological methods of societal management. Initially, there was a shift towards 'traditional values,' but these did not immediately take the form of a mandatory ideology. Although state propaganda portrayed them as the values of the majority, it still left room for supporters of other value systems. The Memorial Society, the Sakharov Centre, a number of liberal media outlets, and human rights organisations, although beginning to experience pressure from the state during this period, continued their work as ideological centres of the liberal intelligentsia.

During the same period, some key figures within the regime openly discussed the need to create its ideological foundation and a programme of 'ideological education' for children and young people. Vladimir Medinsky was the first to step into this field, outlining his plan for creating a 'historical' ideology as early as February 2012: 'There is a need for historical policy in the state. But we do not have one — everything develops spontaneously, “on its own”. There was a historical policy under Stalin, there were orders for historical films, historical books. For example, the novel “Peter the Great” was written by Tolstoy by direct order of Stalin. There were other masterpieces as well. Because the man [Stalin] was good at ideology and brainwashing. Now everything is left to its own devices and so efficiency is naturally “on the floor”.' Medinsky's active involvement in this area resulted in the establishment of the Russian Military Historical Society (RMHS), earning him the position of Minister of Culture, where he contributed significantly to the formation of the regime's ideology.

In April 2016, Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, published an article in which he explicitly stated: 'The creation of a concept for the state's ideological policy is extremely important. Its basic element could be a national idea that would truly unite the multinational Russian people. The concept could include specific long-term and medium-term measures aimed at the ideological education and enlightenment of our younger generation.' Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service and part-time head of the Russian Historical Society, said in 2017: 'The struggle for minds will become more intense and cover new spheres'. 

In the early years of the turn towards ideologisation, society witnessed repeated conflicts between supporters of different views of the past promoted by various state or quasi-state actors in historical politics. For example, several initiatives of the Medinsky-led RMHS were rolled back as a result of active resistance from other members of the conservative coalition. This included the installation and subsequent dismantling of a memorial plaque to Field Marshal Mannerheim in 2016. A memorial plaque to Admiral Kolchak was installed in St Petersburg the same year, but was removed by court order in 2017. The opening of the monument to 'reconciliation' in Sevastopol was delayed for several years, because the contemporary organisations, which consider themselves the heirs to the 'White' and 'Red' causes, were not ready for any symbolic reconciliation. In 2021, authorities halted a survey on whether to install a monument to Alexander Nevsky or return the monument to Dzerzhinsky on Lubyanka, which revealed that the survey was splitting the very anti-liberal base on which the regime relies.

During this period, Russian government officials increasingly turned to the past to justify contemporary political decisions and attempted to align historical education with propaganda goals.However, until the early 2020s, the historical community resisted such initiatives (such as the proposal for a ‘unified history textbook’ first suggested by Putin in 2013). Apparently, the resistance to a radical revision of history textbooks became one of the incentives behind the creation (starting in 2017) of the 'Russia — My History' network of multimedia parks, which presented a much more conservative, anti-liberal, and anti-Western narrative than even the repeatedly edited textbooks. The 'Russia — My History' project combined the secular demands of the authorities with a proposal from conservative members of the Orthodox clergy, primarily represented by Bishop and later Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov).

By the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the alliance between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church had clearly shifted from a form of institutional cooperation to joint development of a new state ideology. One of the symbols of this was the opening of the Main Cathedral of the Armed Forces in the Moscow region on 9 May 2020, which triggered a sharp reaction even from a notable part of the Orthodox community. Shortly before the official ceremony, it was revealed that the temple contained mosaic images of Joseph Stalin, as well as Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu and Valentina Matvienko. As a result of protests, including those from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Stalin's image was moved from the temple to a museum. In the wave of these protests, Putin also suggested removing the mosaic with his portrait from the church wall ('Someday grateful descendants will appreciate our merits, but it is too early to do it now'), and this section of the image was also dismantled and moved to the museum. Nevertheless, the creation of the ‘Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces' and the expressed intention to include portraits of the regime's leaders within its decor was reminiscent of the caesaropapism of Orthodoxy. 

Thus, the demand for ideology manifested itself shortly after the protests of 2011–2012 and initially was only presented by some within the post-Putin political elite. On the one hand, it encountered competition between various projects of 'ideologisation' and, on the other hand, resistance from below, from professional and human rights communities. 

The radical turn and the ideologisation of history 

A dramatic turning point occurred at the turn of 2021-2022, when the institutions that had resisted the introduction of state ideology were destroyed, after which we can confidently speak of the regime's transition to a new stage. The centre of the new ideological picture of the world revolves not so much around Orthodox values than it does around a particular narrative of domestic and foreign history. A crucial guiding document became Vladimir Putin's article '75 Years of the Great Victory: Shared Responsibility before History and the Future,' published in the summer of 2020. In it, the responsibility for the start of World War II was attributed to the drafters of the Versailles Treaty, participants of the Munich agreement, and even Poland but not to the Stalinist Soviet Union. The article was a response to the prevailing concept in Europe of the shared guilt of 'two totalitarianisms', Germany and the USSR, and signalled a return to the Soviet line of argumentation.

Although history was used to legitimise the regime practically since the very beginning of Putin's rule, its significance in the speeches and articles of the country's leaders increased throughout the 2010s. With the shift to a military regime, it finally took a central place in the state ideology alongside geopolitical discussions about sovereignty, the ‘decline of the West’, and the defence of traditional values. Several manifestations of the qualitative change that has taken place in this sphere can be identified: 

  • the introduction of a reference to the 'defence of historical truth' in the text of the Constitution in 2020, postulating the existence of a definitive 'historical truth' (rather than a plurality of narratives) that the state acknowledges and is obliged to defend; 

  • a shift to suppress institutions promoting non-state versions of national history;

  • the rejection of competition between different lines of school history textbooks and the imposition of textbooks edited by Vladimir Medinsky as compulsory;

  • the introduction of mandatory historical or quasi-historical programmes in the first years of Russian universities, regardless of specialisation.

In 2020, Article 67.1 was added to the Russian Constitution, emphasising the 'thousand-year history' of the Russian Federation, its continuity with the USSR, the 'memory of the ancestors', the ideals 'handed down' by them, and faith in God. This article also asserted that 'the Russian Federation honours the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, ensures the protection of historical truth' and postulated the need to educate children in 'patriotism, citizenship and respect for elders'. With this amendment, officials had the constitutional grounds to establish a unified version of the past and to introduce it into the educational process. 

The constitutional amendment was soon followed by an initiative from the Investigative Committee 'to establish the facts of genocide against the Soviet people' during the Great Patriotic War. In October 2020, the Novgorod Regional Court, for the first time, recognised the actions of the German army on the territory of the Novgorod region as genocide. Following this, similar processes were initiated in the Leningrad region, St Petersburg, Stavropol Krai, Volgograd and Kaluga regions, as well as in Crimea. Following the 45th meeting of the ‘Victory’ committee, Vladimir Putin instructed the Ministry of Education to incorporate materials on the genocide of the Soviet people into federal general education programmes. Supporting the idea of qualifying Nazi Germany's actions as the ‘genocide of the peoples of the USSR’ were figures such as the Chairman of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov.

The next step, obviously associated with the decision to launch a 'special military operation' against Ukraine, was the transition to the institutional suppression of non-state versions of national history: the closure of Memorial in late 2021 and early 2022 and the destruction of monuments to those who had been repressed and the 'Last Address' plaques (especially those commemorating Poles, Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians, among others) during 2023. 

In late summer 2023, in violation of the law on education, which requires the possibility of choice, it was announced that there would be a transition to a unified history textbook for schools (previously, the semblance of competition was maintained with three different textbook ‘lines’) — for both national and world history. The author of all these textbooks was Vladimir Medinsky, who has long earned an extremely negative reputation among professional historians as a proponent of politicised interpretations and myths, contrary to the views of historians and the source data. One could say that Medinsky's name on the cover of the textbook was a kind of symbolic gesture by the authorities, who for the preceding 10 years had been unable to pass the 'unified textbook' through professional expertise.

A detailed analysis of one of the textbooks from the new 'line', undertaken by Konstantin Pakhalyuk, leads the author to conclude: 'Being a product of state historical policy, the “textbook” by V.R. Medinsky and A.V. Torkunov is aimed at instilling an image of history, where the country's past is reduced to the development of state bodies and the labour of people under their leadership. This excluded any public institutions as independent actors. Any state crime is justified by the authors through references to external threats or important state tasks, constituting the main ethical message of the manual. 'Hooray-patriotism invariably slides into a narrative of “historical grievances”, injustices and betrayals, fostering a flawed and defamatory worldview' (→ Konstantin Pakhalyuk: The Russian State and the 'Unified' Historical Narrative). 

Liberal memory institutions were defeated and could not resist the introduction of these textbooks. However, it turned out that it was not only liberals who were not satisfied with a narrative that restored the memory of Stalin's time. In September 2023, the Congress of the Karachay People appealed to the leadership of both chambers of the Federal Assembly to withdraw the circulation of the Russian history textbook for pupils in grades 10-11. The reason was a paragraph about the deportations of Karachays, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, and Crimean Tatars, which stated the 'facts' of their 'cooperation with the occupiers' in 1943-1944, which, according to the authors of the textbook, 'explained' the decision to liquidate the state entities of these peoples in the USSR and subject them to collective punishment by forced resettlement to eastern regions. Influential Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov joined the criticism of the textbook, and by early November, Education Minister Sergey Kravtsov personally flew to Grozny to discuss the edited section of the textbook.

At the same time, the introduction of compulsory historical and quasi-historical programmes in the first years of university courses began — corresponding hastily created textbooks contained even more explicitly ideological statements.

Of course, one cannot forget the fact that the justification for the 'special military operation' against Ukraine was entirely 'historical' as the focus of both Putin's article 'On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians' and his speech on the beginning of military operations was history. 

All these changes indicated that the regime had definitively abandoned balancing between the three prominent ideological groups in the country — Orthodox, Communists and liberals — by pushing liberals beyond the limits of the society it relies on.

Russia as anti-West

Ideology has indeed replaced the official cynicism of previous decades. However, the task of re-educating the middle generation — those who absorbed the ideological opportunism of the 'noughties' - is no longer a priority for the authorities. Mobilisation (including literal, military mobilisation to participate in the 'special military operation') among people of this generation takes place on a monetised basis, aligning with the worldview imposed in the early years of the regime's existence ('There is no truth, but everything can be bought'). The main ideological emphasis is placed on young people who have not been inoculated with cynicism and, as research suggests, are more sympathetic to liberal values; hence this focus on school education and textbooks. It is cheaper to mobilise the new generation. 

What is this ideology or quasi-ideology (as it does not fulfil all the characteristics of the term)?

The main points of the ideology can be traced back to Putin's statements of 2007, from his 'Munich speech' to speeches about the need for a strong state, an organised and united society with a clear orientation. Substantively, all these texts share a common anti-Western and anti-liberal pathos, equating the country to the state, denying the subjectivity of internal opposition or the elites of neighbouring countries, and aspiring to the ideal of a society without internal contradictions. This ideal was first articulated by Putin back in 2007 in a speech at a forum of his supporters in a negative form, i.e. through a description of his opponents: 'Those who oppose us do not want to implement our plan. Because they have completely different tasks and other views on Russia. They want a weak, sick state. They need a disorganised and disoriented society, a divided society — to do their own business behind its back, to get some goodies at our expense. And, unfortunately, there are still those inside the country who 'slink around' foreign embassies, foreign diplomatic missions, who count on the support of foreign funds and governments, rather than the support of their own people.’ This already contained a hope for the creation of an 'organised society' with clear guidelines and a distrust of foreigners. While this was far from being realised in 2007, by 2023, the Russian regime had made significant progress towards creating such a society. However, it had to resort to violence to achieve this.

In the texts and speeches of Putin and his inner circle, the influence of those views on the past that were embodied in the multimedia exhibitions 'Russia — My History' is noticeable. The main elements of these views are anti-Westernism, anti-liberalism, and the celebration of unity instead of diversity. It is within this ideology that the cult of Alexander Nevsky developed, with the motto 'befriend the East and distrust the West' often attributed to him. The figure of Alexander Nevsky unites the Orthodox and ‘historical’ components of Russia's new ideology.

The imposed perspective on the past considers the contemporary Russian Federation as the legitimate successor of the USSR, the Russian Empire, the Moscow Tsardom, and the Grand Duchy of Vladimir, which, in turn, inherited the Kyiv throne. From this follows the justification of claims for direct or indirect control of all territories that have ever been part of these state formations. The Russian people have always been portrayed as victims of the insidious West and relied on alliances in the East, despite several times saving the West from the evil within it. The last time this happened was during the Second World War, in which the Soviet people (= Russians) fell victim to genocide, but defeated the evil of Nazism and liberated Europe, although they were subsequently defamed. The Great Patriotic War is thus the pivotal event in Russian history, and its correct interpretation requires state protection, as it legitimises Russia's place in the world.

In this narrative, Ukraine is depicted as a part of the Russian world that has been torn away and deceived by the insidious West. The stand at the multimedia exhibition 'Russia — My History', dedicated to Galician Rus', describes its history in several paragraphs: 'an oligarchic coup', 'the first execution of the sovereign in Russia', 'seizure of power in Galicia by a foreign puppet' and, in sum, 'a failed state: in the fourteenth century, Western Rus' was absorbed by its European neighbours'. The adjacent stand dedicated to Alexander Nevsky highlights points such as ‘refusal to submit to the Roman Pope’, ‘resistance to aggression from the West’, ‘brotherhood with the Golden Horde Khan Sartak’, ‘the East as a choice for preserving Rus’, and, as a general appeal, the slogan attributed to Alexander, 'Strengthen defences in the West, and look for friends in the East'. 

Putin's article 'On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians' indicates the regime’s intention to return to the times of nation-building in the 19th century, when the project of building a large Russian nation from the Eastern Slavs was alive (though notably it lacks elements of another project from the same era — Pan-Slavism, which sought the political unification of all Slavic peoples).

Threats and opportunities: Ideological divisions in Russian society and prospects for resistance

In the first months of the 'special military operation' we observed how the positions of 'pro-Communist' (pro-Soviet) groups were strengthened in the occupied territories and in propaganda: monuments to Lenin were restored, and for several weeks the image of the 'grandmother with a red flag' became a meme. It seems that among the pro-war elite there was a perception of the 'special military operation' as a restoration of the USSR, although the Kremlin did not encourage the complete identification of Russia with the Soviet Union. On the contrary, in the official interpretation,the USSR was seen more as a reincarnation of imperial Russia. This is how one might read the alternative interpretation of the goals of the ‘special military operation’ that Putin highlighted in the summer of 2022. On 9 June, at a meeting with young entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists, he compared himself to Peter the Great: 'Peter the Great fought the Northern War for 21 years. It seemed like he was at war with Sweden, repelling something... He did not repel anything; he was reclaiming it! Why did he go there? To reclaiming and to strengthen — that is what he was doing. Apparently, it has fallen to our lot to return and strengthen, too'. 

This leap from 'denazification' to 'return of land' as an explanation for a risky political decision may cast doubt on the existence of a unified and consistent ideology among the key representatives of the regime, and instead may seem like a reflection of its eclecticism. However, there is no real contradiction here. The situational selection of suitable elements from a set of different conservative postulates constitutes the ideological basis of the regime. Marlene Laruelle has described the penetration of ideology into Russian society not as a unidirectional 'top-down' process, but as the authorities' search for elements of beliefs in society that can be used to construct a convenient picture of the world, and calls Putin's regime an 'ideological construction ad hoc'. With changing tasks, these elements can evolve (→ Marlene Laruelle: Ideological Complementarity or Competition?).

And here, it is essential to revisit the ideological divisions within Russian society and examine whom the regime managed to mobilise and what role its ideological choices played. While we lack reliable methods to determine the proportion of each of these 'ideological groups' within Russian society, it is reasonable to assume that each is smaller than the share of people we have labelled as 'ideological opportunists'. One approximation can be seen in a youth survey conducted in November 2022, which showed that 46% of those surveyed could not characterise their political views in a definite way, while 15% (the largest share) labelled them as liberal, 14% as social-democratic, 9% as conservative, 8% as communist, 4% as nationalist, and 4% as anarchist or other (→ Olga Popova, Nikolai Grishin: Political Identity of Russian Youth).

Until recently, in its use of history, the regime balanced between the views of three major groups in the Russian population: supporters of the communists, adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the liberal community (each of these groups is heterogeneous, so their designations are somewhat arbitrary). This balance was reflected in the eclectic trinity of the coat of arms, flag, and anthem. The exclusion of the liberal group (symbolically marked by the ‘purge’ of Memorial and the Sakharov Center) left the authorities with the support of two groups. The conditionally "secular" conservative core of the regime (which we are familiar with from Medinsky's speeches) retained its alliance with the 'left-wing conservatives' of the CPRF (Zyuganov) and the Orthodox conservatives (Shevkunov). Despite significant differences in their attitudes towards many important events in the country's past, these three positions were united by a common adversary—the liberal worldview.

However, the incident with the history textbook and Ramzan Kadyrov demonstrates that divisions exist within the conservative coalition as well. Thus, even in the highly generalised scheme of ideological divisions in Russian society, there is a great deal of heterogeneity, revealing the potential weaknesses of the new ideology.

Efforts to ideologise history should be seen from the unified perspective of the three post-Soviet decades. Significant propaganda efforts, coupled with practices of state coercion, are undertaken when there is a need to alter prevailing societal perceptions, to make people abandon previously assimilated identities and embrace new ones. At the same time, any ideology, any unfolding narrative, is a response to some existing belief.In this case, we are witnessing an attempt to break Russians' perceptions of themselves — the notions formed in preceding periods — through the introduction of historical ideology. Moving in reverse chronological order from the current ideology, we see that it replaced an era of ideological opportunism, which was characterised by cynicism. However, cynicism itself is a potent tool for eroding any convictions. It was necessary for the authorities to dismantle the system of views that had developed among Russians from the era of perestroika to the beginning of the current century. However, ideological opportunism makes it difficult to mobilise the masses politically. The current 'ideology' is designed to do away not only with the remnants of the optimistic 'perestroika' identity, but also with the opportunism of the 'noughties'. 

By shifting from a balance between several versions of the past to a single narrative that is confrontational towards the outside world and parts of its own society, the regime has narrowed its base of support and reduced its own legitimacy, which required a huge state effort to 'reformat' the perceptions of the Russian population about the world and Russia's place in it. Therefore, for the first time in the post-Soviet years, structures of ideological control were deployed in the education system and repression of dissenters began (→ Dmitry Dubrovsky: How the Russian state is introducing a repressive system in education).

As a result, groups of Russians who have become the primary target of the new ideological preachers constitute a significant resource for resistance, and violent ideologisation itself breeds protest. In the conditions of repression, it is impossible to estimate the scale of protest, but it can be assumed that those disagreeing with the course of ideologisation may form their own coalition (or, to put it another way, political forces that risk proclaiming their disagreement can count on the formation of such a coalition), consisting of several parts:

  • liberals, who oppose any forced ideologisation of society;
  • 'ideological opportunists' who do not trust any ideology;
  • a number of supporters within the conservative coalition who disagree with the specific form and content of the current ideologisation. 

It is worth noting that, more than others, younger Russians disagree with the ideology imposed by the regime. This makes the regime's efforts to focus on the education system even more understandable (→ Re: Russia: War of Patriotisms).

It is possible to reconstruct the basic elements of the liberal identity that the creators of the current ideology are attempting to destroy. They are supporters of a pluralistic complex society, sympathetic to the West, open to collaboration, and do not consider the state to be of the highest value and the only subject of national life. Contrary to the assurances of today's propagandists, this identity had spread far beyond the circle of liberal intellectuals, as evidenced by the current efforts of the authorities.

Ideological opportunists may see the authorities as a source of income, they can be 'bribed', and they are concerned about the introduction of ideology into the schools where their children study (typical examples of parental resistance have been described in the press). Finally, the third group includes authoritarian regional leaders like Kadyrov among others. With the establishment of a particular ideology, debates about the merits of one view of the past or another cease. The triumph of the 'imperial version' of events makes communists and supporters of national movements critics of this ideology. 

Such a view of the ongoing 're-ideologisation' allows us to see pockets of consolidation of its opponents within Russian society. It is on these groups that the regime is trying to impose a new ideology. Resistance to this ideology is now largely based on cynicism, which denies any imposed values, as well as on the resources of supporters of other versions of the conservative narrative. Any system based on denial is inherently weak and may yield to the pressure of a new ideology. However, if a political force emerges in the country based on pluralistic values opposed to the imposed 'monistic' ideology, it has a chance to form a coalition that will be much broader than the number of liberals left in Russia.