History Revisionism: How does the Kremlin manipulate the WWII topic?

The beginning of May marks two important dates that are celebrated in Ukraine and around the globe: on May 8 we commemorate the victims of World War II and celebrate the reconciliation between the parties while May 9 is recalled as the Victory Day over Nazism.

Officially recognised as the largest catastrophe in the history of humanity, the war took lives of around 80 millions people, according to some estimations, and irrevocably changed the lives of those who survived. For the majority of the countries which were involved in the war, the tragic events of 1939—1945 became a point of no return. 

Today, Ukraine, together with the rest of the civilised societies pronounces “Never again”. These words can be heard in many European languages — as a reminder for future generations. By contrast, in today’s Russia which positions itself as a fully-righted successor of the USSR, the rhetorics is completely different. One can easily grasp the message behind the motto “We can repeat”: clearly, it is about the not-even-hidden aggression, expressed disrespect to the memory of the victims and the value of human’s life in general.

How at all the idea of war tragedy can co-exist with the desire to reiterate it? How did Russia manage to make a celebration out of the tragic events, and how it has “evolutionised” in this more than 70-years-long journey? And finally — what does the state-aggressor celebrate on Victory Day over Nazism?

Whitewashing the USSR

By celebrating the “greatness” of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin attempts to remove the responsibility for launching WWII, the expansive politics practised by the USSR, and the large-scale crimes against humanity, committed by the totalitarian regime.

The signing of the Treaty of Non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the USSR which among all, included the so-called “Secret Protocol”, is now considered an indisputable historical fact. Specifically, the Protocol envisioned the partition of the Eastern European territories between the parties of the Treaty. It is understandable why for many years the communist regime has been denying the very fact of the Protocol’s existence, as well as the other factual evidence that pointed at the Soviet Union’s cooperation with Nazi Germany. Unsurprisingly, in nowadays Russia, there are still attempts to deny this fact, given that the status of Hitler’s collaborator does not fit so well in the image of the “state-liberator” which is fighting against nazism.

Moreover, Russia puts lots of effort to avoid the very uncomfortable comparison between communism and nazism them being equated. In January 2021, Vladimir Putin even proposed the State Duma to consider the Bill which would publicly condemn equating the roles of the USSR and the fascist German state. Actually, in May the registration of the project was approved.

So what are the steps, taken by the Kremlin, in the USSR whitewashing campaign? Right, it simply shifts the blame on the Western democracies for launching WWII, pretending it is exactly because of the “Western states conspiracy” why Hitler began seizing the territories. For instance, this idea was articulated in the Russian leader’s speech at the informal meeting of the Commonwealth of the Independent States (abbreviated in Russian as SNG) which took place in December 2019. Specifically, in recent years, the Kremlin gradually intensified attacks against Poland while its rhetorics towards other countries, namely — the United Kingdom, the U.S., France, and the Baltic states, — stays strongly negative.

The manipulation “toolset”:

  • Intentional distortion of historical facts,
  • Inciting hatred towards the Western states,
  • Mixing facts with opinions.

Victory’s annexation

This looks very much alike to Russian celebrations of its “reunion” with Crimea. 

Playing a role of a state which, allegedly, did not initiate the war but instead, offered a helping hand to Europe, first, Soviet Russia and later on — Putin’s Russia never hid the ambitions to get the status of the only winner over fascism. Arguably, that is the way Russia seeks to strengthen its positions in the world — by referring to the credibility it gained during the liberating operations at the end of the war and implying that the rest of the allies owed their freedom solely to the Red Army.

Using the same framework, the Kremlin works on diminishing the contribution of other nations that fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the war. Specifically, it tries to mitigate the role of Ukraine and other republics and devaluate the victims which were numerable. For instance, at the beginning of the ongoing Ruso-Ukrainian war, Russian propaganda recalled the old narrative, spreading the idea that “even without Ukraine’s contribution, Russia would anyway win in WWII”.

However, the facts say the opposite. More than 20% of the USSR Armed forces which were involved in the WWII fighting, were Ukrainians while the losses among the Ukrainian soldiers achieved approx. 3,5—4 million. This number makes half of all killed in action. Ukraine’s contribution to the fight against nazism is indeed invaluable. Ukraine remembers all those who gave their lives in the war. Each human life is highly valued.

The manipulation “toolset”:

  • Denial of the facts and promotion of the “interpretations”,
  • The imposition of the “younger brother” role concerning other nations,
  • Blaming Ukraine for it has forgotten its history.

When pushing ahead the message about “Europe’s liberation by Russia”, official Moscow seeks legalisation of its current aggression.

Raising morale

At the time when the whole world enjoys reconciliation, the state-aggressor motivates its citizens to reiterate the events of the war, promoting the “We can repeat” idea.

As such, each year the Kremlin launches the so-called “Immortal Regiment” actions, following its political goals in targeting both internal and external audiences, that is, putting propaganda on “export”. The movement, originated as a civil society’s initiative, now is taken under the Kremlin’s full control. It is being actively used for propaganda purposes, as a means of “hybrid warfare”. 

A highly theatrical celebration of the victory that is practised in modern Russia is designated to evoke strong emotions such as anger, rage, hatred, …as well as a sense of pride. And that is exactly what the current Russian authorities are looking for — to use as a basis for the further development of the “Great Patriotic War” myth. What happens in reality can be described as a substitution of the true concepts and ideas by fictional ones. Moreover, it becomes clear that these celebrations have no relation to the tragic topic of war when looking at the annual marches that remind masquerades of the dressed-up “fake veterans” and children being involved in the theatrical performances.

In modern Russia, a generation of grown-ups have already been formed — people, educated on the baseless “hurrah-patriotism” and 9th of May parades. It is very unlikely that people of this generation ever think about the true meaning of the threatening “to repeat the war”. However, they are likely to support the new cases of the Kremlin’s aggression.

The manipulation “toolset”:

  • Evocation of the strong emotional reactions,
  • The militarisation of the society,
  • “Exporting” the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” abroad.

Hidden behind the mask of celebrations, in reality, Russia promotes the militarisation of its society, cultivating the so-called “vajenshina” and fake patriotism. Why? To fill in the ideological vacuum while preparing the basis for aggressive behaviour in the future.

Given the circumstances, today, history can be considered as another platform where parties fight for “hearts and minds”. By setting up the modern Russian narrative, the Kremlin constantly refers to the WWII topic, manipulating the facts, spreading “interpretations”, and promoting the image of the conqueror.

Arguably, historical revisionism is now deeply rooted in Russian propaganda as its constant component. What at first glance looks like a suggestion of the different versions of historical events, appears to be a targeted action towards the understatement of the former “brotherly” nations’ identity, aimed at keeping these nations in Russia’s influence zone. To implement the current agenda, the Kremlin actively involves local agents — both “conscious”, those who get engaged upon personal motivation, as well as “unconscious”, who have no idea about them being used for propaganda purposes.

Thus, it can be assumed that until Russia keeps manipulating the topic of the war, WWII history stays another field of information warfare.

First photo: EPA

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