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A new era of propaganda: Russian use of its national history

Narratives from the Kremlin, the Duma and nationalist media embellish Russia's history in an open culture warfare against the West

Russian media and politicians, influenced by a nationalist ideology, often use Russian history, particularly from the Soviet time, to create a national consciousness and praise themselves for their contributions to world affairs. This often results in manipulation and in a rising hostility between Russia and other countries, especially in Eastern Europe.

A colored version of the picture taken in Berlin by the Red Army photographer Yevgueni Jaldei days before the Nazi's capitulation

ARTICLE /  José Javier Ramírez

Media bias. Russia is in theory a democracy, with the current president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin having been elected through several general elections. His government, nonetheless, has been accused of restricting freedom of opinion. Russia is ranked 149 out of 179 countriesin the Press Freedom Index, so it is no surprise that main Russian media (Pravda, RT, Sputnik News, ITAR-TASS, …) are strong supporters of the government’s version of history. They have been emphasizing on Russia’s glorious military history, notoriously since 2015 when they tried to counter international rejection of the Russian invasion of Crimea appealing to the spirit of the 70th World War II anniversary. On the other side, social networks are not often used: Putin lacks a Twitter account, and the Kremlin accounts’ posts are not especially significant nor controversial.

Putin’s ideology, often called Putinism, involves a domination of the public sphere by former security and military staff, which has led to almost all media pursuing to justify all Russian external aggressions, and presenting Western countries, traditionally opposed to these policies, as hypocritical and Russophobic. Out of the remarkable exceptions to these pro-government public sphere, we might mention Moscow Today newspaper (whose ideology is rather independent, in no way an actual opposition), and the leader of the Communist faction, Gennady Andreyevich Zyuganov, who was labelled Putin several times as a dictator, without too much success among the electorate.

Early period. Russian media take pride in having an enormously long history, to the extent of having claimed that one of its cities, Derbent, played a key role in several civilizations for two thousand years. However, the first millennium of such a long history often goes unmentioned, due to the lack of sources, and even when the role of the Mongolian Golden Horde is often called into question, perhaps in order to avoid recognizing that there was a time where Russians were subjected to foreign domination. In fact, Yuri Petrov, director of RAS Russian History Institute, has refused to accept that the Mongolian conquest was a colonization, arguing that it was a process of mixing with the Slavic and Mongolian elites.

Such arguments do not prevent TASS, Russian state’s official media, from having recognized the battle of Kulikovo (1380) as the beginning of Russian state history, since this was the time where all Russian states came together to gain independence. Similarly, Communist leader Zyuganov stated that Russia is to be thanked for having protected Europe from the Golden Horde’s invasion. In other words, Russian media have a contradictory position about the nation’s beginning: on one hand, they deny having been conquered by the Mongolian, or prefer not to mention such a topic; on the other, they widely celebrate the defeat of the Golden Horde as a symbol of their freedom and power. Similar contradictions are quite common in such an official history, dominated by nationalist bias.

Czarism. Unlike what might be thought, Russian Czars are held in relative high esteem. Orthodox Church has canonized Nicolas II as a martyr for the “patience and resignation” with which he accepted his execution, while public polls carried by TASS argued that most Russians perceive his execution as barbaric and unnecessary. Pravda has even argued that there has been a manipulation of the last Czar’s story both by Communists and the West (mutual accusations of manipulation between Russian and Western media are quite common): according to Pyotr Multatuli, a historian interviewed by Pravda, the last Czar was someone with fatherly love towards its citizens, and he just happened to be betrayed by conspirators, who killed him to justify their legitimacy.

But this nostalgic remembrance is not exclusive solely to the last Czar, there are actually multiple complimentary references to several monarchs: Peter the Great was credited by Putin for introducing honesty and justice as the state agencies principles; Catherine the Great for being a pioneer in experimentation with vaccines, and she was even the first monarch to have been vaccinated; Alexander III created a peaceful and strong Russia… Pravda, one of the most pro-monarchy newspapers, has even argued that Czars were actually more responsible and answerable to society than the USA politicians, or that Napoleon’s invasion was not actually defeated by General Winter, but by Alexander I’s strategy. The appreciation for the former monarchy might be due to the disappointment with the Soviet era, or in some way promoted by Putin, who since the Crimean crisis inaugurated several statues to honor Princes and Czars, without recognizing their tyranny. This can be understood as a way of presenting himself as a national hero, whose decisions must be obeyed even if they are undemocratic.

USSR. The Soviet Union is the most quoted period in the Russian media, both due to their proximity, and because it is often compared to today’s government. Perceptions about this period are quite different and to some extent contradictory. Zyuganov, the Communist leader, praises the Soviet government, considering it even more democratic that Putin’s government, and has advocated for a re-Stalinisation of Russia. Nonetheless, that is not the vision shared neither by Putin nor by most media.

Generally speaking, Russian media do not support Communist national policy (President Putin himself once took it as “inappropriate” being called neo-Stalinist). There is a recognition of Soviet crimes while, at the same time, they are accepted as something that simply happened, and to what not too much attention should be drawn. Stalin particularly is the most controversial character and a case of “doublethink”: President Putin has attended some events to honor Stalin’s victims, while at the same time sponsored textbooks that label him as an effective leader. The result, shown in several polls, is that there is a growing indifference towards Stalin’s legacy.

However, the approach is quite different when we talk about the USSR foreign policy, which is considered completely positive. The media praise the Russian bravery in defeating Nazi Germany, and doing it almost alone, and for liberating Eastern Europe. This praise has even been shown in the present: Russian anti-Covid vaccine has been given the name of “Sputnik V”, subtly linking Soviet former military technology and advancement to the saving of today’s world (the name of the first artificial satellite was already used for the news website and broadcaster Sputnik News). Moreover, Putin himself wrote an essay on the World War II where he argued that all European countries had their piece of fault (even Poland, whose occupation he justifies as politically compulsory) and that criticism of Russia's attitude is just a strategy of Western propaganda to avoid accepting its own responsibilities for the war.

This last point is particularly important in Russian media, who constantly criticize Western for portraying Russia and the Soviet Union as villains. According to RT, for instance, Norway should be much more thankful to Russia for its help, or Germany for Russia’s promotion of its unification. The reason for this ingratitude is often pointed to the United States and its imperialism, because it has always feared Russia’s strength and independence, according to Sputnik, and has tried to destroy it by all means. The accusations to the US vary among the Russian media, from Pravda’s accusation of the 1917 Revolution having been sponsored by Wall Street to destabilize Russia, to RT’s complaint that the US took advantage of Boris Yeltsin’s pro-Western policies to impose severe economic measures that ruined Russian economy and the citizens’ well-being (Pravda is particularly virulent towards the West).

What the European neighbours think. As in most countries, politicians in Russia use their national history mostly to magnify the reputation of the nation among the domestic public opinion and among international audiences, frequently emphasizing more the positive aspects than the negative ones. What distinguishes Russian media is the influence the Government has on them, which results in a remarkable history manipulation. Such manipulation has arrived to create some sort of doublethink: some events that glorify Russia (Czars’ achievements, Communist military success, etc.) are frequently quoted and mentioned while, at the same time, the dark side of these same events (Czars’ tyranny, Stalin’s repression, etc.) is ignored or rejected.

Manipulated Russian history is often incompatible with (manipulated or not) Western history, which has led to mutual accusations of hypocrisy and fake news that have severely undermined the relations between Russia and its Western neighbours (particularly Poland, whom Russia insists to blame to some extent for the World War II and to demand gratitude for the liberation provided by Russia). If Russia wants to strengthen its relationships, it must stop idealizing its national history and try to compare it with the Western version, particularly in topics referring to Communism and the 20th century. Only this way might tensions be eased, and there will be a possibility of fostering cooperation.

A separated chapter on this historical reconciliation should be worked with Russia's neighbours in Eastern Europe. Most of them shifted from Nazi occupation to Communist states, and now they are still consolidating its democracies. Eastern Europe societies have mixed feelings of love and rejection towards Russia, what they don't buy any more is the story of the Red Army as a force of liberation.

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