History in Russia’s Arms Arsenal


Mārcis Balodis, researcher, the Centre for East European Policy Studies

The events of the Second World War play a very important role in shaping the identity of modern Russia. They mark the victory of Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, over fascism, even experiencing the arrival of fascist troops in the outskirts of Moscow, thus proving the strength of the state. Today, however, Russia seeks to saturate historical facts with politics in order to create a favorable picture of historical events, while using it as an excuse to slander any country and society that refuses to accept the Kremlin’s black-and-white vision of history.

This year on January 16, the Latvian Saeima (parliament) passed a decision on the inadmissibility of distorting the history of the Second World War. The Saeima emphasized that the efforts of Russian officials to review the events of international relations with the aim of justifying the crimes of the Soviet Union against other countries were unacceptable, as well as pointed out the need to provide an objective explanation of historical events. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s propaganda media responded to such a decision with intense disinformation, spreading the narrative of Latvia as a country dominated by fascism and Russophobia, which is actively rewriting history.

This article is part of a series of articles prepared by the Centre for Eastern European Policy Studies within the project “Disinformation Campaign Against Latvia, the EU and NATO: A Study of Narratives”. The project is supported by the International Republican Institute (IRI). In the course of this, the Internet media is regularly browsed using the media monitoring tool “Versus” developed by IRI. The obtained data is used in the preparation of articles.

A Year of History

At the end of 2019, the European Union adopted a resolution condemning both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for dividing Europe into spheres of influence, which eventually led to World War II, effectively equating the crimes of the two totalitarian regimes. Understandably, this resolution was very sharply criticized in Russia, accusing the West of distorting history in order to justify its anti-Russian policy. In January, Russian President Putin called 2020 a year of history, given that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Putin stressed that politically motivated lies about history are being spread today in order to tarnish the contribution of the Soviet Union and its soldiers in defeating fascism. To combat this, Russia sets a task for itself with explaining and protecting history to stop the spread of lies. As a solution, the president himself mentioned the creation of the world’s largest archive of World War II photos and videos to provide an opportunity to learn about objective history. Given that much of the evidence of World War II history in Russia is secret and not available to researchers, there is a reason to believe that the archive would contain only information consistent with the Kremlin’s motives of featuring Russia in a good light. In addition, during a meeting with World War II veterans, Putin said that filthy (poganniye) mouths that spread false information will be plugged with true info.[1] However, judging by Russia’s active action in early 2020, ‘mouth plugging’ means spreading misinformation, insulting everyone who pronounces embarrassing historical truth as Russophobic and fascist.

Russian approach

Increased disinformation activities are part of Russia’s efforts to strengthen the consolidation of information that benefits it in areas that it considers to be its sphere of influence. Since 2005, when Putin called the collapse of the USSR the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, Russia has been spreading specific interpretations of politics both inside and outside the country. The Kremlin has an interest in popularizing historical events that put the Soviet Union and Russia in a positive light, ignoring unfortunate historical events. According to official Russia of today, the Soviet Union was on the ‘right’ side of history during World War II, and all its actions are fully justified; while countries protected from the threat of Nazi Germany should be grateful for the sacrifices made by Red Army soldiers in the fight against fascism. It is clear from Russia’s actions, that gratitude in this case means abandoning the analysis of historic events by academia, instead accepting Russia’s official position as the only truth. The Kremlin seeks to eliminate the possibility of the formation and study of the history of war, as this would expose the crimes of the Soviet Union. Every country that points to the not-so-unequivocal role of the Soviet Union in the war is being reprimanded as a distorter of history and a supporter of fascists.

Historical retrievers

In response to the decision taken by the Saeima, disinformation efforts were intensified not only to emphasize Latvia’s attempts to ‘rewrite history’, but also to picture the end of the Second World War as a positive event for Latvia. Thus, for example, the Russian Embassy in Latvia responded to the Saeima resolution with an indication that at a time when the civilized world is preparing to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its liberation from the ‘brown plague’[2], Latvia is trying to slander Russia’s history. The insults are compounded by sarcastic criticism of the position of the Latvian state and the international community that Latvia’s inclusion in the USSR was an occupation. Talking heads, namely human stories, are used to reinforce this message and to add more colours. For example, the medium Sputnik publishes testimonies of Red Army members about the fight against Nazi German forces to remind of the Red Army’s contribution to liberation from fascism. At the same time, the opportunity to form associations between Nazi Germany and the ‘fascist’ European Union is not missed.[3], to remind who is the real occupier today and who is the real defender of the weak.

Similarly, Latvia, the Baltic states and Poland as a whole are blamed for the resurgence of fascism, interpreting the equating of the crimes of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as an attempt to soften the notoriety of fascism. In turn, for example, the pro-Kremlin media Baltnews.ee claims that fascism has always been the hidden companion of liberal democracy, and the Baltic States and Poland have long been ill with it. The message is based on the premise that the European Union and NATO have no interest in supporting the weak countries in the region that have used Russophobia to provide attention and support to such an extent that their governments are no longer able to exist without continuing to cultivate Russophobia[4]. The motive for the Kremlin’s actions is to change the rules of the debate and to put the blame for Russia’s international isolation and sanctions on the Baltic states and Poland. Understandably, this approach does not stand up to criticism, because the European Union has long been reconciling with Russia and has only intensified its activities after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine. However, by repeating their message for a long time, the disinformers gain the trust of their audiences, thus winning them to the Russian side. By ensuring the public’s receptivity to pro-Russian information, Russia can use it at a critical time, as was done in Ukraine, to justify the annexation of Crimea through public involvement.

Do we really rewrite history?

Today’s Russia ideologically is based on the foundations of the USSR’s success, using its former might as a testament to its true capabilities, while treating the collapse of the USSR and the ensuing period of weakness as a tragedy. This trend has been observed for a long time, where the ban on the study of academic history has also contributed to limiting the opportunities for analytical discussion of past events. Thus, it is understandable why looking at any historical issues related to the Soviet Union provokes a sharp backlash. Every discussion about the origin and course of the Second World War threatens to highlight the negative events that would jeopardize the ideas of state power used in domestic politics.

In order to protect itself, Russia seeks to defend an interpretation of history that is in its best interests, trying to affix its opponents with tags that are easy to use against them, both domestically and internationally. In this context, reproaching Latvia, and also Lithuania, Estonia and Poland, in rewriting history is natural, because these countries do not shy away from analyzing history, even if it is sometimes flattering. The resolution adopted by the European Union is very important because it drastically reduces Russia’s ability to reduce the importance of the Soviet regime’s crimes in the today’s EU member states in order to brighten its image on the basis of the opposing fascism. True, there is no reason to believe that Russia would significantly limit its practice of defamation. It is likely to continue to write off any domestic or international misfortune to the prevailing Russophobia and fascism in order to instil in society the image of Russia as an unduly aggrieved state. At the same time, it provides an excuse to explain the failures of the political elite with the fascism and Russophobia. It creates associations that cooperation with Russia is good for society, but failing governments, due to their incompetence, miss the opportunity to develop countries, instead choosing to be weak and backward vassals of the West.

[1] Aleksandra Balandina, „«Мы заткнем поганый рот»: что Путин пообещал ветеранам”, Gazeta.ru, https://www.gazeta.ru/social/2020/01/18/12916100.shtml

[2] Sputnik, „Глава МИД Латвии заявил, что страна чтит советских солдат, и не забыл подпеть Польше”, Sputnik, https://lv.sputniknews.ru/politics/20200118/13074881/Glava-MID-Latvii-zayavil-chto-strana-chtit-sovetskikh-soldat-no-ne-zabyl-podpet-Polshe.html

[3] Sputnik, „Живущим в Латвии ветеранам вручают медали в честь 75-летия Победы”, Sputnik, https://lv.sputniknews.ru/Latvia/20200203/13162853/Zhivuschim-v-Latvii-veteranam-vruchayut-medali-v-chest-75-letiya-Pobedy.html

[4] Iļja Kruglejs, „Сделав Москву “виновником” Второй мировой войны, ЕС пошел на поводу у Прибалтики”, Baltnews.ee, https://baltnews.ee/Russia_West/20200127/1018283610/Sdelav-Moskvu-vinovnikom-Vtoroy-mirovoy-voyny-ES-poshel-na-povodu-u-Pribaltiki.html