George Orwell put it aptly in “1984”: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
No, it’s not just a catchy use of words. It has very definite purport. In 2009 Russian president Dmitry Medvedev ordered the creation of a government body mandated to deal directly with the past: the Presidential Commission for Prevention of Falsification of History to the Prejudice of Russia’s Interests - in essence a watchdog to guard against any diversion from the official line.
Appointed to the commission was Medvedev’s chief of staff, former and current Duma members, officials of the armed forces and security services. According to a Russian historian of international reputation, of the 28 members, only three were historians, none of whom had a reputation among professional historians.
Critics have said that the group is “dominated by state functionaries, and scholars are conspicuous by their minimal presence. … This balance between scholars and chinovniki leaves little doubt about what the Commission will set out to do.”
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, nations previously under Moscow’s domination began to reassess the version of history forced upon them buy the Soviet Union. Russia became concerned and deemed it vital, for instance “to protect history and the heroic deeds of our fathers and grandfathers” in World War II. It wasn’t necessary to “politicise” history in the manner of countries like Lithuania and Latvia the Commission indicated. But legislation aimed at “Countering the Rehabilitation of Nazism, Nazi Criminals and Their Accomplices in New Independent States on the Territory of the Former USSR” was appropriately drafted, the goal was to prevent the tarnishing of Russia’s international reputation and Russia’s “near abroad” was targeted. Who else would want to make some major adjustments in the Soviet-era official record but those country who were forced to live a lie for 50 years.
Historians note that the language the Kremlin employs in explaining the problem reminds one of the Stalin-era vernacular: “Medvedev’s language is sadly reminiscent of Soviet-era history journals and their regular attacks on ‘bourgeois falsifiers’. … In 1931 Stalin dismissed historians as ‘archives rats’, and we’ve generally taken pride in that label. Though Medvedev is no Stalinist, he’s pandering to similar sentiments.”
Other observers have given reasonable explanation for the motives of the commission: Government officials have long wanted the Criminal Code to provide the legal opportunity to arrest and convict the regime’s critics for their opinions and statements. This follows Stalin’s scheme whereby he created the 58th clause of the criminal code on ‘counterrevolutionary activity. Those found guilty of ‘agitation and propaganda’ would be prosecuted.
The 70th and 190th clauses of the Brezhnev-era’s criminal code provided confinement in psychiatric institutions for individuals found guilty of ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ and ‘slanderous fabrications that discredited the Soviet system’.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former State Duma deputy is blunt in his assessment of the Commission’s raison d’etre: “The irony in this farce is that the worst falsifiers of history have by far been Russian and Soviet authorities. [The Commission] creates a direct threat to historians and ordinary citizens trying to research the history of the war objectively.”
(To be cont’d.)
History: The past as a weapon in the present