George Orwell in his book, 1984, said “He who controls the past controls the future.” The Kremlin must have taken Orwell’s adage literally, when the Presidential Commission for Prevention of Falsification of History was established in 2009.
The Commission’s ostensible mission was to monitor “attempts to falsify historical facts and events” that may undermine the “international prestige of the Russian Federation”. It was also tasked with coordinating the efforts of government institutions of “adequate response to…and neutralization” of such attempts. The Commission was foreseen as a powerful tool for dealing with unwanted ideas.
Rather than coming to terms with its past the Russian leadership is determined to control it. Post war Germany’s economic and reputational recovery was not left to chance. It was the duty of German’s politicians after the Second World War to convince the international community that the country would never again perpetrate the atrocities of the Nazi regime and that it would be a trustworthy and loyal international partner. Confronting its recent past, condemning its former crimes and apologizing to the victims was not easy and demanded plenty of moral courage, but West Germany re-established its normal relationships with others.
The Kremlin is morbidly afraid of considering those questions with which the west has a common historical perspective. Russia’s official historical establishment is always angered by: assertions by the Baltic states and practically all of the west that Soviet forces came as occupiers as much as liberators; any suggestion that Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were anything but complete opposites and bitter enemies; accounts of Red Army crimes on the March to Berlin.
The acknowledgement of a disturbing past and asking the atonement for committing crimes against humanity is not just a rethinking of history. It’s a way of assuming responsibility for the future, for the concerns of the international community such as: Should Russia be considered a trustworthy partner or should she be feared. The public admiration that Stalin still holds gives serious pause to the other nations.
During Vladimir Putin’s presidency, national pride was stoked by constant referrals to the glorious victory in the Great Patriot War, making it the greatest moment of the 20th century. The news media sometimes treats the war as if it were a recent event. Any attempt to tarnish the glory of that triumph is seen as a deliberate attempt to make Russia look bad. Focusing on the atrocities of the Stalin era would diminish the splendour of the war victory and thus it was necessary to quash all attempts at the “falsification of history”.
Russia’s past hangs like a noose over its head. Recognizing this, the Russian leadership wants to rule the version of the past which dominates today. Has this control been effective? Opinion polls indicate that more than two thirds of young Russians view Stalin positively, a perception formed from the media and the Internet.
Observers say that the chaos which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Russians deeply distrustful of politics and officialdom. The Kremlin recognizes that a sacred, glorious memory of victory, untarnished by the annoying embarrassment of Stalin, gives their people something to believe in. But this mandate of the “Ministry of Truth” is in direct contradiction to better relations with other countries, particularly those that have shaken off the repressive regimes of eastern Europe and the USSR. Any sincere and genuine attempts at better mutual understanding must be precluded by Moscow’s honest appraisal of its past.
Russian “Ministry of Truth” at cross-purposes with claim to improve foreign relations