Mobilizing History to Promote Patriotism and a New Past
Robert F. Baumann, PhD
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We must do everything so that today’s children and all our citizens are proud that they are the heirs, grandchildren, great-grandchildren of the winners. Knew their country and their families to understand that this is part of our life.
History, military history in particular, has emerged in Russia as a primary means of the patriotic mobilization of society. Russians have long felt a deep attraction to historical accounts of great national figures, heroic struggles in wartime, and distinctive contributions to world culture and science. However, during the twentieth century under the Soviet regime, the full exploration of historical themes operated under severe state-imposed constraints. Not surprisingly, a special fascination with history broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) and was prompted in part by the release of previously concealed documents late in Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency. For seven decades, the dictates of Soviet ideology not only put historical analysis in a straightjacket but also condemned thousands of notable Russians from the past, good and bad alike, to obscurity or portrayal as one-dimensional caricatures. Suddenly, in the late 1980s, what had been buried for so long burst into the open and aroused enormous curiosity. For military historians, opportunities to discuss the actions of White forces against the Bolshevik Revolution or the actions of late imperial military leaders generated a significant buzz.
More broadly, the expanding popularity of history was related to the search for a sense of identity. For over seventy years, the Soviet state mandated an interpretation of the past that—even if based on solid scholarship—preempted rounded, thoughtful analysis and serious debate. Still, it did provide a sense of historical place for Russians at the leading edge of human progress. The purportedly scientific tenets of Marxism-Leninism provided the framework for the unfolding narrative of class struggle, revolutions, and the progressive role of the Soviet state in the march to the future. Expression of Russian national identity and patriotism occurred openly when it was useful to the state, such as during the Great Patriotic War. At other times, it was restricted in favor of platitudes about Soviet greatness, the abolition of bourgeois national chauvinism, the construction of developed socialism, and so on. Left out were many achievements of Imperial Russia, particularly during the late nineteenth century.
A rough line of demarcation in Soviet historiography was the War of 1812, when Russia thwarted the invasion by the army of Napoleonic France. That which came before, most notably the centralization of the Russian state, often warranted favorable depiction if it could be construed as marking a positive step in Marxist social evolution. What followed, above all the rise of bourgeois capitalist society, generally drew criticism unless it was associated with the emerging revolutionary movement or the defense of Russian soil as at the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. Accordingly, the Russian Orthodox Church was an obstacle to revolutionary progress, and thus harmful. In turn, the army, particularly ordinary soldiers, did the noble work of defending the Russian state, which would become the vessel of revolutionary progress. Meanwhile, Russian territorial expansion across the steppe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia fit the official account as part of the normal historical process of modernization and thus was beneficial overall to newly incorporated populations. After all, by joining their destinies to that of Russia, they took part in the October Revolution and the development of the first socialist society. To a large degree, this concept of the family of Soviet nationalities rested on the “lesser evil” formula. As explained by Konstantin Shteppa, “The evil was charged exclusively to tsarism and was scarcely mentioned, while the Russian people, in its relations with non-Russians, were credited with rendering all manner of services, which alone were made the subject of historical study.”1
Following the assignment of the Institute of History to the Communist Academy in 1929, historical accounts of the Soviet era itself remained rigidly stultifying, with little leeway to stray from officially prescribed interpretations. Competing views, tolerated during the preceding decade, lost all support, and their proponents began to find their way into exile.2 Cleansed of debate, the historical profession became a virtual chorus hailing the wise leadership of the Communist Party. Boiled down, there was the story of doggedly devoted workers and peasants, toiling to bring forth socialism. The party formed the vanguard, ever devoted to the well-being of the people. Then, of course, there were the enemies, often disguised as friends but exposed by the perpetual vigilance of the organs of state security. This view provided historical cover for Joseph Stalin’s purges, a grim reality known to those who survived it. However, this part of the Soviet past and much more found no mention in published histories. The official portrayal of history began to dissolve as Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (sometimes rendered in English as openness or candor) allowed the publication of previously forbidden information.3
In the spring of 1988, the Soviet state abruptly revised the national history curriculum and even canceled school exams since the old textbooks had lost credibility. Some fifty-three million school children from the ages of six to sixteen suddenly learned that all of the history they had been taught was full of distortions about Stalin and many other aspects of their country’s past.4 This was incredibly disorienting, especially in a school regime that presented all curricular material with a sure sense of authority and certainty. From that moment forward, exploration of the national history has been a common voyage of discovery for Russians. Energized by popular interest, history has come to provide an excellent focal point for the mobilization of patriotic feeling.
This article will address the patriotic role of Russia’s history in three parts. First, it will review the use of history in the former Soviet Union for the purpose of inculcating patriotic values. Second, it will describe the search for iconic figures and moments as Russia reinvents its origin myths. Third, it examines the specific use of military history and the role of the Russian Military-Historical Society in contemporary Russia.
Patriotic Education in the USSR
From the moment of the October Revolution in 1917, the emergent Soviet state lavished attention on ways to mobilize the population to the cause. In the first months of its existence, the Bolshevik regime led by Vladimir I. Lenin faced a pressing need to expand its political base. The painful truth was that the Bolsheviks staged a coup in Petrograd, as Saint Petersburg came to be called during World War I to erase the aura of German influence, and proclaimed a revolution. Though enjoying the support of workers’ organizations in Petrograd and Moscow, the Reds could count on few allies across the country as a whole.
The most urgent immediate task was to find soldiers for the Workers and Peasants Red Army. The best place to look for recruits was to seek soldiers from among the ranks of the rapidly disintegrating tsarist army. As men deserted the front in droves, able-bodied fighters were not in short supply as long as they could be won over to the cause.5 The state of art of communications at the time led inevitably to an emphasis on posters and simple slogans that directly addressed popular concerns. At the top of the list was a pledge to withdraw Russia from the World War I alliance against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Additional promises related to distributing food, establishing workers’ control of the factories, and granting land to the peasants. Leon Trotsky, the first head of the Red Army, traveled the length and breadth of the country in an armored train to spread the message of the revolution. A gifted orator, Trotsky was a master motivator.6
Overall, the Bolsheviks entered a war of ideas against the White Guard counterrevolutionary forces with two natural advantages. First, the White forces dragged behind them the baggage of everything that was wrong with the tsarist regime. Unable to adapt to changing times, they failed utterly to craft a consistent or attractive message. Second, the Bolsheviks had accumulated long experience as a tiny revolutionary party with negligible resources. Consequently, the art of propaganda absorbed unrelenting attention and became an integral part of their DNA. For the Bolsheviks, everything was political, and politics always demanded skillful analysis of their target audience. Best of all, they had what today would be called “message discipline.” They had a coherent story and stuck to it. If it did not quite conform to the facts, no would know anyway. Moreover, the Communist Party that emerged from Bolshevism organized itself along military lines. Contrary to the ideology, the party was a strictly hierarchical organization. The rank and file membership reached down into every office, factory floor, school room, scientific laboratory, and army unit. They served as a transmission belt for Lenin’s, and subsequently Stalin’s, directives.
In the years following victory in the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks transformed the struggle into a valiant narrative about ideologically committed warriors fighting for the good of the people. Official history—no other kind was allowed—depicted acts of extraordinary sacrifice and heroism. When the Soviet Union opened for business in 1922, it faced monumental economic and social challenges. The devastation resulting from World War I and the Russian Civil War left an enormous rebuilding effort. Because the general level of public education was low, a massive enlightenment program proved necessary. However, this afforded the regime a great opportunity to create its own historical and political narrative. Under the circumstances, posters and cinema were the most effective tools for mobilizing the population to embrace the challenges ahead.7
The foremost example of cinematic propaganda is the creative work of the renowned Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. An early revolutionary enthusiast, Eisenstein enlisted in the Red Army and willingly lent his talents to the cause of promoting Bolshevik ideals. Making films about history and historical figures became the principal vehicle for this effort. During the Russian Civil War, his contribution took the form of supporting the work of an army theatrical group.8 Subsequently, in the 1920s, Eisenstein went to work on a series of films concerning the revolution itself. The most successful of these was Battleship Potemkin, the story of the mutiny by Russian sailors against their officers and the tsarist regime during the Revolution of 1905. This production won acclaim even in the West, and several decades later in 1958, it would be declared by none other than Charlie Chaplin as “the best film in the world.”9
Over time, Eisenstein would discover that his artistic inclinations did not always coincide with the dictates of emergent proletarian culture. During the filming of Ten Days That Shook the World, the title by which it became known to Western audiences, Eisenstein found himself compelled to leave out important scenes in order to comply with officially dictated reinterpretations of the revolutionary role of Trotsky.10
By far the most spectacular instance of harnessing Eisenstein’s talents to the work of patriotic mobilization was the film Alexander Nevsky. Released at a propitious moment in 1938, the film depicted the exploits of the famed Russian prince of Novgorod who defeated the Teutonic knights in the thirteenth century. The subtext of the film, barely beneath the surface, is an instructive parable about Western (particularly German) aggression and the struggle to protect Mother Russia at all costs. An enormous hit, the movie nevertheless became inconvenient in 1939 with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which established a state of nonaggression between the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler’s Germany.11 In any case, as a result of Eisenstein’s work, the storyline of Nevsky as the savior of Russia became cemented in the popular mind to the point that he remains one of the most-revered figures in Russian history to this day. Of course, viewers could not miss the hint that Nevsky and Stalin represented a common historical type in their defense of Russia.12
While film was playing its accorded role, the actual planned crafting of a suitable history advanced in equal measure. One fundamental step was the ousting of Mikhail Pokrovsky as the de facto dean of Soviet historians. A champion of the revolution, Pokrovsky’s fault had been to harshly dismiss imperial Russian history as a long story of oppression toward not only workers and peasants but also subject nationalities. By 1934, Stalin desired a new, seamless narrative that connected selected admirable elements from the past to the glorious march to a Soviet future. As described by historian Martin Malia, “The Old Regime was to be viewed not as a Russian past but as the past of a radical new entity, the Soviet Union.”13 Historical figures such as Nevsky and Peter the Great deserved honor based on their record as architects of the powerful Russian state that would be rebranded by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
In 1938, Stalin himself offered a guiding hand to historians and party members alike with his publication of History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), which in praise of its relative brevity became widely known as the “Short Course.”14 This work connected the dots in a Russian historical timeline. It offered a tale of inevitable development on the road to the grail of intellectual enlightenment—Marxist-Leninist theory—of which Stalin was depicted as the wisest authority and proponent.
By the late 1930s, Soviet artists, cinematographers, writers, composers, and so on belonged to officially sanctioned unions. The twist was that rather than protect the interests of their members, these unions existed to ensure the arts served the interests of the Communist Party. Rewards were ample for those who played along, but those who could not make this adjustment vanished into obscurity or spent time in the labor camps of the Gulag.15
Stalin’s influence over Soviet education and patriotic propaganda would in many respects endure until the end of the Soviet Union but did undergo some change after his death in 1953. The emergence of Nikita Khrushchev as the undisputed leader of the party in 1956 brought a moderate de-Stalinization to many aspects of society. Signaled by his ironically famous “secret speech” of 1956 to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow, a partial relaxation of state controls allowed the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic vignette of life in a Soviet prison camp. Surprising nuances appeared in cinematography as well. Sergei Bondarchuk’s film The Fate of Man appeared in 1959 featuring a lead character who was riddled with character flaws and self-doubt but could be cast as a hero due to his determination and resilience.16 In a sense, he became an appropriate metaphor for Russia after the long nightmare of purges and war.
To be sure, however, Khrushchev was himself a product of Soviet culture and had no intention of allowing a drift toward the decadence of arts and culture as seen in the West. Socialist realism remained the approved philosophy underwriting Soviet artistic endeavor, and Khrushchev did not hesitate to police the line between what was allowable and what was not.
Russian History Today
Early in his first presidency, Vladimir Putin resolved that patriotic education would be a priority under his leadership. In 2001, his regime published its first five-year plan for this purpose. As a testament to his consistency on the subject, Putin remarked in 2016 that “love of country” was the essential element in Russian unification.17
In contrast to past eras, contemporary historians in Russia have little to fear from censors. Longtime Russia scholar Stephen Cohen bluntly asserts in a recent work, “There is almost no historical censorship in Russia today.”18 This does not mean that Putin’s government does not take an interest. However, rather than punish dissenting or unflattering interpretations, the Russian government offers gentle encouragement to take a patriotic line. To the extent that there is enforcement of a certain orthodoxy, it is often based on democratic impulses. That is to say that most of the public, to some degree in response to official promotion of certain patriotic or nationalistic themes, can actively assist the authorities in curbing dissent.
Consider, for example, the eruption of indignation surrounding the planned release of the 2017 film Matilda, which focused on a romantic affair between the prince and future tsar Nicholas II and a Polish ballerina, for whom the film is named. Though taking some license, the film accords with known history, dwelling on character traits that would manifest themselves during the crisis of war and revolution, such as Nicholas’s own lack of self-assurance.19 What is most interesting is that the film generated an outcry not because it was unexceptional as a work of art but rather because it touched a nerve concerning the way Russians prefer their leaders to be remembered and respected. The fact that Nicholas was officially sainted by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 probably contributed in some way to the furor. Still, the movie appeared in theaters even though it did not enjoy a long, successful run.
By way of contrast, it is easy to note the fate of another film, this one made in Britain, The Death of Stalin. Simultaneously grim and wacky, this film did not reach Russian theaters. For those who revere Stalin’s memory, and there are quite a few in Russia today, the storyline is deliberately disrespectful. On the other hand, for those familiar with the history of the period including the terror of the purges and the struggle for succession after Stalin’s demise, the biting humor resonates loudly. What probably doomed the film in Russia was its sarcastic take on the paranoia and depravity pervading the Soviet leadership.
More to the liking of the public and the regime have been films such as the 2008 movie Alexander: The Nevsky Battle, which highlights the leader who was rated as the greatest Russian historical figure of all time according to a 2009 television survey. Peter the Great and Stalin came in second and third, respectively.20 Of course, the timing of it all was highly propitious for Nevsky.
In the meantime, another patriotic genre, sports films, has made a significant impact. The 2017 basketball film Going Vertical commemorated the Soviets’ stunning, and extremely controversial, victory over the United States in the 1972 Olympic gold medal clash. In addition to dodging the controversy, the movie relied heavily on “ugly American” stereotypes to fire up audiences. A more recent, and slightly more nuanced, film is Legenda. The film concerns the life and hockey exploits of Soviet great Valeri Kharlamov, up to the moment of the Soviet national team’s shocking triumph over their heavily favored Canadian counterparts in game one of the historic Super Series of 1972.
Outside the realm of the arts, probably the best known and controversial expression of patriotic mobilization involves placement of an enormous statue of Vladimir the Great on the hillside overlooking Moscow. The context in this instance is particularly important. At issue is Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Both countries claim lineage reaching back to Vladimir, who Christianized the Kievan Rus’—forerunners of Ukrainians and Russians alike—in 988. The story of neat historical continuity ended, however, with the obliteration of Kievan civilization by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan in 1242. No real successor state emerged for over two hundred years until the rise of Muscovy. Geography, among other factors, poses some challenges to this interpretation. Moscow is, of course, a long way from ancient Kiev, whereas modern Ukraine occupies the same real estate as the ancient civilization that it claims as its own heritage.
The well-known early twentieth-century Russian historian George Vernadsky, who emigrated during the revolution and finished his career as a professor at Yale University, was an important proponent of the view that the Muscovite Russian state was a successor regime of the Mongols and indeed was profoundly shaped in its outlook by the experience of Mongol rule.21 Indeed, Vernadsky emerged as one of the early advocates of the idea that Russia was a distinctive Eurasian civilization. This perspective has attained a significant following in Russia today.22
Late Imperial Russian nationalists long argued that Ukrainians were barely a distinct people, never mind the heirs of Kievan civilization. The Revolution further clouded the issue. Anxious to demonstrate their respect for minority nationalities of the former Russian Empire, the Bolsheviks conferred on Ukraine the status of a full republic of the USSR—in principle on the same level as Russia. The Soviets also encouraged the development of a distinct national history in Ukraine, albeit at the same time that they inflicted man-made famine and the horrors of agricultural collectivization on the unfortunate population. In any case, a monument to Vladimir the Great went up in Kiev long before its counterpart appeared in Moscow.23
Russia’s seizure and largely unrecognized annexation of Crimea brought to a head the historical disagreement. The phrase “Crimea is Russia” soon appeared on T-shirts. Meanwhile, cultural disputes that had lain more or less dormant surfaced once again. In the international arena, Russia tried to sell its Ukrainian action as a reunification comparable to the reunification of Germany at the conclusion of the Cold War. To Russia’s surprise, perhaps, Germany was not buying the comparison.24
Military history has long been central to Russia’s national narrative. Particularly in light of the long political and social struggles they have experienced, Russia’s exploits on the battlefield have been a huge source of affirmation. Writing about Soviet society in his 1976 edition of The Russians, journalist Hedrick Smith devoted an entire chapter to the phenomenon of Russian patriotism. As he put it, “In an age grown skeptical of undiluted patriotism, Russians are perhaps the world’s most passionate patriots.”25 Victory in the Great Patriotic War, as it is remembered to this day, still provides a kind of validation that overrides misgivings about the misery of Stalinism, economic failures, rampant alcoholism, population decline, and depressing statistics about life expectancy.
During the Soviet era and even today, though perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Russians have a deeper fondness for poetry than any other people I have encountered. Patriotic poetry, particularly about the sacrifices of the war, moves Russians emotionally in a way few others can comprehend. References to the Rodina, or motherland, stir feelings of abiding affection for Russian heritage and homeland. It may sound hokey, but it is true, and it serves as compelling evidence of deep continuities in Russian culture. It is also vital to remember that many citizens of non-Russian nationalities who populate the same civic-cultural orbit—encompassed by the nonethnic words Rossiane or Rossiiskie, as oppose to Russkie (which is the ethnic term of reference for Russians)—share this sense of emotional connection. Smith wrote of the resonance of words like nash (ours) and chuzhoi (foreign or alien).26 They have no less power forty years later. In fact, one of the patriotic youth organizations born in the Putin era was the now-defunct nashi (plural form of ours).
The Soviet state prioritized focus on the inculcation of patriotism among the youth. Organizations such as the Young Pioneers bore resemblance to organizations in the West but with even stronger emphasis on national loyalty. In a state where all production aligned with official goals, the manufacture of children’s toys and games reflected the proper attitudes. One interesting example was a board game titled Voennaia taina, or “military secret,” based on the tale of a patriotic lad during the Russian Civil War. The hero, a boy called Mal’chish-Kibal’chish, endures interrogation by enemies of the October Revolution but never gives up his secret and dies a brave death. I purchased a version produced in 1981, but the story itself was much older.27 To provide a fair context, I remember learning in grade school the patriotic American story of Nathan Hale, whose last words when facing hanging by the British for espionage were allegedly: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”28 However, it seemingly never occurred to any U.S. game manufacturer to produce an associated board game, particularly with young children as an intended audience. On the other hand, Hale’s statue still graces the Yale University campus where Hale studied shortly before the American Revolution.
The oldest paramilitary youth organization in the USSR was best known by the abbreviation DOSAAF (Dobrovol’noe obshchestvo aviatsii, armii I flota), which in English is referred to as the Voluntary Society for Cooperation with the Army, Air Force, and Navy. Founded under another name in 1927, the organization expired with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Also important in molding the patriotic outlook of young Soviets was the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party. Participation in secondary school was vitally important for those aspiring to attend a college or university (see appendix A). Conversely, interest in the Orthodox Church, today a pillar of Russian identity once again, was a ticket to rejection.
Although he was hardly the first to say so, Smith believed that Marxism-Leninism followed directly in the wake of Orthodox Christianity in conferring on Russians a sense of moral distinctiveness, even chauvinism.29 Today the Orthodox Church, after seven decades of marginalization under Soviet rule, is once again a pillar of Russian national identity.30 Official support for the church, reflected in part by the erection or restoration of major cathedrals in the center of Moscow, has been generously reciprocated by leading Orthodox clergy. The church has aligned itself with Russian policy initiatives and has also served as an outreach agency to strengthen links with Orthodox Christians abroad. Orthodoxy has also deepened its association with the military, as evidenced by a spectacular project to construct a new cathedral specifically for members of the armed forces.
The calculated convergence of certain streams of Russian cultural and social life around patriotic messages is striking. Another significant manifestation of this trend is the linking of sport and patriotism in ways reminiscent of the Soviet era. Beginning with Stalin himself, Soviet officials viewed success in the international athletic arena as a highly effective means of enhancing national prestige and proving the potency of their political-economic system. The Soviet state focused resources on the development of highly competitive athletes and teams in all Olympic sports and by the 1960s came to dominate the medal rankings.31 Because the Olympics were by design replete with nationalistic displays from the opening parade to flag-raising ceremonies at the conclusion of each event, they constituted the ideal venue for the propagation of Soviet messages.
Had everything gone according to plan, the culmination of Soviet sporting triumphs would have been the Moscow Olympiad in 1980. As one who was living in Moscow during 1979–1980, I can attest to the palpable sense of anticipation. Articles flooded the daily newspapers. Billboards, calendars, and countless souvenirs appeared many months in advance of what the government intended to be a gigantic symbol of international validation. Of course, the Soviets’ ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan triggered an American-led boycott and deflected considerable attention away from the games and instead toward yet another Cold War dispute. Subsequently, the Soviets reciprocated by boycotting the Los Angeles games in 1984. Still, the point remains that notwithstanding claims to the contrary, for the Soviet regime sport was an active front in the international struggle to win hearts and minds.
After 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the near collapse of the Russian economy, athletic achievement declined along with the economies of the former Soviet republics. The loss of funding led to the closure of training facilities, the emigration of top coaches, and slumping performances in competition. The loss of identity was vividly reflected in the fielding of Olympic squads under eccentric labels such as “Unified Team” in 1992. During the winter and summer games that year, twelve former Soviet republics agreed to send combined teams. Only the three Baltic republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—refused to participate under the common banner.
When Putin successfully brought the 2014 Winter Olympics back to Russia in the city of Sochi, it marked a historic comeback. Russian citizens were duly proud. The games were a success in spite of adverse publicity about the last-minute completion of tourist facilities and serious graft in the completion of related construction projects. Fortunately, perhaps reflecting the lessons of 1980, Russia deferred its hotly controversial seizure of Crimea until after the closing ceremonies.
Recognizing that its athletic traditions provide a powerful rallying point for expression of national feeling, Russian publishers have paid more attention to the subject in recent years. For instance, Futbol kotoryi my poteriali: ne prodazhnye zvezdy epokhi SSSR (The Football We Lost: Priceless Stars of the Soviet Epoch), a nostalgic look back at the roster of Soviet era soccer stars, appeared in 2017. In a similar vein, Khokkei: rodonachal’niki I novichki (Hockey: Progenitors and Novices), an anthology of reminiscences by the great hockey coach Anatoli Tarasov, appeared in 2015. Both works evoke cherished memories for the generation of fans who lived through the late Soviet years and provide a sense of past athletic glory for a young generation that exhibits some infatuation with a bygone era.
Still, nothing rivals military history when it comes to galvanizing the patriotic spirit in Russia. In the 1990s, there was a surprising rush to republish old works from the imperial period that were long out of print. Biographies of once-famous figures such as Gen. Mikhail D. Skobelev, a hero of the war with Turkey and the Central Asian campaigns of the 1870s, appeared in new editions. Soon military publishing houses got into the act as well. A notable example, but just one among very many, would be Voennaia elita rossiiskoi imperii 1700–1917 (The Military Elite of the Russian Empire), which reached bookstores in 2009.32 Reference works of this type, offering brief depictions of campaigns and commanders, have both addressed and fueled rising interest in Russia’s imperial military past.
Sponsored lectures, conferences, reenactments, youth history camps, and museum displays are part of a deliberate effort to build patriotic feeling and support for the Russian military.
This in no way means that there has been a de-emphasis of the Soviet military past. Rather, there is a visible attempt to fuse Russian and Soviet military history into a single stream. Perhaps the most striking illustration was the surge of interest in the role of White counterrevolutionary armies during the Russian Civil War. Leaders of the White movement had been officially cast into darkness and consigned to the role of self-serving villains in their opposition to the glorious October Revolution toward progress. The rehabilitation of White generals, including the publication of some of their works, suggests a kind of historical reconciliation vaguely resembling American post-Civil War narratives extolling the sacrifices of both sides. Three decades ago, the idea of simultaneous praise for such opposing figures as Mikhail Tukhachevskii and Anton Deniken would have been unimaginable.
Officially established by presidential decree Number 1710 in 2012, the Russian Military-Historical Society, or RMHS, has branches across the country. Honorary members include retired Gen. Makhmut A. Gareev, noted military theorist and president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, as well as Vladimir Medinsky, the minister of culture. Sponsored lectures, conferences, reenactments, youth history camps, and museum displays are part of a deliberate effort to build patriotic feeling and support for the Russian military. Its official website promotes recent movies such as Tigers, which is about tank combat in World War II, as well as recently published books. In all, the orchestration of a rich array resources is highly impressive.33
Equally interesting is the fact that Putin’s picture graces the front page of the website along with a quote emphasizing the importance of remembering those who served their country in the past. In fact, Putin himself is a product of the cultivation of patriotic feeling through official messaging. A well-known 1970s television series titled Seventeen Moments in Spring featured a heroic Soviet spy known as Sterlitz, who embodied the call to selfless sacrifice in the service of his country. Commissioned by none other than Yuri Andropov, head of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (commonly referred to as the KGB), the twelve-part serialized program attracted huge audiences and was undoubtedly well-known to Putin, who would launch his own KGB career just two years later. Incredibly, Putin would actually play the part of a Sterlitz-like figure in a subsequent KGB-produced documentary about espionage. Anyhow, in 1999, the Russian newspaper Kommersant polled readers as to what film character they thought could serve as a model for the next Russian president. Among the top responses was Sterlitz, falling just behind Georgi Zhukov, the Soviet Union’s most famous general and a figure whose role was often reprised on film.34 The Putin presidency began only months later, so one could argue that the people got what they wanted.
What they evidently want more of today is military history. The RMHS website notes active projects related to festivals, book publication, fundraising, research projects, collection of memorabilia, protection of monuments, and various forms of disseminating knowledge about Russian history. Battlefield reenactments of imperial era clashes such as Borodino are really big. Meanwhile, it is worthwhile to illustrate the nature geographical distribution of activities in progress. In March 2019, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, featured a lecture on the role of citizens of the republic in the valiant defense of Leningrad during the siege. A book on the same theme appeared in 2005, titled Tatars in the Great Patriotic War and the Blockade of Leningrad: For the 60th Anniversary of Great Victory and the 1000th Anniversary of Kazan.35 One noteworthy aspect of the lecture and book is the weaving together of the themes of national sacrifice and the participation of the Tatar people in the common struggle against fascism. Equally striking is the book dedication to the one thousandth anniversary of Kazan, which implicitly melds the streams of Russian and Tatar history. In short, Tatars are part of a civilizational stream that is not only Russian at its core but also embraces most of the populations of Eurasia.
Meanwhile, the activities of the Tatarstan regional branch of the society are focused on youth. The regional web page proudly announced in May 2018 that four youths from Tatarstan would be selected on the basis of active participation in local research projects for a trip to the celebrated youth camp Artek on the Black Sea coast of Crimea. Activities included an ecological quest, performances by well-known artists and orchestras, and even a flash-mob event titled “Russia—My Motherland.” Not incidentally, participants would also develop presentations on the participation of relatives during the Great Patriotic War.36
In 2019, the RMHS of Bashkortostan, Tatarstan’s neighboring republic, promoted a meeting of the regional branch at the Museum of Military Glory in Ufa, the capital city. Featured events included an address by the noted military historian, Ramil Rakhimov.37 An especially interesting aspect of the RMHS of Bashkortostan is that, like Tatarstan, it is a predominantly minority republic. The Tatars and Bashkirs, ethnic cousins with closely related Turkic languages, are both historically Muslim populations that have often been in the vanguard of independent cultural movements. For example, both republics were among the first within the Russian Federation to proclaim sovereignty after the dissolution of the USSR. Since that time, and particularly under Putin, regional autonomy has been significantly reduced.
Another characteristic event was a 2018 round table discussion concerning the eightieth anniversary of the obscure antifascist national resistance liberation movement against the Nazis in occupied territories. Presentations included a report on the secret intelligence course operated by the Communist International (Comintern) School in Ufa during the war as well as the participation of graduates in the liberation of Eastern Europe toward the end of war. The Comintern, of course, was the abbreviated name given to the Communist International, which functioned as an umbrella organization for communist parties around the world under Moscow’s leadership. During the war, as part of the general plan to remove critical institutions out of the path of the Nazi invasion, the school relocated from Moscow to Ufa. Particularly striking during the meeting was discussion of the battle to win the competition over historical memory, which was deemed particularly important in the present global political context.38
To date, Russian scholars have published little on the activity of the Comintern School, particularly during its residence in Ufa. One reason for this is that Stalin officially dissolved the Comintern as a diplomatic gesture to his Anglo-American allies during the middle of World War II. Another reason, in all probability, is that the Soviet Union exploited the Comintern as an instrument of its own foreign policy. Moreover, the idea of an international antifascist resistance movement launched in 1938 is highly problematic in light of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact alluded to earlier. Undeterred, the Ufa chapter announced a one hundredth anniversary conference on the Comintern for 2019.
The history of the Comintern has long been tricky for Russian scholars. The late Yale scholar of Soviet Russia, Wolfgang Leonhard, wrote an exceedingly interesting memoir about his experiences in the Comintern School under the title Child of the Revolution, which was first published in German in 1955. Leonhard and his mother, a communist, fled Berlin for the Soviet Union after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Though his mother was arrested in Stalin’s purges in 1936, young Wolfgang was allowed to continue his education. With the German invasion of Russia, the Soviet authorities sent him to the Comintern School in Ufa, where he learned the tradecraft of a professional ideologist and apparatchik. At the end of the war, the Soviets deployed him to Germany where he became an early cadre of the new East German regime. Realizing that communism in Eastern Europe was quickly assuming the Stalinist form he knew only too well, Leonhard escaped first to Yugoslavia and then to the West. At Yale, he was an ardent critic of the Soviet Union and its form of socialist dictatorship. Needless to add, Leonhard did not come up as a potential role model during the Ufa roundtable.39
In any case, the RMHS cites fourteen objectives for its activities (see appendix B). Objectives three and four are most pertinent to this article. The former emphasizes the cultivation of selfless dedication to the motherland and respect for its defenders among Russian youth. The latter calls for stimulation of patriotic feeling, particularly among youth nearing the age of military service. The remaining objectives deal with the necessary administrative functions related to promotion, coordination, research, acquisition of resources, and the overall educational mission.40 The RMHS is by every indication a well-organized endeavor.
Overall, importance of history in Russia today lies in its role in not only shaping the identity of the population but also in the way that identity shapes behavior. The emphasis on loyalty to Russia’s heritage and traditions influences everything from support for the existing regime to willingness to serve in the armed forces of the Russian Federation. History is a wonderful vehicle for this purpose, especially if those in charge have the power to shape the narrative.
Author’s note: Whenever practical, the author adheres to the Library of Congress system of transliteration from Cyrillic to Latin letters; exceptions include spellings of names, terms of reference, or places that are commonly accepted in English and therefore more familiar to American readers.
- Konstantin Shteppa, “The ‘Lesser Evil’ Formula,” in Rewriting Russian History, ed. Cyril Black (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), 111–17. This formula made it possible to see Russia’s expansion not as colonial imperialism but as the deliverance of neighboring peoples from a greater evil, conquest by foreign powers. This anthology of writings on different topics as treated by Soviet historians offers a rich perspective on the competition for primacy in the field. For an excellent discussion of the Soviet histories of non-Russian peoples, see Lowell Tillett, The Great Friendship: Soviet Historians on the non-Russian Nationalities (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).
- Cyril E. Black, “History and Politics in the Soviet Union,” in Black, Rewriting Russian History, 6–8.
- For a good discussion of openness, see Walter Laqueur, The Long Road to Freedom: Russia and Glasnost (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989), 48–77. Laqueur points out that the concept of glasnost was not new and indeed had a place in Russian intellectual tradition. Much debate attended the proper limits of disagreement about history in 1987. A number of prominent historians such as Alexander Samsonov and Yuri Afanasiev spoke out about the failure of Soviet history to come to grips with the reality of Stalinism.
- Laqueur, The Long Road to Freedom, 48; as reported in the United States, see Michael Parks, “History Exams Cancelled for Soviet Youngsters,” The Los Angeles Times, 11 June 1988. The original official announcement in the Soviet Union appeared in Izvestiia on 10 June 1988.
- For good coverage of the opportunity provided by the collapse of the Russian Imperial Army, see Alan Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army. The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt March-April 1917 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980).
- For an old standard account of Leon Trotsky’s role, see Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed. Trotsky: 1921-1929 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1959).
- See Richard Taylor, “A Medium for the Masses: Agitation in the Soviet Civil War,” Soviet Studies 22, no. 4 (April 1971): 562–74.
- Ron Briley, “Sergei Eisenstein: The Artist in Service of the Revolution,” The History Teacher 29, no. 4 (August 1996): 525.
- Ibid., 528.
- Ibid., 532–33.
- John Haynes, “Brothers in Arms: The Changing Face of the Soviet Soldiers in Stalinist Cinema,” The Modern Language Review 95, no. 1 (January 2000): 162.
- Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy. A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 235.
- Ibid., 237.
- Ibid., 238.
- Haynes, “Brothers in Arms,” 155.
- International Crisis Group, “Patriotic Mobilization in Russia,” Report No. 251 (4 July 2018), 3.
- Stephen Cohen, “Historical Monuments, From Charlottesville to Moscow,” in War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate (New York: Hot Books, 2019), Kindle.
- Zbigniew Rokita, “In the Name of Matijlda,” New Eastern Europe, no. 2 (2018): 32–35, accessed 26 August 2019, http://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/02/26/in-the-name-of-matilda/ (subscription required).
- “Positive Views of Stalin on the Rise,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 11 April 2018, accessed 26 August 2019, https://rferl.org/a/positive/a/positive-views-of-stalin/29159116.html.
- For a discussion of Vernadsky’s influence, see Charles Halperin, “George Vernadsky, Eurasianism, the Mongols and Russia,” Slavic Review 41, no. 3 (Autumn 1982): 477–93, accessed 26 August 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2497020.
- See Marlene Laruelle, “Russia as an Anti-liberal European Civilization,” in The New Russian Nationalism: Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism 2000-2015, ed. Pal Kolsto and Helge Blakkisrud (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University, 2016), 275–97, accessed 26 August 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1bh2kk5.17.
- See, for example, Shaun Walker, “From One Vladimir to Another: Putin Unveils Huge Statue in Moscow,” The Guardian (website), 4 November 2016, accessed 26 August 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/04/vladimir-great-statue-unveiled-putin-moscow.
- Liana Fix, “A German Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma,” New Eastern Europe, no. 2 (2018): 349–50, accessed 5 September 2019, http://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/02/26/german-riddle-wrapped-mystery-inside-enigma/ (subscription required).
- Hedrick Smith, The Russians (New York: The New York Times, 1973), 303.
- Ibid., 310.
- First published in 1980, one version of the story written for children by Arkadii Gaidar reappeared in 1988 with a production run of 2.5 million. See Arkladii Gaidar, Skazka o voennoi taine, o Ma’lchishe-Kibal’chishe I ego tverdom slove [Tale of the military secret about little boy Kibalchish and his sacred word] (Moscow: Detskaia literatura, 1988).
- Among the more recent works about Nathan Hale is Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York: Random House, 2006). Much has been written over the years concerning the life and exploits of Hale, who used to be a standard figure in history textbooks. In any case, his famous last words are unverifiable.
- Smith, The Russians, 311.
- For a concise discussion of the way the Orthodox Church fits within Putin’s concept of Russian identity and patriotism, see Mark Galeotti and Andrew Bowen, “Opening Gambit: Putin’s Empire of the Mind,” Foreign Policy, no. 206 (May-June 2014): 16–19, accessed 26 August 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24577406. The authors also stress the establishment of “Rossiiskii state nationalism” that transcends Russian ethnicity.
- Robert F. Baumann, “The Central Army Sports Club: Forging a Tradition in Soviet Ice Hockey,” The Journal of Sports History 15, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 151–66.
- P. M. Portugal’ski and V. A. Runov, eds., Voennaia elita Rossiiskoi imperii 1700–1917. Entskilpedicheskii spravochnik. [Military elite of the Russian empire] (Moscow: Veche, 2009).
- The RMHS website is worth checking out. See Rossiiskoe voenno-istoricheskoe obshchestvo [Russian Military-Historical Society], accessed 26 August 2019, https://rvio.histrf.ru/. Notably, the official title of the organization uses the word Rossiiskoe—not russkoe—indicating that Russian military history is based on cultural affinity and participation in a common cause rather than an ethnically framed narrative. In point of fact, the society’s presence is well established in many regions that are not predominantly Russian.
- “Was the Soviet James Bond Vladimir Putin’s Role Model?,” BBC, 10 May 2017, accessed 26 August 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-39862225.
- Rakhim Teliashov, Tatary v velikoi otechestvennoi voine I blockade Leningrada. K 60-letiiu Velikoi Pobedy I 1000-letiiu Kazani (Saint Petersburg, Russia: 2005).
- “Shkol’niki Tatarstana otpravilis’ v ‘Artek’” [Tatar school children sent to Artek], Russian Military-Historical Society, 28 May 2018, accessed 26 August 2019, https://rvio.histrf.ru/soobshestvo/post-9180.
- “Obshchoe sobranie regional’noe otdelenie rossiiskogo voenno-istoricheskogo obshchestva v respublike Bashkortostan” [General meeting of the regional branch of the military history society of the republic of Bashkortostan], Russian Military-Historical Society, 15 February 2019, accessed 26 August 2019, https://rvio.histrf.ru/soobshestvo/post-11002.
- “V respublikanskom muzee boevoi slavy respubliki Bashkortostan proshel kruglyi stol Rol’ dvizheniia soprotivleniia v osvobozhdenii Evropy ot natsizma,” Russian Military-Historical Society, 13 December 2018, accessed 26 August 2019, https://rvio.histrf.ru/soobshestvo/post-10547.
- Wolfgang Leonhard, Child of the Revolution (London: Collins, 1957). Leonhard’s mother was eventually released years after Stalin’s death.
- “Tasks,” Russian Military-Historical Society, accessed 4 September 2019, https://rvio.histrf.ru/activities/objectives.
Robert F. Baumann, PhD, is the director of the graduate degree program and professor of history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a BA in Russian from Dartmouth College, an MA in Russian and East European studies from Yale University, and a PhD in history from Yale University. He is the author of numerous books, book chapters, and scholarly articles. He is also the writer and producer of a documentary film on the U.S. and multinational peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
Military-Historical Camp: Tasks
- — Education of the young patriots of the Fatherland on the basis of traditional values of Russian society
- — Spiritual development of teenagers education of the basic moral qualities—honesty, sense of teamwork, diligence, commitment, sense of responsibility. Disclosure and develop children’s creative and intellectual abilities
- — The formation and support of an informed interest in the study of Russian military history and preservation of monuments of the military-historical heritage
- — Initiation of children and adolescents to the study and preservation of Russian military history and military-historical heritage, promotion of historical military knowledge and military traditions
- — Assistance to formation of children and adolescents active citizenship, patriotic, state ideology
- — Propaganda of the days of military glory of Russia, raising the prestige of service to the Fatherland, the formation of today’s successful image of the military, a positive attitude to the Armed Forces and other security agencies of the younger generation
- — Basic military and physical training, obtaining and consolidation of the basic skills and knowledge of human behavior in natural conditions
- — Воспитание молодых патриотов Отечества на основе традиционных ценностей российского общества
- — Духовное развитие подростков, воспитание основополагающих нравственных качеств – честности, чувства коллективизма, трудолюбия, обязательности, чувства ответственности. Раскрытие и развитие у детей творческих и интеллектуальных способностей
- — Формирование и поддержка осознанного интереса к изучению военной истории России и сохранению памятников военно-исторического наследия
- — Приобщение детей и подростков к изучению и сохранению отечественной военной истории и военно-исторического наследия, популяризации военно-исторических знаний и воинских традиций
- — Содействие формированию у детей и подростков активной гражданской позиции, патриотического, государственного мировоззрения
- — Пропаганда Дней воинской славы России, поднятие престижа служения Отечеству, формирование современного успешного образа военного, позитивного отношения к Вооруженным Силам и другим силовым структурам у подрастающего поколения
- — Начальная военная и физическая подготовка, получение и закрепление основных навыков и знаний поведения человека в естественных условиях
Source: “Tasks,” Rossiiskoe voenno-istoricheskoe obshchestvo [Russian Military-Historical Society], accessed 17 September 2019, https://rvio.histrf.ru/activities/lager.
Russian Military-Historical Society:Tasks
- Assistance to the governmental institutions of the Russian society in the development and implementation of state policy, target and other programs and projects, improvement of legislation and normative legal base in the sphere of military-historical activities.
- The formation, support and direction of public initiatives in a comprehensive and profound study of the historical military past of our Motherland.
- Education of citizens, especially youth and young adults, in the spirit of love, devotion and selfless service to the Motherland, respect for the Defender of the Fatherland, to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
- Stimulation of members of the Society, other persons involved in the study of military historical heritage in an active military-Patriotic education of Russian citizens, particularly those of military and preinduction age.
- The integration and coordination of activities of organizations and individuals involved in the study of military history, or contributing to the expansion of military-historical knowledge.
- The establishment of regional offices of Companies, organizations and movements, clubs, cultural centres and other entities involved in military-historical projects.
- Preservation, promotion and dissemination of military-historical knowledge in the light of modern information and innovative technologies.
- To preserve and promote the historical and cultural military-historical heritage of Russia, archival, museum and library collections relating to military history topics. Active implementation of the publishing and information activities.
- Support the activities of existing centres of military culture — the military-historical museums, libraries, archives and other institutions, the creation of new museums, exhibition complexes, cultural centers and associations.
- The preservation and restoration of all types and kinds of monuments of military history of Russia.
- The development of military-historical reconstruction in Russia. The support of the military-historical clubs and associations. A military-historical reconstructions of battles and memorable events of Russian military history.
- Participation in the military archaeological excavations on the fields of former battles, where the most important historical events.
- Attracting the attention of Russian and international public to the unique historical-cultural and historical-military objects and monuments of the Russian Federation for the intensive development of tourism in Russia.
- The development of military-sports clubs and organizations.
- Содействие государственным институтам российского общества в разработке и реализации государственной политики, целевых и иных программ и проектов, совершенствовании законодательства и нормативной правовой базы в сфере военно-исторической деятельности.
- Формирование, поддержка и направление общественной инициативы на всестороннее и глубокое изучение военно-исторического прошлого нашей Родины.
- Воспитание граждан России, особенно молодежи и юношества, в духе любви, преданности и беззаветного служения Родине, уважения к Защитнику Отечества, Вооруженным Силам Российской Федерации.
- Стимулирование членов Общества, других лиц, занимающихся изучением военно-исторического наследия, на активное военно-патриотическое воспитание граждан России, особенно лиц призывного и допризывного возраста.
- Объединение и координация деятельности организаций и лиц, занимающихся изучением военной истории, или содействующих расширению военно-исторических знаний.
- Создание региональных отделений Общества, организаций и движений, кружков, историко-культурных центров и других структур, занимающихся военно-историческими проектами.
- Сохранение, пропаганда и распространение военно-исторических знаний с учетом современных информационных и инновационных технологий.
- Сохранение и популяризация исторического и культурного военно-исторического наследия России, архивных, музейных и библиотечных фондов, относящихся к военно-исторической тематике. Активное проведение издательской и информационной деятельности.
- Поддержка деятельности имеющихся центров военно-исторической культуры — военно-исторических музеев, библиотек, архивов и других структур, создание новых музейных, выставочных комплексов, историко-культурных центров и объединений.
- Сохранение и восстановление всех видов и наименований памятников военной истории России.
- Развитие военно-исторической реконструкции в России. Поддержка военно-исторических клубов и объединений. Проведение военно-исторических реконструкций сражений и памятных мероприятий Российской военной истории.
- Участие в проведении военно-археологических раскопок на полях бывших сражений, в местах наиболее важных исторических событий.
- Привлечение широкого внимания российской и международной общественности к уникальным историко-культурным и историко-военным объектам и памятникам Российской Федерации для интенсивного развития туризма в России.
- Развитие военно-спортивных обществ и организаций.
Source: “Tasks,” Rossiiskoe voenno-istoricheskoe obshchestvo [Russian Military-Historical Society], accessed 17 September 2019, https://rvio.histrf.ru/activities/objectives.
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