Speculations on the historical memory are becoming Russia's primary weapon in the hybrid confrontation with European countries. They are directed at EU members as well as the Eastern Partnership countries.
Kremlin's New Historical Policy
In December 2019, the President of Russia fired a hybrid doublet. Vladimir Putin's words about 'the indigenously Russian lands given to Ukraine' and 'Count Potocki, who invented the Ukrainians' were the first shot. Unfortunately, no official from Kyiv shot back. Putin’s second 'shot` had a different target: Poland's historical memory. Polish people were accused of anti-Semitism and cooperation between the Second Polish Republic and the Nazi regime.
There is a trove of documents in the Russian archives, and not all of them are related to the Russian or Soviet history. However, getting access to those documents is not at all easy for outsiders, researchers or historians that need them for their work. There is no doubt that Russian leaders have a strong political desire to use these documents in their interest. And they also have at their disposal the Russian information machine, which can be used to spread the message almost worldwide as fast as it’s needed.
Therefore, we can talk about the emergence of Kremlin's New Historical Policy since the end of 2019. Its implementation aims to achieve Russia's geopolitical goals of undermining the EU from within and destroying the prospects for its development.
Putin did not take well the well-known resolution of the European Parliament initiated by Traian Basescu and Radoslaw Sikorski regarding USSR role in triggering World War II. Russia is the legal successor state of the Soviet Union, but the Kremlin is only interested in showcasing that legacy when it comes to successful projects, ideas and great power status; admitting responsibility for inciting World War II does not fall in that category. The remembrance of the Second World War (or, as the Russian official narrative names it, “the Great Patriotic War”) is an essential component of the Russian Federation's state ideology. "Victory" (and it does not matter much that it was achieved decades ago) can cover the current failures in public policy and become an element of consolidation of the nation. "The glorious victory" of 1945 still legitimizes the power of the Kremlin leadership in 2021. Thus, Russia applies significant resources to refresh, modernize and spread the messages of this powerful narrative.
When victims are turned into perpetrators
The Ukrainian case is worth paying attention to in this context. Let me describe just one episode. In 2016 the project called the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was launched (Babyn Yar is a ravine in Kyiv where the Germans carried out what was possibly their largest massacre in the USSR). Among the founders of Memorial Center were Russian oligarchs Mikhail Friedman and Herman Khan.
Since the Center was established, Ukrainian society witnessed the ‘struggle of narratives’ – two visions of the future museum of Holocaust and tragedy of Babyn Yar. The first vision was promoted by the Center and the key idea of it is to memorialize the Holocaust tragedy. It should be funded by private capital, including capital of Russian origin. This private museum is supposed to broadcast the Kremlin's narratives about the Holocaust in a country where hundreds of thousands of Jews have been exterminated. However, there were many Romani and Ukrainians (for example mentally ill Ukrainian nationals) killed during the Nazi's occupation of Kyiv. The Center’s narrative does not mention these victims at all.
The second vision is based on the idea that the memorial should include all these episodes and all the tragedies that happened at this place during the WWII. The National Institute of History of Ukraine (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) developed its own National Babyn Yar Memorial project. This project is scientifically based and is more in Ukraine's interest, but there is little chance for it to be turned into reality (at least in the near future).
Since autumn 2019, Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky became the Center's art director. His methods of working with such a delicate subject as Holocaust memory are somewhat controversial. Some may say that his methods are more about social experiment, than remembering. During 2019-2020 the threat of creating a private museum in Kyiv became real. It seems that authorities are ready to support this idea. Some building preparations have already started. Future visitors could understand (just between the lines) that Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazi regime and are to be blamed for Holocaust. The discussions go on and on.
Manipulations with Ukrainian history are understandable – hybrid warfare against Ukraine lasts since 2014. But why Poland found herself in the epicentre of the new Putin's so-called historical revelations?
The nature of Polish-Russian relations since 2010 (when a Tu-134 plane with more than 90 members of the Polish state and military elite onboard crashed near Smolensk in the Russian Federation) is favoring such a situation. The crash strained the relations between Moscow and Warsaw, and there is a small chance for a significant improvement. Accusing the interwar Polish leadership of collaborating with Hitler, Putin is trying to shift the responsibility for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols away from the Soviet Union (and Russia). However, there is another sensitive point that is well known in Russia: the occasional collaboration between the Polish population and the Nazis in the extermination of Jews in occupied Poland and the instances of Polish anti-Semitism. Tragedies such as that of the Jedwabne town, where their Polish neighbours killed Jewish locals, and the post-war Jewish pogroms in Krakow and Kielce are truly terrible pages in Polish history. However, Poland was nonetheless a victim of World War 2 – the very first victim – as it was attacked by both the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Hence, the Russian insistence in painting the Poles as perpetuators has infuriated Warsaw at the highest level, and Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki took it upon himself to answer; also, a special headquarters to counter Russian attempts to denigrate Polish history was set up.
For propaganda's sake, the Kremlin is ready to forget Nazi crimes
On January 27, 2020, the World Holocaust Remembrance Forum participants gathered at the Yad Vashem Museum. During his speech, Vladimir Putin stressed that the extermination of Jews during World War II was carried out not only by the Nazis but also by the inhabitants of the occupied territories, that the Nazis had accomplices. And then he added that “in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, where these criminals were operating, the largest number of Jews were killed. Thus, about 1.4 million Jews were killed in Ukraine, and 220,000 people were killed in Lithuania. I draw your attention, friends, to the fact that this is 95 percent of the pre-war Jewish population of this country. In Latvia, 77,000 Jewish people were killed. Only a few hundred Latvian Jews survived the Holocaust”. The context is such that it is clearly suggested that the local populations were alone responsible for the killing in spite the fact that the Nazis were the main culprits – in Ukraine, for instance, most of killing was done by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen, a fact that, of course, Putin “forgot” to mention. This does not diminish, in any way, the responsibility of the locals involved in the Holocaust in other countries, nor the horror of their acts: it simply shows that, in his quest to alter history in order to use it for contemporary political purposes, Putin went as far as to “forget” the Nazis’ true involvement in the Holocaust. Significantly, in February 2020, the Yad Vashem Museum apologized for videos displayed during Putin's speech that distorted historical memory.
Putin and the Russian propaganda machine are incredibly knowledgeable in using and combining several factors. First, the enormous number of Holocaust victims needs constant reflection, and this process is continuing in some post-socialist countries in recent years. Second, the scale of the tragedy of the extermination of Jews in Europe encompasses a number of states and allows the Kremlin to manipulate skillfully with the nuances of national histories and, if not excuse the Nazis, but to hybridize the Holocaust, shifting the blame for the extermination of Jews onto the locals on the occupied territories. Third, Russia seeks to emphasize its role in defeating Nazism and is trying to inflate it.
The American historian Timothy Snyder has called most part of Europe the 'bloody lands' because of the tragic events in the 20th century. The area of thousands of square kilometers populated by hundreds of millions of people and dozens of nations that faced two world wars, repressions, genocides and famines. Today, Putin is trying to adjust the history of World War II to promote the "greatness of Russia", using the lack of discussed and acceptable approaches to historical narratives. Sometimes measures in this regard are so magnific that they may look like propaganda. For example, the salute in Moscow in January 2020 in honour of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Warsaw from the Nazis resembled propaganda. Simultaneously, the Russian Ministry of Defense gave its own "salute" by publishing a biased collection of documents aimed at discrediting the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. It is difficult to imagine a greater insult to the memory of the uprising participants.
History as a weapon in the hybrid war arsenal
The Kremlin's New Historical Policy's logic is to create additional lines of tension in relations between the EU members. Poland's ruling party's policy already provokes much criticism in the EU leadership, and the carpet bombardment of the European information space by Russian narratives should strengthen it. Russia is betting on deliberately discrediting Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in the eyes of Jewish circles in the United States and Western Europe and creating new divisive lines in the European Union. Another danger is that hybridizing the Holocaust through the scale of this crime can take years, creating new and new forms of post-memory.
The cooperation with the Nazis could be a lever of Russian influence on some European leaders because this problem has affected many European countries.
The difficult Russian-Belarusian relations of recent times also may give rise to a wave of speculation about cooperation with the Nazis. It is evident that the tragic events of the Second World War can be used to shake up the situation in the Balkans.
However, not only the tragic events of World War II and their interpretations are now in the hands of the Kremlin. June 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the Trianon Peace of the Entente countries with Hungary. Budapest still perceives it as a national tragedy. It is easy to guess that Putin, who has amicable relations with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, will not miss the chance to add tension to Hungarian-Ukrainian relations. So Ukraine needs to stock up on arguments and facts in the dialogue with Budapest, which remains challenging.
Today, Ukraine is under threat of receiving a massive information strike on the Second World War topics. On the other hand, our society can hardly boast of a monolithic perception of the events of 75 years ago, consolidating assessments of the activities of the Resistance Movement or effective deconstruction of tragic events. Ukraine needs allies in the struggle for historical memory (first of all, Poland - despite the complicated relationship in the field of historical memory) and decisive actions of official Kyiv because the destruction of historical memory may cause the decline of the nation.
Is it possible to oppose the Kremlin's New Historical Policy, which is being promoted personally by Vladimir Putin, relying on a powerful propaganda machine? There is a chance for this, but counteraction will involve an open dialogue on the painful problems, losses and tragedies that have left many European countries with wounds that are extremely difficult to heal. However, the ability to counter the Kremlin's manipulation of history is, by and large, a test of the maturity and strength of common European values. Alternatively, to put it bluntly, a guarantee of the development of the European Union, which Putin's narratives aim to destroy.