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Putin’s History Lessons

CAMBRIDGE – Soviet ideology was always about the future. By contrast, today’s official Russian ideology seems to be focused squarely on the past.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent article for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza – written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland – expresses his determination to make twentieth-century European history a major part of the Russian government’s business. That article reflects the deep, unresolved problems of Putin’s era: the inability to distinguish between the Soviet past and the Russian present; an unscrupulous mix of political conservatism and historical revisionism; and indifference, bordering on incomprehension, with regard to the key values of democracy.

In his article, Putin did not mourn the collapse of the USSR, though he previously called it “the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century.” Indeed, he even praised the democratic movements that buried the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence, and he expressed no sympathy for the twentieth century’s revolutions, which he called “deep wounds” that humanity inflicted on itself.

What really worries Putin and his historical advisers is the memory of World War II. They regard the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany as the highest achievement of the state and nation that they inherited from the USSR. They also see this victory as the main counter-weight to the memory of the USSR as a reign of brutal, unjustified violence.