On Thursday 3 March, the Russian Ministry of Enlightenment held a ‘peace defenders’ open lesson attended by schoolchildren across the country. Intended as a thirty-minute information session to justify the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, it abounded in age-inappropriate tropes about the need to liberate the Ukrainian people.
According to this narrative, a gang of Nazis and their collaborators – referred to as banderovtsy, or supporters of the World War Two-era nationalist leader Stepan Bandera – seized control of Ukraine in 2014. Representing an immediate threat to Russia, this ‘junta’ is backed by the West which arms, funds and directs the puppet-extremists. Fuelled by their ideological hatred of Russians, the Ukrainian authorities are committing a genocide of Russian-speakers and bombing the pro-Russian breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Meanwhile, ordinary Ukrainians have either been brainwashed by their state’s Goebbels-esque propaganda or are terrified to speak out, living under a Western-sponsored Nazi jackboot from which Russia must save them.
This Russian state media narrative of denazification of a democratic state with a Jewish president might sound absurd to many. However, it would be familiar to most Russians given that it draws on the pro-Kremlin media’s long-term investment into the depiction of the Ukrainian government as Nazis intent on slaughtering Russians and overturning the Soviet Great Victory of 1945.
Although accusations of Nazi collaboration have long been used to undermine Ukrainian independence, whether in 1991 or during the Orange Revolution of 2004/2005, they became especially intense during Russian media coverage of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which led to the overthrow of the corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was easily managed by Moscow. Russian media coverage and politicians historically framed the 2014 revolution and ensuring conflict in Ukraine as a rerun of the Great Patriotic War, or Soviet experience of World War II from 1941 to 1945. In this historical framing, the new Ukrainian authorities were depicted as banderovtsy and Nazis, while Russians and their sponsored militants in the east played the role of Red Army.
Historical framing denotes an intensive and developed form of historical analogy, comprising hundreds, even thousands, of individual comparisons between a current and past event. During PhD research and discourse analysis of seven Russian news sources’ coverage of the Ukraine Conflict in 2014, I located 3509 individual historical framing conflations. Almost all these conflations could be assigned to one of four narrative groups: 1. That the anti-Yanukovych protestors and new Ukrainian government were populated by banderovtsy; 2. That the behaviour and ideology of the Ukrainian and Western governments was akin to the Nazis; 3. That any Ukrainian effort to fight back against Russians in east Ukraine recalled Nazi atrocities during the Great Patriotic War; 4. That the annexation of Crimea and Kremlin-orchestrated uprisings in east Ukraine represented a new Great Victory of 1945 for Russia.
Predictably, in telling the Ukraine Crisis through the Great Patriotic War, Russian state media used a Russified and selective interpretation of 1941 to 1945, with no mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or any nuanced description of Ukrainian nationalists, some of whom fought against the Nazis as well as the Soviets. The Russian media also used other historical narratives in their coverage, such as the need to restore Catherine the Great’s lost lands of Novorossiya, which supported the notion that Ukraine was not a real state but a conglomeration of other territories. Through these and other narratives, the Kremlin has sought to delegitimise the Revolution of Dignity (and protests generally) as well as Ukrainian statehood.
However, the pro-Kremlin media’s conflation of past with present in the historical framing of the ongoing war in Ukraine also performs another role. In historical framing, past events are used to emphasise not only a comparative but also a causational element: because the present event is the same as the past event, we know how the present event will develop. In other words, according to the historical framing narrative, Russia(ns) would at some point need to reperform their greatest moment, the Soviet Victory of 1945, by liberating Ukraine from Nazis/banderovtsy, just as they did in the Great Patriotic War.
This conclusion is the logical consequence of claiming that the Ukrainian authorities are trying to refight the Great Patriotic War against Russia and it is also the idea the Russian Army is supposedly realising in Ukraine today. Outside of media coverage, this concept can be encapsulated by the Russian slogan, mozhem povtorit’, literally ‘we can repeat’, which refers to the ability to repeat the feats of the Great Patriotic War. Visible in bumper stickers and newspaper headlines, this catchphrase, and others like it, are popular in Russian society but also promoted by the Kremlin, which uses the war not only to denigrate Ukrainian identity but also to reinforce Russian identity.
In its efforts to find a unifying national idea to cohere an ethnically, religiously and ideologically diverse country, the Kremlin has appropriated the cultural memory of the Great Patriotic War. This is a powerful cultural memory, with 89% of Russians saying the Great Victory makes them feel proud. To derive maximum political benefit from this pride, and to keep the war memory relevant, the Russian government has tried to make the (mythologised) events of 1941-1945 a mainstay of everyday life. In recent years, this has involved painting murals of war heroes on apartment blocks, funding an almost endless stream of World War Two blockbusters, staging history festivals, creating children’s war re-enactment camps, and even launching Great Patriotic War-themed metro trains. This way, various Russian ministries have tried to stress the Russian people’s inheritance of the moral victory in World War Two. Given the epic heroism, both real and imagined, of the Soviet war effort, it is easy to see why this would appeal to ordinary Russians, perhaps especially given the national and personal humiliations of the 1990s.
As the former Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, has argued, in the ‘identity of Russian society, respect for the heroic past […] has played the part of a unifying force’. If this statement is correct, it is in no small part due to Medinsky’s own efforts. As Chairman of the Russian Military Historical Society, he has been responsible for funding and launching many of the initiatives listed in the previous paragraph, from children’s military history clubs and camps to war-themed television series and films. During his time as Minister of Culture from 2012-2020, Medinsky became (in)famous for his controversial views that the West is devoured by Russophobia, that the catastrophes of the 20th Century endowed Russians with an extra chromosome, and that Ukraine is a ‘historical phantom’, whose past is actually ‘just Russian history’
These views were seemingly too much for Vladimir Putin back in 2014, when Medinsky and the Ministry of Culture were tasked with writing the Foundations of State Cultural Policy. Aimed at redefining the state’s relationship towards and with culture, the first draft of the Foundations boldly declared that ‘Russia is not Europe’, asserting that only cultural products that were politically useful should and would be supported. It abounded in historicism, arguing that the purpose of promoting cultural education was, first and foremost, to create a common worldview among the Russian people. Despite liberally sprinkling the text with quotations from Putin, the President’s team blocked and disowned this draft as too extreme. A Presidential Administration working group eventually rewrote the Fundamentals from scratch, producing a more sober and less politicised view of Russian cultural policy.
These hiccoughs did not deter Medinsky from his accelerated transformation of the Ministry of Culture into the Ministry of Memory but in 2020 he was ousted from this role. Yet, just a few weeks later, he was appointed as a presidential aide to focus on questions of history and memory. This is an influential role and today Medinsky is the head of Russia’s delegation leading negotiations with Ukraine, leaving little room for optimism.
If Medinsky’s vision of history and culture was too extreme for Putin in 2014 then this is appears to no longer be the case. Instead, there is ample evidence that Putin has begun to believe his own government’s historical propaganda, especially in relation to Ukraine. For example, in 2021 Putin wrote a 5,500 word essay, in which he denied Ukrainian statehood and insisted Russians and Ukrainians were one people. At the time, it was not immediately clear who the intended readership might be. The article was too esoteric for the West and too boring and obvious for domestic audiences, suggesting that Ukrainians were the target audience. At the time, this was difficult to believe given that it would have meant Putin was completely disconnected from the reality of Ukrainian society, 70% of which do not think Russians and Ukrainians are one people and only 4% of which want Russian troops or bases in Ukraine.
Looking at Russian Army’s current military strategies and its expectation of taking Kyiv almost immediately, it appears as if Putin was indeed this disconnected and believed the Russian Army would be met as liberators, in accordance with his own mythical version of history. Putin’s presidential address early on 24th February, in which he effectively declared war on Ukraine, reaffirmed this misplaced confidence.
To those following Russia’s bombing and shelling of civilians and cities in Ukraine, it is clear that the Russian version of the past and present is dangerous nonsense but it remains to be seen whether the Russian people will realise this. Flattered into believing they are restaging the Great Patriotic War, many will opt for this appealing narrative, constructed over several years, especially in the context of painful sanctions and outbursts of Russophobia in the West. Moreover, the Kremlin’s censorship of the last remaining independent media and criminalisation of telling the truth about its war in Ukraine mean that few will know, let alone believe, the harrowing reality of the Russian Army’s assault on its neighbour.
It is darkly and tragically ironic that the Russian Army should commit these crimes in the name of the Great Patriotic War and of liberation. Having stared too long at the reflection of its own heroic past, the Kremlin has taken its army and its people to live in this mirror world. Although it is not clear when, at some point they will have to accept that rather than repeating past heroics, they have inverted and perverted this memory in service of a brutal war against an innocent people.
Dr Jade McGlynn is an academic specialising in Russian memory politics at the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies.