Weaponising History: Putin’s Strategy for Domestic and Foreign Policy Success

Ariel Koh

On 28 December 2021, Memorial International, Russia’s oldest human rights group, whose aim was to preserve memories of Soviet-era totalitarianism to educate the populace, promote democracy and ‘restor[e] historical truth’, was ordered shut by the Russian Supreme Court. In a year that witnessed the arrest of Putin’s most prominent opponent, Alexei Navalny  – who was also tried for the defamation of a war veteran – crackdowns on a specific historical narrative that complements Putin’s domestic and foreign objectives point towards his increased ambition to restore Russia’s former greatness.

As NATO-Russia tensions amplify amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, looking towards Putin’s weaponisation of history enables us to gain a deeper insight into the underlying justifications for increased censorship and regional bellicosity. In fact, this ability to craft a distinct version of events earned Putin the title of the ‘history man’. Putin’s particular understanding of the “Great Patriotic War” – or World War 2 as more commonly known – as well as the era that followed after it, shows us how his current political strategy is influenced by historical events, which continue to serve as a justification for the ultimate aim of ‘fixing’ the mistakes of the past and restoring Russia’s great power status.

A Legitimising Tool 

Despite not experiencing World War 2 directly, Putin associates himself with the victory of the Soviet Union, legitimising his autocratic leadership. Putin often invokes his family’s wartime suffering in public memorial events and presides over annual May 9 Victory Day parades, presenting himself as a masculine leader humbled by the War’s anguish in order to enhance his societal appeal. This humility is reinforced by his widely-publicised ritualised visits to commemorate Victory Day with war veterans, demonstrating magnanimity and dutifulness towards these veterans – a masterful act in Putin’s performative memorialisation that enables him to legitimise himself as a leader of the people. 

Additionally, Putin references Stalin’s ‘heroic’ wartime leadership during public memorialisation, with these repeated references eventually linking Putin with Stalin’s wartime victory, creating an image of the “father of the fatherland” achievable only through tight control. By portraying Stalin’s leadership as necessarily controlling, Putin affirms his autocracy as critical for Russia’s success, with his admiration for Stalin being a manifestation of a desire for the same Stalinist-like image of being Russia’s saviour. 

The “Great Patriotic War” thus demonstrates at once Putin’s benevolence and firmness. With Memorial International often publishing material uncovering Stalin’s brutality, it is no wonder why they were a threat.

Putin’s ideal Russia 

The “Great Patriotic War” ingrains values of unity and patriotism to the Motherland, imperative for Putin’s overarching agenda for political stability at home. Framed as a Russian success story, undisputed and malleable, the War is politically useful for Putin. Through omitting questionable events, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact, while stressing Russia’s great power status by over-emphasising USSR’s prominence in liberating Europe, Putin can mythologise the War during official speeches and through embedding this triumphalist narrative within the Russian history curriculum. In his narrative, heroism, unity and sacrifice are reiterated, with Putin calling upon Russians to emulate these values to defend the Motherland. 

In 2014, Putin constitutionalised his interpretation of the War through the ‘memory law’, criminalising revisionism of the War to prevent dissent. By silencing alternative historical discourses, Putin is free to manipulate history according to his objectives  and construct a society predicated upon his idealised values. Thus, Memorial International’s work was a danger because it undermined these attempts at constructing ‘unity’, threatening the questionable underpinnings of Putin’s carefully orchestrated historical narrative. 

Rousing Nationalism 

War memorialisation rallies Russian nationalist fervour, facilitating Putin’s aggressive foreign policy. This triumphalist narrative is best reflected in post-Soviet countries, where war memorialisation is contentious, with some ethnic Russians aspiring to impose domestically Putin’s sanitised version of the War. In Estonia, removing the Bronze Soldier, a symbol of the Soviet claim to Estonia, ignited Russian-inspired riots and cyberattacks in Estonia, with Putin fuelling sentiments through his 2007 Victory Day speech criticising the denigration of Soviet victory and threatening economic measures to compel Estonia to reverse course. 

Furthermore, Victory Day parades are platforms to flex Russia’s military might, embodying Russia’s great power status and aggressive foreign policy. Following Crimea’s annexation, Russia’s commemoration of the 70th War anniversary involved an unprecedented military display, conveying Russia’s rejection of NATO expansion. War memorialisation provides avenues to demonstrate Russia’s fierce opposition to foreign interventions in its periphery, mobilising Russian nationalism to achieve this. As tensions between the West and Russia escalate, it is safe to assume 2022 will see Putin spare no cost to overtly reinforce his dominance domestically and regionally.

What’s next? 

The “Great Patriotic War” provides an excellent starting point for  evaluating Putin’s foreign and domestic actions, offering policymakers a predictive lens to counteract Russia’s increasing aggressiveness. The parallels between Putin’s manipulation of the “Great Patriotic War” and the actions recently taken abroad demonstrates Putin’s sheer adroitness in weaponising history. For example, Putin expressed nostalgia for the USSR, calling its collapse the ‘disintegration of historical Russia’, while recalling the economic hardship that caused him to moonlight as a cab driver, following the trajectory of appearing as a relatable leader, whilst alluding to themes of unity – except that this is with Ukraine.

Likewise, in July 2021, Putin alluded to the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, utilising historical Slavic and Orthodox links between the two nations to call for increased integration whilst condemning the West’s increased encroachment in Ukraine. Were these allusions hinting at what was to come in early 2022 and beyond – or just another reiteration of Putin’s desire for a return to the USSR? Whichever the case, history is an important mobilising force for Putin. 

Beyond responding to Russia’s aggressive attempts through hard power means like economic sanctions and military mobilisation, the West should increase efforts at counteracting Putin’s nostalgia for particular facets of history. This can be achieved through intensive social media campaigns or increasing funding for organisations like Memorial International who are fighting the erasure and political manipulation of history. It is through the creation of historical narratives that the West can increase resistance and civil liberties not just within Russia but also in countries in Russia’s immediate proximity where the protection of national sovereignty should be the ultimate goal.

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