The Kremlin’s use of history in its influence operations has long been an integral part of Russian foreign policy. Its 2014 invasion of Ukraine showed how contrasting interpretations have been used as effective propaganda weapon, both justifying Russia’s invasion and accusing the Kyiv government of war crimes (Sometimes, the intellectual war between the two countries even has included relatively obscure discussions of the two states’ relationship to medieval Kievan Rus).
The Kremlin’s main tool for gaining international understanding and mobilizing popular support
has been to accuse its Ukrainian adversaries of Nazism, a card which it plays extensively in the Baltics. Russia’s propaganda machine also often uses the alleged fight against the “falsification of history”—a rubric used to ridicule or refute approaches to history that conflict with Kremlin policies or are otherwise inconvenient. The importance of this “fight” has been a special focus of the Russian special services and more recently the Defense Ministry, where it has effectively become part of Russian military doctrine.
The Kremlin is very selective in what useable historical interpretations it chooses to employ. Moscow generally politicizes moments in history that support its propaganda purposes and tries to construct new narratives compatible with Kremlin goals. However, its ambivalence about the central figure in Soviet history, Josef Stalin—as well as the system he created—can lead to conflicting messages. On one hand, the government has sought to preserve the memory of the victims of Stalin’s terror. On the other, it has erected no public monuments for those who died. The Kremlin has tried to strengthen Stalin’s personality cult by praising him as the architect of Soviet power and leader of the country during the Great Patriotic War. The latter was especially apparent in 2015 during the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the end of that conflict.
CEPA’s Lithuania brief this week shows how the Kremlin uses history as a foreign policy tool in addition to using it to justify invading Ukraine. To most Lithuanians (and observers in the West), the Soviet military’s January 1991 crackdown there was an attempted Kremlin coup undertaken with the goal of bolstering the USSR’s crumbling power. But Moscow’s narrative turns this view on its head. The Kremlin line—which reflects, as is often the case, its difficulty in assessing the power of grassroots political movements—unconvincingly portrays the 1991 events in Vilnius as the product of a conspiracy between Gorbachev and the West. Most Lithuanians who remember those tumultuous times will not take this argument seriously, but it may have some resonance with their younger compatriots.
Two important anniversaries in 2017 are likely to reinforce Russia’s use of history as a key tool of foreign policy: the centennial of the Bolshevik revolution and the 80th anniversary of the peak of Stalin’s terror. Hopefully, the Kremlin will assess these tragic events objectively. But its recent behavior suggests Moscow will probably see both as a chance to step up its propaganda.