Briefs

The Kremlin grapples with history

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Turning the past into propaganda

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has strongly criticized the “Forest Brothers: Fight for the Baltics” video that NATO posted to YouTube on 11 July. In a tweet, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin said the video showed that NATO had become the “inheritor of Hitler's ideology.” He also called NATO “insolent dogs of war” and claimed that the “Forest Brothers”—some 50,000 Baltic partisans who resisted Soviet occupation during and after World War II—“are known primarily for killing Soviet soldiers.” On 15 July, the MFA posted an infographic portraying the Forest Brothers as criminals. 

The details behind the Russian MFA’s infographic and accompanying story are at least 27 years old and appear to have been taken from Lithuania’s KGB archives, said Arvydas Anusauskas, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament’s National Security and Defense Committee. In 2006, after Lithuania declined Moscow’s invitation to attend anniversary celebrations marking victory in World War II, Russia produced pamphlets using KGB material from Russia’s archives—the same pamphlets now used by the MFA in its current dispute about the Forest Brothers, according to Lithuanian experts. 

On 15 July, Lithuanian journalist Andrius Tapinas urged Lithuanian Facebook users to leave messages on the MFA’s Facebook page with the hashtag #Кремльнашуисториюнеперепишешь (“Kremlin, you will not rewrite our history”) in Russian and other languages. Use of such hashtags facilitates the search for postings about specific topics in social media. The initiative also targeted the MFA Facebook user questionnaire, forcing the page’s rating down from 4.5 to 1.0 on a scale from 0 to 5—undermining the account’s credibility. The next day, the MFA removed this rating function altogether. 

But then the MFA retaliated, posting under that same hashtag the KGB-era pamphlets—without confirming authenticity—to support the narrative that Lithuania and other Baltic countries supported Nazi Germany and are today fascist states. It also posted anti-NATO and anti-U.S. Facebook messages using the hashtag #Кремльнашуисториюнеперепишешь #Литва #США #Прибалтика saying that “all decision in NATO are subject to U.S. censorship.” The MFA also named two U.S. diplomats it said were directly responsible for the “Forest Brothers” video. 

Several lessons can be learned from this episode. First, the angry rhetoric and retaliatory techniques used by Russian state institutions and officials against NATO’s video hark back to Soviet times, as if nothing has changed since the Cold War. The remark by Edward Lucas that “the Kremlin regards itself as the direct heirs of the Forest Brothers’ foe” is valid, in that Russia identifies with the Soviet regime that occupied the Baltics. Second, the Kremlin was angry because the video denied Russia’s narrative that the people of the Baltics welcomed the Red Army as a liberating force. Third, it demonstrated that NATO can be effective in pushing back against Russian propaganda. Finally, Lithuanian civic society showed it can use social media to defend the country's identity and history.