Staunton, September 29 – History has become a substitute for ideology in Putin’s Russia, Ivan Kurilla says; and as a result, the powers that be are imposing at an ever more rapid rate the same kind of intellectual straightjacket their Soviet predecessors did in the name of maintaining ideological purity.
As a result, it is the field of history and especially on those aspects of it like World War II which resonate most strongly with Putin that “the conflict between the needs of propaganda and free research are most obvious, the professor at St. Petersburg’s European University continues (russian.eurasianet.org/россия-какую-историю-напишут-следователи).
Moves against academic freedom in historical research have been a commonplace under Putin and they have intensified over the last two years. On the one hand, Putin by his constitutional amendment against historical falsification means that those with independent views are subject to criminal charges.
And on the other, because World War II is the “founding myth” of the Putin regime and because 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of that conflict, Putin’s interest in imposing a single view on all aspects of that war and its outcome became especially important to the regime and to its enforcers.
“After the adoption of the amendments, limitations on historical research are constitutionally mandated,” Kurilla suggests. “And in fact, control over historical interpretations now has landed in the hands of the state and above all in its punitive organs,” making the threat to historical research even greater.
It soon thereafter became clear that the Kremlin has given the Investigations Committee the responsibility to enforce their provisions, including on “historical falsification. And three weeks ago, the committee’s head, Aleksandr Bastrykin, created a special department to do just that (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/09/russian-investigations-committee.html).
The result of these developments, the St. Petersburg scholar says, is that the risks which historians working on any issue “important for the state’s historical quasi-ideology” have gone up and nowhere more than on the many issues around World War II.
There is a great risk that the window of remarkable historical investigations on key issues that began with perestroika is coming to an end. Those of us who began studying Russia when it was still the Soviet Union can remember the excitement we felt when hitherto prohibited subjects began to be discussed or old myths dispelled.
I still remember the frisson I felt when I read the first article from a Moscow publication discussing the Ryutin Affair, something the Soviet system had not wanted confronted honestly because of the implications of this act of resistance against Stalin. After that article appeared, the old myths about that action could no longer be sustained.
Putin has not yet established the total control he wants, and important articles about critical issues are still appearing, although less frequently than earlier. Indeed, this week, Novaya gazeta published one on the 1930 Promparty trial, a trial important because there never was such an organization (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/09/28/87276-potrebuem-spisok-vrazhdebnyh-imen).
One of my greatest regrets is that so few people in Russia and the West have attended to such articles about the lacunae of the Soviet period and that there is no centralized listing of them. Tragically, Putin’s moves against the freedom of historical research mean that there are likely to be fewer of them – but also that each one is that much more precious and worthy of attention.