Putin's Historical Memory Laws Foreshadowed Ukrainian Invasion

tags: Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Russian history, nationalism, public history

Francine Hirsch is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal After World War II (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian State Duma introduced a bill attaching fines and prison sentences to a 2021 law banning “any public attempt to equate the aims and actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II, as well as to deny the decisive role of the Soviet people in the victory over fascism.” What does this bill have to do with the invasion of Ukraine? In short, everything. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rewriting of the history of World War II has set the stage for his war in Ukraine.

Over the past week, Putin has cynically used the language of “denazification” in a barrage of propaganda to rally Russians behind a war against Ukraine. He has misrepresented the unjust invasion of Ukraine as a humanitarian intervention. And he has falsely accused “the Kyiv regime” of committing “crimes against peaceful people” and carrying out the “genocide” of Russians—using the language of Soviet and international war crimes trials after World War II.

In claiming to rescue Russian “victims” in Ukraine, Putin is building on a foreign policy strategy from the 1990s. The Russian political scientist Sergey Karaganov, who served as an adviser to Boris Yeltsin and to Putin, has long argued that Russia should present itself “as the defender of human rights of ethnic Russians living in the ‘near abroad’” in order to expand its political influence into those regions. This has played well domestically with those Russians who experienced the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a tragedy.

But Putin has taken this strategy to a new level by falsely depicting Ukraine’s leaders, including its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as “Nazis”—and by accusing the West of “turning a blind eye” to the murder of women and children. 

Putin is tapping into the deep emotions surrounding the memory of World War II.


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