Putin's Far from the Only Autocrat Abusing HistoryBreaking News
tags: Vladimir Putin, nationalism, authoritarianism, Patriotic History
Katie Stallard is a senior editor for China and global affairs at The New Statesman, and a non-resident global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea.
Sitting in the basement of a community center in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, listening to shells being dropped all around us, I watched as a young woman sought to explain the violence to her son. “Who is bombing us?” she asked in Russian, before prompting, “Is it fascists?” The 4-year-old nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Yes, it is fascists.”
It was January 2015. Russian-backed separatists had taken control of the city nine months earlier, declaring it the capital of their new Donetsk People’s Republic. Yet fighting continued and the truth is, when we were in that basement, none of us knew who was responsible for the shelling: The Ukrainian army was dug in on the city’s outskirts, and separatists were firing from positions close to us.
None, that is, but for the mother I saw speaking with her boy. By “fascists,” she later told me, she was referring to Ukrainian government forces.
If you got your news from Russian state television, which many people in that predominantly Russian-speaking city and about 90 percent of Vladimir Putin’s domestic audience did, there was no doubt about who was to blame: Viewers were told that the conflict in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk was the fault of a “fascist junta” that had seized power in Kyiv and the Western intelligence agencies who were pulling the strings. Russian media published innumerable stories about how these forces had plunged Ukraine into violence and chaos.
President Vladimir Putin’s announcement this February that he was ordering Russian troops into Ukraine to carry out a “denazification” campaign—an absurd claim, given that, for a start, Ukraine’s leader is Jewish and had relatives killed in the Holocaust—drew on those lies from years prior, lies that I saw warping reality in that basement in 2015. Then, I was Moscow correspondent for Britain’s Sky News. Now I am based in Washington, D.C., for The New Statesman, but the memory of that moment has lingered. Listening to Putin’s speech on the morning of his invasion, when he declared that he was saving innocents from “genocide” and compared his actions to the heroic struggle Russians waged during World War II, my initial response was disbelief. Then I realized I had heard this argument before.
The Russian president is the latest in a long line of dictators to manipulate history and manufacture enemies to rally the population against and secure his own hold on power. Past Soviet leaders have drawn on the same core themes, and I have seen this playbook in action in China and North Korea, where Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un insist that they too are defending their nations against hostile foreign adversaries.
Yet we must not assume that this autocratic rewriting of history, driven largely by a desire to consolidate power, affects only a dictator’s domestic population (though it does). In fact, these retellings matter far beyond, encompassing expansive territorial ambitions and aggressive foreign policies that threaten neighboring democracies, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan—and Ukraine—and whip up nationalist fervor against the United States and its allies.
As Putin is currently demonstrating, these questionable historical narratives in faraway autocracies are a problem for democracies too.
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