Moscow’s Twisted History Lessons

Russia’s Victory Day, celebrated on May 9th, has for decades been its most unifying event of the year domestically and its least controversial holiday internationally. But because of the peculiarities of the Kremlin’s politics of history, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing struggle over Ukraine, even the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War has become divisive.

Heads of state the world over have been invited to the military parade in Moscow to mark the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. According to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, leaders from China, Israel, the Czech republic, Serbia, North Korea and most former Soviet republics are planning to attend. But those from the Western countries that were Russia’s closest World War II allies have declined.

Russia has always had a love-hate relationship with the West. Writers from Turgenev to Brodsky worked to build bridges, while others, from Dostoyevsky to Solzhenitsyn, have warned that the West’s morals, cultures and customs are somehow corrupting.

President Vladimir Putin and his supporters have opted to embrace the view that the West has always sought to corrupt and cheat the Russian people, to thwart the country’s development and prevent Russia from taking its rightful place in the world. They have long insisted that the United States and its allies were unjust to Russia as the Cold War drew to a close, even as Moscow voluntarily gave up its interests in Central and Eastern Europe. And they castigate their own countrymen who have sought and still seek greater ties with the West.

“The greatest criminals in our history were those weaklings who threw Russian power on the floor — Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev — those who allowed the power to be picked up by the hysterics and the madmen,” the journalist Ben Judah reported Mr. Putin as saying privately to his aides.

These themes have become central to Mr. Putin’s public discourse as well. “It’s time to stop taking note only of the bad things in our history and berating ourselves more than even our opponents would do,” he declared at the annual gathering of international Russia experts known as the Valdai Discussion Club in 2013. “We must be proud of our history.”

Mr. Putin has buttressed his domestic standing by bending history to justify his self-proclaimed mission to reclaim Russia’s lost glory. In a documentary released on national TV to coincide with the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, which officially became part of Russia on March 21, 2014, Mr. Putin took personal responsibility for the move, calling the loss of the peninsula and the historic Russian naval port of Sebastapol as the Soviet Union collapsed a “historic injustice” that had to be corrected.

This premise is certainly a selective one. Take the case of Perm-36, a museum of Soviet repression created in 1992 on the site of a former penal colony 800 miles east of Moscow. The privately run museum, named after the Soviet designation for the prison camp, was dedicated to the victims of Stalinism. But the local government, sensing a need to demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin, pushed the organization out. Perm-36 will soon reopen as a state museum dedicated to the airbrushed history of the Russian penal system.

This distorted approach to the past, which stresses Russian triumphs while dismissing Russian crimes, continues in the Kremlin’s current relations with Washington and the capitals of Western Europe. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Russia’s relationship with Germany, a country that has built its post-World War II identity on being open and penitent about the dark side of its history. On a recent visit to Japan, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany, despite the brutality and horror of the Hitler era, is now accepted by the international community not only because of the generosity of its neighbors but also because of the “readiness in Germany to face our history openly and squarely.”

Today Ms. Merkel presides over Europe’s biggest and most successful economy. Gradually and reluctantly, Germany is assuming a leading role on European foreign policy issues. The Ukraine crisis — and the low-key stance the Obama administration has taken in dealing with it — have forced her to take the initiative.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, it was both symbolic and justified that Germany, Russia’s bitterest enemy in Europe’s most ugly and murderous war, became the nation that took its strategic relationship with Russia the most seriously.

“German policy makers really did think they, and they alone, could bring Russia into the West,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Germany was Russia’s bridgehead into Europe. Vladimir Putin has destroyed this bridge single-handedly.”

Western leaders insist that they do not want another Cold War with Russia. Nevertheless, the atmosphere with Moscow is so chilly and the anger over Mr. Putin’s aggressions is so pronounced that neither President Obama nor the leaders of Britain, Poland, the Baltic countries and most other European Union member states plan to be in Moscow for the Victory Day parade. Neither does the chancellor of Germany. But though Angela Merkel, ever the peacemaker, will skip the main celebration, she nevertheless plans to lay a wreath at the Kremlin Wall before the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti, a Wilson Center fellow in Washington, and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia.

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