The coronavirus pandemic has affected all strands of human activity, including the trajectory of pro-Kremlin disinformation. Revision of World War II history, which had become a focus of pro-Kremlin disinformation, faded into the background as media outlets loyal to the Kremlin turned their focus to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, as the local authorities in Prague removed a statue to Soviet marshal Ivan Konev, history suddenly returned. Pro-Kremlin media outlets claimed in unison that the removal of the statue was illegal, immoral and a crime. It was also a provocation against Russia, orchestrated by the US and, of course, constituted an attempt to rewrite history.
Attacking the local authorities in Prague, the pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets chose to ignore the historical facts, as they have multiple times in the past – namely, that Red Army’s victory did not bring liberty to many of the European nations. Far from it. Marshal Ivan Konev himself had a leading role in crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956 as well as the building of the Berlin Wall. Regardless, Russia said it would open a criminal case over the removal of the statue, showcasing instrumentalisation of history for Russia’s foreign policy.
As EUvsDisinfo wrote before, from the perspective of the Kremlin, history is not an academic discipline, but a tool of fulfilling political ambitions. History is not something to be remembered and studied; it is something to be managed. According to a recent study of Stockholm Free World Forum,
“History is being used by the political leadership in Russia as a tool to create legitimacy at home, and to frame its behavior at the international arena. It is a policy that has consequences both domestically and abroad.”
The study further noted, that already in 2015, Russia’s National Security Strategy stipulated that one of the threats to national security within the cultural sphere “is the attempts to falsify Russian and World history”. In line with this approach, pro-Kremlin sources are advancing a narrative about the ongoing war on historical memory with a clear imperative for Russia to win it.
Below is an overview of pro-Kremlin media attempts at fighting the self-declared war on historical remembrance.
80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
August 2019 marked 80 years since the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a non-aggression agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which led to World War II and all its tragic consequences. The day of signing the pact, August 23rd, is observed as a day of remembrance for victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Instead of reflecting on a complex and difficult history and Russia’s role in it, the pro-Kremlin media found another opportunity to deny the Soviet Union’s role in signing the pact. The USSR was reluctant to sign the pact and had had no other choice, the pro-Kremlin media claimed, stressing that Poland wanted to attack the USSR, that the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States was a myth, and that all of it was Hitler’s idea anyway.
With such disinformation messages, pro-Kremlin “managers” of European history chose to ignore history of their own: in December 1989, the Parliament of the USSR, the Congress of the People’s Deputies, adopted a resolution, denouncing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Commemoration of the 80th anniversary since the start of World War II
A Russian delegation was not invited to the commemoration ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the WWII in Poland because of the illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing aggression in Ukraine. Predictably, this drew the ire of pro-Kremlin media outlets, which claimed that the Soviet Union saved Poland from ruin of the war and, notably, that Poland was the organiser and the main culprit of the World War II.
Ahead of the commemoration ceremony in Poland, we saw official Twitter account of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs attack the Baltic States, and a successful pushback from Latvian and Lithuanian authorities
The European Parliament adopts resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe
The European Parliament resolution voicing concern about the efforts of the Russian leadership to distort historical facts and whitewash crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime touched a nerve of pro-Kremlin disinformation. Multiple outlets continue to target the resolution to this day.
In the world of pro-Kremlin disinformation, the resolution was perceived as an attack on Russia in the “war” of historical memory. The European Parliament resolution, stressing that World War II was an immediate result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was portrayed as “fascist” along with the Parliament which adopted it. The pro-Kremlin media outlets claimed that the European Parliament has joined forces with Fascism, that it represents the Third Reich, and relieves Germany from the responsibility of World War II.
As the disinformation campaign about the European Parliament resolution evolved, a particular target became the focus of the pro-Kremlin media. Poland was carefully selected as the main “villain” for disinformation attacks. It was portrayed not only as the culprit of the World War II, but also as Hitler’s ally and whitewasher of Nazi crimes.
Other European nations, whose destinies were permanently altered by the secret protocols of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and were targeted as well. The Baltic States were said to have joined the USSR in accordance with the international law; Finland was accused of building concentration camps and other heinous war crimes; Ukraine, along with Poland, was said to have gained the most from the World War II. All those who did not accept the pro-Kremlin narrative of “Soviet liberation” were labelled as vassals of the US.
Commemoration the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
This year, the 27th of January – the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust – was also used as an occasion for spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation. The international media and historians strongly reacted to the false claims that 40% of Jews who died in the Holocaust were citizens of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, the pro-Kremlin media continued to attack Poland and the European Parliament, the Baltic States, France and Britain.
The Warsaw uprising also became a target of pro-Kremlin disinformation. On January 17th, the very day of the Soviet Army’s capture of Warsaw 75 years ago, the Russian Ministry of Defence publicized “secret documents” claiming that the Warsaw uprising was ill prepared and that an intervention from Soviet troops was just not possible. Such claims evoked a strong backlash at pro-Kremlin attempts to revise history:
“The Red Army stared on idly at the agony of Warsaw. The city’s two uprisings — the first in the Jewish ghetto in 1943, the second in the entire city in 1944 — were evidence of the ruthlessness of German crimes. But while the people of Warsaw waited hopefully for help, Joseph Stalin never ordered the Red Army to intervene,” wrote the prime minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki.
Preparation for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II
The Kremlin’s preparations for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II has been a long endeavour. There have been fireworks for celebrating the Red Army’s capture of European capitals, adoption of legal measures for demolition of war monuments in Russia and abroad, selective reading of historical archives at the highest levels to “prove” that Poland started the World War II…
Disinformation campaigns accompanied and facilitated these efforts, reinforcing the Kremlin’s determination to define itself as the sole force of resistance against fascism – now and throughout history. Hence the celebration of the victory in World War II is framed in antagonistic terms: anyone who refuses to uncritically accept pro-Kremlin narratives is resented and accused of fascism and historical revisionism.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Victory Day parade in Moscow, usually held on the 9th of May, is now postponed.. But the disinformation campaign and the “management of history” is coming back. For the Kremlin a lot is at stake. As Andrei Arkhangelsky, a Russian journalist wrote at the beginning of the year:
“In addition to the traditional struggle against “falsifiers of history”, the Kremlin also has internal goals. Ahead of the parliamentary elections and of course 2024, it needs societal consolidation. However the only way to rally the population is “against” – this time not even a real opponent, but a historical, or rather, mythical one.”