A few days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a 75-minute speech covering pretty much all of Russian history: from the Napoleonic Wars, through the October Revolution, World War II and Stalin, to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This speech is characteristic of recent Russian foreign policy, in which history is playing an increasingly important role. “Putin is using the past to create a narrative of Russian greatness,” explains historian Jelle van Lottum. “Historical claims, carefully fabricated myths and other distortions of the past have been central to the run-up to the current war and its legitimisation. Historical arguments are being used as a weapon in this conflict.”
History in Russian politics
Together with guest editors Beatrice de Graaf (Utrecht University) and Lien Verpoest (KU Leuven), Van Lottum and fellow historian Harm Kaal have compiled a special issue of the academic journal Journal of Applied History (JOAH). The issue is dedicated in its entirety to the Russo-Ukrainian war. In nine articles, researchers analyse from different angles what role history has played in Russian politics over the past two decades, and how Putin has used this history for political and ultimately military purposes.
Indoctrination and rhetoric
For example, author Tatsiana Astrouskaya shows how the history of Ukraine and Ukrainians was rewritten in Belarusian textbooks. History was interpreted from above and imposed on the youngest generation as propaganda. This coloured version of history has also spread outside education, since 2020 primarily through Telegram.
Researchers Niels Drost and Beatrice de Graaf analysed over 11,000 Putin speeches and statements for their article. Their analysis shows how, between 1999 and 2022, Putin increasingly used elements of Russian imperial history and Russian Orthodox Christian tradition, among other things to formulate a new state ideology and legitimise the destruction of Russia’s enemies. Other researchers in the JOAH issue also describe how historical narratives from the Middle Ages to the present day – “They are humiliating us”, “We are a historically great nation” “We are a holy nation” – are being used by Russia to legitimise military invasions.
Incidentally, Putin is not the only one using history in this conflict. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is also making use of the past, as shown by researcher Sam Edwards. By skilfully and very deliberately deploying historical memory in speeches aimed in particular at the United States and the United Kingdom, Zelensky managed to obtain diplomatic, financial and military support for his country’s defence.
“We hope this special issue provides context and guidance in understanding the use of history as a weapon in the run-up to and during a war,” says Kaal. “And above all, that it also provides insight into how we can respond to this, and counteract specific forms of distortion and abuse of the past.”