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Analysis & Opinion
22.05.09 No Doubt Allowed
By Roland Oliphant

It is the latest strike in Russia’s ongoing historical wars with its neighbors, and comes hard on the heels of a proposed law to criminalize the questioning of the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War. The move has sparked fierce debate amongst historians, some of whom see it as a necessary response to the increasing politicization of history by Russia’s neighbors. Others, however, warn that Russia is merely stooping to its opponents’ level.

President Dmitry Medvedev this week announced the formation of a new presidential commission dedicated to “analyzing and suppressing all attempts at the falsification of history to the detriment of Russia.”

The new commission, which will meet twice a year, consists of representatives from various government ministries (including the Defense Ministry, the FSB and its foreign intelligence counterpart, the SVR), the State Duma, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and “public organizations,” but includes only three historians. This has already drawn criticism. Alexei Miller, a professional historian and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences who opposes the new commission, told the Expert weekly that its make-up gave him hope that it would be “still born.”

Assuming they do not meet a premature end, the motley crew of opinion formers and policymakers will be entrusted with reading and analyzing everything it can get its hands on about “falsification of facts to impair national prestige,” and ultimately the formation of a strategy to counter such “attempts at falsification.”

What such a strategy would look like is not clear, but it is likely to follow the pattern set by a draft law currently before the Duma that would outlaw “denial of the Soviet victory” in 1945.

That bill has already raised concerns that it would proscribe certain opinions, stifle debate, and even outlaw criticism of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.

Despite the ominously Orwellian implications of trying to control history, most critics think it unlikely that the new law and presidential commission are intended for the explicit censoring of Russian historians. The consensus seems to be that the initiative is either one of foreign policy (the new law would make foreign statesmen who question Russia’s role in the war personae non grata), or intended simply as a gesture to shore up president Medvedev’s patriotic credentials.

And even amongst critics there is a consensus that the problem Medvedev says his new commission will address – the increasing politicization of history in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – is real. "Divergent opinions and different points of view are part of the normal development of science,” Alexander Chubar?an, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World History and one of the few historians on the committee, told the Kommersant daily. “However, in Russia and the CIS, there is a problem of politicization of historical knowledge, which contributes to a hostile images and representations of some countries on others.”

Opinion in Russia, where the memory of the Second World War victory is sacred, has found itself increasingly at odds with revisionist views of 20th century in neighboring countries, that are more inclined to see 1945 as the year they were occupied by the Soviet Union rather than liberated from the Nazis. But these rows have often taken on an unpleasantly political character and been exploited by politicians on both sides (the spectacular diplomatic shouting match over the bronze soldier war memorial in Tallinn is only the most publicized example).

Chubar?an insists that there is no danger of a return to censorship of dissenting opinions about history, and told Kommersant that the committee “does not purport to the status of a research institution.” But others are not so sure. After all, if the problem is the politicization of history, surely more government intervention can only make it worse.
“We have set ourselves on a par with those of our neighbors, who at the state level use history for a purely political purposes,” Miller told Expert. “The spirit of institutions like these is precisely that of those countries with policies that this commission is supposed to help us fight - Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, etc.”

While the historians argue over how the commission will help or hinder them, political observers doubt that those behind the initiative are really concerned with history at all. Much as Medvedev has made a series of high-profile gestures to reassure his liberal constituency, the defense of the Red Army’s honor is intended as a propaganda sop to patriots. But there is more to it than that.

The memory of the Second World War in Russia unifies Russians like few other things do. The November 14 Day of National Unity, for example, is meant to commemorate the day an occupying Polish army was evicted from the Kremlin, but surveys show that few Russians know anything about it and the holiday has been seized on by extreme nationalists. This leaves a government concerned about national unity with few other options. “There is absolutely nothing else in the whole of Russian history that can be used to unite the nation,” said Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “So the temptation to use the Second World War in political games is very, very strong indeed.”
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