Historical memory stands for constructing meanings for historical events and can be talked about on the level of the individual, society and state. ERR's Novaator portal asked Defense Forces Academy senior research fellow Vladimir Sazonov about the significance of historical memory in Russian policy.
Sazonov says that Russia requires a historical myth to offset certain technological backlog compared to the West, which is primarily its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II and the accompanying image of a liberator the Kremlin keeps emphasizing. "The victory became the object of major celebration 20 years after the Second World War. May 9 did not become a red-letter day in the Soviet Union until 1965. By now, it has become a propaganda weapon and part of the Kremlin's ideology," Sazonov explained.
The research fellow emphasizes that historical memory is often selective and highlights convenient aspects: "While Russia stresses that the Soviet Union won the Second World War, the fact it participated as an aggressor is conveniently left out. The Soviet Union attacked Poland 16 days after Hitler did in 1939 as an ally of Nazi Germany at the time. The occupation of the Baltics in 1940 is either overlooked or denied."
Russian propaganda includes constant demonization of the West, Sazonov says. "Residents are told that the West seeks to destroy Russia's conservative family values. And these efforts at intimidation are every effective."
Russia's anti-Western sentiment goes back to 19th century
Russia's main criticism of the West, including the Baltics, is the creation and dissemination of Russophobia, meaning discrimination again and hatred for the Russian people and culture. "According to the Kremlin's influence activities, a Russian person who does not support Putin's regime, Russia's foreign policy and imperialism can also be a Russophobe," Sazonov said.
Russophobia goes back to the 19th century and the formation of the idea of Russia as a unique country that is home to a unique people and form of governance. One important ideologist of this concept was Count Sergei Uranov who served as minister of public initiative in 1833-1849.
"He suggested that Russia is on a singular path that sets it apart from Europe because of the correct order of things there is based on the Orthodox faith and political wisdom, and all of it is governed by a ruler appointed by God. The same idea is being promoted by Putin's ideologists, albeit with certain variations," Sazonov says.
The assistant professor adds that tensions between Russia and the West also follow historical events, like the Crimean War of 1853-1856. The Russian Empire attacked the Ottoman Empire. The Brits, French and Sardinia backed the Turks because they were afraid of the Russian Empire expanding should the Ottomans lose.
"After Russia lost the Crimean War, the West decided that neither Russian nor Turkey can maintain warships in the Black Sea. That is when Russia started talking about the West's treachery and amorality. The idea was carried over to the Soviet Union and has made its way to modern times," Sazonov says.
Manipulating historical memory became an important tool of influence in the second half of the 19th century. "Putin has skillfully adopted Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union's moves. While there is nothing fundamentally new, new topics and areas that can be made use of in propaganda keep cropping up."
Influencing the Baltics
The researcher says that Russia sees the Baltics as part of its former empire and seeks to bring them back into its sphere of influence, similarly to Armenia and Belarus. "If Russia finds that it cannot bring the Baltics back into the fold, it seeks to sow defiance and chaos. The goal is destabilization, fueling dissent and chaos," Sazonov explains, adding that Russia's hybrid warfare is the poor man's option as it would be the weaker side in a direct confrontation with NATO. That is why the Kremlin engages in efforts to undermine.
The main narrative of Putin's Russia when it comes to information influence activities is that they liberated the Baltics in WWII to save them from falling to fascist Germany and that there was never a Baltic occupation. "However, a liberator would leave after a while, instead of sticking around to oppress the local population for half a century, including by way of deportations and other repressions. Therefore, it was in fact an occupation;" Sazonov said.
Aim of Zapad to sow fear
Russia's Zapad military training exercise set to begin later this week first started at the height of the Cold War in 1973. Zapad in 1981 hosted thousands of tanks and over one hundred thousand troops. The exercise took place in Estonia, Latvia and Poland.
Zapad was reanimated after a break in 1999 when Vladimir Putin came to power. "The official version is that the maneuvers are necessary to train for a potential terrorist incursion. However, the latter would not require the deployment of nuclear weapons and military aircraft," Sazonov said.
The analyst says that Russia is spreading information noise surrounding the Zapad exercise, its goal and scale. "The aim is intimidation. I believe that Zapad 2021 is dangerous in terms of information warfare. On the one hand, we should not make too much of it lest we aid Russia's narrative. While we also cannot keep quiet as one never knows what Russia might be planning. It is a dangerous regime."
The assistant professor adds that China participating in Zapad is a new development, even though it will likely play the role of observer. "Russia's information warfare is global, China's even more so," Sazonov says.
The article by Vladimir Sazonov, Igor Kopõtin and Sergei Pahhomenko on Russia's historical narratives for the Baltics was published in the compendium "The Russian Federation in Global Knowledge Warfare" that was published by Springer as part of the "Strategic Narrative as a Model for Reshaping the Security Dilemma" research project.
Editor: Marcus Turovski