EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Refighting World War II: How the Kremlin co-opts War Memory
DATE: 6 May, 3:00pm-4:00pm
SPEAKERS: Mark Galeotti and Nikolay Koposov
EVENT MODERATOR: Dr Jade McGlynn
Dr Jade McGlynn 00:02
Hello, everybody, I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting. We’ve unfortunately been having a few difficulties with internet connection here in the building in which we’re based. So, I also have to apologize if the if there are any problems with our connection. So yes, lots of apologies there. And as a third apology, bad things come in threes. In this case, we are not yet joined by Koposov of we’re hoping he’s going to be able to join us later during the seminar. So, on which note, I suppose I should probably having apologized enough, or perhaps not enough, but having apologized, at least, I will start. So, thank you to all of you the memory of World War II, just a few minor housekeeping points. First, if you do have any questions, and I hope you do, please put them in the q&a box and then during the last 20 minutes or half an hour, we will call on you to ask your questions aloud. If you don’t want to read your question, please just let us know when you’re typing it. And to spark these questions. I’m delighted to be joined right now today by Professor Mark Galeotti’s who’s written some of my favourite books on Russia. Mark is the director of the consultancy firm, Mayak Intelligence, he’s also an honorary professor at UCL, the School of Slavic in East European studies. And he’s a Senior Associate Fellow at receive as well as a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, where he spent a fair amount of time previously, he’s also an Associate Fellow of the Middle East Institute’s frontier Europe program. Previously, he’s held roles at NYU at the EUI, Foreign Office, and his many, many books include: A Short History of Russia, We Need to Talk About Putin and The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Jade McGlynn. I’m the director of research and head of the Russia and Eurasia studies here at HJS. My PhD cantered on the politics of memory in Russia, and particularly on contemporary uses in history. So, I’m going to have to be on my best behaviour not to geek out here too much, I think, for the sake of the audience. One thing I would like to say before starting, especially as it’s directly relevant to our event here is that sometimes one of the issues that arises when discussing the politicization of the past and Putin’s Russia, is that it can be easy to lose the tragedy of the events themselves, and the very real need to remember and reflect on them. I think it’s fair to say that in the West, many of us can forget the toll taken and the enormity of the USSR as losses in World War II or what’s known in Russia is the Great Patriotic War spanning from 1941 to 1948. There are different reasons for this. But probably at least one of them is that the instrumental role of (inaudible) staff complicates some of our own preferred neater historical narratives around World War II, which is nice simplified, again sort of good and evil for freedom. But the USSR was of course instrumental, and the scale of loss was thankfully, for us in the UK, unimaginable. With between 25 to 31 million Soviet citizens, Russians and non-Russians among them, of course, killed in the conflict and 16 million of them said civilians. Therefore, it is entirely understandable that night of May or Victory Day when Russia celebrate the end of World War II is known to many as the holiday with tears in your eyes. And much of the current celebrations that we see date back to the to the British Navy era, when many aspects of the current ways of remembering the war emerged. But there are also numerous new invented or reinvented traditions. And it’s also fair to say that the presence in World War II is very prominent in daily Russian life, as the government has launched massive programs, spanning hundreds of billions of rubbles, using sort of government ministries and the caf ghastly, titled government organized non-governmental organizations like the Russian military stalks society to release of 1000s of initiatives each year. So war films, War series, books, children’s re-enactment camps, children’s war, tourism, murals, exhibitions, expeditions, museums, most of which offer a very selective narrative of the war, one that’s retold using the heroic and tragic legacy of it, fuelled by many nations and peoples in the Soviet Union, to prop up and legitimize an increasingly authoritarian style of government and an aggressive foreign policy, even now some 76 years on. And it’s on that note that I would like to turn with my first question to Mark, and why is not only the Great Patriotic War, but also war more generally such a focal point that has emerged often in Putin’s discourse? At a time when Russia itself is living through an era of relative political stability? In many ways?
Mark Galeotti 05:10
It’s a good question. And in some ways, there is a long-term answer and the short-term answer, the long-term answer is actually about Russian history. Look, all states have, to an extent, been shaped by wars, and the whole warfighting experience of building up taxation machines and everything else. In Russia, though, it’s been particularly more striking. And in part, it’s precisely that this is a country with no natural borders, at the crossroads of Europe and Eurasia, which has therefore been prone to be invaded by whichever is the military superpower of the time from East or from West or from south. And therefore, in this is a history which has actually been very much punctuated by wars, and a nation state, which also has been delineated by them. I mean, in some ways, we can look at wars as being a sort of crucial element of the expansion of the Russian state, across Eurasia into the south, and so forth. And in some ways, the borders which emerged, were precisely defined by that equipoise, that balance between Russia’s capacity and interest to expand, and the will and the ability of states in these regions to resist that. So, in some ways, exactly, I mean, we can just actually point to the boundaries of modern Russia and the past incarnations of Russia, and say, actually, those boundaries were themselves drawn by war. And so, this is why, you know, wars have always been important in Russia’s national story, and they have also been used to have been exploited. For that same purpose. I mean, one can look at the 14th century, the Battle of Kulikovo, which was a momentous and dramatic success against the Golden Horde. But the idea that it’s somehow reflected a turning point, well, two years later, Khan Tokhtamysh came in sacked and burned Moscow. And it’d be another 100 years, that the Russians would still be paying tribute to the Golden Horde until the great stand on the Ugra River. But it doesn’t matter, because at the time, I mean, Dmitri Donskoy was not only a good general, he was a good spinmeister. And he understood the importance of building a narrative around that. And he had Orthodox Church, which you know, if one can be light-hearted about, it was the cable news of the day, as also his additional mouthpiece to put out his story. So, you know, time and again, we’ve seen that, I will refrain from the temptation or just get going through every single major war. But the very fact that the Napoleonic War is known as the Patriotic War, as the precursor to the Great Patriotic War. And again, it says something it’s not just a Napoleonic War, it’s actually, you know, something existential struggle for the Motherland, which of course, it was, so wars do actually matter. But then, particularly when we come to Putin, I mean, he has had this campaign to really try a build a new narrative, what is Russia, one that actually not just supports his own political ambitions, but also fits the needs of the moment. Because after all, in some ways, modern Russia, the Russian Federation, it was defined at the end of 1991, as the bits of the Soviet Union that had not also declared independence for themselves. In many ways, it was the hole in the middle of the Parliament. And, you know, it was hard to create a narrative, certainly in the 1990s, this is a clear issue. So, Putin has tried to do that. And obviously, being Putin, it suits his particular needs, he’s cherry picking through history for the bits that he likes, you know, he doesn’t want the failures of 1941. You know, he wants to pick one that says that Russia is a great power, it wants to hijack the memory of World War II, for Russia, rather than as you pointed out, actually being for the whole Soviet Union. But to somehow explain Russian exceptionalism more or less says precisely, we earned great power status through the blood of 20 million of our people who failed to save the world from Nazi barbarism. And also, to give a picture of an essentially anarchic and dangerous world. That actually is one in which when Russia is not united, Russia is prey. And this is a very kind of primordial notion. And all of that works. So, the very fact that, at the moment, Russia is you might see a piece except for the wars that he chooses to fight, whether in the Donbass or Syria or wherever, is actually the very opposite of the picture that Putin wants to create. He wants to create this, this more dangerous picture. And therefore, wars are also a way of trying, largely failing, but trying to mobilize the sense of Russia is a beleaguered fortress and therefore everyone needs to protect. So long term history and short-term political expediency, as well as just simply an attempt to try and build some notion for what the hell the Russian Federation is.
Dr Jade McGlynn 10:22
Yeah, I think, that’s that was a wonderfully wide ranging but also picked up on really all of the major points that that I was hoping that you would, I was also really happy to see that you managed to include Kulikovo so early on, because I knew tried to get referencing, but I was amazed, frankly, at the speed. So, it’s good to have that one out of the way. And I think you pick up on some important points as well around, of course, this isn’t the first time that there’s a heavy dose of sort of warm apology or historical analogies during the Great Patriotic War itself. There are almost constant references back to the Patriotic War that you mentioned against Napoleon and trying to use these memories themselves to feed into it all does become quite complicated. It’s not as neat is that was that was a Great Patriotic War, and then it will ascend from that.
Mark Galeotti 11:19
It’s fascinating. I have a question for you. But also thinking about the resonances. I mean, it’s also I think it’s interesting if one looks at the term that is used for the militant separatists, Russian proxies calling what you will in the Donbass, people’s militias. I mean, this is also the term was used for the forces that emerged at the end of the Time of Troubles to drive back the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth forces that occupied Moscow and so forth. And again, I mean, this is what I find really fascinating. It’s actually the extent to which one finds all kinds of historical motifs constantly being repurposed, to try and bring some kind of luster. But I mean, I said, I mean, I’m shamelessly hijacking the situation. But you know, given this is your, your particular area of research, you talk about the extent to which you know, there’s a harkening back to the original Patriotic War. And I can’t help but wonder, I mean, how far is it that it’s purely victories that matter? I mean, are we actually talking about wars? Or are we talking about victories?
Dr Jade McGlynn 12:27
That’s a really excellent question, because as you as you’ve already referred to, the actual memory of 1941 is a tricky one. It’s not dealt with anywhere near as prominently as the memories sort of from the success of Stalingrad, afterwards. I think there is a discussion of victimhood. I mean, there is a description of suffering, that means that we’re not talking just about victory. And because certainly, if we think back actually, to the propaganda that was used around the war in Ukraine, when that broke out a lot of the discussion around what the Ukrainian army in the sort of anti-terrorist operations were supposedly doing to the civilian population in the Donbass, there was heavy references, of course, to massacres by the Nazis during World War II, and to the idea of the Russian population constantly, you know, being at risk of this sort of this targeting that the Nazis had returned, or, of course, their best and in this narrative that helpers, say this sort of Ukrainian nationalists who, this is a very, this is a very complicated topic to transfer from one line, but some of who collaborated with the Nazis, I think would be would be a nice easy placement. And of course, that’s there’s several books that have been written on that topic. But yes, so that was a quiet constant refrain was this idea of the Russian population, or once again, being victimized, and of course, any of Russian, we may have perceived as anything as Russian aggression, very much the Russian media presented as this is Russia, just defending his people. Because we’ve seen this before, we saw this in 1941, we saw this in 1942, and we’re not going to let it happen again, which was a very powerful narrative in and of itself, and also the intensity in which it was delivered. So, you do see these, you do see these references to suffering, but they’re not references to losing. They’re just references to sort of poor Russia’s just sitting there might also be union of course, so often, ethicized is now to Russia, sitting there minding his own business, they never do any harm. And all of a sudden, different actors throughout history, just call him invade and victimize and I think we see this as well, more recently in some of the discussions around Russophobia, where of course, there have been sort of efforts by Putin, by Lavrov, to compare Russophobia with anti-Semitism and even you know, discussions around “okay, well, of course, the Jews suffered terribly in World War II, second only to the Russians”, lots of this sort of trying to engage in competitive victimhood, which you see a lot. I don’t want to single out Eastern Europe, but you do you do see, east of the continent, I think it’s fair to say, and around the memory of a World War II, which actually brings me on to another question I wanted to discuss, which is the topic of the idea of memory wars. So, when we have these diplomatic spats, often between Russia and Eastern European country, or Eastern Central European countries, often around World War II. So, there was the famous one at the end of 2019, around with Poland between the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs around who started World War II after Russia essentially claimed that Poland just sort of caused World War II. To what extent do you think these memories was a diversionary tactics, or a way of sort of reinforcing support at home, where it may be lacking?
Mark Galeotti 16:03
I think it’s an element of that, because we do see exactly that everything gets recounted in extravagant detail in the domestic media. It’s not just simply a matter for diplomats to be snarling at each other. And it’s used, again, I think it’s interesting, again, going back to your point about victimhood. I mean, because there are different narratives as different countries, kind of not just going to have wars, but perceive how they are as warfighting nations. You know, and actually, you know, what are the characteristics of their country that they think comes out, In the context of warfighting nation? I mean, one can think, you know, the Brits pride themselves on essentially being sort of dauntless and honourable, I think it’s fair to say. And there is this kind of classic trope that sort of the first half of any war, Britain will do terribly badly, until it kind of works out its kinks. And then of course, is triumphant. But that is a different kind of way of thinking about yourself in warfare as the Russian one, which as you say, in very much focuses on this dark path to victory. It’s just through extravagant suffering, that we actually win. And in some ways that makes the scale of a victory, all the more heroic, but all the more meaningful. So, I mean, I think in this context, it is important to keep reaffirming that Russia is a victim, this country that spans 11 time zones, and has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has strategic nuclear forces. But nonetheless, somehow, it’s the nasty Poles or the nasty Czechs, who are being mean to poor little Russia. So, I mean, there is that element of that. But I also think we shouldn’t forget two other elements. I mean, one is it actually memory wars, you know, take two sides to fight. I mean, often there is actually another dimension. I mean, if one looks at the particular spat with Poland, I mean, of course, the Russian line was historically indefensible, but so too, was much of what was being mobilized against the Russians at that time. You know, this notion that, in fact, the Russians are always wanted there to be war and such. I mean, it was that there was there was some equally problematic memory war stuff on the other side. Um, so, you know, I think this is the fact that actually, there are many countries at the moment, all products of 1989 to 1991, that are still finding their own way and building or rebuilding their own national narratives. And so, memory war actually can be useful for both sides to kind of define themselves and their, their psychic boundaries, shall we say? And the last thing I would say is, yes, much of this is absolutely instrumentalized, political sort of tactic, to justify your actions, and also to try and delegitimize the other side, because there are going to be constituencies in the other country who say, “Well, no, that’s not true and the Russians did come and say this” or whatever. But we shouldn’t assume that, in fact, the people who are launching this on the Russian side do not also believe it. And they actually mind particularly the kind of the 60-year old’s who essentially are dominant at the moment, while their products are the kind of the last gasp of the Soviet era. But also, they didn’t get to go through the Great Patriotic War themselves, but it was still loomed very large. One thinks about the stories of Putin playing in the ruins of Stalingrad, of Leningrad, and that kind of thing. So actually, this is a real part of their kind of quite arm’s length experiences. And I think sometimes we miss that the degree to which, yes, while they are being cynical manipulators, there is a genuine edge to this. And it’s interesting when we have people like Putin, like unable to come on to him later Naryshkin that the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, who’s also head of the Russian Historical Society, you know. I’m not saying he’s a good historian, it’s quite the opposite. I think actually, they are shockingly bad historians, but they are certainly interests interested in history.
Dr Jade McGlynn 20:22
That’s very true. I always think that when I’m listening to Medinsky, as well, particularly the former Minister of Culture, now the President on matters relating to history, and memory, you know, he knows a lot about history, you know, if it becomes a sort of facts and numbers, or well maybe just dates, perhaps facts is too strong a word he really does, he knows a lot about them. It’s just the order and the narratives, he puts them in are slightly baffling. But I liked your point around them, it takes two to tango, two to have a memory war, which I think can also be forgotten. And I was thinking about that sort of the 2019 spat, and then what happened with Putin is national interest article last year, when actually Poland, again, was maligned, but they didn’t respond in any way on the same level as it happened sort of, in the during the 2019 spat. And as a result, Putin didn’t actually get the sort of memory, what he was quite clearly looking for, by publishing an article, or at least would have expected. So that’s, I think that’s a really pertinent point. And I suppose the other thing to consider, we do talk about minerals, in some countries, Russia’s, or the Soviet history of the war is also a source of genuine soft power. So, particularly in certain countries of the former Yugoslavia, in Serbia, among certain parts of the population, normally parts in Montenegro, but also elsewhere, it does serve as a tool, you know, not so much of division. But there’s also Russia has been some success in using it to sort of further bolster its image normally, in countries that are already sympathetic, but sometimes among you know, for example, certain left wing sections as well as obviously, some right wing, but the more the war tends to cause to appeal to those who have a more anti-fascist inclination for obvious reasons. But, but yeah, so I think that’s probably one thing also worth mentioning.
Mark Galeotti 22:25
I mean, it just, I just, that’s an interesting point. And it reminded me of there was this again, quite bitter dispute with the Czech Republic, proceeding the current bitters dispute with the Czech Republic, when the particular sort of local council in Prague wanted to remove this huge statue of Soviet martial Konyev that stood there. And, obviously, you know, the statue was a product of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet domination days. And it was because, you know, Konyev had been part of the, you know, the commanding the forces that had liberated Czechoslovakia, against the Nazis, you know, obviously, simply to impose Soviet rule, but that’s a whole other story. And, you know, it had as a result been, understandably, a constant target for graffiti and everything else. Eventually, I mean, an admittedly rather anti-Russian and regional they decided, Okay, we’re going to get rid of it. And of course, this became the subject of a furious campaign from Moscow about the extent to which it was, you know, obviously denigrating the memories all those who that sort of saved Czechoslovakia, from the Nazis and such like. And the interesting thing is that actually looking at the kind of responses at the time from within the Czech Republic, I mean, first that because it’s not as though the Russians are especially well regard in the Czech Republic and then remember 1968, as well, and the crushing of the Prague Spring and such like but you know the Czechs, in just my own impression, is that it’s not really people to kind of hold strong, bitter grudges and such like. But the interesting thing was that, after a certain point, a narrative evolved that are “ah yeah, but that’s because but Konyev had also been responsible for the crushing of the plant spring in 1968 and therefore, of course, he was sort of actually an oppressor”. He wasn’t. But the interesting thing is that actually what happened by the very vehemence of the Russian campaign to denigrate what was happening in the Czech Republic, and absolutely by making it much more extreme than the situation really was. It created this backlash and created a sort of a, I don’t think it was actually that evil people created it, it was just a sort of a bubble forth a sort of a narrative and response that actually painted this as being not about Konyev of the World War II marshal, Konyev of the Warsaw Pact marshal. Which is interesting, because I think it shows the extent to which actually, often when Russia tries this particular tactic, it handles it really badly. Because it cannot step beyond its own perspectives. They don’t stop and think well: What does this war? What does this monument? What does this individual mean to the locals? It’s just purely, well, how do we see him? And that’s how the locals ought to be seeing it. So again, I mean, I think it’s really interesting the extent to which they tried this in areas where you’d think they would have some kind of traction, the sense I get, and you also get that from Bulgaria, I mean, I don’t know, for example, sort of the Balkans area at all as well. But the sense I get is that actually, the more the Russians played his card, the smaller a value that card has, and what was once you know, a queen, or a jack is now maybe a three.
Dr Jade McGlynn 25:55
Though I think that’s a fair point, really, what I’m talking about more is less that attempt to be combative, and to just push their own narrative onto people. But more what I’m seeing is increasing efforts to try to find a point of conciliation between narratives. Of course, it’s very selective in how it’s done. And it is normally a case of, of bolstering that influence. But sometimes it can also seem quite, what’s my mind, perhaps slightly, not random, but perhaps unusual, organizing lots of different Russia to be shown that dubbed into Portuguese. So, they clearly do see it as a soft power weapon. And I think when it’s used in those more, sensitive and sort of conciliatory ways, it can be but I agree, obviously, the approach that again, you will associate in Bulgaria, as you just referenced, where they’ve been really unnecessary memory, memory wars there with Bulgaria within a population area generally, reasonably well inclined, certainly by European standards towards Russian they didn’t arguments they needed to be having. It would appear we have been joined by Nikolai. We’ve just been talking about memory wars. So, you’ve really unfortunately, you’ve missed out on some points. But if you’re happy to take your question, I feel like I’m sort of bombarding you. But one of the questions that we’ve been discussing is the extent to which some of the process that we see in Russia around memory wars alright, sorry, around the sort of World War II cult, the constant sort of use of history? To what extent is that perhaps just an intense version of what we’re seeing across other European countries? And is this sort of a shift from the age of ideology to the age of memory, as you put it in your book?
Nikolai Koposov 28:15
Well, thank you for this question. And, well, of course, Russia is of course, a Jurassic Park. And of course, things that happen more or less elsewhere take extreme forms in Russia. This happened, unfortunately, very often, and the entire communist experience was a little bit of this nature. And what we are living through now is Putinism and stuff like that. It’s also kind of Jurassic Park of Europe, there are plenty of little Putins in most European countries, and not only in Europe. But the concentration of this Putinism is taking place, specifically in Russia. And from this point of view in the politics or memory that we are discussing today. It’s also known as, it’s everywhere, it’s in America, it’s of course, in France. France, it’s a little bit, you know, two sides to the issues of historical memory has always been like that, in France is perhaps the most historically oriented, you know, culture, intellectual culture in Europe, but German is also very close to that so. Hit battles about the power around the past, you know, have become really memory wars and those memory wars have been fought well, from among West European concepts, perhaps in France more intensely than in other, but in Eastern Europe, even more intensely than in France. And most of the know, history has become a kind of language for expressing usual dissatisfaction in a pretentious, counter pretentious or whatever. And what we see now between Poland and Russia, Russia and Ukraine with this war in Donbass started is the memory of war is being continued largely is interpreted by both sides is a memory of war. So, memory wars, symbolic wars, can lead to shooting wars and the shooter wars there must be more than one participant. But once again, Russia, especially now I mean, unpleasant role. (Audio missing). There’s kind of ecological aspect, all that Russia is so big. The processes which are taking place in Russia necessarily now influence processes which take place in countries around, which have many customers through the history to have a close look at what’s happening in Russia.
Dr Jade McGlynn 31:10
Thank you for that very thorough answer, Nikolai. I wonder if I could follow up with you. This is a question to move to you Nikolai but also, as well, Mark, please feel free, if you have any comments on this. But so far, we’ve looked very much at how memory is used in or historical narratives use in a very aggressive way against other sort of abroad against other countries. But what impact is the use of memory laws having on the ability of Russians domestically, whether that’s online, whether that’s an academia to challenge the state’s distorted view or distorted narrative of history?
Nikolai Koposov 31:53
Well, you know, the system of censorship is never really used to kind of legal regulations, or formal censorship or whatever call. There is kind of social censorship, which is at least as important as a kind of governmental, legal, formal censorship. And this social censorship, which we see at work in America, in sometimes very, very impressive ways, is also at work in Russia. And in Russia, people are very much accustomed to kind of self-censorship. During the final decades of the Soviet period. Of course, there were relatively limited political pressures, but self-censorship factors are exceptionally well, and people simply didn’t allow themselves to think or to write or to talk about things I thought well, can be a little dangerous to go in. And this kind of experience of self-censorship, which has been completely reanimated now in Russia, there are regulations, you know, formal regulations, including this in famous memory law 2014, which prohibits, you know, prohibits disseminating, you know, columnist information about the politics of Mr. Stalin during the Second World War. But this law is there, it doesn’t have to be applied too often. So far, we have something like thirty cases only in seven years of applications of this law. And in almost all cases, the law has been used against bloggers, not against professional historians, but professional historians know the law is there. And also, they have their own bosses, they have editors, publishing houses, editors, and the reviews that they might, you know, want to publish their work, and so on and so forth. So, all this system was a law being the functions extremely well. And also, there is one more thing which you know, very strongly impacts the historian’s capacity to express themselves freely in Russia, salaries are not extremely high. So, most people need something in addition to their salaries, not only they need stability in the jobs, but also something in addition to their salaries. And that’s what, it can be kind of participating in preparing a kind of documentary on historical events and so on. And if you want to have something on the top your salary, you need to adjust to, you know, those people who will make those documentaries will expect from you. So, in part, historians have simply been bribed, and bribery is a strong form of censorship.
Mark Galeotti 35:01
Very briefly and I agree with everything that’s been said. And so just to kind of recount a vignette a couple of years back talking to a couple historians I know at Moscow State University, who are both 20th century historians. And we ended up talking about exactly the whole issue of, you know, kind of the re-emergence of blank spots in history, shall we say. Whereas once upon a time, it was exactly outright censorship. Now, it’s just simply means, these are areas you wait where you know, you’re not really meant to go, and all the various metrics, which are otherwise going to affect your promotion, in your career, and so forth. Basically, suggest, you have to be very careful if you’re going to be sort of stepping into them. And they were actually going back and thinking about, because both of them came from academic families, how their parents had operated under Soviet times. And in a way, one tactic was if you really did want to write about something that the state was a bit iffy about, you would basically bury it, you would hide it in articles about what seemed to be very tedious and esoteric things in tedious and esoteric journals. So, you know, it looks as if you’re writing about, I don’t know, levels of congenital birth defects in the 1950s. But in fact, you’re actually talking about the impact of malnutrition in the 1940s, because the state had failed to actually talk about, to look after the health of its own civilians, that kind of thing. So, there’s one, and that is still around, it’s still a way of doing it. The other one is actually, well, once upon a time, you know, about five years ago, even but certainly 10 years ago, you could publish abroad, what you couldn’t really publish at home. But what they said they’ve now found, is that actually the state or is precisely that the department heads and the vice provost and everyone who kind of enforces these sorts of new values and new taboos, they have become aware of this. And therefore, now people are actually finding that just because you publish something in a Western journal, that doesn’t mean to say that you won’t get someone saying; excuse me, what have you written? So again, it’s interesting how we’ve almost got also good habits beginning to, you know, also recur in how you can try and sneak a bit of subversiveness into your academic output.
Dr Jade McGlynn 37:31
That is interesting, I think, speaking to some of the younger historians, I know, sort of just finished their PhDs, I think they find it quite a depressing prospect in terms of their ability to pursue their interests, unencumbered, as it were. I do have some questions, but actually are incredibly informed audience have pretty much asked some of these questions anyway. So, I think I’m going to hand over to the audience’s questions and let them ask it before we get out of my voice. So, what I would do is I will ask, because we have quite a few questions, I’m going to ask people to sort of ask the questions if that, if that makes sense. I feel like I’m over explaining this, just so that that way we can get through some more questions. So, the first question will come from Ian Bond, please.
Ian Bond 38:37
Yeah. Thanks very much. I mean, very interesting discussion. And nice to see you again, Mark. I mean, the question I had was about the historical ignorance of most Western politicians who have to deal particularly with Putin, and how that affects the effectiveness of Russia’s narrative. So, I wondered, you know, whether any of you wanted to comment about how you can ensure, for example, that Western politicians dealing with Russian counterparts are better informed about the fact that per capita, Belarusians and Ukrainians suffered much higher casualties than Russians during the Second World War, or how are you made sure that people don’t fall into the trap of accepting Russia role, well Putin’s version of why the Molotov Ribbentrop pact was signed?
Nikolai Koposov 39:51
It’s such a complex question. And I guess we need to separate several levels here. Well, on the one hand, you know, as has already been said, politics of memory is a component and an essential component of Russia’s Putin’s and not only Russia’s politics, nowadays, geopolitics, as the Russians like to say, and things like that. And from this point of view, you cannot ignore historical narratives, historical narratives, if you allow a you know, to impose his point of view, and convince many people, for example, in Ukraine, or in Latvia, in Belarus, that those people are now against Russia. (inaudible). That can come with a lot of cost, you know, to Ukraine’s, to Latvia’s, and so on. So, DNS is a kind of Russia strategy to split those nations, and to establish, you know, improve its control over those parts of the world. And this has to be taken very seriously. So, this has to be opposed and it has to be opposed not only are the label of what, I don’t know, Frau Merkel and Mr. Putin speak of between them when they meet, I think that they will find more important things to discuss. But we asked, needs to develop a large-scale systematic strategy for opposing Putin’s politics of memory and this strategy should work differently in different countries. It is one thing for example, to you know, how it might be possible to counter Putin’s attempts to establish his control over Belarus, for example, in Belarus, most young people hate Lukashenko who promotes Putin’s old Soviet Russian narrative of the war. So, it’s one context, completely different context, for example, the Baltic countries, especially Latvia understood, they were just both internally with strong Russian minorities. So, the strategy of addressing young people in Belarus and the strategy of addressing young people in Latvia would be different strategies. And this has to be very careful to, you know, somehow there should not be an impression of people in the West saying different things to different audiences. So, it should be clear, and picture somehow revealed by Western propaganda, history, propaganda, counter attempts of Russian history, propaganda, but still, it should be different things emphasized to different audiences. In Estonia and Latvia, what’s important is not to allow to split those concepts and belong short and important is to continue conquering, different strategies.
Mark Galeotti 43:08
I’m actually going to, push back slightly, because I think I mean, on the one hand, I think it’s, you know, having a good understanding of the history is useful, particularly for working out how one can, as it were used these not memory wars, but falsifications of history or caricaturing of history, and actually try and turn them to our advantage. You know, for example, I think there’s a lot more that Britain could do for soft power in Russia, precisely by doubling down on things like the Arctic convoys. So, you know, a knowledge of history would help there. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that we really want to start getting involved in shows a direct competition in terms of alternative variants of history with Putin in this respect, although it pains me to say so as a historian by training, in some ways, I think for our politicians, ignorance is bliss. You know, we shouldn’t get bogged down in that. But I don’t think that this memory stuff actually really has much of an impact in terms of Western audiences. I don’t think many people really are being seduced by, you know, stories about the glories of World War II, whatever, actually having shallow pragmatic politicians, which is, frankly, what we have, with almost no knowledge or interest in history, in some ways, allows precisely sort of Putin’s memory wall politics, just slide off a Teflon surface. So, I think I just would want to be aware a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. If we start to educate our politicians, God knows what they’re going to do next.
Nikolai Koposov 44:40
Yeah, I totally agree with there. And to what I said, I guess I would also add like that well, on the one hand, is it possible to combat those people on the other hand, in some cases, we better ignore them. A lot of what’s happening on the Kremlin side is that they are trying to attract attention to them. So, they attract attention seeking people want to be in the centre with a very limited, well huge, but still limited, nothing in comparison to the United States with limited resources that they have. They want to play a much more important role that they can. And one of the things, one of the strategies, they can use to do that is to make scandals all the time. Just to private life, if you see a scandal just don’t get involved. But at the same time, we need to take seriously a part of those scandals and oppose them on pragmatic level with regard to concrete, you know, national situations where the struggle is going on. It’s a war. It’s, hybrid, memory, cold, whatever we called, but the serious competition. And I also want to add to that, you know, the most important thing perhaps, at least, in my view. Well, this love of communism fell, largely because people all across the world, in Russia, Israel, became convinced that it’s not the best social system. The ideal image of the we asked became so popular among active minorities in the Soviet Union, that, you know, this float union symbol lost this competition, symbolic competition with the rest of us sure now that the West can win symbolic competition with its opponents, the West have to be more trustworthy of itself, we need to have higher opinion in the West of what the West can offer. But now, West offers not necessarily as good things as it used to in the 1960s and 1970s. So, to win the war, with China, with Russia, we need to improve the West. And everything else will come naturally, logically, as a consequence.
Dr Jade McGlynn 46:59
Thank you. Thank you, Nikolai. So unfortunately, I was being very silly, and I cut off two of our questioners before they were about to ask their questions, we’re now going to return to them. So that’ll be Noel Hadjimichael and Taras Kuzio we’ll come to you for the next few questions. Thank you very much.
Noel Hadjimichael 47:17
Thank you. Is there a risk that natural questioning by the pluralist west of the way prison day Russia commemorates the Great Patriotic War is used by the Putin regime to paint otherwise historic allies as disrespectful enemies of contemporary interests, and the absence of any focus on the scandalous treatment of Soviet Army POW is by the 1945 Stalinist Elite is incredibly telling.
Taras Kuzio 47:56
Yes, hi. The debate on the whole question of the Great Patriotic War, for me is interesting, because we should not and I’m wondering what people here think about this one, we should not accept that, this is somehow stuck in stone. Things can be changed. And Ukraine is a great example of that, in 2015, with the passage of decommunization laws, Ukraine moved to, commemorating World War II, as opposed to celebrating the Great Patriotic War. And this has many consequences. For one thing, I mean, West Ukraine began the war in 39, not in 41. And it moves into a different type of event. We’re talking about commemorating human tragedy, not celebrating military promptness and victory. So, I think there are alternatives. Of course, you know, it’s probably unlikely, just linked to that, I’m wondering whether, whether you agree with me that I don’t see any Russian experts and academics who understand Ukraine. And because of that, this explains the poor and weak Russian policy towards Ukraine.
Dr Jade McGlynn 49:21
Thanks, Taras. And we’re just going to take one extra question now as well from Jon Holloway.
Jon Holloway 49:28
Thank you. My question is about the immortal regiment. It’s very interesting that that move from being an alternative to the official 9th of May celebrations in I think Tomsk, and it strikes me it’s now being completely taken over by the state and is pushed forward on a worldwide basis. Is this the way that that Russia is going to commemorate when all the veterans are dead? Is that? Is that why that’s been done?
Dr Jade McGlynn 49:55
Okay, thank you. Um, so I’m actually going to pick up on that last question, and then I’ll Possibly, but the broader questions as well to Mark and Nikolai. But I spent some time researching the Immortal regimen, including having some interviews with Sergey Lavrov who was the sort of the spokesman among the founders of the of the Tomsk movement that you spoke about. And I don’t think it was set up so much in opposition to the state, the same thing. And of course, some sort of elements, this idea of holding a portrait of one of your relatives you lived through what did exist beforehand in different variations. But perhaps Tomsk, 2013, was the first time that it’s perhaps more of more of an official approach. But what he did want what they did want from it was for it to be apolitical, and for it to honour people who were people who had fought in the rear, people who had been POW use who of course, were not honoured and sometimes were sent to labour camps upon returning from POW camps. So, it was about opening up that narrative of glory. As you’ve alluded to, in 2015, there was a sort of hostile takeover or an alleged hostile takeover of the movement by the Moscow City Council, where I won’t go into the details, because there’s quite a few, but essentially, yes, where the state took it over because it was clearly already morphing into a very popular movement, and it clearly had a lot of control. Sorry, a lot of popularity in terms of do I think that signals a shift. Yes, I suppose as that communicative memory dies out. And we shift more towards cultural and we are going to increasingly see this need to reconnect to find this authenticity and to find the personal connections. And that is one of the things that is so moving about the Immortal regimen is it does remind you of that, that personal connection, however, I think it’s fair to say that the state is not necessarily using it for that I know, there have been plenty of stories where kids have just been sent out with pictures of just random people, and then march around the aren’t these children’s sort of grandparents or anything, it’s just for show and sort of a demonstrated attempt. So, there will be efforts to make it look that way, to resemble authenticity, how often to get will actually be is perhaps a different question entirely. But I’ll pass over the other questions now to Mark and Nikolai.
Mark Galeotti 52:18
Absolutely. What you said about the immortal Regiment, again, I think it’s interesting thing is precisely about the this overlap between a genuine belief that there is something important that needs to be remembered, which is understandable, and frankly, admirable. And sometimes in the West, we could do a little bit more of that, with a cynical attempt to try and create this kind of groundswell in support of a wider state ideological program that basically wants to say precisely that, basically, war is important, and we are facing a lot of it. But to go on to the other question, I mean, no, I think you’re absolutely spot on about the policy issue, of trying to make sure that we push back where we need to push back on the distortions of the historical memory. And yet, with as far as possible, without doing that in a way that can be characterized, or indeed is, disrespectful. I mean, this is one of the reasons why, you know, my view is that, you know, we should in the UK, we should absolutely be calling out times when, Moscow is basically as it was practice spreading lies about the nature of the war. But at the same time, absolutely, we should be remembering sort of common actions, you know, as should be one of the biggest wreaths, the war memorials, and so forth. You know, we need to find that balance, both for moral reasons, but also, again, for cynical political reasons. And very, very briefly tell us, um, yeah, I mean, this is the interesting thing is that, if we start finding ourselves debating the Great Patriotic War, we have already allowed ourselves to be sucked into the Russian frame of reference. Fine. I mean, and it’s not for a moment that I think we should be saying to the Russians, you shouldn’t be talking about the Great Patriotic War 41-45, you should be talking about World War II, they have exactly the same, right, to define what they choose to commemorate, as we do. But again, we need to know this is one of the things that actually the Russians are really quite good at, often just simply by dint of just sort of hammering us over the head with the same point over and over again, is precisely in terms of creating the framework that we automatically kind of buy into and start to argue with. So yeah, I mean, I think when Ukrainians chose to make that step from GPW to World War II, that was, I think, an important way of emancipating the imagination.
Nikolai Koposov 55:01
I agree with everything that has been said, so not much to add.
Dr Jade McGlynn 55:03
Okay, on that note, I think its probably time for us to call an end to the event. And I would like to say thank you, a huge thank you, to Professor Galeotti, to Professor Koposov, for joining us, and also to all of you for your patience, the beginning, the delay to the event, and with any internet hiccups that may have happened. I really appreciated all of your questions. And thank you so much for joining us. Bye.