War is the continuation of historical policy by other means

March 7, 2023
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Visiting Research Scholar, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

Ilya Kalinin suggests that in recent years the structural core of Russian policy, both foreign and domestic, is the historical past. The war has become a continuation of this policy, driven by the historical ambitions of

the Russian leadership and its conception of the past.

In April 2019, the nationwide campaign Memory Watch-2019 was launched at the Victory Museum at Poklonnaya Gora. In the photo: the scene of the Reichstag being stormed. Source: Twitter
If war is the continuation of policy by other means, then with regard to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the well-known Carl von Clausewitz’s saying should be amended – and more considerably than it might seem at first glance. This war is the continuation of the historical policy systematically pursued by the Russian regime. It is so systematic that even such a means as war has not become an obstacle for it. The launching of this war was not the final and logical link in a chain of events that stretch back into the past. It was a materialization of certain ideas about the past. This war will not only go down in history. It came out of it.

It feeds on a sense of historical injustice that has been carefully produced and built up over several decades. The framework in which it is understood and justified also belongs to the historical past. Its goal is to go back to the past. That is why the goal of this war is so hard to clearly define. The fact that the objectives given to the Russian military are changing all the time is attributable not only to the course of the war but also to the fact that the Russian political leadership’s hidden goal cannot be expressed in rational terms.

The true goal – to turn back the clock – is impossible according to the laws of physics. And since one of the elements of the time-space continuum eludes political control, efforts are focused on the possible. Thus, the push to reclaim “lost historical territories” is only a surrogate for the unrealizable goal of returning lost time. But problems have come up. It turned out to be much easier to install a monument to the Kyivan Prince Vladimir in the center of Moscow than to build a Moscow Kremlin in the center of Kyiv.

The past as a casus belli

Referring to arguments that affirm the priority of the spirit of the historical past over the letter of international law has become a regular political practice among the Russian ruling class, at least starting from the annexation of Crimea and the president’s address to the Federal Assembly in December 2014. The programmatic text, which actually talked about the inevitability of the upcoming war, was Vladimir Putin’s article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published in July 2021, which justified the historical unity of the peoples and put forward theses about the historical illegitimacy of the modern Ukrainian state’s borders and about the fact that Ukraine’s political future was possible only “in partnership with Russia.” Compared to that article, the so -called “ultimatum” laid down by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in December 2021 looks more like a gesture of diplomatic ritual than a real invitation to negotiations on security guarantees. It was so hard to believe in the inevitability of the war because no one seriously assumed that the Kremlin genuinely feared a NATO attack on Russia from Ukrainian territory (the fact that such a threat has practically been brushed aside is confirmed by the indifference – albeit partially theatrical – with which the Kremlin took the news that Finland and Sweden would join the alliance).

It is hard to believe that the decision to launch a war can be based on one’s strong belief that a certain historical conception is true and on one’s desire to prove its trueness to everyone else. Of course, the decision to invade Ukraine was influenced by a myriad of factors rehashed many times: tactical (establishing a land corridor to Crimea), strategic (establishing a regime in Kyiv that is as dependent on Moscow as the one in Minsk), internal (bringing back social consolidation along the lines of 2014 and stamping out political opposition), external (changing the geopolitical status of Russia). However, the ultimate decision to invade Ukraine was driven not only in consideration of these factors and not only based on the FSB’s intelligence that suggested an easy victory. Those reports were never doubted because they corresponded to the historical narrative that shapes Putin’s ideas about reality. And in that reality, Russians and Ukrainians are a single people; Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev are his contemporaries; and the events of those periods are incomplete and thus lack the real historical force of what has already been completed and brought about a series of objective consequences. On the contrary, according to the grammar of this narrative, the meaning and completeness of those events can be revised, with the timeline turned in the opposite direction, back to the eras of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, which, according to Lavrov, along with Ivan the Terrible, are Putin’s main foreign policy advisers.
"The continuation of this historical narrative by other means was the war that has gone on for a year now. And if geographical space is the battlefield, then historical time is where the war itself is being fought."
The difference is that Russia has allied itself with the past, while Ukraine has turned for support to the future. Thus, Putin refers to Peter the Great, whose aspirations to make the Sea of Azov completely Russian he renewed at the same time that the inhabitants of Odessa are bringing down the monument to Catherine the Great. Russia is trying to resurrect its former unity with Ukraine, which is rooted in the past, while Ukraine is seeking to problematize it, criticizing its imperial character while making a different cultural and political choice.

Historical instrumentalization of politics

The use of symbolic potential of historical policy to underpin political programs and manage public sentiment is not uncommon, especially in countries that are experiencing fundamental socio-political transformations. Compared with East European countries and Ukraine – where, based on the Polish experience, an Institute of National Memory was created in 2006 – Russia was initially a laggard, launching its own political machine to recycle symbolic resources of the historical past rather late.

However, starting in the second half of the 2000s, the situation began to change, and over time quantitative dynamics has grown into a qualitative shift. It is not that the state began to aggressively influence the system of school education to push a view of history that corresponded to its interests, promote patriotic upbringing, and dictate the agenda of museums and cinema, mass media and the academy (quasi-government organizations [GNGO] like the Russian Historical Society and the Russian Military-Historical Society played important roles in this). This is true but in this regard, Russia’s experience is not particularly unique. The “special path” of Russia is something different.
"In Russia’s case, the typical political instrumentalization of history is less interesting than the rather unique situation of historical instrumentalization of politics."
President Putin attends the opening ceremony for the nationwide campaign Memory Watch-2019. In the photo: Putin looking at the fallen Reichstag. Source: Twitter
In Russia, historical policy has not been institutionalized at the state level (besides the Presidential Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests, which was created in 2009 by President Medvedev and lasted less than three years), a paradoxical fact that does not reflect the Russian government’s lack of attention to history, but rather the incredible weight that the historical past has gained in shaping the government’s policy. Political manipulation of history was not specifically institutionalized because it became an integral substantial part of politics as such.

Typically, appeals to the historical past serve as symbolic window dressing for realpolitik, its rhetorical accompaniment, disguising the true intentions of political actors or giving them, post factum, additional legitimacy. In the case of Russian politics in recent years, the historical past does not sit on its discursive surface. Rather, it represents its structural core. The relationship between real national interests and historical ambitions stretching back into the past has been flipped on its head. The former are being sacrificed for the latter.

Economic interests, concern for the material welfare of citizens and social stability, ensuring the country’s security and development have become rhetorical motifs, only ornamenting political discourse. Meanwhile, the general line of actual policy, personified by the figure of the Russian leader, involves the reconstruction of the past and the creation of a total historical installation within which historical governance practices, social mechanisms, cultural forms and foreign policy models should be reproduced.

The imperfect form of politics

The past sets out markers for the future development of a country and provides ideas about how to ensure its security. It shapes officially translated cultural preferences and norms of socially approved behavior, the aesthetic tastes of the ruling elite and the ideas they draw on, views on the world and war. The language used to describe current processes and events is doing more than just providing a repertoire of comparisons from the past that allow you to understand the meaning of what is happening here and now – it is also trying to impose the perception of a repetition of the past.

That said, a specific era is not reconstructed in its entirety, but rather a certain historical matrix is synthesized from elements from different eras. The selection process is quite simple and reflects the political and financial needs of who is in power: the political ambitions of Peter, but without Eurocentrism; the territorial expansion of the Catherine era, but without liberties for nobles; the military-administrative machine and cultural obscurantism of Nicholas I, but without the defeat in the Crimean War; the economic growth of the second half of the 19th century, but without independent courts; the geopolitical power of the USSR, but without the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and focus on social equality.

In this sense, historical policy in Russia is not the specific symbolic practice involving the political use of knowledge about the past, but Russian politics as such. The historical past sets out its goals and provides its means, gives it shape and content, maps out the space of communication between its agent and consumers. Social consolidation, internal opposition, facing resistance from a neighboring country or opposition from the West are derived from the willingness or unwillingness to live inside the total historical installation that Russia is gradually turning into, or to interact with it according to the rules dictated by its political structure.

I believe that the political obsession with the past is inseparable from the motive that has guided Russian politics for the last 20 years, which since 2011-12 has become the main and in fact only one. We are talking about the quest of Putin and the beneficiaries of his regime to preserve and continue in time the power and capital they have monopolized. At first, this quest bore the features of a psychologically explainable desire, which was possible to satisfy due to the weakness of the existing democratic institutions. Gradually, it acquired a systemic character, such that the prospect of power changing hands became an existential threat for those in charge and a frightening prospect for those who had managed to adapt and learned to reap the benefits from the socio-economic system offered by the regime and its rules of everyday existence.

As a result, the future of the ruling class began to depend more and more on its ability to reproduce the existing status quo. In other words, on its ability to maintain in the present status already gained in the past. It seems that it is with this exact political praxis, which dictates the daily concerns of the regime, that is associated the fundamental value that the past has acquired for those whose lives and well-being depend on their ability to prolong in time the past, placing themselves in the museum they themselves have built to Russia’s “common, continuous history spanning over 1,000 years” (to quote Putin’s December 2012 address to the Federal Assembly), within the walls of which nothing threatens their power.

The temporality of Putin’s regime can be described in terms of the imperfect form of a verb, which indicates a repeated, frequent action, unfinished in the past. And this mode of time characterizes both the duration of the Putin regime and its relationship to the historical past, perceived as a set of repeating elements that can be organized in a certain way and in a certain sequence. The presumption of incompleteness of events and processes that occurred in the past allows you to recognize the past as the present, without giving it an end.
"As long as this museum-like mode of temporality can be reproduced, there is no end to the Putin regime, or the Russian Empire – which he considers himself heir to – or World War II, through which prism he sees the world."
President Putin on the steps of the fallen Reichstag. Source: Twitter
Immersive museum of Russian politics

The love of the Russian ruling class and its leader for various kinds of modern museums that create the effect of immersion in the historical past is well known. The political calendar of the Russian leadership is set by commemorations, almost to a greater extent than by tasks on the current agenda. They are designed to frame the perception of what is happening now. Putin’s visit to the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad in January 2023 – timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the breaking of the blockade – like his February visit to and speech in Volgograd – temporarily renamed Stalingrad for the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad – delineated the field of reference for how Russian society should look at events in Ukraine.

Judging by the enthusiasm with which Putin speaks about history, observing his figure against the backdrop of various museum panoramas and dioramas, multimedia projections and three-dimensional fake constructions meant to reproduce the realities of the past, you can see in what environment he feels confident and relaxed, comfortable and natural. Photographs depicting the Russian leader against the scenery of a reconstructed battle or everyday scenes from past eras demonstrate the thinness of the border separating his figure from museum installations and indicate who the main exhibit is. The contact with the past provided by three-dimensional images of historical reality produced by modern immersive technologies very well meets the needs of the Putin regime. The blending of the organic presence of the past and its distinct technological signature creates the very space for manipulating the viewer’s perception, the effectiveness of which is rooted in the combination of authenticity and constructedness.

The policy of establishing a large number of immersive and interactive history museums, equipped with the latest computer and projection technologies, was started in the mid-2010s. Since then, dozens of these museums have been built throughout Russia. The images of history, as well as the cultural and political identifications, that they produce is a topic for a separate discussion. Currently, something else is more important to me: the attempt to turn Russia into an immersive Gesamtkunstwerk and Russian society into visitors to a historical park, invited to immerse themselves in the past of their ancestors and also take part in its reconstruction.
"It seems that the future failure of this play lies in its interactive component, in the necessity to move from spectacle to direct action."
As long as the action takes place in the safe space of a real museum, it does not pose a threat, as it does not suppose any result (that is, completion of the action). For example, the governor of St Petersburg during Putin’s visit to the Leningrad siege museum, squatting down, showed the president how to operate a manual power generator. Of course, from his zeal the light bulb could neither go on, nor burn out, since the  only energy produced by the St Petersburg governor was that of political loyalty, which he manifested in his usual comical, self-parodic manner.

However, if Russian society were to actually switch to an interactive mode of historical reconstruction, this would risk not only an overheating of the system, but also a different mode of temporality, which would be inherently catastrophic for the existing political order in Russia. Its attempt to reproduce and repeat the historical past has set off a course of history as such. A real history, accompanied by change, innovation, rupture. A history capable of transforming the imperfect form of endless war into the perfect form of defeat.
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