What Does the Motherland Begin With?

By Ivan Grek


Poster for the 1968 film, The Sword and the Shield (dir. Vladimir Basov)

On November 5, President Vladimir Putin met with Russian historians and made several alarming statements. He instructed historians that their work should protect the interests of the Russian state. Putin also rehabilitated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and accused “western” historians of a narrow interpretation of history. This speech indicated a new round in the Kremlin’s ongoing project of reshaping of Russian history.

 Mark Bernes’s song “What Does the Motherland Begin With?” first appeared in Vladimir Putin’s favorite film, the 1968 spy series “The Shield and the Sword:”  the President even plunked out its melody on a piano during a charity concert in 2010.   Putin’s concern with the question asked by the song has also become part of the way we might understand his interpretation of Russian history. At various times the President has acknowledged that the past, particularly issues of redressing perceived historical injustices, is the only way to understand the contemporary political situation. Putin’s personal involvement in constructing new historical narratives has once again politicized the discipline. History in Putin’s Russia has served as a means to legitimate the annexation of the Crimea, to fund the “Russkii Mir” Foundation as a means to promote Russia’s national heritage abroad, to suggest that Russia’s World War I defeat was a “national betrayal” brought on by internal and external enemies, and to point out that a fifth column exists within Russia just as it did in Stalin’s time.  The new high priests of “historical truth,” such as Sergei Naryshkin, formerly the head of the Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests have also worked to make sure that the Russian educational system learns about these attempts to revise historical justice.

“Maybe it begins with the pictures in your spelling-book?” suggests the second line of Barnes’s song. In 2013 Vladimir Putin launched a project to create a standard history textbook, which evolved into a more universal standard for all education materials. This project vividly aimed at strengthening the sacral origins of Putin’s power, further weakening political opposition, particularly after the 2011-2012 elections.  It also stressed the necessity of redressing past historical injustices while promoting a notion that a strong Russian state has been at the center of Russia’s historical destiny.  In October 2013, the creation of a standard history textbook was assigned to the Russian Historical Society, an offshoot of the Presidential Administration. The Society claimed to be a successor of the oldest, imperial-era organization of the same name, and argued that it aimed to preserve the important traditions of Russian historiography and promote historical objectivity. From the first days of its existence, however, this new Russian Historical Society used prevaricated facts and ideological concepts that built the highly politicized standards for educational materials.

This past August, the Society produced a document “The Concept of a New Academic Aid for Teaching Russian History.” This 83-page treatise outlines the framework for what is an acceptable interpretation of Russian history. While drafting this document, the authors made several alarming statements, including a justification for the necessity of the Great Purges in order to eliminate “the fifth column” on the eve of World War II.  This historical justification therefore has the effect of validating the identification of so-called fifth columnists in Russia today.  The Society’s project, in other words, is one where contemporary politics comes first and historical meaning second.

The politicization of history contained in the document extends to the concept of the state, which appears to be a more of a metaphysical body than the composition of institutions. This state-oriented historical narration is well illustrated in the description of the Revolution and its aftereffects:   War Communism (1918-1921) is described as an act of desolation of the Russian state by the Bolsheviks, while NEP (1921-1928) and the First Five Year Plan (1928-1932) are narrated as events where the state grew in strength. According to this paradigm, events such as revolutions and wars are factors that try to prevent the country from being strong, but the “state”—often described without any individuals or decision-makers attached to it—manages to survive and even strengthen itself at times. The cult of the state as the heart of Motherland shapes the structure and logic of the concept. The legitimacy of the state cannot be questioned because this phenomenon naturally constitutes Russia itself and drives its history. And who has a right to question it? The new history only assigns the peoples of Russia the role of serving the state. This destiny will now be promoted through this document, which serves as the framework for a universal cultural and historical standard for school education.

This new round of inculcating “the historical truth,” particularly in the wake of the annexation of the Crimea, is particularly alarming because it also draws comparisons between Putin’s Russia and the beginning of the Stalinist era. In 1938, the Soviets published The History of the VKP(b): The Short Course, which served as the historical and ideological interpretation of Stalinism. Edited by Stalin himself, The Short Course established the parameters of Sovietness and particularly highlighted its two main enemies, one external—the West—and one internal—enemies of the people. The division between “ours” and “theirs” would in turn lay the foundation for the Soviet Cold War imagination. Using images of enemies, The Short Course explained why Soviet patriots should idolize the state, listen to their leader, love their motherland, and hate the West.

Echoing The Short Course, the new universal cultural and historical standard for education is state oriented, utilizes images of enemies (again a fifth column and the West), creates a new reality out of the past, and aims to strengthen the sacrosanct power of the state. Another striking similarity between the two texts is that Putin is as deeply involved in creation of the new history as Stalin was. Once again Russians will study a history that emerged from the leader of the state, not from reputable historians. For Russians today the beginning of the Motherland will be not a picture in the spelling-book or a birch tree in the field, as the song suggests, but the sentiments of a nostalgic KGB agent of a collapsed empire. Hopefully, this time the state will not be able to feed its people with ideology instead of food. However, the creation of a new doctrine inevitably raises the question: what they are preparing for?  What, in other words, is the beginning of the Motherland now?

Ivan Grek is pursuing his M.A. in History at Miami University (OH).  A native of St. Petersburg and graduate of Smolny College, he is researching a project on the memory of the Great War and Civil War in the USSR.

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