In Russia, history is much too important to be left to historians. At least that's what the Kremlin appears to believe. In May, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a more decisive step toward attempting to legislate history than any Russian leader since Mikhail Gorbachev. Medvedev proposed that "questioning the Soviet victory in World War II" should be made a criminal offense, punishable by a large fine or a three-month prison sentence. At the same time, he appointed a commission that includes his chief of staff, top bureaucrats, lawmakers and military brass and charged it with "counteracting attempts to falsify history that are to the detriment of the interests of Russia."
Underlying Medvedev's new obsession with history is the Kremlin's latest campaign to build upon an ideological vision of the past first dreamed up by Communist Party apparatchiks in the 1960s, in which World War II marked the birth of a Soviet nation in the crucible of the great battle. In the multinational Soviet empire, the war was a powerful means of creating a collective identity—and bolstering the legitimacy of the regime. Today, Medvedev is replaying that reliable old tune, adapting it slightly to the multiethnic Russia. This time, with the understanding that Russian chauvinism could tear the country apart if it were encouraged, Kremlin ideologues are promoting a Soviet-style national unity among the 40-odd nationalities still ruled from Moscow.
Even the old imagery is still good to go: municipal authorities were ordered by Moscow to mount garish patriotic-poster campaigns in all major Russian cities with giant blowups of Soviet-era posters in the run-up to the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, a high point of the Kremlin's campaign to link the Soviet victory in the "Great Patriotic War" to Russia's modern resurgence. Vladimir Putin made a point, while president, of reviving ever-grander Victory Day parades in Red Square, adding tanks and flyovers—and last year Medvedev continued the tradition by including a parade of nuclear missiles in the mix. This year's extravaganza was grander still, with tanks and Soviet flags in a clear homage to the massive victory parades of the communist era. Medvedev pointedly celebrated "Soviet" and not "Russian" exploits in the war. "Never forget that our country, the Soviet Union, made the decisive contribution to the outcome of World War II—that it was precisely our people who destroyed Nazism and determined the fate of the whole world."
Russia's neighbors are also playing with the historical record, except that their goal is to unite their people in hatred of the Soviet occupation, which is usually conflated with Russian occupation and Russia's recent attempts to assert influence over its former satellites. Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko has been pressing Parliament to declare the famines of the early 1930s, caused by Stalin's campaign to collectivize farms, an act of "genocide" against the Ukrainian people by the Soviets. Commemoration of the holodomor, or famine, has become a touchstone for Ukrainian nationalists, who campaign to have it declared a national day of mourning, with Yushchenko's support. The Georgians have opened two museums of the Soviet occupation, concentrating on the Soviet-era deportation of whole peoples from the North Caucasus to the steppes of Kazakhstan, and the persecution of Georgian intellectuals--even though the most vicious Soviet leader of all, Stalin, was a Georgian.
But only Russia has moved toward criminalizing the promotion of alternative versions of the past, and liberal historians, journalists and dissidents in the country fear that the new legislation will be used to target people who question or investigate communist crimes. Last December, police raided the St. Petersburg offices of Memorial, one of the oldest Russian NGOs, which is devoted to documenting the crimes of Stalinism as well as keeping tabs on modern neofascists, and confiscated its archives. Two top Kremlin ideologues, Pavel Danilin and Gleb Pavlovksy, denounced Memorial for trying to wreck the "glorious memory" of Russian history. British historian Orlando Figes believes that the Russian edition of his prize-winning book on Stalin's Russia, The Whisperers, fell victim to the new political correctness. Earlier this year the Moscow-based Atticus publishing house canceled his contract, citing economic pressures. "The history in my book is inconvenient to the current regime in Russia," says Figes.
Modern Russia isn't yet totalitarian; in Moscow at the moment there are no fewer than four plays running that deal with various aspects of Stalin the man. My own book, Stalin's Children, which deals with the aftermath of my Russian grandfather's execution in Stalin's Great Purge of 1937, is set to be published in Russian translation this fall. But the Kremlin is very deliberately staking out an official view of history that is not far from the old Soviet myths. The new orthodoxy isn't being enforced as strictly as the old Soviet one, of course, and thinking Russians remain free to disagree with it. But Russia's schoolchildren are being indoctrinated with the greatness of Stalin and stories of how the Red Army was welcomed as liberators by the peoples of Eastern Europe.
Both Putin and Medvedev seek to create a new, great Russia, and to that end, they believe it needs a great history, unsullied with mass murder and secret alliances with Hitler. Though the new law is vaguely worded, it is clear that historians investigating such episodes as Stalin's secret pact with the Nazis and his murder of loyal Russians could suffer if their findings disagree with the official version. And the sad truth is that most Russians prefer to forget ugly truths and believe instead the glorious, familiar myths they remember from childhood.