Proneness to political mythmaking and outright falsification of history is one of the hallmarks of present-day russia. However, it is not something unique to putin’s criminal regime. It is merely a continuation of centuries-old imperialist policies of first the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union.
Do you remember how in 2014, the information space was littered with numerous stories allegedly proving Crimea historically belonged to russia? Or the statement that Ukrainians and russians are “one people?” These are striking examples of how russia resorts to persistent mythmaking and falsifications of history to glorify itself and justify its aggressive unlawful actions.
In this article, we will look at the roots of this phenomenon and try to explain its motivation.
How did russia’s revisionism of history come about?
In his article “Modern history as an instrument of political manipulation,” Anatoliy Podolskyi wrote: “Power structures (…) use the historical past stories to meet their current, tactical or strategic political goals.”
Russia has a long record of falsifying the past. One of the first examples is the Illustrated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible. The document was nominally a chronicle of the Tsardom of Muscovy from ancient times to the present, but with “corrections” given the current political situation.
The chronicle’s latest volume, known as the “synodal list,” described Ivan the Terrible’s reign. However, the document was regularly amended depending on whom the czar currently liked or disliked among his entourage. To some extent, we could draw a parallel with the Soviet government’s attitudes toward modern history in the 1930s and 1950s.
For instance, some historians believe that the boyar revolt of 1533 was partly fictional because only the “synodal list” mentioned it. The struggle for the throne following Vasili III’s death did indeed occur, and Elena Glinskaya neutralized Vasili III’s brother Dmitry Ivanovich, prince Dmitrovsky, with the help of the boyars. But she was the czar’s widow trying to keep her position.
However, this is a trifle compared with what happened next.
Russia began taking shape as an imperial entity under czar Peter I. His reign focused on modernizing the backward political system, concentrating power in the hands of the “autocrat,” and strengthening his position in the international arena. Over time, this rule began to be identified with the “original myth” of russia’s “greatness” following a long period of “the times of trouble” and turbulent consolidation of the Tsardom of Muscovy during the 17th century. That is one of the examples of russian historical mythmaking.
In 1701, Peter I issued a decree to confiscate written monuments of the enslaved peoples. It mainly concerned the empire’s European part. Restricting access to historical monuments gives a free hand to use manipulation. For instance, the Radziwill Chronicle that includes the “Tale of Bygone Years” was made up like that. It is stylistically different from the monuments of the period in question.
Several czars and palace coups later, the Russian Empire was headed by Sophie Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, better known as Catherine II.
During her reign, the Russian Empire expanded its borders by waging numerous wars. It captured Crimea and almost the entire southern part of Ukraine, parts of modern Georgia and Latvia, and divided the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth several times. The expansion became the driving force behind systemic historical revisionism.
Catherine understood history not just as a science about the past. For her, it was also an important political tool that could influence the fate of many future generations. According to her state secretary Aleksandr Khrapovitsky, Catherine spent a lot of time researching and discussing various historical documents to create a comprehensive history of the russian empire.
Catherine II clearly explained her inner motivation in a letter she wrote to Grigory Potemkin in May 1790:
“I have maintained Russia’s glamor my whole life. Therefore, it is not surprising that I cannot tolerate in silence or conceal the insults and offenses inflicted on it, as we have done so far for the sake of a momentary caution requiring it. Yet by suppressing such feelings of inner bitterness very often, we intensify them even more.”
In her letter to Friedrich Grimm in March 1783, Catherine noted that she divided russian history up into “five epochs”: “1. [russia] emerging; 2. divided; 3. oppressed; 4. victorious; 5. prosperous.”
Such periodization was inspired by August Ludwig von Schlözer’s works (a historian known as a supporter of the “Norman theory of the origin of Rus”).
According to Catherine, the so-called “second era” covered the period from the first half of the ninth century to the second half of the twelfth century. This period was of particular conceptual interest to Catherine. In a letter to Friedrich Grimm, she even outlined her plan for generalizing this period:
- revolutionary events;
- consistent changes in the order of things;
- of population and finances;
- contracts and documents;
- examples of intentions or neglect by rulers and consequences;
- remarks on how it could have been prevented;
- examples of courage and other outstanding virtues;
- features of various defects and their effects.
Later that year, on December 4, 1783, Catherine II issued a decree to establish a “commission for making notes about ancient history, mostly of russia” chaired by Count Andrei Shuvalov. The commission was to realize Catherine’s vision of history.
Why did russia need historical revisionism and falsification of history?
In their article “Interpretation of history as an instrument of manipulative influence on the public consciousness,” Anatoliy Mykhnenko and Mykhailo Mesiuk note that ”a person who remembers nothing from their teams’ (people’s, country’s, family’s) history gets cut from the team and is entirely defenseless against manipulation. It is a prerequisite for possible set-ups and substitution of the subject matter. If people quickly forget reality, any problem could be misinterpreted outside a real-world context.”
That comprehensively accounts for why the russian empire needs a “correct history” for the present and the future.
As a conceptual unity, a state and its people are not only directly based on the present but also on the past as a set of documentary evidence. In global terms, the past determines “who we are” and “where we are heading,” i.e., history consolidates and identifies.
Because of this, the continuity of the past plays an essential role in the political space. The past determines the state’s reputation and creates a respective information background that gives meaning (or color) to its actions. That is what George Orwell called “control of the present.”
However, appropriate documentary evidence is needed to have the continuity of history from the past to the present.
The russian state had no historical monuments to satisfy its imperial ambitions. Because of this, Catherine II established a “commission to make notes” in 1783. Gerhard Miller laid the foundation for the commission’s work by collecting various historical monuments from Siberia and the Volga region and later forming Muscovy’s main archive.
Technically, the commission engaged in selecting historical documents to form a coherent narrative of the country’s history.
Before that, in 1790, Catherine had intended to ask Senac de Melian, an official who fled revolutionary France, to write a history of 18th-century russia, particularly during Catherine’s reign.
In a draft letter to A. Mordvinov, a russian resident in Venice, Catherine outlined her intention to prove the unity of the russian empire’s and European countries’ development beyond the established facts, particularly before the reign of Peter I.
In this context, we should mention Vasily Tatishchev and his “Russian History,” first published in 1768 (August Schlözer, whose works had influenced Catherine’s vision of history, contributed to the publication of Tatishchev’s work).
Tatishchev aimed to put together the country’s comprehensive chronology (“consolidated chronicle”) using all possible sources. According to Tatishchev, he merely copied texts from various sources into one document.
However, many questions arise about his work with sources. Tatishchev overindulged in anachronistic, old Russian-like stylizations, which often pointed to the author’s inventions.
Oleksiy Tolochko notes that Tatishchev worked with well-known sources, but to produce an integral “account,” he “added something” in places that lacked facts. Tolochko cites the example of the Ioachim Chronicle, whose original was lost and which was never referred to in other monuments of that period.
What was wrong with russian history from Catherine II’s point of view?
Catherine II’s rewriting of history pursued two goals.
First, there was an urgent need to “whitewash” the ambiguous events of the past. After all, a significant part of russian history from the 13th to the 15th century was associated with the Mongol empire.
For instance, Alexander Nevsky played a crucial role in Muscovy’s 240-year-long subordination to the Mongols. The Tsardom of Muscovy paid tribute to the Mongol Khans and fought on their side in military campaigns. Such a connection looks shameful for a nominally “progressive European state.” Because of that, a narrative about the “Mongol yoke” was invented. Gerhard Miller’s collection of historical monuments from the Volga region came in handy for “correcting” the narrative.
Unlike France, Austria-Hungary, the Principality of Lithuania, and Britain, the russian state had no sacramental, “great ancient foundation” that would add to the empire’s solidity.
Kyivan Rus was a very convenient solution in this respect. The Illustrated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible mentioned a connection of the Tsardom of Muscovy with Kyivan Rus, but without providing adequate evidence. Suzdal Principality became Suzdal Rus, and moscow was allegedly founded with the participation of Kyiv princes. In his article “How Muscovy Appropriated the History of Kyivan Rus,” Yaroslav Dashkevych noted that moscow was mentioned only in the third census of the Golden Horde (1272), but not in the first (1237-1238) and second (1254-1259) censuses.
The second goal of revisionism was to provide nominal justifications for its aggressive expansionist policies and territorial claims.
A “historical affiliation” of certain lands seems to be the best argument for the banal “because I want to.” Think of russian rhetoric in 2014 when they invaded Crimea.
In addition, teaching “corrected” history to future generations should stifle national liberation movements of the enslaved peoples (in particular, the Ukrainian people). Therein lies the root of the mythology of “one nation” and other ideas of “liberation.“
The commission formally completed the work in 1792. They mostly succeeded in conceptualizing the main areas of russian history into an imperial narrative. That provided a fertile ground for further manipulation of history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Russia began flirting with historical revisionism and outright falsification of history in 16th-century to “whitewash” the country’s reputation and justify its ever-aggressive policies.
During the 18th century, the Russian Empire began to actively shape its own “narrative” of history by restricting access to historical sources and creating new historical research with the “right accents.” That became systemic during the reign of Catherine II and her successors.
During this period, history became a full-fledged political tool, actively used by the russian empire to promote its own interests and justify its actions.
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