News reports are sometimes referred to as the first draft of history. But Russia has turned the adage on its head by creating news out of history. In a year filled with historic anniversaries, the Kremlin raised controversy in 2009 with claims of certitude about a glorious Russian past and threats of legal action against those who would dispute it. The issue is not so much about where Russia has been, but where it is going.
In 2009, Russians marked 300 years since their country defeated Sweden in the decisive Battle of Poltava, in which Russia replaced that Scandinavian country as the great power of Northern Europe. Seventy years ago, Moscow and Berlin signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which secretly divided Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence. World War Two broke out a week after the signing. And, in 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. That barrier across the center of Europe was built and maintained with Kremlin approval.
Each of these anniversaries pitted Russia against the peoples affected by its might. After Poltava, Ukrainians became part of the Russian empire. Molotov-Ribbentrop led to the Soviet annexation of the Baltic peoples. And, the Berlin Wall kept Eastern Europeans on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. During a Poltava symposium in Moscow this past June many Russian historians said their country liberated Ukraine from the Swedes. And, the Kremlin insists Soviet forces freed the Baltics and Eastern Europe from Nazi tyranny. Estonian historian Meelis Marituu told VOA he agrees with that assessment, but adds an element the Kremlin ignores.
Marituu says the understanding of Estonians and many others is that, after liberating Estonia from the Nazis, the Soviet Army somehow forgot to leave the country.
He says there should have been an election to re-establish legitimate authority, which was overthrown during the first Soviet occupation in 1940.
Soviet forces installed a Communist government, which prohibited any challenges to its rule.
Marituu works at Tallinn's Museum of the Occupation, where Nazis and Soviets are both presented as occupiers. However, Russia has actively sought to silence attempts to equate Nazi Germany with the USSR. It introduced legislation in parliament this year to make it a crime to deny the Soviet victory in World War Two. Foreigners deemed guilty would be banned from entering Russia. And, in May, President Dmitri Medvedev announced creation of a government commission to help prevent what he said was falsification of history that harms the interests of Russia.
Mr. Medvedev says Russians are increasingly being confronted with what is known as "historic falsification".
Ukrainian historian Serhiy Stelmakh is a member of the Russian History Department at Shevchenko State University in Kyiv. He there are several factors driving the politicization of history in Russia. As an example, he says Soviet war veterans exert political pressure against negative portrayals of events they participated in and that the Kremlin has its own interest in creating the historical truth commission.
Stelmakh says the commission is, in essence, nothing more than a form of censorship aimed at legitimizing the current government. He adds that, unfortunately, post-Soviet countries, including Russia and Ukraine, have also preserved the Soviet system in which historians are funded by the state, rather than private foundations.
The Kremlin's history panel includes members of state security forces, intelligence services and the parliament. Marituu says this should serve as a caution signal for all historians.
Marituu says there should be a clear line between the study of history and politics. He notes that the makeup of the commission suggests it is more concerned with politics and using history and various historic facts to justify its own existence.
Dispute with Ukraine
Russia is particularly irritated by Ukrainian attempts to honor veterans who fought against Soviets and Nazis after initially mistaking Germans as liberators. Those veterans are seen as freedom fighters by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, but as fascist collaborators by his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev. Much historic controversy pivots around the figure of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who butchered millions of his own citizens in a bloody campaign to consolidate power. Mr. Yushchenko condemns Stalin unequivocally. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recognized Stalin's crimes, but recently said the Soviet dictator's controversial record must be put in perspective.
Mr. Putin says Russians won the Second World War and that, whatever is said by whomever, victory was achieved. He says, even if losses are taken into account, no one can now cast doubt on those who organized and led the victory. He says, if Russia had lost the war, the consequences for the country would have been much more catastrophic.
But many non-Russians do cast doubt and reject the Soviet Union as having been their country. Ukraine, Georgia and Latvia have Soviet occupation museums similar to the one in Estonia. Serhiy Stelmakh adds that former Soviet republics are also writing their own histories, to the dismay of many in Russia.
Stelmakh says a look at school text books being published in Ukraine, the Baltics, and in other post-Soviet republics shows them to be attempts to distance those countries from Russia -- especially with regard to courses in national history.
Historians complain Russian authorities have tightened access to archives that could shed light on the Soviet past. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry occasionally posts selective old documents that support the Kremlin's version of history. But increasingly, opposing views are emerging even among Russian historians.
A newly released history of 20th Century Russia, written by a team of 45 scholars and edited by historian Andrei Zubov, includes a statement that much of the country's recent past is painfully difficult to study, which is why many refuse to do so. After revealing much of that pain, the historians conclude by saying Russian national unity cannot be based upon varnished myths about the past; unity can only be achieved by pursuing the truth.