For decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to appropriate and exploit history to further his geopolitical aims. After the 1990 collapse of communism in Europe and the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, one of the remaining sources of national pride for the people of Russia was the USSR’s victory over fascism in “the Great Patriotic War” – the evocative name Russians use to refer to the portion of the Second World War fought in Europe between 1941 and 1945. Owning and controlling Russia’s collective memory of this war is one of Putin’s greatest obsessions.
World War II had profound economic and cultural impact on Russia and other countries in the region, including stories of trauma, sacrifice, and heroism. Tens of millions of Soviet soldiers (including ethnic Ukrainians and others) and tens of millions of civilians in the USSR were killed during World War II. Today, through speeches and articles, Putin, along with his disinformation and propaganda ecosystem, invokes World War II imagery to justify expanding his autocratic powers at home and Russia’s aggression toward neighboring countries’ democratic and Euro-Atlantic connections and aspirations. This includes Ukraine, where Putin repeatedly invokes false narratives of World War II as a justification for his full-scale invasion. Indeed, Putin – and by extension the Kremlin – often claim those in Ukraine, including democratically elected leaders, who oppose Russia’s invasion of their country are “Nazis” and “fascists.” Lacking any legitimate reason to justify his unprovoked war against Ukraine, Putin and his disinformation machine use imagery from World War II to manufacture pretexts.
Putin attempts to manipulate history to alter the future. He uses visceral imagery of World War II to tap into deep-seated emotions for his disinformation campaign about Ukraine in order to achieve geopolitical goals. Carnegie Moscow Senior Fellow Andrei Kolesnikov wrote, “The regime seeks to restore the country’s lost empire—in the public mind at least—through these historical reimaginings.” Experts and historians agree the Kremlin’s portrayal of history is often misleading and attempts to serve its current political agenda.
Memorial: Accurate History as a Threat
A notable example of the Putin regime’s attempt to suppress and censor history for its own ends is the Kremlin’s relentless repression of Memorial, a respected Russian NGO that documented crimes against humanity committed in the Soviet Union (especially during Stalin’s rule) and the Kremlin’s contemporary abuses (including present-day political prisoners and conditions in the North Caucasus region). In December 2008, masked men broke into Memorial’s St. Petersburg office with a warrant signed by the city’s prosecutor’s office and seized computer hard drives and other materials representing 20 years of archives on Soviet repression, including during World War II. In December 2021, just two months before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s courts ruled two key legal entities that constituted the core of Memorial must close, in a move that Russian and international human rights organizations decried as politically motivated, incommensurate to the alleged offenses, and a grave blow to independent civil society in Russia. Controlling the historical memory of Stalin, Russia’s leader during World War II, is critical for Putin’s own identity.
Putin’s Article on World War II
To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2020, Putin published an article attempting to reframe the events of the war to suit his current political goals. His lengthy article tried to absolve the Soviet Union of blame for its collaboration with Nazi Germany under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which divided most of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. There were striking differences between the Kremlin’s interpretation of the war and those of independent historians. The governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all spoke out against Putin’s suggestion that they willingly relinquished their sovereignty to occupying Soviet forces. Poland called out Putin’s claim it was responsible for its own invasion by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.
The Russian Embassy in Berlin later emailed multiple historians suggesting they “use Vladimir Putin’s article when preparing future lectures on history.” Many German historians spoke out against the Kremlin’s attempts to distort historical truth. One historian suggested the article could instead be used as a primary source to teach students about “Putin’s exploitation of history and for his clumsy and shameless attempt to force historians into his service.”
Putin’s Article on Russia-Ukraine Relations
In July 2021, Putin wrote a 5,000 word article elaborating on his long-stated belief that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” The article stated that Ukrainian soldiers fought alongside Russians for “their great common Motherland” during World War II, but Putin provided no evidence the Red Army’s Ukrainian soldiers ever believed Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. His article also demeaned Ukraine’s persistent independence movements, which Soviet leaders were unable to stamp out for decades. Many notable historians and scholars denounced the article as a flawed and amateurish recounting of history, with the sole purpose of advancing Putin’s geopolitical goals. Historian Anne Applebaum called the article “essentially a call to arms,” and researcher Anders Åslund deemed it “one step short of a declaration of war [on Ukraine].” Just seven months later, Putin’s forces followed through and launched an all-out, brutal war against Ukraine. The falsehoods about Ukraine and Ukrainians that Putin trumpeted in his article played an important role in his justification for Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Putin Uses World War II Imagery to Justify His War of Aggression Against Ukraine
To rationalize his current war of choice against Ukraine, Putin invoked the language and imagery of World War II, specifically the words “Nazi,” and “genocide” (a term coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer who studied in Lviv, in what is now western Ukraine) to evoke the Nazi Party’s policy of systematic murder of Jews and other groups targeted for annihilation. The Kremlin has turned the word “Nazi” into a catchall for anyone who disagrees with Putin and his regime, insulting the memory of all those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
In his February 24 speech declaring his war of choice against Ukraine, Putin falsely asserted, “the purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” Invoking his discredited “one people” narrative, Putin directly addressed members of Ukraine’s military, stating, “your fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did not fight the Nazi occupiers and did not defend our common Motherland to allow today’s neo-Nazis to seize power in Ukraine.”
Russia’s officials have even used the word “Nazi” against Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Jewish president, whose family members were killed by Nazis. Experts on genocide, Nazism, and World War II voiced their strong opposition to Putin’s attempt to compare Ukraine and its democratically elected government to that of Nazi Germany. Hundreds of historians and scholars signed a letter condemning the Russian government’s “cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also released a statement saying that “Vladimir Putin has misrepresented and misappropriated Holocaust history by claiming falsely that democratic Ukraine needs to be ‘denazified.’”
Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem Pushes Putin’s False History
Putin is just one player in Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem. While he may be the main supplier of false narratives about World War II, others within that ecosystem amplify his statements.
- State-Funded Global Messaging: RT and Sputnik News, two Kremlin state-funded media outlets, have repeatedly pushed the narrative that modern Ukraine is a Nazi state. For example, the Arabic language version of RT pushed the conspiracy theory that it was Ukrainian Nazis, not Russian forces, who were guilty of murdering people in Bucha, and has made accusations that Ukraine’s schools teach Nazi beliefs.
- Cultivation of Proxy Sources: Multiple proxy websites also disseminate narratives that invoke World War II imagery, serving as unofficial mouthpieces of the Kremlin. Some proxy sites have direct links to Russia’s intelligence services, some are firmly enmeshed in Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem, and others are more loosely connected. The connections are often intentionally murky. For example, the website News Front, linked to Russian intelligence, pushed the same RT Arabic false narrative about Ukrainian Nazis participating in murders in Bucha.
- Weaponization of Social Media: Russian social media accounts have promoted fake photos showing Ukrainian soldiers holding Nazi paraphernalia or photos of Hitler. The number of Russia-linked tweets linking Ukraine to Nazis significantly increased after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.
- Cyber-Enabled Disinformation: Attribution for cyber activities takes time. That said, experts have already identified multiple deep-fakes, cyber hacks, and defaced-websites with malware for which Russia is considered to be responsible.
The Future of Russia’s Understanding of World War II
While Putin has not been successful in changing the opinions of experts and historians, he continues his attempts to institutionalize his historical revision of World War II and Ukraine’s identity. In April 2022, Putin signed a law imposing up to 15-day detention and fines for anyone drawing parallels between the actions of the USSR and Nazi Germany or denying the decisive role and humanitarian mission of the USSR during World War II. Russia’s Minister of Education also announced in April a policy to teach children a new official, government-approved version of history, starting in first grade. The minister stated that, when teaching history in Russia, “we will never allow it [to be written] that we somehow treated other nations – our fraternal nations of Ukraine and Belarus – poorly. We will do everything in our power so that historical memory is preserved.” This means that schools in Russia will not be able to teach accurate information about Putin’s current war against Ukraine, or about historic atrocities and abuses against Ukrainians, including those associated with the Stalin-era man-made famine known as Holodomor.
On May 9, 2022, Vladimir Putin led Russia’s celebration of Victory Day, the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. He did so even as he continues his brutal war of aggression against Ukraine – a war that has killed at least two survivors of the Holocaust and thousands of other civilians in Ukraine. Putin continues to try to twist history to serve his own political goals, but he cannot change the truth. In the end, history will judge Putin for bringing the horrors of war back to Europe on a scale not seen since World War II. Putin’s campaign of disinformation to justify his war against Ukraine is an egregious manipulation of history and a violation of the sacred memory of the many people who suffered, died, and fought against tyranny in that war.