Facing Corona setback, Kremlin regroups forces on “memory front”

Vladimir Putin sits next to foreign leaders at a conference of the World Holocaust Forum held in Jerusalem on 23 January 2020. Photo: president.gov.ru 

History, International

Article by: Vyacheslav Likhachev
The Victory Parade in Moscow on May 9 was predictably canceled. The COVID-19 pandemic adjusted Russia’s plans of converting the symbolic capital of victory over Nazi Germany into a legitimization of the Kremlin regime, both domestically and internationally. But the Kremlin appears to have found a solution.

For the Russian leadership, the May celebration was of paramount importance. It was assumed that 2020 will see the crescendo of the Kremlin’s policy to instrumentalize the memory of WWII. In Russia itself, hysteria about the anniversary year began to be promoted well ahead of time. “In order to preserve historical memory and in honor of the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War,” 2020 was declared in Russia as the Year of Commemoration and Glory.

“In order to preserve historical memory and in honor of the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War,” 2020 was declared in Russia as the Year of Commemoration and Glory.

Domestically, as far as one can judge, these measures were aimed at creating a common sense of patriotic enthusiasm. As may be supposed, this artificial consolidation of the people was intended to provide en-masse support for the anti-democratic changes to the Constitution (these are required for Vladimir Putin to continue the rule over the country).

In turn, to support elation around the construction of a World War II memory framework, a prohibition on “diminishing the significance of the people’s valor in protecting the fatherland” should have been added to the Constitution. As well, the Constitutional amendments establish the “right and duty” of the State to “defend the historical truth.”

According to the Kremlin, this defending mainly takes place on foreign policy frontlines. Those whom Russia decides to regard as its adversaries (Ukraine, the Baltic States, recently – Poland, with the possible looming addition of the Czech Republic) are accused of trying to “revising the results of World War II.”

In addition, on the foreign policy scene, Moscow has exploited historical memory topics to once again impose on the world a Kremlin-friendly perception of the USSR and Russia as its successor (incidentally, a corresponding Constitutional amendment was proposed by Vladimir Putin, too).

The Kremlin is confident that the whole world should be grateful to the Soviets for the victory over Nazism. And, according to Vladimir Putin, Russia would have won WWII anyway without Ukraine.

Due to Moscow’s privatization of the symbolic capital of the “victors over Nazism,” Kremlin propaganda associates all its foreign policy opponents with the Nazis, even in the case of Ukraine. Speculation on the subject of Holocaust victims helps to adapt Kremlin theses to Western interpretations of the WWII lessons.

The “natural ally” of Israel

Victory parade in Moscow, 2019. Photo: Moskva 24

Naturally, the image of Russia as the victor over Nazism helps to increase the country’s prestige and authority internationally. This is extremely important for Russia, a country that has been under sanctions for aggression against Ukraine since 2014.

The commemoration of WWII has become a tool for breaking through the informal diplomatic blockade around Russia. However, the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted plans to invite key world leaders to the Victory Parade in Moscow in May. But in January, when nothing had yet portended such a dramatic change in context, Vladimir Putin was diligently ratcheting up speculations around memory issues to enhance Russia’s prestige abroad.

On the eve of the New Year, the Kremlin-friendly journal “Russia in Global Affairs” published materials of the roundtable discussion “Historical Memory – Another Space for Solving Political Tasks.”

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The bullet points crafted by analysts for the Kremlin are rather frank in their cynicism. One of the leading Russian historians, Aleksei Miller, urged to think in categories of “memory wars,” complaining that Russia knows little about who could be its potential allies and irreconcilable foes in these wars.

But one “natural ally” was obvious for Miller – Israel: “In January, Putin will go to Israel – a monument to the victims of the Siege of Leningrad will be opened there. This is a very important step because victims of the Siege are likened to the victims of the holocaust [- yes, with a small letter in the original – V.L.].” Fedor Gayda, associate professor of the history department of Moscow State University, echoes Mr. Miller: “…our main ally – yes, it is Israel.”

Miller called Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Israel an “attacking” one, dubbing the year 2020 as a “turning point” in the area of memory policy.

Vladimir Putin’s Jerusalem benefit performance is a perfect illustration of the clockwork used by the Moscow regime to exploit symbolic dates of historical events to create an advantageous political context today.

It must be recognized that Israel, Russia’s “key natural ally,” did its utmost to support the Kremlin’s “memory wars” for its own reasons that deserve a separate analysis.

World Holocaust Forum: instrumentalizing the Holocaust

Group photo of the participants of the World Holocaust Forum. Photo: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90

On January 23, Jerusalem hosted the “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism” conference organized by the World Holocaust Forum in cooperation with the Yad Vashem Institute and Memorial.

The conference, held on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The fact that Vladimir Putin became the main beneficiary of the conference is obvious. Less obvious is the fact that the conference was tailored to him.

The President and creator of the World Holocaust Forum, which initiated the conference, is Viatcheslav Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress and a major Russian businessman.

Viatcheslav Kantor is on the list of Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin mentioned in the “Kremlin Report” of the US Treasury. Since its inception in 2005, the Forum has been conceived as a platform for instrumentalizing the memory of the Holocaust for propaganda purposes. Overall, the “World Holocaust Forum” Foundation has held five memorial conferences (the first four were called the World Forum “Let My People Live!”).

At the time, after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which frightened the Russian authorities, memory politics became key to the propaganda efforts of the Kremlin regime to legitimize itself.

Its foundation, in turn, was the memory of the Second World War, or, more precisely, the Great Patriotic War, as they continue to call it in Russia following the Soviet standard.

For Viatcheslav Kantor, providing Vladimir Putin with an efficient international platform has always been the goal of his “commemorative” activities.

A stage for Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin and Viatcheslav Kantor

For instance, in 2015, after armed aggression against Ukraine and the occupation of Ukrainian territory, Polish authorities refused to invite the Russian President to participate in events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Viatcheslav Kantor was forced to put his best foot forward and – specially for Vladimir Putin – organize a conference in the Czech Republic, where the authorities were more sympathetic towards the Kremlin.

The Yad Vashem Conference was preceded by the opening ceremony of the “Candle of Remembrance” monument in honor of the heroic residents and defenders of the besieged Leningrad, located in the central Jerusalem park of Gan Sacher (on the territory of a walking area for dogs, which provoked protests of the locals).

Putin and Netanyahu together opened a monument to residents and defenders of besieged Leningrad. This is a “candle” Stella with inscriptions in Russian and Hebrew

In some other context, such a statement could be regarded as Holocaust relativism on the verge of revisionism

The unveiling of such a monument in the context of the largest international Holocaust remembrance ceremony created the most convenient context for promoting the Kremlin’s narrative – in full accordance with the recommendations of Miller.

In his speech at the unveiling of the monument, Vladimir Putin equated “anti-Semitism” and “Russophobia” in the context of the memory of the Second World War.

In some other context, such a statement could be regarded as Holocaust relativism on the verge of revisionism (diminishing the significance and uniqueness of the tragedy of European Jewry), but in this case, Israeli officials unabashedly applauded the Russian President. At the opening of the monument, Benjamin Netanyahu played along with Vladimir Putin as well as he could. In particular, he called the Siege of Leningrad “one of the most monstrous events of recent history,” and urged to never forget “the enormous contribution of the Soviet Union, its people, and Red Army soldiers to the eradication of the Nazi monster and the salvation of the world from a terrible tragedy.”

I duly note that the monument was erected with the financial participation of Israeli amuta (public organization) “Euro-Asian Jewish Congress” and its president Mikhail Mirilashvili.

This organization, unjustifiably claiming continuity with respect to an eponymous continental association (though written in Russian without a hyphen – “Eurasian”), has been consistently promoting the Kremlin agitprop since 2017.

After the opening, the monument remained looming over the littered wasteland for quite some time.

Photo: Yana Briskman

The Conference, which took place on the same day, began with a screening of documentaries prepared by the Holocaust Remembrance Forum. A few days after the event, a scandal erupted around these films.

Yad Vashem director Dan Mihman published a statement on the Memorial website and in the Haaretz newspaper, apologizing on behalf of Yad Vashem for the distortions to WWII history in favor of the Soviet Union in the video materials.

Then the Forum’s initiator Viatcheslav Kantor held a speech at its opening. He drew attention to the significant increase in anti-Semitism in Western Europe. He cited Russia as a positive example, where allegedly “thanks to the uncompromising policy that has been applied for many years against anti-Semitism,” “the lowest level of anti-Semitism” is recorded.

After this warm-up, world leaders invited as extras listened to Vladimir Putin himself. His speech predictably emphasized the role of the Red Army and the “Soviet people” who “defended their Fatherland and brought liberation from Nazism to Europe.”

Vladimir Putin supplemented this (completely unjustified from a historical point of view) privatization of the symbolic capital of the victory over Nazism by developing his relativistic thesis about the tragedy of European Jewry.

When, after describing the heroics of officers and soldiers of the Red Army, the Russian President finally mentioned the Holocaust, he defined it as “targeted destruction of people,” omitting the ethnic origin of these people and adding that Russians also were dubbed as “sub-humans” – and that Nazis allegedly prepared “the same fate” for “Slavic people and other nations” (the context envisioned “the same fate as for the Jews,” but the word “Jews” was never pronounced).

Admittedly, despite the Kremlin’s completely shameless manipulative theses and some scandals, the Jerusalem events were extremely successful for Moscow. The world leaders gathered as extras in Yad Vashem respectfully listened to the Russian leader.

Putin speaking at the Forum. Photo: president.gov.ru

An alternative “Victory Parade” in September?

Jerusalem was only the beginning of the Kremlin’s systematic work on forging a chain of commemorative and political events dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the victory over Nazism, and the creation of the UN.

The result of this propaganda campaign should have been a complete reformatting of Russia’s external image. The Kremlin dreamt of occupying, in its opinion, a worthy place in the international community. The May Victory Parade, to which the leaders of many states were invited, occupied an important place in this project.

COVID-19 made adjustments to these plans.

It seems that now the Kremlin hopes to rebuild its battle formations and launch a new triumphal offensive on the fronts of the “memory wars.” It looks like the new, hastily sketched up plans focus on the 75th anniversary of the victory over Japan which ended World War II.

On 14 April 2020, Russia’s State Duma adopted an absurd decision to change the WWII End Day from September 2, when Japan signed the act of capitulation, to September 3.

Moscow is probably hoping that by fall the epidemic will be overcome. Celebrating the end of World War II could probably offset at least some losses of the messed-up Victory Day.

The Chinese victory parade over Japan, 3 September 1945

It is likely that the change of the date is aimed at other goals too – for example, at dulcifying the brotherly China, where the end of the WWII is celebrated on 3 September, and eclipsing the tragedy of the Beslan school massacre, which happened on that day, from the collective memory of Russians and the information space.

But presently it seems that the foreign policy aspect is most important. It may be speculated that a one-day shift will make it more convenient to invite foreign dignitaries.

In addition, a separate celebration will allow stressing the Soviet Union’s – and, therefore, according to the sophisticated Kremlin logic, Russia’s – special contribution to the victory over Japan and in World War II as a whole.

The end of World War II falls on the eve of the anniversary General Assembly of the UN. Back in Jerusalem, Vladimir Putin announced the initiative for a summit of the UN founders – the permanent members of the Security Council (Russia, China, the United States, France, and the UK).

“We have many tasks,” the Russian President said. According to Putin, holding the meeting on the anniversary of the organization will give the summit a symbolic character, demonstrating “dedication to the spirit of alliance, historical memory, those high ideals and values for which our ancestors fought.”

Vladimir Putin’s proposal hung in the air. It seems that the Kremlin leader, intent on ruling forever, still considers it feasible to return to the global order along the Yalta-designed framework, where the “great” states victorious in the war divide their spheres of influence based on their ideas about the national interest, paying no attention to the interests or even the sovereignty of the “small” countries.

Perhaps the epidemic will drag on, and such large-scale international events as the one that took in Jerusalem in January will be impossible not only in May but even in September.

In any case, it is better to prepare in advance to the Kremlin’s autumn offensive on the battlefields of the “memory wars” – otherwise one would, like Ukraine’s President Vladimir Zelensky, on the eve of the ceremony in Yad Vashem, be forced to weasel a way out at the last moment.

Vyacheslav Likhachev is a historian and political analyst. He is an author of several books on far-right extremism and anti-Semitism in post-Soviet countries. He works as a community professional in the Association of Jewish communities and organizations (Vaad of Ukraine) on various research, educational, museum and media projects. The main direction of his activity is combating anti-Semitism and xenophobia in general. Aside from Jewish community life, Vyacheslav is active in general Human Rights activism also. He worked on documenting violations of International Humanitarian Law (including war crimes) in the military conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine.

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Translated by: Sergey Naraevsky

Edited by: Alya Shandra

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