The Leave.eu campaign has now apologised for its advert evoking victory in World War Two as a justification for Brexit. But as the UK moves towards a December General Election, this is unlikely to be the last we see of historical references being used to further particular political aims. Often – as in this case – history is used to justify a dramatic break from what has gone before. But in a growing number of neo-authoritarian regimes worldwide, we see the opposite process: political actors are attempting to manufacture historical controversy in order to bolster their own positions.
Our latest research, published here, shows that this is exactly what happened recently in Russia, when the centenary of the 1917 revolutions coincided with the start of a Presidential election campaign. Those revolutions helped destroy the Tsarist Empire, establish the first Communist state, and create the defining geopolitical dividing lines of the twentieth Century.
But the revolutions’ legacies remain contested: Russia’s still-popular Communist Party and the military are nostalgic about Soviet times, whilst the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian émigré communities have negative views of the Communist project.
In today’s integrated global media environment, the interactions between different cultural actors shape how particular historical events are commemorated. Even neo-authoritarian regimes cannot control this process, so they have to come up with some way to deal with it. Scholars predicted that the Putin regime would hedge its bets, by promoting ‘reconciliation and accord’ between the pro- and anti-Communist lobbies.
What emerged, though, was a manufactured conflict of historical interpretations. As we show through our latest research, this was not designed to make sense of history for the public. It was to bolster the ruling regime.
From ‘reconciliation and accord’ to electioneering at home
Both politicians and state-aligned media were the ‘official’ voices of the commemoration in Russia. This is because Russian state-aligned broadcasters often broadcast the messages considered too controversial for politicians to say directly. In this case, Putin’s December 2016 Decree named the domestic broadcasters, Channel 1 and Rossiya-1 – and Russia’s international broadcaster, RT – on the Organisation Committee for the Revolutions’ Commemoration.
In the early part of 2017, politicians and media discussed the revolutions within ‘reconciliation and accord’ frame, and were deliberately ambiguous. Putin bluntly blamed Lenin’s incompetent state-building for the USSR’s ultimate collapse, but his Culture Minister, Medinsky, balanced his own criticisms with praise for the Bolsheviks’ state-building efforts.
Channel 1 interpreted the revolution variously as a global phenomenon that ‘determined world developments in the twentieth century,’ or a tragedy, ‘which resulted in numerous victims and threw our country back by many decades‘. Rossiya-1 aired harsh condemnation of the revolution from the well-known dissident writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, alongside a presenter’s rather contradictory conclusion that Lenin was concerned with ‘building, rather than destroying’ and ‘made people believe in the reality of a just world’.
By the October-November anniversary, though, this ambiguity was gone. Russia’s state-aligned broadcasters turned completely negative, and for the first time ever in state-endorsed accounts, the revolution and its enduring legacies were thoroughly tarnished.
Hollywood-style serials, ostensibly based on factual information, graphically portrayed Bolshevik treason, cruelty and moral depravity. In Channel 1’s Trotsky, Lenin was a murderer no better than Stalin, responsible (with Trotsky) for the first wave of post-revolutionary terror. One central character dismissed the revolution’s legacy as a future built by ‘bandits and criminals’ (ep. 8). Rossiya-1’s Demon of the Revolution gave a similarly negative portrayal of Lenin and his entourage as treasonous, German-funded mercenaries.
Historical documentaries, The Great Russian Revolution (Rossiya-1) and The True History of the Russian Revolution (Channel 1) foregrounded similar themes, patched together out of factual and fictional accounts. They portrayed the masses as unconscious revolutionaries, manipulated into subverting Tsar Nicholas II’s benign rule by cynical traitors – both Bolsheviks and liberal oppositionists. The chaos of Bolshevik take-over was explicitly linked with the traumatic state collapse of 1991, and Putin’s saving of Russia from another collapse in 1999.
Traditionally in Russia, discussions of the pain and disorder of the revolutionary process have been offset with an acknowledgement of Soviet achievements and national resilience. This has been a cornerstone of Russia’s post-Soviet identity. So why the sudden change?
It is no coincidence that the Communists and their legacies were so unambiguously trashed right as a Presidential election campaign was kicking off. This saw Putin facing off against a dynamic new contender from his closest rival party – the Communists. Although the election result was a foregone conclusion, the size of Putin’s majority still matters. So, whilst the media vilification of the Bolsheviks was not intended to court national consensus, it made for a very dramatic pre-election statement.
Social justice and progressiveness abroad
Media coverage of the revolutions’ centenary for international audiences was similarly instrumentalized, but the overall narrative was totally different. Russia’s international broadcaster, RT, built up a romantic picture of the revolutions and their globally-progressive legacies. Its interviews, discussion shows and documentaries alike all drew together personal impressions to emphasise the positive social legacies of the revolution globally.
The most significant element of RT’s centenary coverage was the 1917LIVE historical re-enactment on Twitter. The most extensive re-enactment of its type to date, it involved dozens of accounts live tweeting the revolutions in the first person, a hundred years after the fact. Archival resources, historical quotes and newly-created resources were compiled in an act of online docu-fiction which actively encouraged social media users’ participation. It drew in celebrity guest-tweeters (e.g. Brasilian author Paulo Coelho as Mata Hari), and won a plethora of social media marketing and educational awards.
Followers of the project felt that it provided an entertaining educational opportunity to re-live history. The interactivity of the project gave it an ambiguous overall narrative, but #1917LIVE still ended up engaging with messages that were also central in the domestic coverage, including role of the ‘West’ in stoking the revolution.
From nation’s history to regime’s future
Historical commemoration is often used to come to terms with a society’s past, and inform its future direction. Dramatic changes in interpretation of the past usually only happens with political leadership changes: new contenders try and discredit the legacies of the incumbent, whilst spelling out a new direction for the future.
But in neo-authoritarian regimes like Russia, true leadership challenges are few and far between. Here, politically-allied actors offered strategically conflicting interpretations of the past. They not only cast aside their own previous stories about the revolution, but they also offered totally different stories for domestic and international audiences – despite their collaboration within the official commemorative regime.
These commemorations were not about making sense of the past. They helped the incumbent regime to legitimise its position in the face of rather different domestic and international challenges. So, whilst today’s global media environment poses challenges to neo-authoritarian states such as Russia, media commemoration provides one means by which they can attempt to confront these challenges.
Precious Chatterje-Doody, a former Research Associate on our project, is now a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at The Open University.
Vera Tolz is Sir William Mather Professor of Russian Studies at The University of Manchester.