The Russian state has traditionally had a complicated relationship with time. The Empire of the Romanovs, while posturing as a European power, lived by a different calendar than the rest of Europe — falling behind nearly two weeks, which is quite symbolic. The convenience of interacting with the rest of the world was sacrificed to the official ideology — Orthodox Christianity.
These thirteen days, however, are a pretty harmless antique compared to everything else. The Bolsheviks took the matter seriously and declared themselves masters not only of the present but also of the past — and this at a time when Orwell’s 1984 had not yet been written! They destroyed the strongholds of memory: monuments, street names, churches, and even entire cities — mostly notably Moscow. Everything that happened in the country and in the entire world before them was simply preparation for their triumph. The peasant wars in Europe and the revolt of Pugachev were mere forerunners of the Great October Revolution. Countless books were written to reinforce the only true picture of the past.
The problem was that it was not only the distant past, but also the exploits of yesterday that mandated such correction. The constant exposure of yesterday’s comrades as enemies required not only the tireless efforts of the KGB, but also the rewriting of recent history. This would reach the point of rare madness: unsavoury figures would disappear from photographs — these people could never have stood next to the leader! It is a well-known fact that after secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria was arrested and executed, all subscribers of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia received a letter recommending they cut out such and such pages from such and such a volume (containing an article about Beria as a loyal associate of Stalin and continuer of Lenin’s work) and instead glue in a replacement page — an article on the Bering Strait. And the majority complied!
While Putin’s regime is far from being a remake of the USSR, his attitude to controlling the past and to time in general is profoundly Soviet.
History is being rewritten: we were the only ones fighting Hitler, nobody remembers the lend-lease programme and the battles in Italy, Greece, Normandy, and Africa, as well as “our valiant allies”, as Stalin called them. We stood up against the collective West (sometimes, to make things crystal-clear, the terms “European Union” and “NATO” are used, even though they did not exist at the time, but that does not matter — “Leopard” tanks did not exist during the Battle of Stalingrad either).
Like under the Bolsheviks, old textbooks are being withdrawn, new ones appearing in their place. Even if for a day, Volgograd once again becomes Stalingrad; monuments to Prince Vladimir, Ivan the Terrible, and Joseph Stalin are being opened. Meanwhile, archives remain classified, and public organisations that search for the truth about the past are forbidden. This is not about fighting against the misperception of the modern day — it is a fight for the past!
Our leaders seem to desire domination not only over specific events, remaking them at will as they did with World War II, but also over time itself. How else to explain the reforms that took place during Medvedev’s presidency — shifting time zones, abolishing decree time and daylight saving time, switching first to winter time, then to summer time? The inhabitants of the Kremlin enjoy feeling equal to God, to the lords of time. And then, they started a war!
Now, as the artillery weapons sound, this remaking of the past — both distant and recent — has taken on a truly epic shape.
Old rituals that have long since lost their meaning are being reinvented — for example, the steps of the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces are allegedly made of melted-down Nazi trophy weapons.
The latest achievement has been the “reenactment” of the Battle of Stalingrad, prepared for Putin’s visit to the city.
It is worth noting that these reenactment games have influenced our lives greatly — yet few people notice this. For instance, Igor Strelkov-Girkin and Alexander Borodai were both reenactors, and both have contributed greatly to unravelling the spiral of murders in Donbas (a Dutch court has already condemned Girkin to life in prison, and I hope that Borodai will also be sentenced).
The reenactment of the Battle of Stalingrad bore little resemblance to the events popular in many countries wherein the participants dress up as soldiers of Medieval armies, wave plastic swords around, and then all go for a beer. In Russia, everything is serious — real tanks, artillery, cavalry, thousands (at least on paper) of spectators, and even “guests from abroad”. What is it all for?
With their costly excursions into the past, the inhabitants of the Kremlin pursue at least two goals. First, they tell us how easy the victory actually was. Yes, they mention the millions of deaths, but they do not show war as it was described by, for instance, Ion Degen:
Do not weep, do not moan, lacking temperance,
It’s no wound, you are merely dead.
Let me take your felt boots for remembrance,
Our offensive is moments ahead.
They show a very different war, where rosy-cheeked and well-fed soldiers are garbed in brand-new high-tech armour, as if ready for some military beauty contest. The message is clear — do not be afraid of a new Stalingrad, look at how well things turned out last time, so they will turn out the same way now. We can do it again, and we will. Just don’t think about what we had told you yesterday. There was never any other yesterday than the one that we are describing to you today. Oh, and look how much fun seizing a cardboard Reichstag is.
Many of these things they do for themselves, to have something calming to believe in — the real world brings them too much anxiety. So they create some propaganda nonsense, like the movie T-34 — I have yet to meet someone who has watched it — and acclaim it as a blockbuster. Well, this must mean the people like it, that they believe us, so we can go to war again and maybe even seize Kyiv.
But there is a second task, one which goes far beyond primitive propaganda. Soviet and Russian superheroes are not only bulletproof and can easily throw down dozens of fascists single-handed. In critical situations — in battle, during a Gestapo interrogation, or even at work — they lose all individuality and become identical.
Human feelings — fear, for instance, or a yearning for loved ones — disappear, and the human identity becomes replaced by an emanation of the state: Stalin, the Party, the Fatherland.
They are reduced to being an incarnation of the state. This, according to the USSR and to Putin, is the perfect human.
Not only for wartime do they find this concept to be ideal. Not understanding what freedom is, trained in their KGB schools to march in line and never ask questions, they do not know how to talk with normal people, much less how to manage them. They probably do not even mind feeding the subordinate population well, but only as long as the maxim “one step to the side equals desertion” is kept. That is sacred. And they use reenactments, new history textbooks, and all the rest to prove that this has always been the case — to us and to themselves.
Paradoxically, this tolling of the imperial bells depreciates the very heroism that they are leeching off of. A heroic act is not a rousing patriotic slogan; it is the overcoming of pain and fear, unexpectedly noble — occasionally even for oneself — behaviour in a horrible situation that one has ended up in against one’s will. Heroism is the action of a free person who turns from victim of the circumstances to master of their own life, even if only for its few remaining seconds. Our leaders, however, are incapable of understanding this heroism — they are afraid of it, just as Stalin was. That is why gigantic monuments are erected to fictitious heroes, even ones that everyone knows never existed, while the real heroes are plunged into oblivion — the regime does not like them and tries not to think of them. And every day, time after time, they “reenact” the past, warping it in accordance with the goals of today.
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