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Rewriting History: Why The Kremlin is on a Drive for New Statues

Vladimir Putin’s government is making sure there is only one version of Russian history — and it is glorious

Introduction

In late-December 2014, Vladimir Lyzgin re-posted an article on Russian social media listing 15 historical facts “the Kremlin stays silent about,” among them a mention of the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939.

Lyzgin is not a political activist, but a car-mechanic from the Urals city of Perm, far from Moscow. But just a few months after making the post on Vkontakte, he was charged with “intentionally” spreading false information about the Soviet Union, and then last year convicted and fined 200,000 rubles (about $3,000 at the time).

He refused to pay the fine and fled Russia — but the authorities had made their point. There is only their version of history, and that means inconvenient facts like Stalin and Hitler’s collaboration in the early stages of WWII — through the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact — cannot be repeated in Russia.

The mechanic was the first Russian to be found guilty under a series of new laws aimed at combatting “extremism and terrorism” online, which in practice allow the Kremlin to control what Russians are told about their past.

Nicknamed the “Yarova laws” after the deputy who authored it, the legislation is worded so vaguely, critics have warned, that it could snare virtually anyone. That may be the point. Even someone who had been with Lyzgin as he posted the article could potentially have been arrested — for not reporting the “crime.”

If Vladimir Putin’s first two terms as president were defined by efforts to control the present — bringing Russia’s mainstream media under Kremlin control — his third term has been about entrenching control of the past.

Dmitry Medvedev’s term as president, when he swapped places with Putin, now looks like a false spring. “Nothing can be valued above human life, and there is no excuse for repressions,” Medvedev said in 2009, as he ordered funds for monuments to the victims of Soviet-era abuses.

As Putin prepares to run for a fourth term next year, the Kremlin is encouraging and in some cases directly funding the construction of monuments for figures such as Vladimir the Great, who made Orthodox Christianity the state religion, Joseph Stalin and Ivan the Terrible — best known for murdering his son.

Those trying to tell more balanced narratives have been progressively neutered. Memorial, an NGO dedicated to documenting Soviet repressions, was declared a foreign agent last year, while Putin has brought the Federal Archive Agency directly under his control.

And the Kremlin’s tactics seem to be working. The number of Russians who believe that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is a “fabrication” has nearly doubled in recent years, according to a survey by one leading pollster, while close to 40 percent said they had never even heard of it.

So why does the Kremlin care so much about the past these days? And how far is it prepared to go to enshrine its version of history?

Coda is going to try these questions in this new current, “Rewriting History,” so please follow to find out.