Abstract. This article examines changes in Russia’s politics of memory at the turn of the 2020s, the balance of forces between mnemonic actors, external conditions, and internal modalities of the struggle for political use of the historical past. The tensions and the conflict potential in Russia’s relations with the collective West have now turned into a multi-factor confrontation in which the collective identity of Russians – the key elements of the historical narrative and collective memory that answer the basic questions of identity politics (Who are we? Where have we come from and where are we going?) – are being tested to the extreme. The author shows that while securitization is becoming the dominant trend in the politics of memory, the state-supported historical narrative is wanting in many respects. The information-
psychological and mnemonic struggle in the world and inside the country is leading the federal authorities to focus above all on the causes and results of the Second World War, the circumstances of the USSR’s entry into that war, its decisive role in the victory over fascism, as well as the history of Russo-Ukrainian relations. Securitization of the official historical narrative includes law-making, drafting amendments to the RF Constitution, adopting “memorial” laws, toughening and expanding legislation on “foreign agents,” as well as introducing law-enforcement practices that have brought about a change in the configuration and balance of forces between mnemonic actors. The second part of this article looks at the problems of the political use of the past in the context of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine, including the politics of memory in the regions that have been incorporated into the RF under the October 4, 2022 amendments to the Constitution.

Today, the turn of the 2020s looks like a brief interlude anticipating the start of great upheavals. This view is not quite accurate, however, because it is obvious that the decision to prepare the [Russian] Special Military Operation (SMO) [in Ukraine] and the development of constitutional changes aimed at ensuring the stability of Russian power under extreme conditions and significant shifts in the Russian politics of memory go back to 2019-2020, if not earlier. Another “unplanned” shock to Russian society and the state – the COVID-19 pandemic – exerted contradictory influences, but the common denominator has been the “anticipatory” drawing of all social groups into an emergency situation and the corresponding stress. Through this lens, we can see a continuum of events and processes before and after February 24, 2022. Even so, that day marked a historical and socio-psychological watershed, if only because most of Russian society was unprepared for the dramatic transition to a new state connected with the start of military actions in Ukraine and the proxy war between Russia and the collective West.

This overview article focuses on significant changes in Russia’s politics of identity and memory between 2019 and early 2023. Some of these changes can be seen as an interim result of protracted processes of post-Soviet transformations and others as emerging phenomena that anticipate future far-reaching events. This is not just a new turn but a new frontier that opens up the widest – in the last 30 years – range of scenarios for further development in terms of social stability, the functioning of the system of state administration, the stability of the political regime, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia. In the words of a popular song by an author who was put on the list of “foreign agents” in 2022 [38]: “You won’t understand until you turn around.”

Even so, with regard to the issues of identity and historical memory, we can already go beyond general suppositions that their evolution will inevitably reflect the new traumatic experience connected with the SMO and its consequences. We are witnessing major changes in the politics of history, the balance of forces between mnemonic actors, external conditions and internal modalities of the struggle over the political use of the historical past. The tensions and the conflict potential in Russia’s relations with the collective West have now turned into a multi-factor confrontation in which the collective identity of Russians – the key elements of the historical narrative and collective memory that answer the basic questions of identity politics (Who are we? Where have we come from and where are we going?) – are being tested to the extreme. Simultaneously, a more radical transformation of memorial culture is unfolding. The narratives of the struggle against fascism and the Great Victory of 1945 are ever more tightly intertwined with the narratives of the SMO in Ukraine. Some battles of the SMO are being waged in the same places as battles fought during the Great Patriotic War. Arguably, we are witnessing the rapid modernization of the narratives of the memory of military events as the actual state of the war and its multiple consequences increasingly come to dominate social life.

Consequences of the Breakdown of International Dialogue on Complex Historical Issues

On September 19, 2019, the European Parliament approved the resolution On the Importance of European Remembrance for the Future of Europe, sponsored by Poland and the Baltic countries. The adoption of that resolution introduced antagonism in the dialogue between Russia and the West on historical issues, which practically broke down on the eve of the SMO. The resolution, which “equated” the responsibility of Germany and the USSR for the outbreak of the Second World War, successfully concluded the campaign of several countries of Central and Eastern Europe to portray themselves as victims of two totalitarianisms and to relativize local collaborationism and participation in the Holocaust. However, the 2019 resolution went much further by a priori brushing aside the official Russian politics of memory because it aims “to distort historical facts and whitewash crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime” and is “a dangerous component of the information war waged against democratic Europe that aims to divide Europe” [36]. Thus, official dialogue on issues of the historical past became meaningless, and Russia’s desire to discuss European security issues by invoking the results of the Second World War was blocked. In effect, Putin’s Russia as an epigone of “Soviet totalitarianism” becomes an actor thrown out of the modernized European model of historical memory. Marlène Laruelle offers an apt assessment of the geopolitical consequences of this operation:

“If the Soviet Union did not vanquish Nazism but was its equal evil, then Russia has no voice in European affairs and cannot claim to take part in European institutions. In reality, peace in Europe and the European Union were based on the post-war idea ‘never again,’ with Moscow as a fundamental element. By stressing the victory scored over Nazism, Russia positions itself as a champion of a certain concept of Europe; the 1945 victory confirms Russia’s right to be a legitimate participant in European politics” [29, p. 134].

The European Parliament’s 2019 resolution, in the spirit of cancel culture, expressed concern over the continuing use of totalitarian regimes’ symbols in the public and commercial space and the preservation of monuments and memorials glorifying these regimes, which “paves the way for the distortion of historical facts about the consequences of the Second World War and for the propagation of the totalitarian political system” [36]. In fact, the resolution encouraged the authorities of Central and Eastern European countries to dismantle the memorial heritage that glorifies the heroic feat of Soviet warriors on the territories of these countries. Every such action, even if it was local, reverberated greatly in Russia, which ultimately added to the perception that efforts to establish dialogue with the West on the politics of memory are an exercise in futility.

Vigorous resistance by the Russian side [23] to the narrative of two totalitarianisms as the main culprits of the Second World War proclaimed by the European Parliament yielded some results in 2020, but as tensions grew around Ukraine and the collective West refused to take into account Russia’s fundamental security interests, international dialogue on complex historical issues was effectively blocked. This had far-reaching consequences for the mnemonic struggle inside Russia itself.

For a fairly long time, Russia’s politics of memory was addressed to several audiences at once [23]. Often the main addressees of messages on the historical past, coming mainly from President Vladimir Putin, were audiences outside of Russia. In that sense, Russia’s politics of memory until the middle of 2021 was oriented toward multi-national dialogue. It was assumed that in the realm of historical memory, a common platform for dialogue with key Western partners still existed that could be turned to for constructive discussion of contemporary problems and interstate contradictions.

The existence of several audiences helped balance the official historical narrative and ensured a measure of stability for actors of the mnemonic struggle inside Russia who could count on substantial international support. The breakdown of international dialogue on complex issues of the historical past not only lead to “monologization” of the official historical narrative but removed significant obstacles to the state’s decisive change of the balance of forces in the domestic arena of mnemonic struggle.

Memory Breakthrough, Historical Certainty or Crimes against History?

Nikolay Epple in his 2020 book An Inconvenient Past: The Memory of State Crimes in Russia and Other Countries, claimed that the country was poised for a “memory breakthrough” when “solidarization of the efforts of all the social forces interested in a full-fledged study of the Soviet past” would yield a cumulative effect [8, p. 14]. According to Epple, this qualitative leap could stimulate the creation of a social institution for working through an “inconvenient” past politics of memory that was autonomous from or even in opposition to the state. In retrospect, such an assessment may seem exaggerated and can be seen as a memory quirk of a scholar deeply immersed in his subject. However, some events in the early 2020s showed that significant shifts in the field of mnemonic struggle were possible. For example, Yuri Dud’s1 film “Kolyma: the Birthplace of Our Fear” (2019) was seen by more than 20 million people on his YouTube channel, and the majority of his audience comprises young people.2 Critical remarks of the rapper Alisher Morgenshtern (Valeyev)3 about unjustified spending on the celebration of Victory Day and his doubts about the significance of that date under modern conditions had a considerable impact [43] on part of generation Z, a demographers’ term [35] that acquired new connotations in light of the upheavals of 2022. In the early 2020s, “the last address” initiative challenging the official policy on victims of Stalin’s repressions could still be seen as an example of a successful offensive strategy in the mnemonic struggle [28].

Even so, the dominant trend saw the authorities consistently increasing their toolkit of influencing public opinion, including restrictive mechanisms. The most significant of these was legislation on foreign agents harking back to the American experience of the late 1930s (Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA), adapted, of course to the current realities and objectives of the Russian authorities. The amendments to the Law on Non-Profit Organizations passed in 2012 on the crest of the struggle against the “white ribbon” movement provided a legal basis for branding NPOs engaged in political activities and receiving funding from foreign sources as “foreign agents.” In fact, at the early stage of the functioning of the Russian law on “foreign agents,” many such NPOs faced a choice: Be stigmatized and continue operating on foreign financial sources, or obtain new, domestic sources of funding (including presidential grants) and, having eliminated the threat of being labeled foreign agents, interact with the state organizations in the controlled loyalty mode [6].

The first influential mnemonic actor to be targeted by the foreign agent law was the Memorial human rights center (2013), part of International Memorial, an umbrella structure consisting of several components with varying legal status, goals, and locations. In October 2016, International Memorial was put on the list of foreign agents; the same happened to seven of its regional branches. It continued its activities under this status until the early 2020s without assuming the position of controlled loyalty in relation to the Russian state or changing its overall approach, which combined scholarly historical and enlightenment work with human rights activism and criticism of the authorities over fundamental domestic and foreign policy issues. On the whole, Memorial displayed strong resilience and an ability to challenge state organizations both in the legal field (in addition to energetically challenging the foreign agent status, it took an active stance on the trials of Yuri Dmitriyev and Oyub Titiyev) and in the field of public communications.

In the mnemonic sphere, Memorial was a formidable rival of the Russian Historical Society and the Russian Military-Historical Society, created and operating with state support. Memorial’s resources include a large number of regional branches, archives, electronic databases, and a library that are valuable assets for those studying issues of political repressions [15]; a museum; massive publishing activities [24]; an established format of working with young people; various network resources; and deep integration into transnational networks of the civil society [10]. Nor should we forget about the number of activists who took part in various Memorial projects – for example, in Perm Territory (until December 1, 2005, Perm Province), the number of activists at its peak could have exceed 20,000, according to a local expert [21, p. 250]. The picture, of course, varied between regions, and in many of them, the number of Memorial activists was many times less than in the Perm region. And yet, on some counts, the Russian Historical Society and the Russian Military-Historical Society still fall short of the Memorial level even today.

Nevertheless, the listing of Memorial as a foreign agent has shown that this mechanism of stigmatization is fairly effective in changing the balance of forces in the mnemonic struggle inside Russia. In addition to real restrictions on operations and serious sanctions for violating relevant laws, it creates problems with networking, forcing potential partners or sponsors of the stigmatized actor to weigh the apparent and hidden risks of cooperation (including the prospect of being declared foreign agents themselves).

Being labeled a foreign agent influences the perception of associated narratives. This is particularly important in the case of Memorial, because since the late 1980s, owing to its track record and influence, it could to some extent be seen as the reference case for the master narrative [11] on political repressions in the USSR. Stigmatization through the foreign agent label may partially compromise the narrative. Even more importantly, it tends to separate the narrative from the actor labeled a foreign agent.

A case in point is the Perm-36 museum. The Perm-36 memorial museum of the history of political repressions was established in 1995 on the site of a correctional labor facility in the village of Kuchino (Chusovskoy urban district in Perm Territory) that functioned from 1946 to 1988. Initially, the museum had the status of a Limited Liability Society (Memorial Center of the History of Political Repressions Perm-36, founders: Perm branch of Memorial and the regional administration); since 2001, it was an autonomous non-profit organization (Russian acronym ANO). After a change of regional administration in 2012, a process was set in motion to change the legal status of the Perm-36 museum, blocking the actual influence of the ANO and putting the museum under state control. In April 2015, the RF Justice Ministry ordered ANO Perm-36 to register as a foreign agent on the grounds that an audit had uncovered facts of foreign financing and participation in political activities. Having failed to reach a compromise in negotiations with the regional administration and the representatives of federal agencies, the ANO decided to self-dissolve. Its intention of spreading its experience of organizing museum exhibits and related events by creating analogues in other regions was not implemented [44]. The museum continued to function as an institution under total state control. However, the claim that the “nationalization” of the museum was a successful counter-attack of neo-Stalinists on the liberal and pro-Western part of the civil society [25, p. 47] or another step in implementing a supposed commitment of the ruling regime to revive totalitarianism [19] is not borne out by the content of the museum. The museum has changed in some ways – efforts were made to represent “the other side of the coin” (for example, by displaying the overseer’s room) – but in general, it resonates with the anti-Stalinist and anti-totalitarian narrative [21, p. 251]. Paradoxically, the exhibit was “enlarged” under the new museum administration, and public debate around these events highlights the profound cleavage over memory of the “inconvenient” past [11]. In other words, the existence of the “memory of the prisoner” presupposes the existence of the “memory of the guard,” although society’s acknowledgment of this fact does not imply a renunciation of social choice in favor of one of the narratives.

Obviously, the authorities sought not to change the narrative, but to establish total institutional control, which, however, does not rule out a future correction of the narrative. The authorities eventually blocked the use of the Perm-36 museum and the related civil forum Pilorama (“Sawmill”) as a platform of opposition activities [12] and a base for the formation of a regional network of actors [16, pp. 372-373] critical not only of the Soviet past, but also of the post-Soviet present.

In the Russian legal space, the adoption of a series of memorial laws (for more, see [18]) and the expansion of the law on foreign agents (Law No. 327-FZ of November 25, 2017, which introduced the concept of “foreign agent media outlet”; 2018 amendments extending the law to natural persons; elaboration of legislation in 2021-2022) laid the legal foundation for further changes in the balance of mnemonic forces by offering exclusive protection of some historical narratives and restricting others. However, the decisive moment was amendments to the Constitution that came into force on July 4, 2020, including articles of the Basic Law pertaining to problems of values and historical memory.

Olga Malinova shows that these amendments were the outcome of prolonged struggle over symbols [20]. Obviously, amendments on the distribution of powers and the procedure for forming state power bodies were central to the total body of the 2020 constitutional changes. But amendments determining the status of the Russian language, stressing the importance of faith in God, postulating the continuity of the Russian state tradition and protection of historical truth, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, etc., were not a mere adjunct to changes at the level of the vertical power structure and still less a way of diverting attention from these changes. In general, all these constitutional changes were ideological and symbolic markers of a political pivot whose real scale did not become apparent until 2022. But that is not all.

The constitutional amendments dealing with values and the mnemonic sphere should be seen as an interim result of the process of the securitization of significant aspects of macro-political identity and historical memory, a process that was launched back in the second half of the 2000s. At the turn of the 2020s, the speed of this process began to exceed the pace at which the content of the narrative of “national biography” was changing [5]. Thus, the fundamental thesis of the unity of the thousand-year history and continuity of the development of the Russian state (Article 67.2 of the RF Constitution) leaves unanswered many questions about the mechanisms of preserving the integrity of the state tradition in the context of socio-cultural split and the collapse of statehood (in the early 17th century, in 1917, and in 1991) (see, for example, [2]). Even at the level of substantive interpretation of certain stages and events in Russian history, the securitized narrative on the continuity of the development of the Russian state has many “blank spots.” Thus, the distinctive feature of the current situation is not that Russian power under Putin, like the political elites in many countries of Central and Eastern Europe, has set about implementing the “memory must be defended” principle, but that it is happening in the absence of a complete Russian version of the “national biography,” which rules out forcible depoliticization [22] of all its components.

The efforts of the authorities to securitize historical memory were prompted above all by the desire to acquire “historical certainty”4 and, through a controlled interpretation of the past, to add legitimacy to the existing socio-political order. However, as pointed out above, the dramatic sharpening of the mnemonic struggle at the international level closely linked with the sharpening of geopolitical competition in the post-Soviet space made the state politics of memory largely reactive, with the focus on several key topics – notably, the causes and circumstances of the start of the Second World War, the Soviet Union’s role in it, and its results.

The narrowing of the circle of addressees of the official politics of memory to basically the domestic audience, coupled with growing international tensions, prompted the authorities to take more decisive steps to securitize the mnemonic sphere. Semi-tones in the formulation of official positions gradually disappeared. In March 2021, Vladimir Medinsky told a Federation Council roundtable that a document was needed that would formulate the Russian state historical policy [39] – i.e., strictly speaking, cast in documentary form the totality of decisions and measures taken over a period of more than a decade.

In turn, the Russian independent actors who most frequently oppose the state in the mnemonic sphere and actors outside the Russian jurisdiction stepped up their polemics. An increasingly negative image of the official Russian politics of memory was formed in transnational civil society networks. A telling example is the report Russia: “Crimes against History” released by the International Human Rights Federation (FIDH) [9]. The main author of the report was Russian lawyer Grigory Vaypan, who later represented the interests of Memorial in court proceedings that led to its liquidation; the co-author, who prepared 16 interviews with Russian historians, journalists, and rights activists, was Ilya Nuzov, FIDH director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The report presents copious but not always accurate material arranged in a way to show that freedom of historical research in Russia is increasingly restricted to construct a model of the historical past that suits the authorities. The term “crimes against history” was coined by the Belgian historian Antoon De Baets [4]. He was referring to such acts as the killing and kidnapping of people engaged in historical research; public insults; slander of historians and biased legal persecution; deliberate destruction of cultural heritage; misinformation about the past, including denial of facts of genocide; and censorship of historical works. The report, proclaiming adherence to this approach, substantially enlarges the list of “crimes against history,” interpreting them not so much in the moral as the legal sense. The authors add to the list of “crimes against history” the adoption of memorial laws and other legislation that restricts the freedom of independent mnemonic actors or individual utterances on historical topics; the setting up of state-sponsored bogus NGOs whose activities are focused on problems of historical memory; the course toward creating a single history textbook in which the USSR’s entry into the Second World War is dated June 22, 1941; the restriction of access to archive materials; the toughening of restrictions on the holding of commemorative events; and the lack of legal defense and material and/or symbolic compensation for victims of Soviet-era repressions and members of their families [9, p. 4]. The report is fundamentally ambiguous regarding the grounds for criminalization: Are these acts criminal as such (and then their condemnation should be universal) or are they criminal because they emanate from the Russian state?

The FIDH report illustrates the sharpening of the mnemonic struggle involving various actors in and outside Russia, and the resonance of this struggle with the growing international crisis. These circumstances should be borne in mind when considering the decision of the RF judiciary to shut down International Memorial and the Memorial human rights center as legal entities (January 29, 2021). The decision was undoubtedly a watershed in the politics of memory. Predictably, it met with international condemnation on the official level and triggered a chain reaction in transnational civil society networks into which Memorial is deeply integrated. The decision obviously meant that the earlier listing of Memorial as a foreign agent had weakened its position, limited its possibilities within the country (especially at the regional level), but did not remove it from the field of mnemonic struggle and did not even force it to give up the role of an actor in discussions on significant general political issues. However, powerful support of Memorial outside Russia has ceased to play its former role now that international dialogue on historical problems has been blocked.

The latter became abundantly clear after the start of the SMO. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Memorial in 2022 can no longer lead to a softening of the tough line toward that actor. On the contrary, being interpreted by the Russian “vertical power structure” as yet another element of the West’s massive information and psychological campaign after the start of the SMO,5 it will become one more argument justifying the removal of Memorial from the arena of mnemonic and domestic political struggle.

Finally, the start of the SMO brought almost kaleidoscopic change to the configuration of mnemonic actors, many of whom, representing, broadly, the liberal ideological spectrum, were labeled foreign agents and extremist organizations; some media outlets and NGOs practically stopped functioning in Russia, and many natural persons, including “opinion leaders,” left Russia. After relocation (the current euphemism for emigration), many of these actors try to use the potential of network media to get their views on past and present events across to the Russian audience. However, in addition to the effect of absence, such close intertwining of narratives about the past and present results in the target audience reacting mainly by agreeing or disagreeing with the defeatist position.

Politics of Memory on New Territories

The intensity of the politics of memory at the federal level showed no sign of diminishing after the start of the SMO in Ukraine. Indeed, new modalities were added to it.

First of all, the local politics of memory of the Donetsk People Republic   (DPR) and Lugansk People Republic (LPR) (even before their inclusion in the RF) gave rise to some collisions with the federal politics of memory. This was due to the heterogeneous and multi-layered nature of the political-ideological and historical justification of secession from Ukraine and the formation of the statehood of these republics, their orientation toward joining the RF. In addition to the basic anti-Maidan theses, at least two narratives can be identified that formed a kind of ideational polyphony of “the Russian spring” of 2014 (and later until 2022):

– The narrative about the special identity of the Donbass reflecting the multi-ethnic character of the predominantly Russian-speaking population; the development of the region as part of the Russian Empire outside the political and administrative link with the “Little Russia” [Malorossiya] gubernias; the experience of statehood after the 1917 revolutions (Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic) alternative to the forms of statehood around which the myth of an independent Ukraine was formed; the notion of the labor and military exploits of the people of the Donbass during the 1930s industrialization, the Great Patriotic War, and the post-war rehabilitation period.

– The rhetoric about Novorossiya (New Russia) justifying the irredentist aspirations of some political forces and part of the population of southeastern Ukraine through a hybrid ideology of opposing both the West and radical Ukrainian nationalism and supporting Soviet-style social justice, variants of Russian nationalism, conservative values, and the memory of the pre- and post-revolutionary history of the region as an inseparable part of a great whole (Russian Empire/USSR) [3].

During the several years of the existence of the DPR and LPR as unrecognized state entities depending on Russian support, various components of this ideological mix at times came to the fore and receded, largely (but not solely) due to changes in Moscow’s assessment of the chances of implementing the Minsk-2 agreements and the impact on Ukrainian politics. As a result, the components reflecting the Soviet experience and at the same time making the DPR and LPR perceptive of the politics of memory and identity of modern Russia proved to be more enduring and applicable to the construction of the identity of these unrecognized republics. In general, this version of constructing identity (formed in the DPR and LPR and also in the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldovan Republic) is described in the literature as “separatist internationalism” [31]. Direct reference to the statehood of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic; marked reverence of the memory of its prominent leaders and personalities of the Soviet era and heroes of the Great Patriotic War; emphasis on the contrast between the internationalist and ethno-nationalist politics of memory and identity of Ukraine; reliance on polyethnicity along with the recognition of the key role of the Russian language in cementing the macro-political community and positioning it as part of “the Russian world” – all these are the main elements of the identity politics of the DPR and LPR. For all the importance of historical and cultural ties with greater Russia, the dominant political motive for the local authorities is rejection of the ideology, narratives, and practices of post-Maidan Ukraine. Through this lens, Ukraine under Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky is seen not just as a “significant other” but as a constituting enemy daily posing a threat to the life and security of the people of the unrecognized republics – an enemy that denies their right to choose their future or even the right to broad autonomy under Minsk-2. The new politics of memory that is being formed puts front and center the images of innocent victims (Alley of Angels in Donetsk), and the veterans of the hostilities of 2014-2015 are seen as direct heirs to the anti-fascist struggle of 1941-1945. It can be said that the quintessence of the state policy of the DPR and LPR before the start of the SMO is not so much pro-Novorossiya as anti-Ukraine. The latter, though, applies not to Ukrainians as an ethnic group (in view of the considerable share of Ukrainians in the population and the leadership of the DPR/LPR) but to Ukraine as an ethno-nationalist, pro-Western, and anti-Russian project of nation building.

It must be stressed once again that the politics of identity and memory in the DPR/LPR between 2014 and 2022 was not an internally homogeneous entity but a mix in which there were different layers and traces of changes of the political thinking in Moscow, the most striking example being the quick transition from glorifying Igor Strelkov (Girkin) as leader of the armed resistance to the Kiev regime and head of the defence of Slavyansk to his marginalization in the Russian media; another is the short-lived initiative of the former head of the DPR Aleksandr Zakharchenko to create Malorossiya (Little Russia), and manifestations of ideological struggle (for example, the more radical anti-Ukrainianism of Pavel Gubarev, hero of the Russian Spring). All the while, the general thrust of the DPR and LPR authorities’ efforts in terms of introducing new holidays and commemorative dates, the glorification of heroes of the struggle against the forces of the post-Maidan regime in Kiev and victims of hostilities, and the writing of history textbooks was aimed at building a narrative and strengthening an identity practically incompatible with the narratives and identity that prevailed in Ukraine after 2014 [1]. But in terms of the socio-political state of society, in the Donbass, the situation remained uncertain, because there was growing disappointment with the policies of Moscow and the authorities of the republics, increasing apathy, and a readiness to accept any order as long as it is stable and guarantees peaceful life [27, pp. 217-282]. Characterizing the sentiments of large parts of the population of the LDPR at the turn of the 2020s, researchers from the RAS Southern Scientific Center, proceeding from sociological surveys and – ethno-linguistically – from narratives of network communication, thus sum up their analysis:

Russia is seen as a cruel mother who has abandoned her children; it is loved, anxiously awaited, and fiercely hated for this. That is why appeals to Moscow vary over a wide emotional spectrum, from expressing love and gratitude to various claims, grave suspicions, and calling a curse on those who do not understand how overstretched is the patience of Donbass residents [30, p. 84].

In light of the events of 2022, the significance of the Donbass in Russia’s politics of memory and identity increased noticeably. This is due not only due to the growing geopolitical tensions around Ukraine, but also to Russia’s reaction to the behavior of Ukrainian mnemonic actors who can arguably be seen as an example of the mnemonic security dilemma [7]. The position of DPR/LPR leaders and their representatives was widely covered in the Russian media (especially on political talk shows on federal channels where Ukrainian or related problems have been discussed on a daily basis). The perception of the situation in the Donbass republics was also changing: from awareness of the largely instrumental character of the state projects of the DPR/LPR to awareness of the humanitarian dimension, including moral responsibility for the fact that after the signing of Minsk-2, hundreds of thousands of people are living in a front line zone or are refugees. The start of the mass campaign to grant Russian citizenship to inhabitants of the then-unrecognized republics hastened the re-definition of the Donbass situation as a tragedy in which Russian society is directly involved (or at least is obliged to stand in solidarity with its new fellow citizens). Paradoxically, in the perception of the Donbass as a gaping wound in the body of “their” state, a clear rapprochement began between significant parts of society in Russia and Ukraine (while assessments are diametrically opposite). While for Ukraine, “Russian aggression” and “Donbass separatism” were powerful accelerators of nation-building in the context of an unsettled conflict and preparation for a new war, for Russia, the fate of Donbass accelerated, though at much slower speed, significant shifts in the ideation sphere and domestic politics. The range of ideas aired before 2014, chiefly by members of the Izborsky Club, became almost the information mainstream by the start of the 2020s. To be sure, these changes cannot be attributed solely to the Donbass factor, but it certainly contributed to the corresponding processes, adding to the internal drivers of regime transformation.

After the start of the SMO, all acts of symbolic policy, monument propaganda, and politics of memory on the territories that became part of the RF after the referendums of September 23-27, 2020, reverberated nationwide in Russia. Particular attention was drawn by the efforts of the new local authorities aimed at reversing the post-Maidan “Leninfall,” the mass removal of monuments to Lenin [26]. Within weeks after Russian troops moved in, monuments to Lenin were restored in Genichesk, Melitopol, Novaya Kakhovka, Volodarskoye; and decisions on canceling the renamings of cities, villages, streets, and squares after 2014 triggered a wave of toponymical re-Sovietization. Apparently, the monuments were restored so quickly because the sculptures had not been destroyed, the damage to them was not critical, and the new authorities knew where they were stored. There are known instances of Soviet monumental heritage being cleverly disguised – for example, the monument to Vasily Chapayev in the village of Chkalovo, Zaporozhye Province. According to a report of the Gazeta Pravda telegram channel:

“[W]hen Ukraine was swept by so-called de-communization, inhabitants of the village of Chkalovo decided to save the monument to Chapayev, the village’s namesake, from the vicious hands of the heirs of Bandera. Collective farmers affixed a plaque stating that the statue was that of the founder of the collective farm. Indeed, Pavel Ivanovich Gavrilov had a mustache like Chapayev. Thus, when a commission of de-communizers came, the sculpture evoked no reaction, and Chapayev remained intact” [42].

As a result, when the region came under Russia’s control, the activists of the Zaporozhye Province CPRF committee had merely to change the plaque.

Decisions to dismantle monuments reflecting the Ukrainian nationalist mythology were strategically more important. Below are several acts aimed at eradicating this kind of memorial heritage:

– dismantling the monument to victims of Holodomor and political repressions in Mariupol (erected as early as 2004);

– dismantling the monument to the “liberator-warriors” of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the shape of the Ukrainian national emblem (erected in 2020) in Mariupol and installing a monument to Alexander Nevsky in its place (October13, 2022);

– dismantling the monument to the “Heavenly Hundred” in Kherson (a flagstaff on the pediment of the monument to Lenin destroyed in 2014);

– dismantling the monument to Ukrainian border guards in Kherson.

Finally, mention should be made of the clearly proactive politics of memory initiative of the Russian Military-Historical Society in erecting monuments to Pavel Sudoplatov in Donetsk and Melitopol, where this legendary Soviet secret agent was born, and naming in his honor a volunteer battalion formed in Zaporozhye Province and a street in Melitopol that from 2016 to 2022 bore the name of Dmitry Dontsov, the theoretician of Ukrainian integral nationalism. Glorification of Sudoplatov was obviously prompted by the fact that symbolically the mastermind of the liquidation of Evgen Konovalets and Roman Shukhevich is a radical antithesis of members of the Ukrainian nationalist pantheon.

As a native of Melitopol, Sudoplatov embodies the staunch struggle of the region’s inhabitants against fascism and its Ukrainian accomplices. According to Yuri Nikiforov, a member of the RMHS scientific council, in the context of the SMO, it is particularly relevant that the “intelligence and counter-intelligence units headed by Sudoplatov aimed not only to physically eliminate the enemies but to neutralize hostile, including Bandera’s, ideology” [37]. Glorification of Sudoplatov on a nationwide scale reinforces the trend marked by a change of assessments of the methods and actions of other prominent representatives of the Stalin repressive apparatus (including Lavrentiy Beria), when the main criterion is effective contribution to the strengthening of the might and geopolitical influence of the Soviet state.

On the whole, actions in the realm of the politics of symbols and memory after the start of the SMO are not remarkable for their systemic coherence, but they do reveal certain trends – first and foremost, the resolute rejection of the Ukrainian politics of memory and the politics of symbols of the post-Maidan period, and the virtual return to the position of nonrecognition of their legitimacy (even though Moscow recognized the election of the Ukrainian president in May 2014 and the results of all subsequent electoral procedures in that country). The restoration of Soviet place names and several objects of monumental Leniniana is above all a reaction to the mass removal of monuments to Lenin as a symbolic break with Russia and the Soviet past. External re-Sovietization was much less addressed to groups of the local population who are nostalgic for the stability and relative comfort of the later Soviet era. At the same time, the restoration of monuments to Lenin was not and could not have been an act aimed at uniting all SMO supporters, among whom are many who are critical of the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and do not associate the image of a desired future with the Soviet experience. In any case, it is highly unlikely that these acts were a hidden polemic with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who repeatedly condemned the Bolsheviks’ state-building policy and their contribution to the formation of the territory of the future “independent” Ukraine.

The dismantling of the Mariupol monument to victims of the Holodomor and political repressions erected as part of President Viktor Yushchenko’s politics of memory focused on the interpretation of the 1930s famine as an act of genocide aimed largely against ethnic Ukrainians [14], is part of a resolute struggle against this basic myth of Ukrainian ethno-nationalism. The fact that in 2022 the European Parliament and the parliaments of the Czech Republic, Brazil, Romania, Ireland, Moldova, and Germany, in a gesture of support for the Kiev regime, passed resolutions recognizing the Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people highlights the need for a clear-cut alternative articulation of the interpretation of the 1930s famine also at the level of the politics of symbols. Otherwise, accusations of an attempt to deny the 1930s tragedies will recur regularly.6

The repertoire of Russia’s politics of symbols and memory of recent years was actively used in the run-up to the referendums of September 23-27, 2022, on the incorporation of Zaporozhye and Kherson Provinces into Russia (there was no need to resort to these tools in the case of the DPR/LPR which have been in a de facto state of war against Kiev since 2014). In the province center, on the right bank of the Dnepr River, a number of “Kherson: A City with Russian History” billboards were inevitably desecrated and destroyed after the withdrawal of the Russian Army from that area on November 11, 2022. Therefore, during the evacuations preceding the troop withdrawal, several monuments reminding of Kherson’s link with the imperial and Soviet past (monuments to Aleksandr Suvorov, Fyodor Ushakov, Grigory Potemkin, Vasily Margelov) and the remains of Prince Potemkin, resting at the St. Catherine Church, were removed and taken to a safe place. Considering the brutalization and degradation of moral values connected with the hostilities, the decision was absolutely justified, because the Kiev authorities consider eliminating the Russian (as well as Soviet) historical-cultural and symbolic heritage a key part of their mission. It is worth recalling that Potemkin’s remains were desecrated in Soviet times in the 1920s (during the period of the “ethnicization” nationalities policy) and again under Nazi occupation, when the desecration was carried out by Ukrainian nationalists [46].

It is conceivable that, given a political decision and information support, the remains and the monument to His Serene Highness Prince Potemkin of Taurus, now in a temporary location, may become important objects of the politics of memory aimed at stressing the historical significance of Novorossiya – in particular, the territories that are Russian under the RF Constitution but controlled by Ukraine. At the same time, these objects, if public access to them is allowed, may be an eloquent reminder of military setbacks during the SMO.

Already in the fall of 2022, steps were taken to integrate the new territories and their major cities into the fabric of the federal politics of memory. There was symbolism in the Russian president’s gesture, on November 15, 2022, to award Mariupol and Melitopol honorary titles of City of Military Glory with the standard expression “for courage, perseverance, and mass heroism displayed by defenders of the city in the struggle for the freedom and independence of the Fatherland” [33; 34]. Although most cities of military glory played a role in the battles of the Great Patriotic War, this expression makes it possible to pay tribute to the military feat of defenders of the fatherland at all times, and in the case of Mariupol and Melitopol, to highlight the continuity between Soviet fighters against Nazism and the participants of the SMO. At the same time, there is reason here to speak about a polemic with the politics of symbols and memory of the regime of Zelensky, who instituted the honorary title of “Hero City of Ukraine” to suggest continuity between the Soviet practice of awarding the title of Hero City in memory of the heroism of cities during the Great Patriotic War and the new practice of glorifying the “rebuff to Russian aggression.” It should be noted that on March 6, Zelensky awarded this title to several cities, including Mariupol, which at the time was surrounded by allied troops; Kherson, which was already under Russian control; and Volnovakha, which was seized by DPR troops five days after the decree was published. It should be added that in 2017, Donetsk was awarded the title of Hero City of the DPR, and Lugansk – Hero City of the LPR.

President Putin by his November 15, 2022, decree awarded Lugansk, Gorlovka, and seven other Russian cities the title of City of Labor Valor [32]. This award has direct associations with events of the Great Patriotic War. Until recently, city and regional administrations sought this title for “their” city, especially in the regions that had been in the rear of the battles of the Great Patriotic War. But Lugansk and Gorlovka from 1941 to 1943 were in the zone of military action and thus have grounds to claim the status of City of Military Glory. Most likely, the decisions concerning Lugansk and Gorlovka were prompted by a desire to write important cities of the new subjects of the Russian Federation into the single politics of memory strategy as quickly as possible.

Despite the internal contradictions of the processes of the spread of the federal politics of symbols and memory to the new territories, there are very legitimate grounds for heeding the voices that predict a special role for the Donbass in the further transformation of the Russian macro-political identity (see, for example [45]). The citizens of the DPR/LPR have collective experience that the majority of Russian citizens currently do not have. If we add the hundreds of thousands of Russians who are now going through the crucible of the SMO, it is clear that we are witnessing the formation of a social cohort whose active representatives will legitimately claim to have their own interpretation of Russia’s past and future, and a chance to translate these ideas into social and political practice.


If we sum up the processes and trends considered above, we find enough grounds to talk about changes in macro-political identity connected, among other things, with the politics of memory and the emergence of a new narrative in the biography of the Russian state and its growing securitization. However, the official historical narrative has not yet been fully formed, whereas the growing domestic risks and geopolitical challenges have prompted the federal authorities to speed up the securitization of historical memory, including the forcible “cleaning up” of the arena of mnemonic struggle. As a result, already during the SMO, the country’s leadership has had to grapple with the task of fleshing out the securitized narrative of Russian history. For example, at a meeting with historians and representatives of traditional religions on November 4, the Day of National Unity, President Putin declared that “it is a matter of honor for the state, society, and of course historians, to defend our true history and our heroes, and improve the quality of our historical education” [47]. A number of instructions issued by the Russian president, the preparation of further amendments to the legislative and normative framework, the development of educational standards and study courses, the improvement of  historical enlightenment efforts, etc. – all this is intended to speed up the process of fleshing out the official historical narrative. At the same time, the federal authorities have launched processes that will expose the main groups of Russian society to a new historical experience. This experience will be the main indicator of the validity of the securitized historical narrative.


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1 Put on the list of Foreign Agent Media Outlets by the RF Ministry of Justice on April 15, 2022.

2 It should be noted that the audience of the film is not monolithic. Analysis of viewers’ comments in social networks carried out by Darya Khlevnyuk and Alisa Maksimova has revealed two narratives: a narrative of trauma caused by civil rights violations during the Stalin era and a narrative of trauma caused by the violation of socioeconomic rights in the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods [17]. The difference between these narratives influences the audience‘s assessment and interpretation of the film.

3 Included on the list of “natural persons – foreign agents” by the RF Justice Ministry on May 6, 2022.

4 The thesis on “historical confidence and confidence in one’s own culture” was introduced by China’s leader Xi Jinping in his report to the XX Congress of the CPC [47].

5 The fact that the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded not only to Memorial but to the Ukrainian NGO Center of Civil Liberties, which was created for the legal defense of participants in the Euro-Maidan and, after the start of the SMO, has been documenting Russian “war crimes,” and to Belorussian rights activist Ales Belyatsky, who is an active opponent of the Lukashenko regime, shows that the Nobel Committee decision was politically motivated.

6 See, for example, the material of the publication performing the functions of a foreign agent in the RF [41].

7 Put on the list of Foreign Agent Media Outlets by the RF Ministry of Justice on April 23, 2021.