Though he was inaugurated only weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin already faces serious challenges to his administration. Following his March election, in which fraud was alleged by numerous observers, the inauguration itself was clouded by street protests in which hundreds were detained. And in an extensive new survey of Russian voters, the Center For Strategic Studies in Moscow now finds that public support for Putin’s government is eroding steadily, raising the possibility of a political crisis before he finishes his six-year term. If the report is accurate, then the Kremlin is going to have to find new ways to contain the discontent, especially if the economy starts to decline because of the downturn in Europe and lower oil prices.
Judging from a controversial cabinet appointment that Putin made last week, one way the Kremlin may try to combat growing opposition is to reinvigorate propaganda in the area of history—a traditional Soviet weapon. The person running this propaganda machine will be the new Minister of Culture, 41-year-old Vladimir Medinsky, who some Russian commentators have already dubbed the Russian Goebbels.
Medinsky, who is well spoken, smooth, and projects a professorial air, is certain to take a more activist role than his predecessor as Minister of Culture, Aleksander Avdeev, a former diplomat, who was expelled from France in 1983 for spying. (The 2009 movie Farewell was based on this episode.) Medinsky’s portfolio includes overseeing state policy regarding arts, film, cultural heritage, archives, libraries, and museums. But instilling patriotism and nationalism among the Russian people, by sponsoring the rewriting of Russia’s history, will doubtless be on the top of his list.
An ardent Kremlin loyalist, Medinsky supported Putin actively in his 2004 presidential campaign as well as in the one this year. Since 2008, he has also been known as the author of a series of best-selling books about Russian history called Myths About Russia, which are designed to instill national pride among the population and debunk the idea (allegedly propagated by Western historians) that Russia’s past has many negative features. Thus, for example, Medinsky asserts that Ivan the Terrible was actually a humane leader and suggests that the notion that Russia has a strong history of anti-Semitism is a gross exaggeration. He also denies that Soviet troops invaded and occupied the Baltic states and Poland during World War II or that vast numbers of Soviet prisoners of war were sent to labor camps when the war ended.
As Medinsky explained in a 2009 interview:
Dirty myths are purposely forged as an instrument of political propaganda or psychological warfare against certain countries. And no other nation in history [except Russia] has endured such prolonged demonization….If we do not squeeze out the poison of dirty myths, they will be passed on, like a baton, to future generations.
Given his strong views, it is not surprising that Medinsky also served on Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidential Commission Against the Falsification of History, set up in 2009 and recently disbanded, apparently because it did not really accomplish anything. In the opinion of British historian Robert Service, the commission’s stated aim—to counter the increasingly “severe, evil and aggressive” distortions of Russia’s past—is “absolute poppycock…History is all about argument. There is no absolute historical truth about anything in history.” (Of course independent Russian organizations like Memorial have talked about historical truth in their struggle to have documents from the Soviet and Russian archives released, but their goal has been simply to open up debates that have been smothered by Russian authorities, who have persistently refused to give scholars access to what they need for objective research.)
To many critics, Medinsky’s appointment means that Putin has begun to view Russian culture as a key field in which he can extend his control over the electorate and buttress his own reputation as a strong leader. Medinsky’s background reinforces this impression because it suggests possible connections with the foreign intelligence branch of the KGB (now known as the SVR), the organization which, in the Soviet era, turned propaganda (or disinformatsia) into a sophisticated political strategy. (Putin, as we know, has built his power base around his former KGB colleagues, although most worked for counterintelligence, now the FSB.)
In 1987, Medinsky became a student at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), then known as a breeding ground, or to coin the phrase of the independent paper Novaya gazeta, an “incubator” for employees of the Foreign Intelligence Service. To be sure, MGIMO has traditionally trained diplomats as well as spies, but the line between the two in the former Soviet Union and Russia has always been thin. The fact that Medinsky studied journalism and English and was posted to the press office of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. from 1991 to 1992 raises the possibility that he was on the foreign intelligence rather than the diplomatic track. Journalism has long been a cover for spying among Russians, as illustrated by the well-known spy-turned-defector Oleg Kalugin and Evgenii Primakov, who was chief of the SVR from 1991 to 1996.
After the Soviet Union was disbanded, Medinsky returned to Russia, where, rather astoundingly—he was only twenty-two—he became chief of the Russian branch of Ya Corporation, a global public relations firm. Six years later, in 1998, Medinsky took a position in the press office of the powerful tax police (who subsequently arrested oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky), but soon moved into politics, getting elected to the State Duma as a member of Putin’s United Russia party in 2003. Since then, he has used his political clout—he has been head of the Duma Committee on Culture—to help establish his success as a nationalist historian.
Ironically, Medinsky’s credentials as an historian were seriously questioned when it emerged early this year that his doctoral dissertation, “The Problem of Objectivity in Elucidating Russian History From the Second Half of the 15th through the 17th Centuries,” which he successfully defended in 2011, was extensively plagiarized. Medinsky has denied the charges, claiming that he simply used general phrases that happened to have been used by others, but a textual analysis posted on a Russian website for historians makes it clear that the plagiarism was substantial.
But then, of course, Medinsky’s mentor, Vladimir Putin, also lifted chunks of his doctoral thesis directly from other sources. According to Clifford Gaddy at the Brookings Institute, several pages of Putin’s dissertation, “The Strategic Planning of Regional Resources Under the Formation of Market Relations,” which he completed at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute in 1997, were copied directly from the Russian translation of a 1978 business textbook written by two American professors. (It is common practice in Russia for officials to pay researchers to ghost-write their dissertations, so Putin and Medinsky might not have been aware of the plagiarism. But this of course puts them in even worse light. )
It is worth noting that Putin’s thesis sponsor, the rector of the Mining Institute, Vladimir Litvinenko, who also ran Putin’s recent reelection campaign in St. Petersburg, has become a very wealthy man through his ties to the Kremlin. He owns five per cent of the stocks of Russia’s largest producer of phosphate-based fertilizers, Phosagro (which used to be owned in part by Khodorkovsky). The shares are reportedly worth $260 million.
Why is it so important for the Russian regime to actively promote its version of history, instead of opening up its archives and encouraging honest scholarship? Because, as Service has observed, controlling history, for the Kremlin, is a means of controlling the present: “a classic George Orwell scenario.” Despite Putin’s disregard for scholarly standards in his own case, Gaddy and a colleague from Brookings have also pointed out that:
For Putin, the interpretation and reinterpretation of history is a crucial matter… He appreciates the power of ‘useful history,’ the application of history as a policy tool, as a social and political organizing force that can help shape group identities and foster coalitions.
It remains unclear how Medinsky will attempt to assert himself further into Russia’s cultural life by promoting patriotism and nationalism in films and other art forms. There is also the possibility that his appointment will be part of a broader Kremlin effort to use its law enforcement capabilities to crack down on dissent by writers and artists, who have been playing an active part in the opposition movement, or even begin censorship of the Internet, which is probably a more serious threat.
But the new Minister of Culture could be fighting an uphill battle if he expects to make a real difference in how people feel about their country and the way it is run by imposing the Kremlin’s view of history on them. Judging from the polls and from the above-mentioned report, most Russians are much more interested in having their economic and social needs met than in being made proud of their history. And, as plans for another “march of millions” against Putin on June 12 move forward, it seems clear that they are increasingly demanding the right to have a say in politics. In other words, do the Russian people really care whether or not Ivan the Terrible was a nice guy?