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How the world’s dictators are rewriting the past in order to control the future

Authoritarian leaders in Russia, China and North Korea are using distorted historical narratives to justify wars and control citizens.

By Katie Stallard

Thick black smoke billowed up into the early summer sky. The dull thud of distant explosions echoed around me. There was an armoured personnel carrier on fire in the middle of the street ahead. “We have a war in our city,” said an old woman who had stopped to look at the burning vehicle. “It’s like Stalingrad.”

We were in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol in May 2014. Ukraine’s corrupt, autocratic president Viktor Yanukovych had fled to Russia three months earlier after a long winter of street protests in Kyiv, which the Kremlin falsely claimed had been orchestrated by the West. In response, Vladimir Putin had annexed Crimea and begun arming separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. They had seized control of government offices in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and declared them the capitals of two new “people’s republics” that rejected Kyiv’s authority. Control of Mariupol seemed to be shifting back and forth between the Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian loyalists on an almost daily basis. 

These were the early days of a war that would claim more than 13,000 lives over the next eight years. It would also provide Putin with the pretext to launch his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. In 2014 the Russian president was already peddling the lie that innocent civilians were under attack, insisting that “neo-Nazis” had seized control of the Ukrainian government in a coup with the help of their Western backers – chief among them, of course, the US. “People wearing armbands with something resembling swastikas” were patrolling the streets, Putin said in March 2014, while his ambassador to the United Nations told a Security Council meeting that the predominantly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine had been plunged into “open terror”. 

Russian state television, where most of Putin’s citizens get their news, carried endless reports about the “fascist junta” that had supposedly taken power in Kyiv and the terrible atrocities they were said to be carrying out against women and children in eastern Ukraine. There were claims that the new government was building a “fascist concentration camp”. In one particularly monstrous example, in July 2014, Russia’s most popular television network reported that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a three-year-old boy; it was a complete fabrication. 

Though it is tempting to dismiss Putin’s current claims that he is now waging a military campaign to “denazify” Ukraine as plainly ludicrous, he is drawing on a well-worn story his propagandists have been pushing in earnest for the last eight years. He is also invoking a core narrative that he and his fellow authoritarian strongmen Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un have been cultivating for even longer, as they insist that they are defending their country from foreign enemies. All three of these autocrats call on a distorted memory of past wars in order to support their current actions, with a particular focus in Putin’s case on the Second World War, or as it is known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic chaos reigned throughout the rest of the decade. When Putin became acting president in December 1999 he vowed to put an end to the country’s humiliation and reclaim Russia’s rightful status as a great and respected global power. His predecessor Boris Yeltsin had tried and failed to find a new national idea to unite the country, but Putin quickly identified the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany as a powerful symbol that he could rally popular support behind. It was one of the few achievements in the country’s recent history that inspired real emotion and national pride. Over the past two decades, Putin has increased patriotic education in Russian schools to immerse children in the Kremlin’s version of history and ramped up commemoration of the war to extraordinary heights, reintroducing bombastic military parades through Moscow’s Red Square on 9 May – the anniversary of the end of the war, or Victory Day.

The anniversary hasn’t always been celebrated like this. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin cancelled the Victory Day holiday in 1947 and demoted his most famous wartime commanders, concerned that they might become popular figures in their own right and a threat to his leadership. It was only in 1965 that Leonid Brezhnev reintroduced it and built up what has been called the “cult of the Great Patriotic War” to shore up his own support. But that triumphalism had faded with the decline of the Soviet empire. It was not until Putin came to power at the turn of the millennium that the memory of the war was resurrected, as he made it the founding myth of his regime, and what would become tantamount to a national religion. 

Putin was only interested in remembering the aspects of the war that suited his needs, however, such as the heroism of the Red Army’s troops, rather than the mass rapes they committed, or Stalin’s murderous purges and his 1939 pact with Hitler to divide up eastern Europe. Putin has passed new laws to protect the official account from scrutiny and has persecuted historians – and in 2021 he shut down the Soviet-era Memorial organisation, which was founded in the late 1980s to preserve the memory of the USSR’s atrocities. According to Putin’s version of history, Russia is the hero country that saved the world from Nazism, just as he insists it is doing now in Ukraine. The world on Russian television is divided into good and evil, us and them, the patriots who stand with Putin and the traitors who support the fascists who murder children in Ukraine.  

This is the twisted history Putin was invoking when he addressed the nation from the Kremlin in the early hours of 24 February 2022 and announced the start of his “special military operation” to bring about the “denazification” of Ukraine. And, so far, his strategy seems to be working. Despite the economic pain international sanctions have wrought, and the significant casualties and tactical defeats the Russian military has suffered, Putin’s approval rating has soared to 83 per cent since the start of the war, up from 69 per cent in January. While accurate polling is challenging in Russia’s increasingly authoritarian system, independent studies have shown that a majority of Russians support the war. 

Certainly, the Russian soldiers who seized the Ukrainian town of Melitopol in April appeared to believe the lies they had been fed. The town’s mayor, who was briefly held hostage, said the Russians told him they had come to “free Ukraine from Nazis”. After Putin declared the “liberation” of Mariupol later that month, Russian state television claimed that Russian forces had uncovered a “neo-Nazi base” in the city, with direct links to the US. The longer this conflict goes on, and the greater the Russian losses, the more Putin will intensify his information war, insisting that the Russians are the heroes of this story – like their predecessors during the war against Hitler – even as his forces are raping, torturing and murdering civilians.

Putin is not the only contemporary autocrat manipulating history to serve the needs of his regime. The leaders of China and North Korea – Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un – similarly exploit the memory of past wars to strengthen support for their rule and to explain why they must be in power. Their version of history also justifies why they must build up their military strength, as they insist that they too are defending their nations from enemies abroad. 

Xi and Putin reportedly first bonded at an Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit in 2013, when they stayed up late toasting each other with vodka and exchanging memories of their families’ experiences during the Second World War. Evidently, both men also share an understanding of the importance of keeping a tight grip on the conflict’s historical narrative and making “the past serve the present” as Mao Zedong once urged. Xi had witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a mid-ranking official in the south-eastern province of Fujian and identified the governing party’s failure to prevent attacks on its version of history, or “historical nihilism” as he called it, as a significant factor in the Soviet demise. “Their ideals and convictions wavered,” he concluded in a private speech to party officials in December 2012, less than a month after becoming the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s general secretary. “In the end, nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.” He was determined not to make the same mistakes.

The following spring, a secret document circulated among senior officials warning that the party faced seven political “perils” that could threaten its hold on power. These included attempts to promote “Western constitutional democracy” and “historical nihilism”, which meant denying the party’s version of history. Officials were urged to wage a “perpetual, complex and excruciating” struggle against these threats as the new leader made clear that the past was no longer up for debate.

Like Putin, Xi has passed new laws that make it a criminal offence to “slander” the country’s war heroes, and Chinese citizens have gone to prison for challenging the official narrative of the wartime past. According to that account, China suffered a “century of humiliation” before the CCP came to power, beginning with the Opium Wars of the 19th century and culminating in the Japanese invasion at the dawn of the Second World War. In reality, it was the rival Kuomintang  forces that did most of the fighting and dying in that war,  yet Xi insists the CCP played a crucial role in mobilising the masses and masterminding the resistance to Japan. The result was the “first complete victory” in that long century of humiliation and the beginning of China’s subsequent rise. 

[See also: China doesn’t just want to be part of the global order – it wants to shape it]

Like Putin, Xi has elevated the memory of the war since coming to power, introducing new memorial days and holding China’s first ever Victory Day military parade in 2015, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. (The Russian president attended as a guest of honour.) Xi has almost doubled the official length of the war, adding six years to its duration so that it is now held to begin in 1931, not 1937. There is a credible historical case to be made for this change, which incorporates what had previously been treated as a separate regional conflict into the broader, nationwide war. But it is hard to ignore the political function it serves in extending the span of the fighting to include the earlier years, when the CCP’s forces were more actively involved. 

As in Russia, the memory of the war stirs genuine emotion in China, where as many as 20 million people were killed. But here, too, the regime draws on the war as a potent political tool. It reminds the population of the foreign enemies they have confronted in the past, and the need to stand firm – behind the party – against the grave threats China faces now, such as the intensifying rivalry with the US, and the challenges to its territorial claims in Taiwan and the South China Sea. 

Nowhere does the wartime past play a more important role in contemporary politics than in North Korea, where the Kim regime’s version of history is an inescapable part of daily life. While Putin and Xi have manipulated the memory of the last century’s wars to suit their needs, the Kim dynasty has gone much further, inventing battles and stunning victories that did not take place. North Korean citizens are told that the current leader’s grandfather Kim Il Sung “liberated” the country from Japanese colonial rule at the end of the war in 1945. He then went on to secure a “great victory” over the US in the Korean War in 1953, which the US and South Korea are said to have started. In fact, the first Kim was not even on the Korean peninsula in 1945, let alone leading the war against Japan. It was the North that invaded the South at the start of the Korean War in 1950, which culminated in an armistice three years later, but has never officially come to an end. 

These facts have not stopped the Kims building huge monuments to commemorate their fiction, such as the “Arch of Triumph” in Pyongyang, which is adorned with the date “1945” in honour of Kim’s supposed victory over Japan. An official there once assured me that it was an exact replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only bigger. There is an enormous museum dedicated to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, as the Korean War is known in North Korea, which recounts the regime’s largely false history of the conflict over 100,000 square metres – more than one million square feet. Shortly after coming to power in 2011, the dynasty’s third leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered the entire complex to be rebuilt and significantly expanded. He was said to have personally supervised the project, making at least a dozen visits to the construction site as the museum was refurbished at inordinate cost. 

North Korea did not have the money to spare. In 2013, the same year Kim was rebuilding the war museum, the United Nations found that two thirds of his citizens – 16 million people – regularly lacked enough food to meet their daily needs. But preserving the regime’s version of history had clearly been identified as a priority. 

History goes right to the heart of the Kim dynasty’s claim to power. For more than 70 years, successive Kims have maintained the fiction that they are defending North Korea against its foreign enemies, just as the first leader did. They insist that this is why they must devote their precious resources to developing ever more powerful weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the US, and the “treasured sword” of their nuclear arsenal. Presiding over a procession of the country’s newest firepower in Pyongyang on 25 April, Kim Jong Un warned that the country must be prepared for a long confrontation with its enemies and vowed to develop nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed”. 

Russia, China and North Korea consistently top lists of threats to US and European security. They have nuclear weapons, extensive cyber capabilities and some of the largest standing armies in the world. And yet the stories those in power tell their own people are about how they are threatened, how their enemies (chief among them the US) want to keep them down and thwart their peaceful rise. They use the wars of the last century to remind their citizens how they struggled and prevailed against foreign aggression then, and why they must have strong leaders and the strength to defend their interests again now. 

The temptation to exploit history in this manner and appeal to a halcyon, mythical version of the past is hardly unique to autocrats. But in these three states, the official version of history is becoming the only version of history, and it is getting harder and more dangerous to push back. This matters far beyond their own borders because while the stories these regimes tell about the past are distorted and highly selective – and in North Korea’s case partly made up – the weapons systems they have developed, and the territorial claims and historical grievances they have nurtured are real. As Putin is currently demonstrating in Ukraine, these warped historical narratives can be used to start wars and murder innocent civilians, even as he claims that he is liberating them.

Katie Stallard is the author of “Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea” (Oxford University Press)

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future