Constructing Memory Alliances
September 23, 2020
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
Russian state, media, and diplomatic actors are exporting a militaristic conception of memory to bolster its influence abroad—and undermine that of its rivals. Through media and diplomatic institutions, Russia is using its levers of influence and public diplomacy to create memory alliances with target foreign audiences.1 “Memory alliances” can be defined as informal or formal associations formed on the basis of a shared narrative of the past. This more constructive approach to history differentiates memory alliances from memory wars, a staple tactic in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, as seen in the recent dispute with the Czech Republic over the removal of the Marshall Konev statue or the diplomatic spat with Poland in 2019 over who started World War II. If memory wars see Russia (and other countries) instrumentalize history to sow enmity, then memory alliances are part of constructing partnerships and soft power, or at least that is how it appears at first.
Appearances, as ever, can be deceptive: while Russia does use this more constructive approach to history and memory to improving its image, it often does so while simultaneously using that same history to fuel internal divisions and polarizing voices in target countries. In promoting certain historical episodes (World War II, the Yugoslav Wars, Soviet achievements), the aim is not only to bolster Russia’s image but also to undermine that of geopolitical rivals by contrasting their historical actions with Russia’s. Moreover, the historical narratives selected ostensibly as points of unity are often adapted to amplify and encourage extremist and polarizing voices in the target countries, a tactic seen in various analyses of Russian influence operations. Serbia, a country where polls show a majority have positive views of Russia and Putin but where Russia must tussle for influence with the European Union and the United States, provides an illustrative case study of Russian memory alliance promotion and construction.
The Domestic Context
While Russia has begun to instrumentalize history in service of its foreign policy aims, this tactic originated at home. Since 2012, the Russian government has invested heavily in promoting history as the unifying feature of Russian identity around which its various nationalities could unite, while still reserving a leadership role for ethnic Russians. Russian state-aligned media and politicians presented those who disagreed with their view as traitors and foreign agents, rendering history a geopolitical struggle. Memory was militarized, with journalists and politicians employing bellicose language to describe the formation of "brigades" that would battle alleged falsifiers of history.
This militarization of historical interpretation also featured in the Russian information warfare doctrine released at the end of December 2016. The doctrine explicitly connected supposed historical falsifications of Russian military history with current defense policy, describing as its main aim:
The neutralization of hostile activities in the information and psychological realms, including those aimed at tearing apart the historical foundations and patriotic traditions linked to defending the Fatherland.
The text implied that an assault on the Russian state’s historical narrative was an assault on the very foundations of the nation. In this way, Russian politicians converted dissent from the official historical line into an existential threat. In his 2015 address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin cited Russian citizens’ willingness to defend their “national interests, their history,” as if they were the same thing. Moreover, the government spent billions of rubles creating new historical initiatives, military history clubs, camps, and festivals focused particularly on recreating military and patriotic history. The purpose was to provide a sanitized version of history around which everyone could unify, bolstering patriotism while also heightening anti-Western sentiment by recalling past conflicts.
Having had success with these tactics at home, Russia has begun to export elements of this approach as part of the more assertive foreign policy that emerged during Vladimir Putin’s third presential term. The tactics used to promote memory alliances are similar to the domestic uses of history described above and involve using selective history to bolster Russia’s image (often by emphasizing shared history or alliances), as well as to undermine opponents. However, if in Russia the narrative is broadly unifying, Russia’s memory alliances abroad have aimed to inflame existing divisions and polarization. This tactic has found some success in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), where Russia has a shared history with and an aggressive compatriot policy in many countries. But Serbia provides a different type of case study of how Russia creates memory alliances with target audiences who are not compatriots and do not form part of the former Soviet Union.
How to (try to) build a memory alliance
In Serbia, Russia’s promotion of memory alliances has leaned heavily on Russian state-affiliated media and diplomatic channels. Memory alliance narratives can be identified as references to a historical event that presents either the target audience or Russia in a positive light as heroes or victims and which is targeted at a Serbian audience, rather than Russian expats. A content analysis of 51 YouTube videos produced by Sputnik (the Serbian language arm of the Russian state-funded news agency) and analyzed on July 28, 2020 shows that 27 of them included a historical narrative that stressed Russo-Serbian unity by emphasizing that Russia supported prominent Serbian interpretations of history (e.g., of Kosovo) or by promoting a heroic episode of Russian history, or way of commemorating this, to Serbian audiences. The scale of findings was similar for the Facebook account for the Russian embassy in Serbia, where 21 out of the 49 posts in June used history to promote Russo-Serbian cooperation. Evidently, memory alliance construction is a prominent and multichannel tactic in the Kremlin’s influence operations tool kit in Serbia.
Two historical events surfaced repeatedly and were used to promote simple messages conducive to Russo-Serbian memory alliances:
Historical event: the Yugoslav wars, especially the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and the Kosovo crisis
Message 1: Russia supported Serbia/Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
Message 2: Europe and the United States attacked Serbia during the 1990s.
Historical event: World War II, Soviet liberation of parts of Serbia
Message 1: The USSR—led by Russia—liberated Belgrade and heroically defeated the Nazis.
Message 2: Serbia also fought bravely, and Russia respects and defends the memory of this bravery.
Message 3: European countries deliberately ignore Serbia’s suffering in WWII, especially at the hands of the Nazi-supporting Croatian Ustaše government.
These two tragic and emotional events were selected to bolster Russia’s image and denigrate that of the United States and European countries (often specifically Germany)—one front in Russia’s tussle for influence in Serbia with the European Union, with Aleksandar Vučić’s increasingly authoritarian government ostensibly still on a pathway to EU membership.
Russian references to the history of the Yugoslav wars and NATO bombing play on existing cleavages by employing a revisionist and highly selective narrative popular among Serbian nationalists and apologists for the Bosnian Serb war criminals. This version of history downplays Serb atrocities or ignores them entirely, instead placing the suffering of Serbs center stage but removing any context. In this way, the Russian message feeds into a nationalist narrative that crimes against Serbs go unpunished or are deliberately ignored, while Serbs are punished for ostensibly lesser or concocted crimes against Bosniaks or Croats. Russian sources focus heavily on Operation Storm, a NATO-backed Croat offensive to ethnically cleanse Croatian regions of Serbs, as well as the NATO bombing of Serbia in response to its treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The framing of these narratives also builds on existing tendencies in Serbia to conflate the 1990s Yugoslav wars with World War II, especially by claiming that supporters of Croatian independence in the 1990s were merely reincarnated Ustaše fighters planning to restart their 1940s genocidal campaign against Serbs.
Furthermore, Russian state-affiliated actors manipulated and invoked these Serbian cultural memories to bolster Russia’s own image as a potential ally and remind Serbs of those times when Russia’s rivals had attacked them. For example, the message that Russia supported Serbia while NATO (conflated with the European Union and United States) bombed the Serbs was a mainstay in a 78-day series created by Sputnik in 2019 and encompassed videos, interviews, and reportage, including a special section on their website. In a subseries entitled “20 Years after NATO Aggression,” Sputnik described the 1999 bombing of Serbia in highly emotive terms, focusing on injured children and conspiracies as to why NATO bombed Serbia. Another popular video blamed George Soros for U.S. involvement in the Yugoslav wars. At no point was there any mention of NATO’s openly stated justification of the bombing campaign. Language from the series description assured viewers:
We will remember the innocent victims and the heroes, known and unknown. We will show the grimacing faces and bloodcurdling phrases pronounced by NATO commanders and the leaders of countries in the Western alliance. We will dissect NATO crimes from 1999 from all angles.
This translated quotation typifies the narrative structure of Russian memory alliance promotion in Serbia and elsewhere: an initial emphasis on shared pain and connection through memory of historical victims and heroes quickly morphs into a geopolitical commentary. Similar approaches could be found across various content engaging not only with the 1990s but also World War II.
The embassy’s Facebook content at times advanced similar messages to Sputnik, but on the whole, Russia’s digital diplomacy in Serbia has tended to balance content between a critique of NATO and celebration of Russian history/historical allyship with Serbia. This was evident in posts published on June 16 and 18, 2020 on Facebook that criticized the West for destroying Yugoslavia, attacking Serbia, and ignoring Serb grievances but also firmly underlined Russian support—then and now—for Serbia’s grievances. Rather than accusing NATO of all manner of crimes, this more toned-down approach argues instead that the NATO campaign, Kosovo independence, and various other events related to the 1990s wars were illegal and unjust—a narrative that appeals directly to extremist views in Serbia, including those of nationalists critical of President Vučić for his willingness to compromise on Kosovo, which, if it happened, would reduce Russia’s influence over Serbia as one of the few major powers supporting its claims there. Thus, an important element of Russia’s appeal is in providing succor to these ostensibly unfairly ignored “historical truths” in Serbia.
A similar message is reproduced through Ruski dom (the Belgrade branch of Rossotrudnichestvo, Russia’s main cultural organization abroad, which has been accused of conducting illicit influence operations in Serbia) which emphasizes a general narrative of Russia’s doomed efforts to protect Serbia in the 1990s. This serves to underline the need for a strong Russia which can come to its ally’s assistance. One of the best examples of this was a 2019 event to mark the unveiling of a bust of Evgenii Primakov, former foreign minister of Russia during the 1990s, who famously ordered his Washington-bound flight to be turned around in mid-air when he was alerted onboard to the beginning of NATO’s bombing campaign. That the seemingly inconsequential act of the “U-Turn over the Atlantic” should justify a bust reflects the paucity of Russian support to Serbia, as well as the great efforts being made to find evidence of memory alliances. There was considerable engagement from the Serbian side, with President Vučić, the Serbian prime minister, defense minister, and other politicians all in attendance for the Russkii Dom unveiling. Interestingly, it is Evgenii Primakov’s grandson and namesake who recently took over as head of Rossotrudnichestvo. In an interview he gave soon after taking the post, Primakov’s grandson suggested a rebrand and new name to focus the organization more on improving Russia’s image and soft power beyond the so-called russkii mir, including, presumably, tactics such as these.
Other Rossotrudnichestvo’s events in Serbia relate to World War II. Some of these are commemorative events focused on Russian sacrifice and shared Russo-Serbian remembering. This has involved the export of Russian practices, including the Saint George Ribbon and the Immortal Regiment procession, which have been adopted with enthusiasm by Serbian elites, who wear them during parades. The orange-and-black Saint George Ribbon is now a mainstay of Serbian Victory Day celebrations, despite being a recent implant, and Sputnik has been instrumental in promoting the ribbon, which is described as not only a mark of commemoration but also of Russia and Serbia’s historical alliance. This friendship reaches back into the imperial times, thereby reflecting the ribbon’s roots in the eighteenth century, and was reinvented as a commemorative symbol in 2005. The ribbon’s novelty has allowed it to assume different meanings; for example, in Russia since 2014, it has been used simultaneously to express support for Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, a signification that has not mentioned in promotional materials in Serbia. The Immortal Regiment is another newly invented tradition exported to Serbia and around the world. The regiment is a procession of family members holding portraits of relatives who fought in or contributed to the war effort. The regiment was originally set up as a grassroots organization by three independent journalists in Tomsk in 2012. However, in an interview with the author in August 2018, Sergei Lapenkov, the spokesman and a founding member of the regiment, explained how the movement was taken over in 2015 by United Russia-affiliated politicians who cajoled and bullied regional organizers into joining the new government version. The regiment’s hitherto apolitical approach was dropped, and the movement was subordinated to the Kremlin’s needs and preferences. These invented traditions and their export to Serbia shows once more the relevance of the domestic Russian domestic context to how the government adapts and appropriates historical narratives abroad, in this case through the Kremlin’s energetic appropriation of grassroots and personal memories for political ends.
Target audiences and reach
When all the results are taken together, the World War II and Yugoslav war narratives were used almost equally (54 and 46 percent, respectively). However, when separated according to channel, the Yugoslav narrative was more prominent on Sputnik YouTube (58 percent of all topics), while the World War II narrative was more prominent in the digital and traditional diplomatic channels (over 70 percent in both cases). In part, this would have been linked to differences in audience type. Based on analysis of their profiles, samples of users who engaged with the embassy’s Facebook compared to Sputnik YouTube tended to be older with more conservative views, whereas the latter tended to be younger with a range of left-wing and right-wing views that were highly conspiratorial, anti-American, and anti-establishment. Given the relatively recent nature of the 1990s wars and its continued relevance, the Yugoslav wars narrative is better tailored to younger audiences, who may have less of an emotional connection to World War II. Moreover, this narrative lends itself easily to anti-Americanism in a way that World War II does not.
Most of Rossotrudnichestvo’s initiatives (but not events) are especially targeted at the young. Boris Malagurski, one of Sputnik’s YouTube stars popular with young people, can boast videos on memory alliances with hundreds of thousands of views. As well as intersecting with young audiences, Sputnik in Serbia targets extreme political views by hosting polarizing interpretations of history, especially anti-EU voices, and reiterating Europe and Germany’s responsibility for dead Serb children and their roles supporting Croatia in World War II and 1990s, as in the “20 Years after NATO Aggression” series.
While catering especially generously to these target audiences, Sputnik remains a prominent news source in Serbia for a larger audience, producing serious content and enjoying popularity among young and old through its radio service, YouTube presence, and website. Given the multichannel nature of the Russian government’s approach, it is clear that, in the Serbian context, memory alliances are targeted at a mass audience. Elite promotion and attendance of Russkii dom events, combined with Facebook and Sputnik engagement, also suggest that Russia’s alliance narratives are reaching a consequential section of Serbian society. Although the level of engagement is a different question, this reach, combined with the consistency of the efforts and the multichannel amplification, shows that memory alliance narratives are more than a drop in the information bucket and reflect a larger Russian influence tactic—one that extends beyond Serbia.
Finding memory allies beyond Serbia
While Russian memory alliance promotion in Serbia may be especially active for various historical reasons, this type of influence operation is not unique to Serbia. Russian agencies employed similar tactics, albeit less intensively and targeted more narrowly, in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. On Sputnik UK’s main YouTube page, the pinned video is entitled ‘Soyuz-Apollo: 45 Years After the Handshake in Space That Put an End to the Space Race.’ The video downplays the confrontational aspect of the Cold War, making Russian history appear less threatening while still bolstering Soviet achievements. On the whole, the UK Sputnik YouTube page, like the news site, is less serious than in Serbia (and other countries), featuring cute animal videos and clips designed to go viral. Amid this context, the decision to pin such a substantive video, conveying a more positive historical image of the USSR, is rather remarkable. The focus on the video also reflects a change in approach to memory alliance construction in the United Kingdom (compared to Serbia), where Russian actors need to create a more positive historical narrative and tap into existing cultural memory to bolster its influence and trust among a largely skeptical population.
One of the ways this has been done in the United Kingdom is through engaging with British historical narratives and cultural memory, especially of World War II. The case of Captain Tom Moore is a good example; in April 2020 then 99-year-old veteran raised £32 million for the National Health Service during the Covid-19 lockdown by walking around his garden. Rossotrudnichestvo, Russian media in the United Kingdom, and Russian embassy social media then publicized the story of a 97-year-old Russian Stalingrad veteran knitting Captain Moore socks for his 100th birthday and raising money for Russian hospitals after being inspired by him, thus trying to involve themselves in the story to remind audiences of the Russo-British wartime alliance and the positive memories associated therewith. Likewise, there is also an active campaign led by the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom on social media to publicize Russian medals for the Arctic Convoys veterans, with one in every five tweets from the embassy’s Twitter account in May 2020 related to this issue. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the embassy responded angrily to accusations by the military historian Antony Beevor that Russia ignores the United States and United Kingdom’s input into the Allied victory. The tweet was accompanied by images of Vladimir Putin meeting UK World War II veterans. Efforts such as these demonstrate how Russia is adapting to the local memory culture and seeking to build bridges with mainstream opinion.
However, alongside these efforts to appeal to mass or mainstream cultural memory of World War II, there is also sub-targeting of segments of UK political fringe groups, including those segments of the left traditionally sympathetic to the USSR. This is exemplified by an interesting case in 2017 relating to the Saint George Ribbon and picked up by The Times newspaper. As in other countries, Rossotrudnichestvo organizes employees and volunteers in the United Kingdom to hand out Saint George’s Ribbons to people and organizations around Victory Day, on May 8 and 9 each year. This is a way to promote Russia’s view of the war and to use it to connect with British people, for whom the war also plays an important role in national and memory culture. In 2019, it emerged that members of the populist left Momentum group within the British Labour Party were wearing the ribbons and tweeting images of the ribbons draped around a gun as symbols of their alliance with Russia in anti-fascism. Members of this group were aligned to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was criticized for blaming the West for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and for his tepid response to the poisoning of the Skripals.
This tactic of creating memory alliances with polarizing voices can also be seen in France. The French Sputnik YouTube page is very different to the United Kingdom’s, with a pseudo-intellectual tone and featuring long interviews with polemicists across the spectrum, from the Christian right to the far left. Some of the most interesting content included a video interview with Michel Collon detailing French history in Algeria, which, alongside other content, suggested Sputnik was targeting the large section of the population of North African descent, aligning itself with their memory cultures to build on the Soviet anti-imperial legacy and to exacerbate already heightened divisions along such lines in France. Similar tactics could be observed in Germany’s Sputnik, where in 2019 there was a mass campaign to mark 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, similar in scope to the one used to mark 20 years after NATO aggression in Serbia. In this series, the Sputnik YouTube and website promoted a highly revisionist narrative that depicted the East German state in rosy hues, playing on the disappointments and trials following reunification that has fueled a sense of Ostalgie—nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany. This is an example of how Russian state actors identify a minority memory and then overtly support it to show that Russia is a “memory ally” but also to exacerbate divisions over history in the target countries, at least partly by amplifying polarizing views.
In conclusion, analysis of Russian memory alliance promotion in Serbia shows that the former uses diplomatic, digital, and media channels to spread historical narratives that bolster Russia’s image while simultaneously undermining its rivals. These narratives also appear to be selected to encourage polarizing voices, as noted not only in the Serbia case study but also in the initial analysis of memory alliance promotion in France and Germany. While these findings point to a prominent and under-researched Russian influence tactic, much more research is required to develop a thorough and critical understanding beyond the level of discursive construction of memory alliances. This would help explain whether and how local target audiences are co-constructing these alliances and what impact, if any, this is having on current events and perceptions of Russia. This would also involve looking at more case studies to understand adaptation and varying levels of engagement in Europe and beyond. To do so requires a line of inquiry into Russian influence operations that is grounded in the domestic context as well as local narratives of history and is open-minded to the idea that Russia can use soft power constructively, even if it is often used to exploit divisions and undermine rivals.
Dr. Jade McGlynn is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Oxford. Her research interests relate to political uses of history in Russian domestic and foreign policy, as well as memory studies and patriotic formation more broadly.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).