Defusing Lenin’s Time Bomb
September 23, 2020
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
“Ancient history, national myths, and modern wars can be closer than we might like to believe, and nowhere more so than in the lands of the Rus’.” - Mark Galeotti
In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that, by drawing administrative borders along ethnic lines and granting national self-determination (including the right to secede), Vladimir Lenin had planted a “time bomb” at the foundation of the Soviet Union’s statehood and that of Russia itself.
To defuse this ontological time bomb threatening to fracture Russia’s identity and geography along ethnic seams, Putin has enlisted the whole government, with a particular emphasis on the national security establishment, to reimagine, distribute, and enforce a “correct” understanding of Russia’s history. A unified history “free of internal contradictions and double interpretation” serves as the regime’s main instrument to instill patriotic values, create a cohesive collective identity, and mitigate societal fissures which enemies―at home and abroad―might use to stoke separatist ideologies and inspire color revolutions. Defense against the “international falsification of history” now pervades the rhetoric of political elites, government-organized NGOs, and journals of Russian military theorists, as well as official documents such as the National Security Strategy, Foreign Policy Concept, and Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation.
All states, to varying degrees, mythologize and nationalize history as an instrument of nation-building. Through simplified narratives, historians and politicians can transmit a common set of national values around which populations can coalesce to form a unified, collective identity. In Russia, however, history is unique: beyond its typical role in nation-building and identity formation, it has also become a military domain. The falsification of history by international forces is considered an urgent and existential threat to the state.
To understand how “falsified” history came to pose such a dire threat, one must go back to the policies of Glasnost. These policies caused the Soviet Union to loosen its totalitarian control over collective memory and allowed the existing, often false, pillars of national history to come crashing down.
The use and abuse of history in the USSR had been ubiquitous. David Remnick captured this phenomenon succinctly: “It’s as if the regime were guilty of two crimes on a massive scale: murder and unending assault against memory.” Stalin infamously resorted to airbrushing political rivals from photos after purges. He also secretly authored both the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1938, putting himself at the center of the October Revolution, and Falsificators of History in 1948, to combat Western narratives concerning the USSR’s role in the outbreak of World War II.
And so, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost began to relax the Communist Party’s control of the past, journalists and historians competed to reveal one previously hidden, shocking historical truth after another. Grisly details of Stalin’s purges of the military officer corps and his callous disregard for Soviet soldiers undermined even the most sacred myth of the USSR: the history of the “Great Patriotic War.”1 The breadth and depth of the revelations were so widespread that the entire Soviet Union was forced to cancel high school history exams in 1988. Russia analyst Mark Galeotti has argued that “If anything, the pendulum swung too far…and the tide of recovered truth, debatable opinion, and outright conspiracy theory washed away any certainties.”
During this period of historiographical upheaval, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. The 15 individual republics asserted sovereignty over their own politics, economies, and militaries—as well as their own national histories, which they founded, in part, on newly-formulated nationalist mythologies. Stories of victimhood, nationalist resistance, and unique suffering at the hands of the Russian imperial occupation replaced the narratives of equality of all peoples and the Red Army’s liberation of Europe. The desacralization of myths surrounding the Great Patriotic War and the emergence of competing nationalist mythologies in the republics are inextricably bound with the breakup of the USSR itself.
Inside the Russian Federation, the Chechen Republic (formerly part of the Checheno-Inguish Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) was recovering its community’s lost collective memories. Personal stories of the tragedies of Stalin’s deportations were collected in the publication Tak Eto Bylo (Thus it Was); the slogan “Nothing is forgotten! Nothing will be forgotten” was chanted in the streets as the Chechen people declared independence from Moscow.
However, while leadership in the Kremlin allowed the Soviet Union to be dismantled (going out with a whimper instead of a bang), they drew a line in the sand at declarations of independence from within the Russian Federation’s borders. Moscow had learned its lesson: Chechnya was one of 16 autonomous republics remaining in the Russian Federation and could not be allowed to inspire further declarations of independence.
And so, on Putin’s first day as acting commander-in-chief (following Boris Yeltsin’s early resignation in 1999), he went on a surprise visit to Russian troops in Gudermes, east of Grozny. He told them that the war they were fighting was, “not just about defending the honor and dignity of the country”, but also, “about putting an end to the disintegration of the Russian Federation.” Putin saw the threat of separatism—inspired by Chechnya—potentially spreading like a virus, leading to the breakup of Russia itself. He could hear Lenin’s time bomb ticking.
Overall, Putin addressed the threat of disintegration via a two-pronged approach: a crushing military intervention in Chechnya as an example to other potential rebellions and the creation of Patriotic Education programs to inoculate the population from separatist ideologies. These programs emphasized the revitalization of history in education as a means to reconstruct a unified Russian collective memory and identity. Or, as Putin stated: “We must know our history, remember that there are unconditional values and ideals that are passed down from century to century, from generation to generation.” These programs, in other words, sought to, “inspire national-patriotic enthusiasm, enhance national cohesion, and cultivate the national spirit.”
In the early Patriotic Education programs (from 2001-2010), the main focus was the threat of bottom-up separatist movements in the Russian Federation, especially along the periphery. In 2011 and 2012, however, everything changed. The Bolotnaya Square protests during the elections preceding Putin’s third term shook the regime to its very foundations. The fear of separatism along the periphery based on local activism faded. It was replaced by a perceived threat of Western information warfare designed to inspire a color revolution and overthrow the national government through nonmilitary means. Political leaders up to Putin himself began believing that foreign subversion threatened the regime’s survival: in his end-of-year press conference, Putin stated that “everything is clear. This is a proven scheme for the destabilization of society.” Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, claimed Western politicians were, “now hatching plans aimed at dismembering Russia.”
The period around 2012 was also a critical juncture for Russian military theory. Russian information warfare theorist Igor Panarin saw the Bolotnaya protests as, “a new stage in the information warfare campaign against Russia,” where the main objective was the destruction of the Russian state. Russian military theorists divide information warfare into two camps: information-technological warfare, akin to electronic warfare directed at physical systems in US terminology, and information-psychological warfare. Information-psychological warfare refers to the process of subversively influencing the minds of an adversary’s population, elites, or military—while simultaneously undermining trust in leaders, confidence in the future, and societal values—thereby raising the protest potential of the population to the degree of triggering a color revolution.
Evidence of the rising importance of information-psychological warfare has come in three waves: during NATO’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo and the subsequent ouster of the Milosevic regime in Serbia; the revolutions from 2003 to 2006 in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan; and the 2010-2012 Arab Spring. These waves of perceived color revolutions demonstrated to Russian leaders that nonmilitary means were becoming so prevalent and effective (now used four times as often as military means, according to the current Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov) that they could be considered violent—even representing their own form of warfare. Reflecting this, General Makhmut Gareev, deputy chief of the General Staff and president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, argued that the parade of color revolutions showed that indirect strategies and informational pressure pose an objective threat to Russia. Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov agreed, claiming in 2015 that, “the set of measures that the Americans call ‘soft’ power leads to the same effects as if the state had been attacked with all of the means of classical wars.”
At the same time, Russian military theorists have lamented the “powerful campaign underway around the world to revise the results of the Great Patriotic War, to rewrite history.” In particular, Russian military historians see the negative Western portrayals of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Baltic mutual assistance treaties, and the Katyn massacre of more than 22,000 Poles as attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet victory in World War II. These campaigns to “revise” the history of World War II are perceived as the cornerstone of an ongoing information confrontation. The supposed long-term goal of this campaign is to falsify history to delegitimize the Soviet victory, thereby causing the destruction of Russia by dividing it into independent territories and driving a wedge between its people. Consequently, “protecting traditional values through the historical consciousness of the peoples of Russia” became, “the most important task for national security.”
General Gareev’s book, Battles on the Military-Historical Front, captures the intersection of historical narratives and information-psychological warfare perfectly when he quotes Joseph Nye’s description of soft power: “In the information age, the winner is the one whose story is more convincing, whose story is capable of attracting people.” In a quirk of translation, however, the English words “story” and history” are both “история” in the Russian language. Thus, the Russian translation has a double meaning: to Gareev, in the information age, the winner is the one whose history is more convincing, whose history is capable of attracting people.
Due to the character of soft power and information-psychological warfare, Russian military theorists posed that preemptive informational measures are the most effective means to counter an indirect strategy of provoking color revolutions. To that end, Gregory Filimonov, author of “Soft Power” of U.S. Cultural Diplomacy, argued that—in order to counter disruptive information technologies—Russia needs nation-wide consolidation via, “the revival of the historical memory of the people and their identity.”
When Putin returned to office in 2012, this is exactly the approach he took. The government was instructed to focus on the development of patriotic and military education and to instill patriotism and other virtues in the Russian youth and general public. Military theory and new Patriotic Education programs came together rapidly to institutionalize a preemptive response to the perceived threat of Western information warfare in post-Bolotnaya Russia.
A flurry of institutional actions followed. In 2012, at the initiative of Sergey Naryshkin (then-State Duma speaker, now head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service), the Russian Historical Society (RHS) was created to replace former president Dmitri Medvedev’s Commission Against the Falsification of History. The Russian Military Historical Society—headed by Vladimir Medinsky, minister of culture and author of the best-selling book War: Myths of the USSR, 1939-45—was likewise founded in 2012, as was the historical exhibition “Russia. My History”. (The exhibition later evolved into a theme park with locations in 17 cities—with more on the way.) Finally, between 2013 and 2017, the number of history textbooks on the federal list of approved books decreased from more than 100 to 14, driven primarily by the efforts of Naryshkin and Medinsky.
The effort to control historical narratives went into overdrive after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in neighboring Ukraine. For example, during the 2015 military command special exercise in the Central Military District, Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov decided, for the first time, to include the Main Directorate for Work with Personnel. Their role was to provide moral and psychological support to troops, thereby preventing the spread of radical ideologies among military forces. They then participated in the development of the 2016-2020 Patriotic Education program. The emphasis on subversive external threats was made explicit in the 2016-2020 program: “Russia's identity is threatened as a consequence of external informational attacks, and the program's aim is to increase the control of state authorities over society by enhancing the tools for shaping the public views and the patriotic identity of the country."
Strategically speaking, three Russian security policy documents have directly linked history to the threat of color revolutions and separatism: the 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, the 2014 Military Doctrine, and the 2015 National Security Strategy. The Foreign Policy Concept declares that one of its objectives is to strongly counteract international attempts to rewrite history in order to facilitate confrontation. The Military Doctrine likewise describes international falsification of history as a "main internal military danger." Finally, the National Security Strategy accuses some states of using information technologies to achieve geopolitical goals, including, "by manipulating public awareness and falsifying history."
Through its national security doctrine and its choice to involve defense personnel in historical institutions, it is clear the Kremlin perceives the "falsification of history" as an existential military threat and believes that countering it will be a key tactic in the defense against Western information warfare. Notably, this strategy treats measures in the information-psychological domain as the primary means to build the domestic population’s resilience to separatist ideologies.
Through developing a unified history "free of internal contradictions and double interpretation," Putin hopes to use information measures to create a cohesive nationalist identity, thereby preempting the possibility of a color revolution in Russia. Following Euromaidan in Ukraine, the uprising in Belarus, and continuing protests in Khabarovsk, analysts' speculation that the Kremlin may not have internal security forces willing to crack down on protesters becomes all the more ominous for the regime. Given this potential vulnerability, Putin appears to believe that preemptive information measures are his best hope to manage Lenin's time bomb.
Travis Frederick is a Ph.D. candidate in security studies and a graduate researcher in the Socio-Cognitive Processes Lab at Princeton University. His research examines the impact of strategic narratives on collective memory and national security in Russia.
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).