Putin Isn’t the Only Autocrat Misusing History

The Russian leader’s invasion of Ukraine is founded on a false retelling of history. He’s not the only strongman revising the past.

A bust of Stalin with a spiraling clock over his face.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic ; Getty

Sitting in the basement of a community center in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, listening to shells being dropped all around us, I watched as a young woman sought to explain the violence to her son. “Who is bombing us?” she asked in Russian, before prompting, “Is it fascists?” The 4-year-old nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Yes, it is fascists.”

It was January 2015. Russian-backed separatists had taken control of the city nine months earlier, declaring it the capital of their new Donetsk People’s Republic. Yet fighting continued and the truth is, when we were in that basement, none of us knew who was responsible for the shelling: The Ukrainian army was dug in on the city’s outskirts, and separatists were firing from positions close to us.

None, that is, but for the mother I saw speaking with her boy. By “fascists,” she later told me, she was referring to Ukrainian government forces.

If you got your news from Russian state television, which many people in that predominantly Russian-speaking city and about 90 percent of Vladimir Putin’s domestic audience did, there was no doubt about who was to blame: Viewers were told that the conflict in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk was the fault of a “fascist junta” that had seized power in Kyiv and the Western intelligence agencies who were pulling the strings. Russian media published innumerable stories about how these forces had plunged Ukraine into violence and chaos.

President Vladimir Putin’s announcement this February that he was ordering Russian troops into Ukraine to carry out a “denazification” campaign—an absurd claim, given that, for a start, Ukraine’s leader is Jewish and had relatives killed in the Holocaust—drew on those lies from years prior, lies that I saw warping reality in that basement in 2015. Then, I was Moscow correspondent for Britain’s Sky News. Now I am based in Washington, D.C., for The New Statesman, but the memory of that moment has lingered. Listening to Putin’s speech on the morning of his invasion, when he declared that he was saving innocents from “genocide” and compared his actions to the heroic struggle Russians waged during World War II, my initial response was disbelief. Then I realized I had heard this argument before.

The Russian president is the latest in a long line of dictators to manipulate history and manufacture enemies to rally the population against and secure his own hold on power. Past Soviet leaders have drawn on the same core themes, and I have seen this playbook in action in China and North Korea, where Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un insist that they too are defending their nations against hostile foreign adversaries.

Yet we must not assume that this autocratic rewriting of history, driven largely by a desire to consolidate power, affects only a dictator’s domestic population (though it does). In fact, these retellings matter far beyond, encompassing expansive territorial ambitions and aggressive foreign policies that threaten neighboring democracies, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan—and Ukraine—and whip up nationalist fervor against the United States and its allies.

As Putin is currently demonstrating, these questionable historical narratives in faraway autocracies are a problem for democracies too.

During his “re-education” in 1984, George Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is asked to repeat the Party’s slogan about the past. “Who controls the past controls the future,” he responds obediently. “Who controls the present controls the past.” Though their individual approaches to controlling that past differ significantly, Putin, Xi, and Kim share an obsession that Orwell would have recognized.

Since he first came to power more than two decades ago, Putin has elevated the memory of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is referred to in Russia, to the status of a national religion and positioned himself as the heir to that legacy, and the tireless defender of Russia and Russians everywhere against their contemporary threats. He calls the Ukrainian leadership “fascists” to remind his compatriots of the enemy they faced, insisting that they are confronting a resurgent menace.

He does not, however, invoke the terror and the strategic blunders that the country’s wartime leader Joseph Stalin committed. Instead, Putin has sealed off the official version of history from scrutiny, passing new laws that make it a criminal offense to challenge the authorities’ account or to question the true scale of Soviet heroism. He has also closed down independent organizations that sought to preserve the memory of Soviet-era atrocities. He is interested in remembering only the aspects of history that serve his current political needs.

In this, Putin shares the same outlook as Xi. They clearly both understand World War II’s wider resonance, and the importance of maintaining firm control over their countries’ histories more broadly. Xi has identified “historical nihilism,” which essentially means anything that challenges the regime’s version of history, as a crucial factor in the Soviet Union’s collapse, and he has made plain that keeping a tight grip on history is essential to ensuring the future of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

Like Putin, Xi has passed new laws to protect the party’s version of history from scrutiny and silenced dissenting views. He has introduced new memorial days to commemorate World War II and followed the Russian leader’s example in 2015 by staging a bombastic Victory Day military parade to mark the anniversary of the end of the war, the first time such an event had been held in Beijing, with Putin as his guest of honor. He has also extended the length of the war, moving the start date back to 1931 to incorporate what had previously been treated as a separate regional conflict with Japan. Though the change has a credible historical basis, the longer time frame also serves a useful political function by including the earlier period when Communist troops played a more active role in the fighting.

As Xi tells the story now, China fought first and for the longest of any of the Allied nations in the war. According to this version of history, Mao Zedong and his Communist revolutionaries are the ones who rallied the population to fight back against the foreign aggressors and demonstrated why the party must always be in power, and why China must build up its military strength. I saw this weaponization of history in person while reporting from China: During a visit to a high school in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui in March 2018, 16-year-old Yang Yuzhe—one of an array of thoughtful, genuinely emotional teenagers in a history class I sat in on—told me of how she had thought “China was always a very strong country, but I didn’t know the recent history.” After studying China’s modern history, however, Yang continued, “From then on, I knew that China must be strong again.” Those views are echoed across much of Chinese social media today, as the country’s rivalry with the United States grows and the leadership amplifies the idea that modern China must once again be prepared to fight back against its enemies.

Though China’s version of history is at least credible, if tailored to serve the Communist Party’s needs, across the border in North Korea, the Kim regime relies on an absurd fiction and outright lies. For three-quarters of a century, it has claimed victory in two great wars, insisting that its first president, Kim Il Sung—the grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong Un—“liberated” the country from Japanese colonial rule at the end of the Second World War, when in fact he was in the Soviet Union at the time. He then apparently secured a subsequent “brilliant victory,” over the United States in the Korean War in 1953, which in this version of the past, the U.S. and South Korea are said to have started.

The Kim family’s fiction dominates daily life in North Korea. On a reporting trip there in 2016, I saw the enormous “Arch of Triumph” built in the heart of the capital, which is engraved with the date “1945” to commemorate the first Kim’s purported victory over Japan. His grandson’s top officials drive around in a fleet of gleaming black Mercedes with the prefix “727” on their license plates to mark the supposed victory over the U.S. on July 27, 1953, the date the Korean War armistice was signed. Even as many of his citizens regularly go hungry in his impoverished and isolated country, Kim has invested ample resources in rebuilding and substantially expanding the country’s war museums. Preserving the regime’s version of the past is evidently more important than providing for the population’s basic needs.

“But how can you stop people remembering things?” asks Winston in 1984. “How can you control memory?” One might well ask the same question of Putin, Xi, and Kim and their own efforts to control the past. They cannot determine what individual citizens think or the individual memories they hold, but they can decide what is presented on the evening news and the information that is available on the internet, and they can make it dangerous to challenge the official line in public.

In Russia, now, it is illegal to call the war in Ukraine a war. Russian schoolchildren are being taught that their soldiers are “defenders of peace” who are “liberating” grateful civilians. Putin quotes from the Bible and invokes the Great Patriotic War to underline the righteousness of his cause as he insists that he is fighting “for a world without Nazism.” There is evidence that this approach is working. The mayor of the Ukrainian town of Melitopol has recounted how, in March, he was abducted by Russian troops who told him they had come to “free Ukraine from Nazis.” Russian soldiers scrawled the words for the children on a missile that hit the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk—a grim irony, as that very strike killed children among the many evacuees who were waiting for a train. Xi and Kim must be encouraged by how well Putin’s popular support and his propaganda have held up. And that could set a very dangerous precedent, not just for those who live in these societies, but for those on the receiving end of more aggressive policies abroad—people who live in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the countries that surround the South China Sea.

The impulse to rewrite history and appeal to glorious myths to rally popular support is not limited to autocrats. But the real danger arises when the official account becomes the only permitted version of history, as is now the case in Russia, China, and North Korea. Though the leaders of these regimes differ in their approach to the past, all three claim that it is their nation that is under threat, and that they must strengthen their military capabilities and ramp up their political control to defend their citizens.

“Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth,” Winston is told in Orwell’s novel. The leaders of Russia, China, and North Korea take a similar view, and that has consequences for all of us.