Putin’s attempt to control the past follows the Xi pattern
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. George Orwell was writing in the late 1940s – but this excerpt from 1984 is a perfect guide to how Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the rulers of Russia and China, treat history.
In the dying days of 2021, the Russian and Chinese governments both took dramatic steps to censor discussions about their country’s history. In either case, the decision to “control the past” sends a grim signal for the future.
The Supreme Court of Russia closed Memorial, an organization founded in the later years of the Soviet Union to record and preserve the memory of the victims of Stalinism. In Hong Kong, local universities bowed to the Chinese central government – withdrawing from campus statues commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the decades following decolonization in 1997, Hong Kong was a bastion of free speech in the People’s Republic of China. But those days are now definitely over.
The closing of Memorial is a turning point for all of Russia. Despite all the brutality of the Putin regime, Russia, until recently, has given much more leeway to political dissent than China. Opponents of Putin demonstrated in large numbers in the streets in 2012, 2019 and in 2021. This kind of open criticism of Xi has long seemed inconceivable in mainland China.
The treatment of the history of each country was also different. A portrait of Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Revolution, overlooks Tiananmen Square and his statues stand on the Beijing and Shanghai campuses. But to see a statue of Joseph Stalin in Moscow, I had to visit the Park of the fallen monument, where I found a severed stone head of the former Soviet dictator.
As recently as 2017, Putin himself unveiled a monument to the victims of Stalinism in Moscow and laid flowers at its base. At the time, Memorial’s COO welcomed this gesture. But now the prosecutor in the case that banned Memorial complains that the organization “makes us repent of the Soviet past, instead of remembering its glorious history.”
Observers in Russia see Memorial’s closure as a deliberate move toward Chinese levels of censorship and control. Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow Recount the New York Times: “this is a real shift towards a Chinese approach to history” – in which the “mistakes” of Mao or Stalin are acknowledged, but treated as minor flaws on an otherwise dossier glorious. Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran of the political opposition, argues that it marks the tipping point between an authoritarian and totalitarian state.
President Xi will certainly approve of Putin’s decision to suppress criticism of Stalinism. The Chinese leader has long been concerned about the collapse of the Soviet Union and determined to prevent something similar from happening in China. In one word at the central committee of the Communist Party of China made just after coming to power, Xi request – “Why did the Soviet Union collapse?” His response was that: “the history of the USSR and [the Soviet Communist party] had been completely denied. . . Lenin had been rejected, as was Stalin. . . Ideological confusion was everywhere. . . The Soviet Union, which had been a great socialist country, collapsed.
Control over discussion of the past remains central to Xi’s style of governance. Last year his government adopted a law make it a crime to make fun of the country’s national heroes.
In both Russia and China, attempts to close the historic debate go hand in hand with an intensification of the current repression. The same week that Memorial was closed, the Russian government stopped several supporters of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In Hong Kong, days after the Tiananmen statues were removed, the government shut down Stand News, the largest remaining pro-democracy outlet, and arrested several senior officials.
The suppression of history is linked to the assault overseas. A sign of the looming crackdown on Memorial came last October, when the organization was raided during the screening of a film about the 1930s famine in Soviet Ukraine. This kind of historical memory is unacceptable at a time when the Russian government is openly preparing to invade Ukraine.
On a related note, Beijing decided last year to crack down on suggestions that China’s involvement in the Korean War in the 1950s was more than a defense against a possible American invasion. This debate also has contemporary significance, at a time when the threat of war between the United States and China increases again.
To close the circle of repression, national critics of the Putin and Xi governments are regularly accused of work for hostile foreign powers, as well as opponents of Stalin and Mao. The argument that foreign powers collude with internal critics of the regime is then used to justify repression on patriotic motives and to support the cause of “strong” leadership.
Putin and Xi have both crafted changes in their countries’ constitutions that will allow them to rule unchallenged, long into the future. If Putin stays in the Kremlin until 2036, which now seems entirely possible, he will have reigned longer than Stalin himself. If you intend to imitate Stalin, why would you allow his criticism?