By Paul Goble
There are three ways Moscow has falsified the history of the non-Russian peoples: It has ignored their stories unless and until they intersect with Russia’s. It has simply lied about those histories, individual or common. And it has selected particular events to which it has given a meaning very different from that any objective observer would.
The first approach dominated Soviet historiography from Stalin on; the second became increasingly important at the end of Soviet times and still is the most common way that Moscow tries to fit non-Russian histories into the Procrustean bed of Moscow’s desired image of the past. But it is the third that Vladimir Putin appears to prefer.
In many ways, it is the most subversive of all. If no comment or false comments have the effect of generating dissent and demands for the truth to come out, the Putin approach makes those things more difficult for non-Russians because it often puts them in a position where their response is “yes, but,” thus acknowledging Moscow’s position even as they reject it.
That works to Moscow’s advantage and to Putin’s mistaken belief that there is a single “stream” of history for the empire in the past that he seems to committed to celebrating and where possible to recreating. And it means that non-Russians and their supporters must be alert to the dangers that Putin’s school of falsification poses.
An especially egregious example of what the Kremlin leader is about is on view now in Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus. At the end of August, officials there announced the start of a 500-kilometr cavalry march through the republic in order to celebrate “’the 460th anniversary of ‘the voluntary inclusion of the Kabards within Russia” (kavkazr.com/a/konny-perehod-k-nesushchestvuyushchey-date/28704987.html).
The Kabards, a subgroup of the Circassian nation, are outraged because they are convinced that there is no basis for this holiday at all. As best they can tell, the authorities have decided on it by linking to an actual event 457 years ago when a Kabardinian princess married Ivan the Terrible.
Not only does the current event mistake the number of years since then, but it also is being misused by the powers that be to claim that it remembered “the voluntary unification of the Kabards to Russia” rather than what it in fact was, the conclusion of a temporary military alliance between the rulers of the two states.
That is the view of Kabard activist Ibragim Yaganov who says that in the 16th century the two states concluded a treaty and then solemnized it by a marriage, something that was normal then but in no way represented the union of the two states. After all the Kabards later joined other Circassians in fighting the Russian military conquest of their land.
Andzor Akhokhov, another Kabard figure, says that because of these distortions, the current cavalry march “is an insult to the memory of the knights who gave their lives for the freedom of the country, an insult to the memory of the women, children and old people who died” when Russian forces later burned their homes or forced them into exile.
A third activist, Adnan Khuade, says that Russians do not have the moral right to do what they are doing. They don’t get their history right, even on the issue of a specific date of a real event. And a fourth, Dana Cherkesova, says that anything voluntary about the 16th century event was later annulled by Russian attacks.
Aslan Beshto, the head of the Kabard Congress, says that the whole notion that Kabardia voluntarily joined Russia was dreamed up in the early 1950s when Stalin decided to glorify Russia and reduce to its adjuncts the histories of non-Russian peoples and to stress how much these peoples wanted to be part of Russia.
“Beginning in 1951,” he says, Soviet officials “began to stress that despite the negative characteristics of tsarism as a whole, one should not deny the positive role of Russia in relations with the conquered peoples.” Three years later, a Soviet Kabard historian outlined what that meant in a report “On the issue of the voluntary unification of Kabardia with Russia.”
Now Putin is doing much the same thing, weaving together specific facts with a mythical framework that non-Russians, their friends, and ultimately the Russians themselves will have to unpack and reject if they are to have any hope that they can coexist in a positive way in the future.