On November 10, 1982, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died. The editors of Pravda, the country’s main newspaper, confronted something of a dilemma. A black frame would surround the front page to indicate mourning. But how thick should it be—the same size as for mere mortals, or special in some way? Eventually, someone thought to look in the newspaper’s archives to see what size had been used when Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died, in 1953. The paper used precisely the same frame to announce Brezhnev’s death.
This thick black quadrangle continues to hold Russian and Soviet history captive, bounding current understanding with myths about the past. The country’s politicians are obsessed by Soviet glories. They have declared themselves heirs to all the victories of their socialist predecessors—whether on the battlefield, in space, or in feats of engineering. This history is really that of the state and its war machine, rather than that of the nation.
For many ordinary Russians, national pride remains fixed within this Soviet matrix. Among historical achievements, some of the most popular are the territorial acquisitions of the imperial and Soviet eras—not to mention the post-Soviet annexation of Crimea. This latter addition boosted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings: many saw it as a restoration of long-lost Soviet military glory.
Putin in his speeches frequently compares his achievements to the victories and acquisitions of the Soviet past. The message is clear: whether Soviet or not, the country is in the same position as it once was.
THE POLITICS OF THE PAST
Russian officialdom has lately developed an enormous appetite—bordering on patriotic hysteria—for historical politics. The interest is partly linked to the 80th anniversary of 1939, the year World War II broke out in Europe. Among the crucial events of that year for the Soviet Union was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, in which Stalin and the German Führer Adolf Hitler concocted secret plans to divide the European mainland between themselves. The two dictators split up Poland, an act
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