Russian Revisionism 2.0: The man behind Putin’s warped view of history
Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s former culture minister and now a presidential aide has helped construct the ideological and historical edifice on which much of Putin’s rule rests.
• MIKHAIL ZYGAR
NEW YORK: Starting this month, all high school students in Russia have a new history textbook. On its pages, they’ll find a strikingly simplistic account of the past 80 years — from the end of World War II to the present — that all but comes with the Kremlin’s signature.
Revisionism doesn’t begin to cover it. Stalin, in contrast to the standard depiction in Russian textbooks over the past 30 years, is presented as a wise and effective leader thanks to whom the Soviet Union won the war and ordinary people began to live much better. Repressions are mentioned, but in an accusatory way. The reader is left with the feeling that Stalin’s victims were guilty and suffered a well-deserved punishment.
The telling of the end of the Soviet Union is similarly distorted. Previous textbooks analyzed the collapse of the Soviet system and the inefficiency of the planned economy, writing about the arms race and the irrationality of the elderly Soviet leaders. The new tome blames everything on Mikhail Gorbachev, castigating him as an incompetent bureaucrat who succumbed to pressure from the United States. Then there are the 28 pages on the war in Ukraine. They contain, of course, no history and only outright propaganda — a set of clichés recycled from Russian television.
The book was written, along with others, by Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s former culture minister and now a presidential aide. Medinsky has another, more secret role: He is President Vladimir Putin’s ghostwriter. Working with a team of assistants, he writes texts about history under Putin’s name. Given the president’s obsession with history and use of it to justify his regime, Medinsky occupies an important position in Russia today. From the shadows, he has helped construct the ideological and historical edifice on which much of Putin’s rule rests.
Medinsky was born in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine in 1970. But he is not Ukrainian at all. His father was a military man and his childhood was spent traveling across the Soviet Union, from garrison to garrison. In this peripatetic environment, according to close acquaintances, Medinsky was brought up with very conservative values and as a sincere patriot of the Soviet Union. Education was important too — his mother was a schoolteacher — and, in time, led him to the Moscow Institute of International Relations. A model student, he excelled in the School of Journalism and was a member of Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth organization.
But by the time he graduated, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Medinsky had no difficulty adjusting. In 1992, with a group of classmates, he created his own advertising company, Ya Corporation. Its clients were mostly financial firms and tobacco companies. He soon became a PR man for the tobacco lobby — a bit like the unscrupulous main character in Christopher Buckley’s 1994 book “Thank You for Smoking.” Even so, he didn’t neglect his studies, continuing to work toward a doctorate.
That’s when I met Medinsky, when I was an undergraduate at the institute in the late ’90s. He was 10 years older than me, aloof, and had just started to teach public relations. It was a new and very fashionable discipline, and many of my classmates, who wanted to become “P.R. people,” dreamed of learning from him. Something of a star on campus, Medinsky was considered a successful businessman and willingly supported students, taking the best of them for internships at his company.
In 2000, Putin became president of Russia, taking over from Boris Yeltsin. As any PR man should, Medinsky adapted to the change in atmosphere, parlaying a job in the civil service into a political career. By 2004, he was a member of parliament for Putin’s United Russia party. Despite accusations that he continued as an elected official to lobby for tobacco companies and casinos, Medinsky was a man on the rise.
It helped that he started trading in patriotism. In 2007, this former tobacco lobbyist began to write books about history — or, rather, he began to create historical PR. In a series of books called “Myths About Russia,” he set out to debunk Russian stereotypes and to put new stories in their place. There were volumes on “Russian drunkenness, laziness and cruelty,” “Russian theft, soul and patience” and “Russian democracy, dirt and imprisonment.”
In each of the books, Medinsky argued that everything bad in Russia’s history is the slander of enemies. For example, Ivan the Terrible was not really an insane tyrant — because, for one thing, he was always motivated by the interests of his people and did everything possible for the good of Russia. For another, Western rulers at that time were even crueller. And, in any case, all his supposed atrocities were actually fantasies of European historians.
From the start, Medinsky’s work was criticized by real Russian historians. But he never hid that his work was not based on facts. They were not important to him; the real goal was to create a persuasive narrative. “Facts by themselves don’t mean very much,” Medinsky wrote in one of his books. “Everything begins not with facts, but with interpretations. If you love your homeland, your people, then the story you write will always be positive.”
The textbook, with the power to shape an entire generation of Russian students, is perhaps Medinsky’s biggest achievement yet. According to colleagues, he sees himself as akin to the conservative intellectuals of the Russian Empire — like Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the infamous ideologue of Nicholas II’s reign. Other models are Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s right-hand man after World War II, and Mikhail Suslov, Brezhnev’s chief ideologue, who advocated the persecution of dissidents.
Medinsky, of course, is a parody of the above — just like his version of Russian history. It’s such an unconvincing and undisguised lie that in practice, it serves to indict the entire imperial narrative of Russian history. For all his success, Medinsky may yet become the gravedigger of Russian imperial ideology. Because after him, it should no longer be possible to talk about Russia’s past without shame, horror and disgust.