‘If we start playing games like this, historians won’t write anything’ Russian historian Mikhail Meltyukhov on the proposed ban on ‘equating’ the goals of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany

Soldiers walking past a display set up on Moscow’s Red Square ahead of this year’s Victory Day parade. May 6, 2021.Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russian lawmakers have proposed legislation banning publicly “equating the goals, decisions, and actions” of the USSR and Nazi Germany. In addition, the bill prohibits denying the “decisive role of the Soviet people in defeating Nazi Germany or the humanitarian mission of the USSR in liberating the countries of Europe.” To find out more about how this new law might affect the work of historians studying the Second World War, Meduza turned to Russian military historian Mikhail Meltyukhov.

Please note: The following is a summary of Mikhail Meltyukhov’s interview with Meduza correspondent Alexandra Sivtsova. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here. 

Asked if the impending ban on “equating the goals, decisions, and actions” of the USSR and Nazi Germany will limit academic discourse in Russia, military historian Mikhail Meltyukhov tells Meduza that it’s not as straightforward as that. The way he sees it, the terms used in the draft law are “flexible” and will inevitably be subject to varying interpretations. “What does ‘equate’ mean? And what do we do with methodologies like comparative analysis? We’ll have to see the enforcement in practice,” he says. 

When it comes to legislation that seeks to limit public debate, Meltyukhov believes you have to consider the goals of the lawmakers themselves. “The law is simply a tool with which to do this,” he explains. “We’ve recently passed a law on licensing educational activity. This is a much more convenient law for shutting someone up. No license? Goodbye, dear comrade.” 

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Taking for example his own book, Stalin’s Missed Chance, in which Meltyukhov argues that both Nazi Germany and the USSR were planning offensives in 1941, the historian says that his work doesn’t aim to “equate” the actions of the Nazi and Soviet leadership. Meltyukhov’s argument (though it has been contested) is based on archival evidence — and he shouldn’t be held responsible for writing about what the documents show, he says.

“The general staffs of any state prepare plans for various scenarios. And, as a rule, these plans are either offensive or defensive. […] This is a thousand-year practice in the military history of mankind. And the plans of the Red Army’s General Staff were written not by me, but by other people in another era. These documents are held officially in the state archives. […] But of course, you can find fault with anything. If we start playing games like this, historians won’t write anything.” 

His task as a military historian, Meltyukhov continues, isn’t just to “publish some documents,” but rather to “understand why, at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, the situation developed the way it did.” And while there may be disagreements when it comes to interpretation, there has to be archival evidence to prove a historian’s argument wrong. That being said, Meltyukhov doesn’t anticipate that this will be the case when it comes to the enforcement of the proposed legislation. “Everything depends on what kind of political games the country’s leadership wants to play,” the historian tells Meduza. “If they want us, historians, not to focus on these questions at the documentary level, we won’t be doing it, we’ll be screwing around.”

Asked if historians are consulted on legislation concerning Russia’s history, Meltyukhov says he doubts that Russian lawmakers “ask anyone for an expert opinion” who isn’t going to tell them what they want to hear. “I can hardly imagine that anyone would object. And if they do object, where’s the guarantee that the objections will be heard? This is where we step into the field of decision-making mechanisms. And since they aren’t very transparent, it’s difficult to say anything,” he explains.

Meltyukhov also believes that Russia’s recent moves to enact new laws protecting historical memory are somewhat redundant. Commenting on legislation criminalizing “the dissemination of knowingly false information about the activities of the USSR during the years of the Second World War,” the historian says he doesn’t understand why the authorities couldn’t resolve conflicts over “outright false statements” using existing libel laws.

“It’s not clear how lawmakers will use this new tool. Right now this is simply a mere assertion: ‘Let’s defend the Victory!’ But this is legal work that needs to be done every day. We have media outlets, bloggers, and journalists who really are falsifying the historical reality that took place. We have to deal with it. But there’s a feeling that it doesn’t matter to the government, they say beautiful words, but there’s nothing behind them.” 

On the other hand, Meltyukhov says he can’t think of a concrete example of the new historical memory laws actually impacting academic life. He also insists that they haven’t influenced his own work, though he speculates that the legislation may have motivated some Russian historians to self-censor. “I have colleagues who treat this with a certain caution and, perhaps, somehow correct what they write. But you can’t get into someone else’s soul, so who knows?” 

The historian also warns that banning the study of particular topics may backfire. “Prohibitions can give rise to the opposite mythology: if something is hidden, it means there’s something to hide. Unfortunately, such bans will only support mythologization,” Meltyukhov laments. “And in the end, instead of really exploring a complex, social subject, we will play mythological and political games.”

In Meltyukhov’s opinion, the grant systems that researchers rely on play a greater role in influencing the topics of study than any legislation. “Formally, there are no prohibitions, but in fact you’ll never receive a grant on many topics. The choice arises: either you do something yourself or you change the topic and do what they give you money for — the researcher needs to eat after all,” he says, putting it bluntly. “They’ll evaluate what you write and if the grant-giver doesn’t like it, then you won’t be given a new grant.”

“Historical and social science research is very closely linked with the real politics of the day,” Meltyukhov concludes. “There are many mechanisms for directing researchers where they need to go. And there’s absolutely no need to adopt laws like the ones that they’ve adopted and are preparing to adopt.”

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Interview by Alexandra Sivtsova

Summary by Eilish Hart


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