Heritage re-contextualization in post-Soviet Russia

Anna Gaynutdinova

This memo continues the discussion of heritage practices in Russia, this time looking at the post-Soviet period. Although Russia under Yeltsin declared a clear departure from the Soviet past – in the political, social and cultural spheres – which was regarded by scholars as a “vivacious symptom of the identity disarray of the 1990s” (Deschepper 2018, 87), observers can easily notice the continuity between Soviet and post-Soviet policies toward heritage preservation and contextualization.1 Where does the post-Soviet regime resemble its predecessor and where do the two differ?
Dismantling of the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1991. Source: Wiki Commons
The turbulent 1990s

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the legal framework for heritage preservation remained largely unchanged for more than a decade.2 However, the symbols and meanings associated with heritage properties underwent yet another round of reinterpretation in the 1990s. Some of them, primarily those conveying the values propagated by the defunct Soviet regime, were at least partially “de-heritagized” (Deschepper 2018, 88).

A notable example of this process is the dismantling of monuments to communist leaders in Moscow and their relocation to Park Museon (as was done, for example, with the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky). As a result of the relocation to a “neutral” museum environment, artistic value of these statues became detached from their ideological significance, and the power of their political message was neutralized. They were settled at a safe distance established by art. Their memorial significance also underwent a transformation – these monuments no longer asserted the supremacy of Communist ideology, instead symbolizing a bygone era.

Simultaneously, other heritage expressions, particularly those previously denied recognition, began to resurface and were reclaimed as heritage (“re-heritagized”). The historical site on the Solovetsky Islands (Solovki) serves as a primary example of this process. After decades of neglect, it was among the initial sites nominated by Russia for inscription on the World Heritage List.3 In addition, the sites associated with mass repression have been acknowledged as meaningful elements of the national historical narrative. Russia’s Heritage Law from 2002 introduced a provision4 requiring the immediate registration of such sites as heritage properties if discovered by an archaeologist equipped with the necessary excavation permits.5
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow. Source: Wiki Commons
While not as emblematic of the process of re-heritagization, the romantic reconstructions during the 1990s of historic buildings destroyed in the early decades after the Revolution also contributed to this trend. Numerous churches, including major landmarks like the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Kazan Cathedral on Red Square, were reconstructed as symbols of a new era embracing the pre-communist heritage. Regrettably, the reconstruction endeavors often disregarded proper construction techniques that should be applied when restoring historic sites. Consequently, the resulting structures bear little resemblance to their historical prototypes, deviating not only in terms of materials and construction methods but also in appearance and proportions. The influence these reconstructions have had on the understanding of the concept of authenticity in Russian discourse will be discussed in more detail in the following memo.
VDNKh (the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy). The fountain Friendship of Nations (1954) and the Central Pavilion (1954). Source: Wiki Commons
(Re)turn to the past

In the 2000s, the rise of Vladimir Putin in the political arena, as keenly noted by Julie Deschepper (2018, 88), was marked by “multiple reinvestments of the Soviet-era heritage”. In particular, this was the case with monuments that conveyed the grandeur of the Soviet empire, its remarkable achievements and victories. These monuments were given a new, intensified significance and were featured as a new cultural heritage of modern Russia. A pertinent illustration of this trend is the VDNKh complex (The Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy)6 – a source of pride and a “must-see” tourist attraction, which, over the past few years, has undergone a comprehensive restoration. This restoration initiative is referred to on the official website of the complex as the “VDNKh Revival Program,” with its central goals being the preservation of the national cultural heritage and the restoration of the site to its original 1954 appearance.

Why the Soviet legacy has been so inspirational and, at the same time, triggering for contemporary Russian political elites (as will become evident as the arguments unfold) can be explained by several interrelated social and political processes after the collapse of the Soviet state. In the 1990s, the new generation of Russian political leaders were dealing with a lack of legitimacy, while citizens were struggling to fill the void of identity. After a period of wrestling and searching, the solution to both problems was found in the representation of the Stalin Soviet era as a period of stability, strength and “normalcy,” in contrast to the turbulent transition times of the 1990s (Boym 2002; Roginsky 2008).

The normalization of Sovietism started with the glorification of the victory in the so-called Great Patriotic War (i.e. the period of World War II between 1941-45 after the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany). Its celebration, as Aleida Assman pointed out, has effectively supplanted the memory of the October Revolution and has been merchandized by state-controlled propaganda as a point of unparalleled glory in the history of the Soviet Union. As a symbol, it has several purposes. First, to provide the nation with the idea of a great country that survived through the toughest times. Second, to legitimize the new political course toward authoritarian rule as the only means to build a strong state (Roginskij and Schröder 2011), as well as to justify neo-imperial ambitions and territorial claims (Morozov 2013; Tlostanova 2008).

The sweet dream of homecoming

For the contemporary Russian political elites, the Soviet golden age7 gradually turned into an idealized and almost mythical homeland. Though a place in the past, it still served as the basis for their legitimacy in the present. Their political message has revolved around the promise to rebuild this “ideal home” and return to it. This elusive commitment, described by Boym as a promise of “guilt-free homecoming,” or a return to an idealized past, free from the burden of guilt or critical examination, has gained significant popularity and formed the basis for various powerful ideologies nowadays all around the world.

What sets the current Russian practices of dealing with history and its interpretation apart is the transformation of this elusive pledge into a concrete promise to repeat the glorious past. This commitment is accompanied by what Kolesnikov describes as the “highest degree of politicization and mythologization of historical subjects” and “the aggressiveness of historical politics” (2020). This is further reinforced by the implementation of “memory laws”8 designed to protect the so-called “historical truth.”9

The past was recognized as an even more essential tool for establishing political legitimacy for the current Russian authoritarian regime than it was for “history-based political ideologies” like Communism (Kosopov 2021, 196). In the end, the focus of the new Russian authorities on history has shifted away from “master narratives” and is now more centered on the fragments of the past, venerating and protecting only selected elements. Despite this shift, the overarching tendency inherited from the Soviet regime has remained unchanged: to disregard less crucial aspects and to deny anything that poses a threat to the legitimacy of the political regime.
The view from the roof of Transfiguration Cathedral towards the Holy Lake.
Photo by the author. Solovky, 2019.
Mythologizing the past

The described features embody aspects of nostalgia, categorized by Boym as both “restorative” and “unreflective.” This form of nostalgia is obsessively self-protective, asserting a certain interpretation of history as the sole truth. It promises the return to a positively “glorious” past, as well as to what is imagined as traditional values. Whereas the former in the current state-sponsored narrative is mainly represented by the legacy of the Soviet Union, the latter is rooted in symbols that are firmly linked to “Russianness” (russkost’). This identity carries a strong ethnic Slavic connotation (Plets 2015, 70) and is rooted in the Orthodox Christian tradition. This set of associations obviously clashes with the diverse ethnicities, cultures and religions that exist across Russia’s territory, which raises well-founded concerns about the inclusivity of this identity and the narratives that endorse it.

Moreover, this power discourse, centered around nostalgia for the glorious past, has inherent contradictions, as it combines elements of both Soviet and Orthodox Christian legacies. To accommodate the various elements, its strand defining the attitude toward history has been undergoing corrections, eventually crystallizing in the myth of Russia’s triumphant march from one defensive war to the next, with the victory over Nazi Germany being the pinnacle (Medvedev 2022b). This victory has been categorically claimed by Russian political elites as belonging exclusively to Russia, disregarding the contributions of allies in the war. Gradually, it has evolved into an “indisputable moral absolute,” a sacred object and a highly mythologized space where any criticism of the Soviet Union or the victorious nation is deemed impossible (Medvedev, 2022a).

Pillars of state policy

The identification of the Soviet era as the “lost home” is notably influenced by the potent symbolism associated with Stalin. He, as the wartime leader, played a substantial role in guiding the nation to the victory, albeit with a mixed recordinvolving underestimation of the German threat, purges within the Red Army command and poor tactical decisions that led to significant civilian and military casualties, especially in the early years of the war. But embracing the nostalgic narrative of “guilt-free homecoming” requires disregarding Stalin’s culpability.
The view of the main monastery from the southern bank of Prosperity Bay.
Photo by Boris Kondakov. Solovky, 2019.
Such ambiguity around all the major symbols of the policy of nostalgia necessitates the need to suppress and contain all undesirable connotations and serves as the driving force behind the heightened politicization and aggressiveness of historical politics and heritage practices. It also explains why Russian political elites have become so thoroughly engaged in “memory wars” regarding the interpretation of the outcome of World War II and de-memorialization of the Gulag and mass repressions. They utilize forms of both repressive forgetting (or “memoricide,” meaning the killing of memory) and defensive forgetting (meaning the destruction of evidence to protect perpetrators), as per the terminology of Aleida Assman, both within and outside the country (e.g., Koposov 2021).

In their domestic endeavors, the current authorities heavily rely on methodologies inherited from their Soviet predecessors concerning the rewriting of official history and reinterpreting of its spatialization – heritage. This includes exercising comprehensive control over historiography and heritage, manipulating their meaning and employing both as tools and battlegrounds in “memory wars.” (A more detailed exploration of the handling of specific expressions of heritage and utilizing de-memorialization techniques will follow in the forthcoming memo).

Conclusion

After underscoring the methodological continuity in state governance between the Soviet and contemporary Russian regimes, marked by shared objectives such as risk avoidance, power maintenance and the perpetuation of an archaic political culture, it is essential to highlight a crucial distinction that holds significance for the authorized heritage discourse (Smith, 2006) and its impact on the conceptualization of cultural heritage in the contemporary Russian context.

The Communist regime propelled itself toward what it saw as the future, and was singularly focused on creating a new civilization and new individuals. The present was a means to achieve these goals, while the past served as a justification for the inevitability of the new social order and the righteousness of the path leading to the future, which also involved “re-contextualization of past identities and values through heritage” (González 2016, 658).

In contrast, contemporary Russian state policy is radically turned to the past, deeply entrenched in a nostalgic view that pledges a revival of the idealized Soviet golden age and a return to the nation’s roots, embracing what is perceived as “true” and traditional values prevalent before the revolutionary upheavals of the 20th century. This approach also involves re-contextualization of the past, albeit in a different way – to sanitize Soviet history and thus strengthen the legitimacy of current authoritarian rule. Another reason for rewriting history lies in the internal contradiction in the state’s nostalgic power discourse, which promises a return to both traditional values and the Soviet golden age, even though the leaders of the latter claimed an ideological rupture with the former.

The state propaganda predominantly associates these origins and perceived “true” traditions with old Russia, imbuing symbols with a potent ethnic Slavic essence. This approach causes concern about inclusivity within Russia’s array of ethnicities, cultures and religions. Meanwhile, the concept of heritage, defined as a collection of tangible values anchored in monumental aspects, continues to be enforced across Russian soil, from the Baltic to the Bering Sea, reminiscent of the practices during the Soviet era.
Anne Applebaum, “Putin’s Grand Strategy,” South Central Review 35.1 (2018): 22-34.

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

Julie Deschepper, “Le ‘Patrimoine Soviétique’ de l’URSS à la Russie contemporaine: généalogie d’un concept,” Vingtième Siècle. Revue D’histoire (2018): 77–98.

Julie Deschepper, “Between Future and Eternity: a Soviet Conception of Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 25.5 (2019): 491-506.

Julie Fedor, Russia and the cult of state security: the Chekist tradition, from Lenin to Putin (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).

Masha Gessen, The man without a face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin (London: Penguin, 2012).

Pablo Alonso González, “Communism and Cultural Heritage: The Quest for Continuity,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 22.9 (2016): 653–663.
Edward L. Keenan, “Muscovite Political Folkways,” The Russian Review 45.2 (1986): 115–181. https://doi.org/10.2307/130423.

Andrey Kolesnikov, “Istoriya pod ruzh’yem: nesekretnaya voyna Kremlya [History Called to Arms: The Kremlin's Nonclassified War],” Carnegie Moscow Center, May 5, 2020, https://carnegiemoscow.org/2020/04/09/ru-pub-81437.

Nikolay Koposov, “The 2014 Russian memory law in the European context,” in Nanci Adler and Anton Weiss-Wendt (eds.), The future of the Soviet past: The politics of history in Putin’s Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021), 193-209.

Medvedev, Sergey. “Zhertva ko Dnyu Pobedy [A sacrifice for Victory Day].” Holod.media, April 19, 2022,https://holod.media/2022/04/19/medvedev-3/.
Sergey Medvedev, “Russian Politics of Memory in Context of the War in Ukraine,” an online lecture given at VU TSPMI Eastern European and Russian Studies, Vilnius, May 5, 2022.

Viatcheslav Morozov, “Subaltern Empire? Toward a Postcolonial Approach to Russian Foreign Policy,” Problems of Post-Communism 60.6 (2013): 16-28.

Gertjan Plets, “Ethno-Nationalism, Asymmetric Federalism and Soviet Perceptions of the Past: (World) Heritage Activism in the Russian Federation,” Journal of Social Archaeology 15.1 (2015): 67-93.

Arsenij Roginskij and Hartmut Schröder, “Erinnerung und Freiheit: Die Stalinismus-Diskussion in der UdSSR und Russland [Memory and Freedom: The Discussion of Stalinism in the USSR and Russia],” Osteuropa (2011): 55-69.

Arseniy Roginsky, “Pamyat’ o Stalinizme” [The memory of Stalinism]. Transcript of speech delivered at International Scientific conference “History of Stalinism: Outcomes and Problems of Study,” Moscow, December 5, 2008,https://lib.memo.ru/book/27170

Lilia Shevtsova, Putin’s Russia (New York : Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010).

Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).

Madina Tlostanova, “The Janus-faced empire distorting orientalist discourses: Gender, race and religion in the Russian/(post) Soviet constructions of the ‘Orient,” Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise 2.2 (2008): 1-11.
  • Anna Gaynutdinova

    Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus-Senftenberg, 

    Heritage Studies,  Alumna

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