Modern Authoritarianism: History Falsification | Freedom House

Chapter 4: History Falsification

The Ministry of Truth in Peace and War

It’s easy predicting the future; what’s difficult is predicting the past.

– Soviet joke

A lie isn’t an alternative point of view.

– Linus Linkevičius, Lithuanian foreign minister

The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past…. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.

– George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War

An early and telling sign that Vladimir Putin planned something more ambitious than a mere tightening of state control over political life was his decision to return Joseph Stalin to his position in the pantheon of great Russian leaders. Stalin’s rehabilitation was formalized in 2007, with the publication of a new curriculum guide for teachers of Russian history.1

The manual’s content dovetailed with Putin’s broader promotion of a narrative in which Russia is a great power that recovered from the chaos and weakness of the Yeltsin era and overcame the hostility of determined enemies, especially the United States. According to the manual, Russia’s dark chapters—its domination of Eastern Europe, internal repression, Stalinist purges—were the regrettable but understandable responses to the country’s underdevelopment and encirclement by foreign enemies. The new history paints a picture of an all-wise Russian state, under both Stalin and Putin, whose requirements always take precedence over the needs of the individual.2

Putin took unusual interest in the preparation of the history manual. The idea that history should be written by historians, not political leaders, was never voiced in public discussion. Putin later called for history textbooks “written in proper Russian, free of internal contradictions and double interpretation.”3 He said the manual was needed to clear up “the muddle” in teachers’ heads.

And in unveiling the new guide, he struck a theme that runs through Russian propaganda in the Putin era: Russian history “did contain some problematic pages,” he said. “But so did other states’ histories. We have fewer of them than in other countries. And they were less terrible than in some other countries.” Putin’s basic message was that “we can’t allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us.”4 More broadly, Putin was saying that a sovereign state has the right to interpret its history in whatever way it wants, to ignore or distort the tragic chapters, and to burnish the reputations of mass murderers and thugs.

Whereas other countries simply avoid serious study of the most shameful episodes of their histories, as Indonesia has done with the epidemic of political killings during the 1960s, or as China has done with the Cultural Revolution, Russia treats the Stalin era as a time of progress during which the foundation for modern Russian greatness was laid.5

To build a case that Russia’s dark pages were “less terrible” than those of other countries, Russia’s official history depicts Stalin as a strong leader who was capable of acts of cruelty but whose rough tactics were necessary for the defense of the homeland, which was besieged militarily by the Nazis and politically by the capitalist powers.

Excusing the Soviet empire

The Russian leadership is especially tenacious in defending Stalin’s World War II diplomacy. Putin, for example, has defended the Hitler-Stalin pact, the 1939 nonaggression agreement that opened the door to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and carved up much of Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian states.6 While Putin called the pact “immoral” during a 2009 visit to Poland, he defended the agreement during a joint press conference with Angela Merkel in 2015, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He did so in a fashion typical of current Russian propaganda methods. He accused the West of trying to “hush up” the agreement between British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler that resulted in Germany’s seizure of parts and eventually all of Czechoslovakia. This clearly falsified the historical record. Far from suppressing Chamberlain’s actions, historians and politicians alike have held up the Munich agreement as a symbol of all that went wrong due to the European democracies’ appeasement of Hitler.7

Putin has also justified the Hitler-Stalin pact on the grounds that it kept the Soviet Union out of war for a time and was in keeping with the amoral power politics practiced in that era. As for the divvying up of Eastern Europe, he repeated the hoary lie that the record was unclear as to whether the pact’s secret protocols—in which the two parties agreed on which territories each would subsequently control—were genuine.8 Predictably, Putin did not go into the unwritten parts of the agreement that caused Stalin to forcibly repatriate a group of German dissidents, mostly Communists, who had sought refuge in the Soviet Union.

Both the history manual and the political leadership justify the transformation of postwar Eastern Europe into a Soviet-controlled bloc—in which the economy came under state control, religious belief was persecuted, civil society was destroyed, the press was converted into a monolithic instrument of propaganda, and opposition political parties were crushed—by claiming that Moscow needed a layer of territorial security to protect it from the hostile West. “Historical necessity” is how Putin’s spokesman described Soviet domination of the region. Putin likewise blames the democracies for the Iron Curtain: “We understand the fatality of an ‘iron curtain’ for us. We will not go down this path. No one will build a wall around us.”9

The manual recalls Mikhail Gorbachev not for his attempts to reform and liberalize the Communist system, but instead for his having permitted the unraveling of the European security belt in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moving into the 21st century, the manual denounces the color revolutions in neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine as Western-backed schemes to replace pro-Russian leaders with pro-American usurpers. In this view, the centuries may change and the Soviet empire may fade into history, but Russia’s geopolitical predicament remains constant.

Sakharov as nonperson

Because Putin is intent on blaming the West for Russia’s problems, both past and present, he has worked to ensure that critical domestic voices are removed from Russian history. This explains the near total absence of Andrey Sakharov from any discussion of the Soviet past or Russia’s future course.

Today Sakharov is recalled abroad as a dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. In Russia, however, he has been relegated to the status of nonperson. Putin and other leaders never refer to him, his legacy, or his views. The organizations that were launched to promote his principles are harassed and placed on the “foreign agents” list.10 In an age of flourishing digital media, Russians are ironically less likely to know what Sakharov stood for than was the case under Soviet censorship, when underground samizdat literature was reproduced on manual typewriters to reach an audience of a few hundred.11

In fact, Sakharov was an imposing global presence from the mid-1960s until his death in 1989. His stature derived from his prominent role in the development of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. He was sometimes called the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” and because of the respect he enjoyed in the global scientific community, his views on arms control carried enormous weight.

His initial forays into political dissent consisted of cautious statements about the importance of weapons treaties between Washington and Moscow. But the more he thought about arms control, the more closely he looked at his own society. And soon he was making caustic comments about the yawning gap between Soviet boasts on the achievements of socialism and the reality of Soviet backwardness.

He eventually came to see the system that prevailed in the Soviet Union as inherently repressive. Sakharov attributed Russia’s epidemic of alcoholism to the leadership’s having purged the governing system of moral considerations. He said it was “important that our society gradually emerge from the dead end of unspirituality.” He spoke of the need for the “systematic defense of human rights and ideals, and not a political struggle, which would inevitably incite people to violence, sectarianism, and frenzy.”12

The Kremlin has worked hard to make Russians forget that he once ranked among the eminent figures of global political protest. The current leadership is especially determined to ensure that Sakharov’s core goals disappear from the debate: a Russia committed to humane and democratic values, a government that deals honestly with the people, and a country that lives at peace with its neighbors.

The Ukraine factor

The falsification of history that began during the early years of Putin’s leadership has been intensified in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea in 2014. To convince the Russian people that waging a form of low-intensity warfare against a neighbor was justified, Putin has stepped up efforts to depict the West as antagonistic to Russian interests, launched a campaign to label those responsible for Ukraine’s Maidan uprising as fascists, driven home the idea that ethnic Russians living outside the Russian Federation were under relentless persecution, and identified Russian critics of aggression against Ukraine as a treasonous fifth column.

A recurring theme of post-Crimea propaganda is the notion that Russia faces the same threats from the West today as it did during the Cold War. To make this point, Russian television aired a documentary meant to justify one of the more shameful events of the Soviet period, the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia. The invasion was undertaken to crush the reformist Prague Spring movement, whose leaders were moving increasingly in the direction of jettisoning state socialism, embracing democratic reforms, and seeking a kind of neutral geopolitical status much like that enjoyed at the time by Austria. The documentary used archival footage to build a concocted case that the invasion was necessary to thwart a NATO-inspired coup in Prague.13 The clear purpose of the film was to portray NATO as a permanent threat to Russian interests, as much in 2014 as in 1968.14

Another television documentary focused on the seizure of Crimea, a year after the event. As Lucian Kim has noted, the program is something of a celebration of the tactics of dictatorship. The filmmakers offer no conflicting opinions and present American leaders as puppet masters. Among other claims, the documentary asserts that Washington gave the Maidan forces information about Ukrainian security methods that American officials had obtained during bilateral exchange programs with the Kyiv government.15

To further bolster the case for the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian propaganda machinery devoted great energy to demonstrating the fascist nature of the Maidan, relying heavily on invocations of Soviet history. The Ukrainian protesters and activists who helped drive out corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych, and the European-oriented politicians who replaced him, were repeatedly labeled as present-day followers of Stepan Bandera, a controversial nationalist leader who fought the Soviets and at times cooperated with the Nazis in a doomed campaign for an independent Ukraine during World War II. Russian media presented Bandera and his followers as unambiguous allies of the Nazis, and highlighted their wartime atrocities. Russian media also featured a number of documentaries that emphasized Russian, as opposed to Soviet, resistance to Hitler. The objective was to equate contemporary Ukrainians who favored full sovereignty and independence from Russian influence with Nazi collaborators and pogromists. This served not only to explain Moscow’s response, but also to deter any emulation of the Maidan protests in Russia itself.

The assault on academic freedom

Since the occupation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, it has become increasingly dangerous to express dissenting views on Russian foreign policy in Russia’s schools and universities. Putin made the point quite clearly in a speech before the parliament in March 2014, when he referred to a “fifth column” and a “disparate bunch of national traitors” sowing discord within Russia.16

In the ensuing months, anyone criticizing Russian policy risked the label of foreign agent, which in Russian usage is tantamount to being called a spy. Around this time a new website called Predatel (traitor) began listing alleged traitors, specifically those who had criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea or supported sanctions against Russian officials. The site encouraged Russians to send in the names of other traitors.

Meanwhile, a number of educators fell afoul of the new policies on the teaching of history. In March 2014, Andrey Zubov, who held a position at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, was fired for “an immoral act”—namely an article he published in the newspaper Vedomosti that criticized the seizure of Crimea and compared it to Hitler’s annexation of Austria. “We must not behave the way the Germans once behaved, based on the promises of Goebbels and Hitler,” he wrote. The university’s explanation claimed that Zubov’s writings “contradict Russia’s foreign policy and inflict careless, irresponsible criticism on the actions of the state.”17 In a similar incident, senior sociologist Aleksandr Konkov was let go by Sakhalin State University after declaring that Russia had seized Crimea opportunistically because Ukraine was weak, not because Crimeans themselves had clamored for the takeover.18

In May 2014, Putin signed a new law that criminalized the purposeful distortion of the Soviet Union’s role in World War II. It could easily be applied to historians who, for example, criticize Stalin’s Great Terror and its decimation of the military leadership in the years before the war.19 Historians who make the “wrong” interpretations of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the huge casualties suffered by the Red Army, or the rape and plunder committed by Soviet troops as they marched toward Berlin might also risk criminal penalties.

In late 2016 the Russian Security Council discussed the establishment of a new center to counter the “falsification” of history. The council placed the proposal in the context of the country’s national security, pointing to “deliberate destructive activity by foreign state structures and international organizations to realize geopolitical interests by means of carrying out anti-Russian policies.”

A group of experts identified six topics from Russia’s past that they claimed were being actively distorted as part of an anti-Russia strategy. Among the topics: the Soviet Union’s ethnic policies, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Soviet Union’s conduct during World War II, the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Union’s suppression of uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany during the Cold War.20 In each case, the most serious and respected historical accounts have been written by foreign scholars, due largely to the pressures, including outright censorship, brought to bear on Russian historians during Soviet times and more recently during the Putin era.

China: Evading the past

Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward ranks among the most deadly politically inspired catastrophes in human history. From 1958 to 1962, Communist Party authorities, under strict orders from Beijing, forcibly herded millions of farmers into communes and then proceeded to seize grain harvested in the countryside to feed the urban population. The result, according to long-standing estimates, was the death of some 30 million people in the provinces. Historian Frank Dikötter, who studied the archives in some of the most seriously affected regions, has argued that the number of deaths was at least 45 million, and others have cited higher numbers. While most died of starvation, many were tortured to death or murdered by local Communists.21

To this day, Communist Party officials have refused to acknowledge anything approaching the full dimensions of the tragedy. Nor have they admitted that the party, and especially Mao, were responsible. Often they blame the weather. There are no official monuments to the victims, no days of commemoration, no serious histories available to the general public, and most significantly, no effort to place accountability where it belonged.

Chinese leaders may be even more concerned about presenting the “correct” interpretation of history than their Russian counterparts. An updated official version of the party history that was released in 2011 took 16 years to draft, including four extensive rewrites. It was vetted by 64 state and party bodies, including the People’s Liberation Army. In telling the story of the Great Leap Forward, the history admits that the project brought great suffering, but credits Mao with wanting to “change a picture of poverty and backwardness and make China grow rich and strong so that it could use its own strength to stand tall in the forest of nations.”22 In other words, one of the century’s great politically driven famines was justified because it supposedly contributed to China’s emergence as a world power. The history also insists that Mao tried to change course when he learned of the growing rural suffering—an outright lie, as Mao actually doubled down on the most disastrous policies.

The determination to suppress any real assessment of the dark corners of Chinese history under the Communist Party is also reflected in the exhibits at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square. Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), a period of political terror and violent nationwide purges, is dispensed with through one photograph and a brief caption, located in an out-of-the-way part of the facility. As for the famine, it is glossed over with the euphemistic phrase, “the project of constructing socialism suffered severe complications.”23

Seven ‘don’t mentions’

In 2013, the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee issued a secret directive prohibiting universities from permitting the discussion of seven themes—the “Seven Don’t Mentions.” According to the directive, lecturers were not allowed to take up universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civic rights, elite cronyism, judicial independence, and past mistakes of the Communist Party.24

To independent-minded scholars, the most disturbing item in the roster of Don’t Mentions was the leadership’s mistakes. While the authorities have never come close to permitting a serious investigation of either the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, these and other aspects of the party’s past were not considered utterly taboo, as long as the discussion did not lead to serious challenges to orthodox historical interpretations. According to the policies set down under Xi Jinping’s leadership, talking in classrooms about Mao’s errors is now forbidden.25

The drive to inculcate a national amnesia on the worst abuses of the Communist era is not limited to university courses. Commentary and discussion in the media and on the internet are also heavily censored, especially on anniversary days when, in normal societies, problematic events of the past are remembered and debated.26 The most sensitive anniversary, of course, falls on June 4, marking the deadly 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Even the most oblique or coded reference to that date on social media is quickly censored.

There are no museums devoted the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward. The archives of the Cultural Revolution period are mainly closed to researchers. Chinese historians have made some important breakthroughs, but can discuss their findings only with small groups of peers.

The Communist Party’s refusal to come to terms with the crimes of the Mao era has enabled a revival of the former leader’s personality cult that has captured the support of millions of Chinese. As Jamil Anderlini wrote in the Financial Times, Mao has come to be seen as a symbol of a “simpler, fairer society—a time when everyone was poorer but at least they were equally poor.”27 Xi and his colleagues have actively promoted Maoist images, songs, and propaganda themes as ornaments of Chinese nationalism, and used Mao-style tactics and terminology in their drive for ideological discipline and political loyalty.

The melding of nationalism and reverence for Mao is no accident. According to the regime’s updated historical narrative, China was subjugated by foreign powers for more than a century until the party took power in 1949 and restored the country’s national greatness. Admitting Mao’s abuses would mean admitting that the first three decades of Communist rule left China poor, isolated, and traumatized, and that only the partial abandonment of party doctrine and control allowed the country to prosper.

A side effect of the party’s appropriation of Chinese nationalism is a renewed hostility toward the foreign powers that kept China weak before Communist rule. Basic history textbooks—in addition to omitting or distorting the mistakes, failures, and criminal acts of the Communist leadership—focus on China’s persecution at the hands of outsiders, especially Japan. Some Chinese critics worry that the teaching of history is cultivating an alarming degree of xenophobia and jingoism.28

History held hostage

In much of the world today, there are or have been major efforts to confront uncomfortable truths about the past. This is certainly true of Germany and South Africa. Latin American countries like Chile and Argentina have probed the histories of ugly conflicts between military juntas and Marxist revolutionaries. In China’s own backyard, South Korea and Taiwan have moved to address the complex legacies, including outright crimes, of dictators.

The process of accounting for the mistakes and crimes of earlier decades can raise a tangle of ethical and emotional challenges in any country. But resistance to a full examination of the past is especially bitter in societies where communism held sway. In China, the heirs of Mao still control the state, and the very legitimacy of the system is built on a veneration of the Great Helmsman. In Russia, the Putin leadership praises the achievements of Stalin and aspires to the superpower status of the Soviet Union. A consequence of this ahistorical nostalgia is that in Russia today, 26 percent of those polled by Levada believe that Stalinist repression was necessary; a decade ago, the figure was just 9 percent. Likewise, only 45 percent told Levada that political persecution was a crime; in 2007, the figure was 72 percent.29

The communist system was responsible for four of the most destructive episodes of the 20th century: Stalin’s purges, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Cambodian genocide. Add to this the persecutions inflicted on the people of the Baltic states, Eastern Europeans, Cubans, North Koreans, and many others, and the population affected by mass killings and misery swells even further. While few people today admire totalitarian Marxism as a governing system, there is a reluctance to reject it with the same moral clarity as in assessments of Nazism. Scholars, not to mention political figures, who express even modest admiration for Hitler are immediately and properly condemned. As long as Stalin and Mao, two of history’s worst mass murderers, escape similar opprobrium in their own countries, a reckoning with historical truth and an understanding of its lessons will be postponed.


1 Andrew E. Kramer, “New Russian History: Yes, People Died, but ...,” New York Times, August 15, 2007,

2 “The Rewriting of History,” Economist, November 8, 2007,

3 Gabriela Baczynska, “Putin Accused of Soviet Tactics in Drafting New History Book,” Reuters, November 18, 2013,

4 “The Rewriting of History,” Economist.

5 Ben Hoyle, “Putin Rewrites History for New School Textbook,” Times (London), November 20, 2013,

6 Gabriela Baczynska, “Putin Accused of Soviet Tactics in Drafting New History Book.”

7 “​​Merkel Listens as Putin Defends USSR’s Pact with Nazi Germany,” Kviv Post, May 10, 2015,; “Putin Defends Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in Press Conference with Merkel,” Moscow Times, May 11, 2015,

8 Linas Linkevičius, “Putin Has Defended the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Time for the West to Wake Up,” Guardian, November 7, 2014,; Tom Parfitt, “Vladimir Putin Says There Was Nothing Wrong with Soviet Union’s Pact with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany,” Telegraph, November 6, 2014,; Timothy Snyder, “Putin’s New Nostalgia,” New York Review of Books, November 10, 2014,

9 Reuters, “Putin: ‘We Understand the Fatality of an Iron Curtain,’” Business Insider, November 23, 2014,

10 Fred Weir, “How a Liberal Bastion Is Persevering in an Increasingly Illiberal Moscow,” Christian Science Monitor, January 25, 2016,

11 Serge Schmemann, “Sakharov, Little Remembered in Putin’s Russia,” New York Times, December 17, 2014,

12 Arch Puddington, “A Prophet Ignored in His Own Land: Andrey D. Sakharov,” Freedom at Issue, September 28, 2015,

13 Tony Barber, “Russia Rewrites History of the Prague Spring,” Financial Times, June 3, 2015,

14 Andrew Pulver, “New Russian Invasion Documentary Dismays Czech and Slovak Governments,” Guardian, June 2, 2015,; “Russian Documentary on ‘Helpful’ 1968 Invasion Angers Czechs,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 1, 2015,

15 Lucian Kim, “Vladimir Putin’s New Faux Documentary Is Trying to Rewrite the History of His Own Aggression,” Slate, March 19, 2015,

16 Joshua Yaffa, “Putin’s New War on ‘Traitors,’” New Yorker, March 28, 2014,

17 “Russian Professor Sacked over Criticism of Actions in Ukraine,” Reuters, March 24, 2014,; “Russian Propaganda: 1984 in 2014,” Economist, March 29, 2014,

18 Sergey Berzin, “Russian Academics Spooked by Zubov’s Dismissal,” University World News, April 11, 2014,

19 “Putin Signs Law Criminalizing Denial of Nazi War Crimes,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 5, 2014,

20 Tom Balmforth, “Russia’s Security Council Turns Its Gaze to History and 1917,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 30, 2016.

21 Gao Wenqian, “China Must Purge Mao’s Ghost,” New York Times, December 25, 2013,

22 Andrew Higgins, “In China, a Long Path of Writing the Communist Party’s History,” Washington Post, May 26, 2011,

23 Ian Johnson, “At China’s New Museum, History Toes Party Line,” New York Times, April 3, 2011,

24 Anne Henochowicz, “Sensitive Words: Seven Don’t Mentions and More,” China Digital Times, May 11, 2013,

25 Raymond Li, “Seven Subjects Off Limits for Teaching, Chinese Universities Told,” South China Morning Post, May 10, 2013,

26 Tom Mitchell, “China Deploys Amnesia on Fiftieth Anniversary of Cultural Revolution,” Financial Times, May 13, 2016,

27 Jamil Anderlini, “The Return of Mao: A New Threat to China’s Politics,” Financial Times, September 29, 2016,

28 Cameron White, “Beijing’s Textbook Hypocrisy,” Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015,

29 Maxim Trudolyubov, “Putin Plays Politics with Russia’s Terrible Past,” Newsweek, November 3, 2016,