Memory Politics in Russia: Why Battles Over Remembering the Past Are Struggles For the Future

The photo was published on the official website of the Grozny administration as part of a report on the Day of Solidarity against Terrorism, held in Grozny in 2018 at the monument to those killed in the struggle against terrorism. Image license: Administration of Grozny
Day of solidarity against terrorism, held in Grozny in 2018. Image license: Administration of Grozny

As decolonial movements around the world are challenging the presence of colonial statues in public spaces and demanding their removal, governments continue to use monuments to shape collective memory and produce historical narratives. Activist, curator, and researcher Elena Ishchenko examines the case of Russia, showing how repressive memory politics help the Kremlin demonstrate its sovereignty and justify its ongoing colonial expansion and wars.


The question of memory politics is particularly relevant to the ongoing war in Ukraine, which began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and has led to the large-scale invasion and recent occupation of eastern Ukrainian territories. The strategic use of historical narratives and glorification of the past helps Russia’s government cover up these crimes with narratives of liberation from fascism, protection of the population, and great war victories. This politics of remembrance is practiced throughout Russia. However, in the national republics and regions that bear the memory of colonization and are more exposed to the results of the hyper-centralized imperial regime of extractivism and structural racism, it is carried out in particularly nuanced and oppressive ways.

Grozny: Memorials against commemoration

In 2014, just one month before the annexation of Crimea, in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, now part of the Russian Federation, a memorial complex to the victims of Stalin’s deportation of Chechen and Ingush people was completely destroyed on the official grounds of “inconsistencies with the master plan.” The destruction followed years of confrontation between Chechen authorities and local activists, including human rights defender Natalia Estemirova, who was killed in 2009. Created as a sculptural composition by Chechen artist Darchi Khasakhanov, the memorial was expanded with churts, Chechen tombstones. Every year on February 23, the Day of Grief and Remembrance, which marks the beginning of the deportations in 1944, people gather at the monument to remember the genocide that claimed the lives of up to one-third of the entire Chechen population.

The monument was destroyed, but the sacred churts were moved to another memorial, to those killed in the struggle against terrorism, on Akhmad Kadyrov Square in Grozny. With the names of policemen, heads of administrations and religious leaders in the center, it commemorates those who died during the Second Chechen War, fighting alongside Russian federal forces against the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The monument was opened in 2010, on May 9, the day Akhmad Kadyrov, the first Moscow-backed authoritarian leader and father of the current president of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, was killed in a bomb attack. A few years later, Ramzan Kadyrov moved the Day of Grief and Remembrance from February 23 to May 10 and linked it to the day of Akhmad Kadyrov’s funeral. Ruslan Kutayev, Chechen activist and politician, strongly and openly opposed this decision, and as a result was found guilty of dubious drug possession charges.

Instrumentalization of memory

The politics of remembrance in contemporary Russia is not defined by any specific governing body or law, with the exception of the Law of 2014 and the provisions of the Law of 2022, which regulate statements about the role of the USSR in World War II and the justification of Nazism. The manipulation of memorial data and objects is an integral part of the Russian state’s policy of creating a so-called ‘single historical space’ within Russian borders and in the occupied territories by implementing a bidirectional policy of (1) eradicating and suppressing any communal, self-organized, or independent initiatives of memorial politics and (2) replacing them with its own ideologically driven narratives. This strategy has been in place since the 2000s, intensified after the annexation of Crimea, and has been exercised in full force since the start of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In 2008, the Chechen authorities tried to destroy the monument, but activists resisted. By 2014, it was already impossible as long as Kadyrov’s regime ignored and crushed opposition voices. To give an example: The persecution of International Memorial, a prominent NGO dedicated to preserving the memory of Soviet repression and defending human rights, began in 2007 with assaults, DDoS attacks, threats, and fabricated lawsuits, culminating in the Russian Supreme Court’s order to close the organization in February 2022, a few days after the massive invasion of Ukraine.

The case of International Memorial is high-profile, but many similar, less visible struggles took place in the republics. In 2021, a court in Bashkortostan handed down a three-year suspended sentence to 60-year-old Ilmira Bikbaeva for “financing extremism” – donating money for the installation of a monument to the Bashkortostani people, victims of the 1736 massacre carried out by the Imperial Russian Army during the colonization of these lands. In the same year, the monument to the Bashkortostan historian and leader of the Bashkortostan liberation movement, Zeki Velidi Togan, was dismantled at St. Petersburg State University.

Controlling historical narratives and suppress dissent

Construction for the 2014 Olympics has destroyed several important sites commemorating the indigenous Circassian (Adyghe) people, most notably Krasnaya Polyana, or Qbaada in Adyghe. In 1864, at the end of more than a century of Russo-Circassian war, many Circassians died there as the Russian Imperial Army celebrated the final battle over Circassia, followed by ethnic cleansing. In 2020, in the republics of the North Caucasus with the indigenous Adyghe population, the traditional memorial procession on the Day of Remembrance of the Circassian Genocide was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, which were later lifted, but the ban remains in force.

The persecution of International Memorial and similar repressive actions in various republics demonstrates the Kreml’s efforts to control historical narratives and suppress dissent. It sees such collective commemorative practices as hostile and threatening to its territorial integrity because they are capable of reimagining relations with the land, reclaiming it, and challenging the legitimacy of colonial regimes. Thus, the memory of the Circassian genocide also recalls the crimes of Russian colonization, just as the monument to the victims of the deportations in Grozny, built in 1992 under Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first president of the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, not only responded to the people’s urge to openly discuss the expulsion, but also reflected the ideas of independence.

The Russian government allows only state-sanctioned forms of remembrance. Meanwhile, self-organized manifestations are suppressed (though not completely eliminated) and made unsafe by the threat of prosecution. “Since the aim of the politics of memory is to orient notions about the shared past towards the endorsement of current policies, a regime may seek to exert as much control as possible over public expressions of collective remembrance,” writes researcher Mariëlle Wijermars in her book “Memory Politics in Contemporary Russia” (2018). Thus, in order to successfully implement the second direction of memorial politics, the fulfillment of memory practices with ideologically driven narratives, the Russian regime proclaims its exclusive, authoritarian right to any manifestations in public space.

Performing sovereignty

The vast majority of public monuments installed in Russia in recent years have been produced by local governments and various state or Kremlin-backed organizations, such as the Russian Orthodox Church or the Ministry of Culture. The Border Service of the Russian Federation, for example, has erected several dozen monuments to Russian border guards (some of which can be found here). Promoting territorial integrity? Sounds like a joke. Other organizations have been more successful with this goal, and the most central of these is the Russian Military Historical Society (RMHS), established by Vladimir Putin’s presidential decree in 2012. Using “monumental propaganda” as a key strategy, the RMHS has erected more than 250 monuments in Russia, other countries, and the occupied territories of Ukraine, such as the huge Memorial to the Sons of Russia Who Fought in the Civil War in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (2021). In Grozny, the RMHS erected several statues of Chechen soldiers – heroes of the so-called Great Patriotic War (Soviet participation in World War II, 2023).

In Aleida Assmann’s terms, this strategy of bringing to light specific events and figures and introducing them into the “active cultural memory” could be described as “canonization” – turning something into a “stable reference”: “The canon stands for the active working memory of a society that defines and supports the cultural identity of a group.”

The narrative of war, even without specifying battles or figures, is also useful in enabling two ideas: (1) of a possible external threat and protection that only Russia can provide, and (2) of war as a threat that the Russian regime can use against those who oppose its colonial ambitions. For people in Ukraine, Georgia, or Chechnya, it is not just an empty sound, but the horrors they have lived through.

Local administrations have focused less on military efforts and more on hiding the crimes of colonization. In Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic, one of the Asian republics of the Russian Federation, a vivid monument to the Russian Cossack Semyon Dezhnyov, his wife Abakayada and their child was erected in 2005. While schoolbooks describe the peaceful conquest and civilizing missions, historical sources, including those of tsarist colonels, reveal the brutality of the conquest of the Sakha and other indigenous peoples of North Asia, the prevalence of sexualized violence among soldiers and colonists, and the strong resistance. Behind the label of a “great explorer,” Semyon Dezhnyov was a successful settler and fur trader who contributed much to the conquest of Kamchatka and the subordination of the indigenous peoples. Abakayada, depicted in Russian dress, symbolizes an indigenous person who was civilized and Christianized. Similar monuments with figures of Russian colonists next to indigenous people can be found almost everywhere, from Krasnodar to Vladivostok. They replace the history of colonization and resistance with the myth of peaceful coexistence and unity under Russian domination. As one of the mobilizing war posters said right after the start of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine: “I am a Kalmyk, but today we are all Russians.”

The political function of “invisibility”

Aleida Assmann calls it a “collective autobiography” of a nation-state, which has its own nuances in the context of the Russian imperial regime. A common past is transformed into a cultural memory that constructs a sense of shared national identity, which is perhaps the most important task of Russian national and commemorative politics. But who cares about these monuments? No one notices them, let alone knows the figures and events they represent. Could any citizen of Sevastopol identify one of the nameless soldiers of the Civil War praised by the newly erected monument? Do local people know all these colonizers and colonels in the squares of their cities? As Robert Musil once said: “There is nothing in this world so invisible as a monument.” But the goal of such canonization is not to depict certain figures or events, because the Russian government doesn’t want to promote education about the depicted events, but rather the habit of the symbolic meaning they carry and manifest. Indeed, “invisibility” serves a crucial function in legitimizing highly ideologized historical and political narratives, making them part of a natural order of things – something to be taken for granted.

Thus, monuments are not only about the fascination with the common past, but also about a specific vision of the common future. The monument itself is present, creating the regime and order in the present and proposing it as an idea for the future. As Nicholas Mirzoeff suggests in his text “Once More, the Monuments Must Fall”: The monuments “are absolutely ‘now.’ And they defend and project a certain vision of the future as settler colonial white supremacy.” Such a regime of white Russian supremacy is what Russia seeks to impose on its once-colonized or newly occupied territories through the strategic use of monuments, memorial politics in general, and the manipulation of historical narratives. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay has pointed out: In order to be established, sovereignty must be repeatedly performed. These monuments, sometimes strange, sometimes frightening, are part of this performance, which also aims to justify the ongoing colonial war in Ukraine, the crimes against Ukrainians, and the occupation of their territories, in keeping with a certain vision that “Russia is here forever.”

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