“When truth­ful­ness and ho­nour are not enough”

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 1/2022. Historical disputes are reflected in Russia's international tensions, but there are also more than two “truths” inside the country itself. In Russian social debate, emphasis falls on cherishing history and preventing it from being distorted. In nationalistic theories that spread on the Internet on these issues, those in power in the country are even presented as traitors.

Online discussions on the Internet can be expected to include almost any sort of scientific and societal claims. It is often difficult to assess which online discussions should be taken seriously and which should not. The Russian state has significantly increased its monitoring and sanctioning of historical discussions. In summer 2021, the State Duma clarified the Act on the Protection of the Commemoration of the Soviet Victory in the Second World War by prohibiting any juxtaposing of the actions and objectives of the Soviet Union with those of Nazi Germany in public appearances and media, including the Internet. At the end of the year, the Memorial organisation, which cherished the memory of Russian political prisoners and advocated their cases, was declared a “foreign agent” that had libelled the honour of the Soviet Union, and was subsequently shut down.

In both historical discussions and foreign policy, Russia's superpower heritage is linked to the so-called civilisational heritage, which means that the debate on history will extend to periods antedating the 20th century. In 2015, the video Ja russkii okkupant (“I am a Russian conqueror”) went viral on the Internet. It justifies the conquest of Siberia, the Baltic States and Central Asia from the 17th century to the 20th century on the rationale that the Russians civilised these previously undeveloped societies. A link to this video, created by a Novosibirsk blogger, was soon also tweeted by the then Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin.

The Orthodox Church of Russia has also played a key role in mobilising the memory of the “Old Russia” that preceded Peter the Great. On 7 January 2022, at the night service of Orthodox Christmas, Patriarch Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow, referred to Kazakhstan as part of the ancient Russian country (Rus’), and stated that “we” should not be indifferent to the bloodshed that is happening there. Although Kirill did not clarify his message further, on the basis of the past policy of the Church, it is possible to interpret his words as supporting the deployment of the Russian “peacekeeping forces”. Also within Russia, the Orthodox Church has stood with the Kremlin in relation to the preservation of the legacy of the country's history, confronting not only democratic organisations such as Memorial, but also ultra-nationalist Russians. Some of the latter accuse those in power of participating in the falsification of historical truths, including those related to the country’s Christianisation in the 10th century. The courts have, for their part, condemned the digital distribution of such material as extremism and an offence against religious feelings.

In the “Ancient kingdoms and founders of Russia: pseudohistory and history politics in 21st century Finland” project, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, by combining computer-aided and qualitative methods we have studied how unchecked theories about history are shaped and how they circulate in the Finnish- and Russian-language Internet. Many of these theories are decades and even hundreds of years old, but the development of communications technology has provided a new framework for their spread. Finnish-speaking discussion boards have certain communities where it is alleged that ancient Finnish kings dominated northern Europe and established Russia. In the Russian-speaking network, the most widely spread clearly pseudo-historical theory we have identified presents an ancient empire of early Russia which has been silenced as a result of a large conspiracy. The existence of the empire is supported by several “scientifically” combined sources. Sites spreading this theory are networked through hyperlinks and shared materials in their own relatively isolated bubbles. The dissemination of such material on the Internet is a good example of how pseudo-science-related theories operate in a digital communications environment.

Teemu Oivo works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki and at the Karelian Institute of the University of Eastern Finland.