By Mikhail Zygar
September 19, 2023
The New York Times
Starting this month, all high school students in Russia have a new history textbook. On its pages, they’ll find a strikingly simplistic account of the past 80 years — from the end of World War II to the present — that all but comes with the Kremlin’s signature.
Revisionism doesn’t begin to cover it. Stalin, in contrast to the standard depiction in Russian textbooks over the past 30 years, is presented as a wise and effective leader thanks to whom the Soviet Union won the war and ordinary people began to live much better. Repressions are mentioned, but in an accusatory way. The reader is left with the feeling that Stalin’s victims were guilty and suffered a well-deserved punishment.
The telling of the end of the Soviet Union is similarly distorted. Previous textbooks analyzed the collapse of the Soviet system and the inefficiency of the planned economy, writing about the arms race and the irrationality of the elderly Soviet leaders. The new tome blames everything on Mikhail Gorbachev, castigating him as an incompetent bureaucrat who succumbed to pressure from the United States. Then there’s the 28 pages on the war in Ukraine. They contain, of course, no history and only outright propaganda — a set of clichés recycled from Russian television.
The book was written, along with others, by Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s former culture minister and now a presidential aide. Mr. Medinsky has another, more secret role: He is President Vladimir Putin’s ghostwriter. Working with a team of assistants, he writes texts about history under Mr. Putin’s name. Given the president’s obsession with history and use of it to justify his regime, Mr. Medinsky occupies an important position in Russia today. From the shadows, he has helped construct the ideological and historical edifice on which much of Mr. Putin’s rule rests.
But who is he?
Mr. Medinsky was born in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine in 1970. But he is not Ukrainian at all. His father was a military man and his childhood was spent traveling across the Soviet Union, from garrison to garrison. In this peripatetic environment, according to close acquaintances, Mr. Medinsky was brought up with very conservative values and as a sincere patriot of the Soviet Union. Education was important too — his mother was a schoolteacher — and, in time, led him to the Moscow Institute of International Relations. A model student, he excelled in the School of Journalism and was a member of Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth organization.
But by the time he graduated, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Mr. Medinsky had no difficulty adjusting. In 1992, with a group of classmates, he created his own advertising company, Ya Corporation. Its clients were mostly financial firms and tobacco companies. He soon became a P.R. man for the tobacco lobby — a bit like the unscrupulous main character in Christopher
Buckley’s 1994 book “Thank You for Smoking.” Even so, he didn’t neglect his studies, continuing to work toward a doctorate.
That’s when I met Mr. Medinsky, when I was as an undergraduate at the institute in the late ’90s. He was 10 years older than me, aloof, and had just started to teach public relations. It was a new and very fashionable discipline, and many of my classmates, who wanted to become “P.R. people,” dreamed of learning from him. Something of a star on campus, Mr. Medinsky was considered a successful businessman and willingly supported students, taking the best of them for internships at his company.
In 2000, Mr. Putin became president of Russia, taking over from Boris Yeltsin. As any P.R. man should, Mr. Medinsky adapted to the change in atmosphere, parlaying a job in the civil service into a political career. By 2004, he was a member of parliament for Mr. Putin’s United Russia party. Despite accusations that he continued as an elected official to lobby for tobacco companies and casinos, Mr. Medinsky was a man on the rise.
It helped that he started trading in patriotism. In 2007, this former tobacco lobbyist began to write books about history — or, rather, he began to create historical P.R. In a series of books called “Myths About Russia,” he set out to debunk Russian stereotypes and to put new stories in their place. There were volumes on “Russian drunkenness, laziness and cruelty,” “Russian theft, soul and patience” and “Russian democracy, dirt and imprisonment.”
In each of the books, Mr. Medinsky argued that everything bad in Russia’s history is the slander of enemies. For example, Ivan the Terrible was not really an insane tyrant — because, for one thing, he was always motivated by the interests of his people and did everything possible for the good of Russia. For another, Western rulers at that time were even crueler. And, in any case, all his supposed atrocities were actually fantasies of European historians.
From the start, Mr. Medinsky’s work was criticized by real Russian historians. But he never hid that his work was not based on facts. They were not important to him; the real goal was to create a persuasive narrative. “Facts by themselves don’t mean very much,” Mr. Medinsky wrote in one of his books. “Everything begins not with facts, but with interpretations. If you love your homeland, your people, then the story you write will always be positive.”
Armed with such an approach, Mr. Medinsky fashioned a myth of Russia as benevolent and powerful, always justly triumphant over supposedly lesser countries. It clearly caught the president’s eye and, in 2012, Mr. Putin appointed him minister of culture. According to a source close to the Kremlin, he was given a clear task by the president: to carry out the militarization of Russian society.
That is exactly what he did. In 2013, Mr. Medinsky headed up the Russian Military Historical Society, a charitable organization that, in events and exhibitions, glorified past military victories. As minister, Mr. Medinsky channeled funding to movies creating patriotic myths about World War II, such as “Maria. Save Moscow” and “Panfilov’s 28 Men.” Art was disdained — in one meeting, Mr. Medinsky said that he did not consider anything he could draw himself as art — in
favor of blockbusters. His entire cultural policy can be described as the propaganda of war and violence.
They were successful years. Yet in early 2020, Mr. Putin changed the composition of his government; along with most members of the administration, Mr. Medinsky was dismissed, and he was made an assistant to the president. This was a rather big drop in status, according to acquaintances, and the demotion rankled. (He was apparently especially annoyed not to get the new car usually enjoyed by employees of the presidential administration.)
But the pandemic helped him bounce back. In the summer of 2020, Mr. Putin was self-isolating in his residence in Valdai. He had always been interested in history; there, with time on his hands, he became noticeably obsessed with it. He began to speak on historical topics, but he needed an assistant, someone who could hone his ideas and give them full expression. Mr. Medinsky was the obvious choice.
True, Mr. Medinsky doesn’t exactly write his own texts. Mr. Putin’s ghostwriter has his own extensive staff of ghostwriters. He still heads the Russian Military Historical Society, whose employees work on his articles and books. In general, the process looks like this: The president dictates his theses to Mr. Medinsky, who develops them and dictates in turn to his assistants. They write the essays, and then the texts goes in the opposite direction — to Mr. Medinsky and, finally, to Mr. Putin — to be edited.
This is how, for example, Mr. Putin’s infamous essay of 2021 came about, in which he wrote for the first time that the West was deliberately turning Ukraine into “anti-Russia.” It was replete with outlandish claims: that Russians and Ukrainians are one people; that Ukraine was the creation of Bolsheviks; that the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union never infringed upon the rights of Ukrainians. The article, published on the president’s official website, was sent to all of the defense ministry’s military units, and Mr. Putin still regularly repeats its central points in his public speeches. Almost the entire article was included in the new history textbook.
The textbook, with the power to shape an entire generation of Russian students, is perhaps Mr. Medinsky’s biggest achievement yet. According to colleagues, he sees himself as akin to the conservative intellectuals of the Russian Empire — like Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the infamous ideologue of Nicholas II’s reign. Other models are Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s right-hand man after World War II, and Mikhail Suslov, Brezhnev’s chief ideologue who advocated the persecution of dissidents.
Mr. Medinsky, of course, is a parody of the above — just like his version of Russian history. It’s such an unconvincing and undisguised lie that in practice, it serves to indict the entire imperial narrative of Russian history. For all his success, Mr. Medinsky may yet become the gravedigger of Russian imperial ideology. Because after him, it should no longer be possible to talk about Russia’s past without shame, horror and disgust.
Mikhail Zygar (@zygaro) is a former editor in chief of the independent TV news channel Dozhd (TV Rain) and the author of “War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky and the Path to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine” and “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.”