By Olga Bertelsen


Nov 12, 2023


In 2016, I published an article about Russian memory politics and disinformation in the sphere of history, and how Russia systematically suppressed historical narratives inconsistent with Russian propaganda. Back then I argued that these Russian tactics and false historical narratives promote and support military solutions in Ukraine and elsewhere, places where people attempted to deconstruct and demolish Russian imperial narratives and scenarios of development.1 Still, history continues to serve Russian foreign policy, justifying its aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The narratives about the Holodomor as a genocide and more broadly about Soviet violence before and after WWII have become highly problematic for the Russian political leadership, and a number of initiatives have been designed to counterbalance national historical narratives that began to emerge in the former Soviet republics as a result of the archival revolution after 1991.

Since the onset of the Putin era (and this includes the 2001–2002 meetings of Russian historians with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov and president Putin in particular), it has become clear that the preferences of the Russian political leadership were to return to “governed history” that would serve the short- and long-term political interests of Putin and his circle. Putin’s “forays” into the realm of history have become routine, and his close ties with the Russian Historical Society (RHS) headed by Sergei Naryshkin and the Russian Military-Historical Society (RMHS) chaired by Vladimir Medinskii are well documented. On 4 November 2022, Putin met the members of the RHS and the RMHS, as well as the representatives of the leading Russian religious communities in the Central Exhibition Hall “Manezh” where they celebrated the Day of People’s Unity in Russia and the opening of the exhibition “Ukraine.” Eight months after Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, Putin, designated a war criminal by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Russian high-ranking officials, sanctioned by the United States and the European Union, ruminated about the objectivity of history and the importance of the appropriation of Ukrainian cultural institutions (i.e. archives and museums) in territories occupied by the Russian Federation.2

Under Putin’s leadership, the Russian government has chosen two approaches to obscuring the truth about Soviet genocides and Russia’s crimes against humanity: legal and clandestine. In this context, for Russians Ukraine has always been a focal point and a point of departure in any historical discussion. The goals of these two approaches include:

1) reinforcing state-sponsored historical narratives in Russia and beyond by silencing or compromising competing national historical interpretations and the memory of Soviet dictatorship;

2) destabilizing the neighboring countries, especially Ukraine, by suppressing individual and collective spaces of cultural and intellectual sovereignty. Putin’s fixation on Ukraine has been quite obvious, and the discursive formation of his anti-Ukrainianism transcended national borders, influencing a great number of Western politicians and scholars. Some of them still publish books identifying Russia’s invasion of the Donbas as Ukraine’s civil war and employ the social science literature on civil wars that allegedly help better understand the “conflict” in the Donbas;3

3) nurturing a favorable view of Russia and its domestic and foreign policies. The legal approach to shaping narratives favorable to Soviet and Russian “truths” can be identified in three specific laws that facilitate Russia’s disinformation and its historical myths:

  1. a) In 2001 Putin issued a presidential decree establishing “The Interagency Commission to Defend State Secrets.” As a result, previously de-classified archival documents were re-classified, and historians faced an “archival counter-revolution.” 4 This decree helped governmental institutions, Russian intelligence, and Putin himself spread false historical narratives and Russian propaganda, as access to significant archival documents in Russia was restricted;
  2. b) In 2002 Putin signed a federal law known as the extremism law. The deliberate ambiguity of the term “extremist activities” extended the circle of potential transgressors: it could be applied to anyone and anything, making, if necessary, everyone guilty of something. This law has become a powerful weapon used by the Russian government against opposition and dissent, domestically and overseas. “Enemies of the people,” “nationalists,” “extremists” and other Soviet-era blanket terms are part of this law. The American literary theorist and critic Kenneth Burke called these terms “god terms.” Frequently, they serve politicians well, becoming terms of domination and power. As once invoked, they control and direct the narrative, because they make other terms and notions subordinate and weaker; 5
  3. c) In 2022 a law about foreign influence was issued in Russia that expanded the definition of foreign agent to a point at which almost any person or entity, regardless of their nationality or location who engages in civic activism, could be designated a foreign agent. Together with the extremism law, it can be applied and implemented across national borders. 6

Importantly, in 2014 at a meeting of the Russian Security Council, Putin updated Russia’s vision on extremism by approving a draft Strategy for Countering Extremism in the Russian Federation Through 2025. The Strategy was designed to monitor groups’ and individuals’ communication activities in social media, a risk-preventive measure against color revolutions that might provoke a regime change in Moscow. 7

Nationalism has been high on Putin’s list of examples of extremism. Ukraine’s nationalism, and since 2022 Ukraine’s alleged fascism, has a special place in historical narratives emanating from the Kremlin. Two key agencies, the Ministry of the Interior and the FSB, drafted this security document, further shaping the vector of Russia’s foreign policy and propaganda. Anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric are the focal points of these laws.

However, the process of regimenting and governing historical narratives began long before Russia’s military invasion in Ukraine in 2014. Rewriting and sanitizing historical narratives in Russia has deeper roots. The most fundamental and memorable attempts to glorify cultural mythologies and Russian history were undertaken in the nineteenth century by two Russian thinkers and historians, Vasilii Kliuchevskii and Nikolai Karamzin. Russian imperial authorities made use of Karamzin’s history because it underpinned the “official historical doctrine” that served the needs of the state. Karamzin created a “schematic narrative template,” a social construct that helped shape collective memory to fight external enemies. This template, a concept of great Russia, its unique historical path, and unique Russian identity that resists all enemies were constantly reinforced by Russia’s governors. 8

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a pronounced anti-Ukrainian stance emerged as a central feature of the Soviet regime. One can encounter it in the myriads of documents produced by the center in the mid- and late twenties. The mass killings of ethnic Ukrainians started immediately in 1919 by the Bolsheviks and the chekists, and the chekists’ untouchable status that has been maintained since 1919 created a dome of silence over their crimes. The history of the Holodomor-genocide is very instructive in this respect. 9

This November we commemorate yet another anniversary of the Soviet genocide in Ukraine that undoubtedly targeted the Ukrainians in Ukraine and beyond its borders. A great many archival studies conducted in the central and local state archives in Ukraine confirm just that.10 The Kremlin’s official position on the Ukrainian interpretation of the Holodomor is well known. Russia’s political elite rejected the idea that Stalin singled out the Ukrainians for mass killings. In 2006 the Russian Duma passed a resolution denying the genocidal nature of the Holodomor, and in 2008 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev refused to attend the commemorative events dedicated to the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Holodomor, which reveals the ongoing persistence by the Russian leadership to sanitize the Stalinist past. For serious scholars it is absolutely clear that the Holodomor was a genocide. But what is also clear is that the Holodomor was not the genocidal event but rather an example of Russia’s centuries-long genocidal routine practices targeting the Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture. Yet some scholars, either susceptible to Russian myths and propaganda or coopted by the Russian regime, continue to take the Soviet rhetoric about Ukrainization and support of Ukrainian culture in the 1920s at face value. The 2002 extremism law banned the studies on the Holodomor unsupportive of the pro-Kremlin narrative about “all-Union” famine, including them in the infamous list of extremist material, criminalizing alternative narratives and their authors.11

Russia’s second approach to shaping public opinion and discourse includes clandestine intelligence activities, known as active measures or covert operations of ideological subversion. They were the backbone of Soviet disinformation operations before, during, and after WWII. Some of them were designed to perpetuate narratives in which the West was evil and the USSR was a beautiful country with an egalitarian society and democratic rules. Ideological subversion in the Soviet Union and beyond was an inseparable part of chekists’ tactics, which inspired and informed contemporary Russian intelligence services in dealing with the West. In the late 1970s, the Soviet defector Yurii Bezmenov offered the West the most transparent and detailed

explanation of these Soviet operations in which false historical narratives were spread domestically and outside the USSR to change people’s perceptions of reality and obscure a target country’s understanding of world and regional history.12 Those who study these operations observe a certain continuity between KGB and FSB disinformation operations, although many observers suggest that KGB covert operations were quite professional and rather successful, while disinformation in the realm of history conducted by the FSB should not be viewed as incredibly sophisticated or veiled. The efforts of the KGB to destabilize the United States “is nearing strategic success,” but the FSB’s program suffers from serious drawbacks because of Russia’s war against Ukraine, a situation that was exacerbated after February 2022.13

Nevertheless, cooptation of the intellectual and political elite in the neighboring states and the West, a routine procedure of the Russian secret services, has been quite effective over the last twenty years. Established in the late 1950s as a key component of ideological subversion, these tactics have been applied at the state and individual levels, and refined in the territories strategically significant to Russia. These influence operations quite significantly have changed the worldviews of many historians, and even Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, systematic assassinations, and election interventions had little effect on those who, like in 2014, continue to supply the reasoning for Russia’s “lack of options” before it fully invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Russian historian Alexei Miller, a member of the Russian front organization, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (in Russian: Sovet po vneshnei i oboronnoi politike [SVOP]) established by the FSB among other governmental agencies,14 went even further suggesting that Putin’s “interest in history is genuine,” and that since late 2019, Putin’s most recent speeches and articles on historical issues acquired a “new quality,” are “comprehensive” in nature, and deserve serious analyses. Historian Stephen Kotkin served Miller as an example of a thorough and balanced scholar who in 2020 “examined Putin’s article on World War II in detail to find no significant factual errors in it, but at the same time disagreed with some of Putin’s interpretations.”15 In Miller’s view, Putin’s speeches on historical issues “should be seen first of all as communicative political acts,” as if this argument somehow let people forget Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol, and the fact that Putin is no longer simply a politician, the status that Miller attributes to Putin, but a war criminal wanted by the ICC.

The Kremlin invests significant funds in Russian influence operations which are large in scale and are expected to have an immediate and also a prolonged effect, producing visible results over extended periods of time. Two decades under Putin’s leadership and his visible and at times invisible hand in these operations built on Soviet experiences and practices of destabilizing the West generated environments conducive to absorbing pro-Kremlin narratives, especially by Western academia.16 Historians and international relations scholars, working in the United States, Canada, and the states of Western Europe, continue to ignore the intelligence aspect that shaped and continues to shape social and political realities and public opinion in countries targeted by the Russian Federation. To an extent, this neglect and their gullibility invited the Russian secret services to intensify operations of ideological subversion targeting Western academics. After February 2022, “experts” in Russian and Ukrainian history and Russian-Ukrainian affairs proliferated. Their lack of knowledge in either branch of scholarly inquiry, as well as of Soviet and current Russian intelligence capabilities, disinformation, and subversive

operations and activities in the West is striking. And the Russian secret services prefer to keep it this way.

Russian front organizations, institutions that have been established and controlled by the FSB, play a significant role in this process. Their influence has extended into the domain of history, and their use and cooptation of historians and political scientists have become quite pervasive. These organizations and institutions are guided by three major Russian objectives: the security of the Russian regime, the preservation of and control over Russian spheres of interest, and the leading role of Russia in regional and global politics. Over the last five years, several excellent studies have been published on Russian subversive operations among Western academics but a fundamental work on this topic still awaits researchers.

Control of historical narratives and disinformation has become a profession and a way of making money. Whoever controls the narrative has power, either academic or political. Russia’s belief has been that disinformation would help Russia achieve superiority in all spheres (informational, psychological, and ideological), damage the communication infrastructure of a target country, and shape the psychological profile and ideological preferences of its intellectual elite, military personnel and population.17 In the face of a threat of political disintegration of their country and an inevitable defeat in the aggression against Ukraine, the Russian political leadership got creative. Through their intelligence programs, they generously finance a wide range of operations to undermine Western scholars’ critical perspectives and to sustain the myths about the supreme role of the Soviet Union in the victory in WWII and Russia’s democratic methods of governing. Reinforced domestically through Russian legislation and distributed abroad through active measures (sponsoring pro-Kremlin Western academic centers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and think tanks, and sponsoring Western scholars’ research and conference trips), Russian state-sponsored historical narratives have been playing a significant role in shaping false narratives about Russia’s war in Ukraine, an allegedly “fascist” state, among Western intellectual and political elites.

As past Soviet secret services did, the FSB successfully uses Russian and non-Russian academics and intellectual elites to establish and foster relationships with foreign educational centers and scholars, who more frequently than not have been unaware of the fact that they have been targeted and are communicating with Russian agents of influence. Thus, groomed by the Russian secret services, Western historians have gradually embraced the arguments and talking points emanating from the Kremlin, and have often inadvertently and unwittingly become active participants in Russian covert operations, contributing greatly to the popularity of Russian narratives. Frequently oblivious to their origin and intent, they have published books and have uncritically repeated these narratives at international conferences and reposted them on social media platforms. In fact, international conferences have become a space of ideological subversion. Few if any reputable international scholarly conferences are held today without the invisible presence of Russian agents of influence or agents working for the secret services, be they guests who mingle with the scholarly audience or scholars of various ethnicities and citizenships presenting their research at these events.18

More recent Russian narratives and outright lies about the alleged barbarity of Ukrainian soldiers at the front lines and the denial of Russian genocidal practices in the Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian troops constitute yet another attempt by the Russians to sanitize their bloody historical record. The politics of active denial of violent crimes committed against civilians or a nation is one of the most important building blocks of genocide. Silencing crimes against humanity through denial and disinformation provokes and escalates violence, which culminates in massacres, repressions, and genocidal famines, as happened in the Ukrainian case in 1932-1933. Only in the space of silence, denial, and disinformation does the landscape of genocidal violence emerge and its spiral dynamics consume thousands and millions. Russian influence operations and disinformation about Russia’s daily crimes in Ukraine sustain a particular genocidal event, and create a foundation for ongoing protracted genocide, an everlasting view of mass killing as acceptable, even required, for the perpetuation of a particular narrative. One only has to hear an ordinary Russian refer to Ukrainians as khokhly to see how deep this specific discursive formation goes into the virtual psyche or zeitgeist of most Russian citizens—something they may never be free of—imprisoned in their own minds.


Olga Bertelsen, “A Trial in Absentia: Purifying National Historical Narratives in Russia,” Kyiv-Mohyla Humanities Journal, no. 3 (2016): 57-87.


“President Rossii vstretilsia s istorikami…,” Rossiiskoie istoricheskoie obshchestvo, 6 November 2022,; on the ICC’s verdict, see an interesting analysis by Heather Ashby, Lauren Baillie, and  Mary Glantz, “How the ICC’s Warrant for Putin Could Impact the Ukraine War,” The United States Institute of Peace, 23 March, 2023,; for more details on the sanctioned Russian officials and Russian companies supporting war in Ukraine, see “U.S. Treasury Escalates Sanctions on Russia for Its Atrocities in Ukraine,” The U.S. Department of the Treasury, 6 April 2022,


David R. Marples, The War in Ukraine’s Donbas: Origins, Contexts, and the Future (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2022); Ivan Katchanovski,“The Separatist War in Donbas: A Violent Break-up of Ukraine?,” in Ukraine in Crisis, 1st ed., ed. Nicolai N. Petro (London: Routledge, 2017); Nicolai N. Petro, The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us About Conflict Resolution, 1st ed. (De Gruyter: 2022); Dominique Arel and Jesse Driscoll, Ukraine’s Unnamed War: Before the Russian Invasion of 2022 (Cambridge and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2023).



See Olga Velikanova’s interview “Soviet Archives and Dark Truths: A Historian’s Story,” The George Washington University/History News Network, 6 February 2009,


Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969).


See clarifications by the Russian State Duma about how this law works: “Kak budet rabotat zakon ob inoagentakh,” The Russian State Duma, 1 December 2022,


Roger McDermott, “Putin Approves Draft Strategy for Countering Extremism in Russia to 2025,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 11, no. 211 (November 25, 2014), available at


Bertelsen, “A Trial in Absentia, 72–77.


Olga Bertelsen, “The Writers and the Chekists’ Discourse about the Holodomor,” in In the Labyrinth of the KGB: Ukraine’s Intelligentsia in the 1960s–1970s (New York: Lexington Books, 2022).


Viktoria A. Malko, The Ukrainian Intelligentsia and Genocide: The Struggle for History, Language, and Culture in the 1920s and 1930s (New York: Lexington Books, 2021).


One can search for these materials at the site of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation:


Tomas Schuman (Yurii Bezmenov), Love Letter to America, ed. Bill White (independently published, April 12, 2021).


John A. Gentry, Influence Operations of China, Russia, and the Soviet Union: A Comparison (Halifax, VA: National Institute for Public Policy Press, 2023), vi.


Russian front organizations help spread disinformation about Russian foreign policy goals, including about Ukraine, and disseminate distorted historical narratives that have been vocalized by the Russian political leadership at least since 2008 (i.e. the SVOP and the Izbor Club (in Russian: Isborskii Klub [IC]). The activities of these front organizations illuminates the consistency of the official Russian rhetoric which was in fact borrowed from the KGB.


Alexei I. Miller, “Talking Politics: Vladimir Putin’s Narrative on Contemporary History (2019-2022),” Russia in Global Affairs 21, no. 2 (2023), pp. 58–75, available at; Stephen Kotkin, “The World According to Putin: Debating Why World War II Happened,” YouTube, 2020,


Most recently, in his letter of complaint to the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence about my article, historian Georgiy Kasianov has falsely suggested that my text provided no explanations of what pro-Kremlin narratives are (today, every fifth-grade student in Ukraine and millions of people on this planet would unmistakably identify and formulate them). For those who would like to read the specifics about pro-Kremlin narratives, please see Kasianov’s letter and my response to it at the Academia official site, as well as my article “Russian Front Organizations and Western Academia,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 35, no. 4 (2023): 1184-1209


The most prominent historical myths that Russia promotes include: its role as a liberating victor in WWII that vanquished the Nazis; the Ukrainians’ mass collaboration with Nazi Germany and their organic antisemitism as the dominant trend in Ukraine’s history; and, most recently: the Ukrainian nation with no legitimate right to exist; contemporary Ukraine as a fascist state, engaging in “memory wars” and writing “nationalistic historical narratives”; NATO’s aggression, threatening Russian national security; and the West conducting subversive activities against the Russian Federation.


Olga Bertelsen, “Aspects of Russian Active Measures Targeting Western Academia,” in Russian Disinformation and Western Scholarship: Bias and Prejudice in Journalistic, Expert, and Academic Analyses of East European and Eurasian Affairs, ed. Taras Kuzio (Stuttgart/New York: ibidem-Verlag/Columbia University Press, 2023).