The shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has induced a new reckoning with the Kremlin’s account of the national past, which features prominently in its packaging of the war. Two of the first studies to appear are by Jade McGlynn, a researcher in War Studies at King’s College London and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and commentator for the conservative British press—the Telegraph, Spectator, Times—and now the Guardian, too. McGlynn’s project is to ‘explain why so many Russians support their government’s unjust war against Ukraine and see themselves as the heroes, de-Nazifying Ukraine, rather than the perpetrators of atrocities.’ The first book, Memory Makers, is a scholarly work, based on McGlynn’s doctoral dissertation at Oxford and mostly written before the invasion. It examines the construction of a national narrative through the Russian media’s ‘historical framing’ of news events—the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Western sanctions, Moscow’s intervention in Syria. The second, Russia’s War, aimed at a broader audience, was rushed to press to coincide with the invasion’s first anniversary. It aims to explore how the Russian people view the war, in light of the media constructions that shape their perspective.

Memory Makers and Russia’s War overlap, but they are very different in style—and, strikingly, in argument. Both have met with glowing praise in the mainstream press. The Financial Times described Memory Makers as one of ‘the most penetrating studies of the Russian state and society to have appeared since the invasion of Ukraine’, which ‘explores the state-driven reconstruction and distortion of Russia’s past under Putin with authority and skill’. The Washington Post called Russia’s War ‘powerful and disturbing’, The Times found it ‘a thoughtful guide’ and the Times Literary Supplement considered it ‘urgently relevant, highly readable’, while a top nato official dubbed it ‘Superb—a must-read’. While the books do indeed contain some useful material, they are highly uneven and should be treated with more caution than this rapturous reception might indicate.

Memory Makers opens with a vivid evocation of a military parade in Red Square, to commemorate the 1941 Battle of Moscow. Above, giant screens portray footage of grim-faced Red Army ranks, marching past Stalin’s podium, ready to fling themselves into battle against the Nazis. Below them, marching to the same step, are the present-day Russian forces, watched by politicians, pop singers and brightly dressed children, bedecked in commemorative black-and-orange St George ribbons. In McGlynn’s account, this epic form of ‘memory making’, centred around the key myth of the Great Patriotic War, is not just a state-backed spectacle, although Kremlin ‘guardians of history’—such as Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, and Vladimir Medinsky, Putin’s long-serving (2012–20) Minister of Culture and personal assistant—have been key figures in it. Broader layers of the population have been recruited to Putin’s version of Russian history, which according to McGlynn has become a new common sense that speaks to their position in the world.

While living in Russia between 2011 and 2015, McGlynn was struck by the contrast between the bbc’s account of the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine and that of Rossiya–1, the main Russian tv channel, where Nazi-era footage of Stepan Bandera and the Ukrainian Waffen ss Division appeared on a loop in tv news coverage, spliced with present-day events. In Moscow she encountered frequent ‘anti-maidan’ protests, with kiosks and churches collecting donations for the Donbas militias. Russian representations of the 2013–14 events in Ukraine provided the topic for McGlynn’s master’s thesis at the University of Birmingham. In Memory Makers she widens the frame, analysing the invocation of history by media and government spokesmen between 2012 and 2021 on the flagship Sunday-evening tv news round-ups, Vesti Nedeli and Voskresnoe Vremya, the dailies Rossiiskaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda, weekly Argumenty y Fakty and various online news sites, including Lenta. This is backed up by further data analysis of official policy documents, as well as interviews and fieldwork conducted in Moscow and Voronezh.

As earlier studies have pointed out—Kathleen Smith’s Mythmaking in the New Russia (2002) and Thomas Sherlock’s Historical Narratives in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia (2007) among them—the Yeltsin regime was more interested in denigrating the Soviet past than exploiting it. Yeltsin repurposed Soviet holidays, chose a new national anthem and swapped the red flag for the white-blue-red tricolour of the tsars. In the 1990s and early 2000s, post-Soviet ‘memory making’ was far more developed in Poland and the Baltic States, where Soviet monuments commemorating the Nazis’ defeat became points of contention, while the European Union issued a 2008 declaration equating the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Moscow responded with aggrieved protests but had no alternative narrative to offer, beyond the one developed under Brezhnev.

Strikingly, it was not until 2012 that what McGlynn dubs the Kremlin’s ‘call to history’ took off. As Putin returned to the presidency after the Medvedev interlude, a faltering economy and protests over electoral fraud and corruption necessitated a new strategy of legitimization. This ‘conservative turn’ also responded to nato’s bombardment of Libya and overthrow of Gaddafi. Memory Makers lists a series of post-2012 policy statements, projects and decrees concerned with national history: the establishment of historical societies, commissioning of new textbooks, battle reenactments, commemorative fairgrounds and travelling museums. In 2020 the constitution was amended to ‘protect the memory’ of the Great Patriotic War; spreading false information about Soviet activities during the War—blemishing the official picture of Russian heroism—was forbidden, as was the rehabilitation of Nazism. The laws were selectively applied, including against Alexei Navalny, though McGlynn reports that in 2016 a schoolboy from Perm was charged for writing that the Soviet Union did bear some responsibility for the War, because it had invaded Poland under the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact.

Yet for the most part, this was not a coercive imposition but an inclusive and participatory project, responding to what McGlynn describes as ‘a genuine public appetite for a more patriotic history’ after the chaos of the Yeltsin years. Putinist memory-making put ethnic Russians at the centre of the story but it did not exclude others, making it an effective strategy to unite an ethnically and confessionally diverse population. The approach was eclectic, freely mixing imperial and Soviet imagery to celebrate the great successes of the past—above all the Great Patriotic War, ‘the backbone of the Kremlin’s call to history’, according to McGlynn, but also Prince Vladimir and the Christianization of Kyivan Rus’, Nevsky’s victories over the German and Swedish invaders, the triumphs of Peter and Catherine, Soviet superpower status, the launch of Sputnik and the ‘golden age’ of prosperity and stability under Brezhnev.