Tue. Jan 18th, 2022


“He who controls the past controls the future: he who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell wrote in the late 1940s – but that excerpt from 1984 is a perfect guide to how Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the leaders of Russia and China, treat history.

In the dying days of 2021, the Russian and Chinese governments both acted dramatically to censor discussion of their countries ’history. In both cases, the decision to “control the past” sends a bleak signal about the future.

Russia’s Supreme Court closed Memorial, an organization established in the last years of the Soviet Union to record and preserve the memory of the victims of Stalinism. In Hong Kong, local universities bow to China’s central government – removal of campus statues commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In the decades following decolonization in 1997, Hong Kong was a bastion of free speech within the People’s Republic of China. But that era has now definitely come to an end.

The closure of Memorial feels like a turning point for the whole of Russia. Despite all the brutality of the Putin regime, Russia has until recently allowed significantly more room for political opposition than China. Putin’s opponents demonstrated in numbers on the street in 2012, 2019 and in 2021. That kind of open criticism of Xi has long felt unthinkable on the Chinese mainland.

Each country’s handling of history was also different. A portrait of Mao Zedong, leader of China’s Communist Revolution, overlooks Tiananmen Square and its statues stand on campuses in Beijing and Shanghai. But to see a statue of Joseph Stalin in Moscow, I had to Gevalle monument park, where I found a severed stone head of the former Soviet dictator.

As recently as 2017, Putin himself reveal a monument to the victims of Stalinism in Moscow and flowers laid at its base. At the time, the chief operating officer of Memorial welcomed that gesture. But now the prosecutor in the case that Memorial has banned complains that the organization “makes us regret the Soviet past, instead of remembering its glorious history”.

Observers in Russia see the closure of Memorial as a deliberate move toward Chinese levels of censorship and control. Alexander Baunov from the Carnegie Moscow Center tell the New York Times: “it’s a real shift to a Chinese approach to history” – in which “mistakes” are acknowledged by Mao or Stalin, but treated as minor scars on an otherwise glorious record. Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran opposition politician, reason that it indicates the tipping point between an authoritarian and totalitarian state.

President Xi will certainly approve of Putin’s decision to criticize Stalinism. The Chinese leader has long been involved in the collapse of the Soviet Union and is determined to prevent something similar from happening in China. In a address made to the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee just after taking power, Xi asked “Why did the Soviet Union collapse?” His answer was that: “the history of the USSR and of [the Soviet Communist party] was completely refused. . . Lenin was rejected, as was Stalin. . . Ideological confusion was everywhere. . . “The Soviet Union, which was a great socialist country, collapsed.”

Controlling discussion of the past remains central to Xi’s style of management. Last year, his government law to make it a crime to mock the country’s national heroes.

In both Russia and China, movements to end historical debate go hand in hand with an intensification of contemporary oppression. In the same week that Memorial was closed, the Russian government arrested several supporters of the imprisoned opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. In Hong Kong, days after the Tiananmen statues were removed, the government closed Stand News, the largest remaining pro-democracy media outlet, and has arrested several senior staff.

The suppression of history has been linked to aggression overseas. A sign of the impending repression of Memorial came last October, when the organization was raid during a screening of a film about the 1930s famine in Soviet Ukraine. That kind of historical memory is unacceptable at a time when the Russian government is opening up preparations Ukraine is falling.

In a similar vein, Beijing moved last year to hold on proposals that China’s involvement in the Korean War in the 1950s was nothing more than a defense against a possible American invasion. That debate also has contemporary significance, at a time when the threat of a war between the US and China is rises again.

To complete the cycle of repression, domestic critics of the Putin and Xi governments are often accused of doing so. work for hostile foreign powers – just as were opponents of Stalin and Mao. The argument that foreign powers are in league with the regime’s domestic critics is then used to justify repression on patriotic grounds and to support the argument for “strong” leadership.

Both Putin and Xi designed changes in their countries’ constitutions that will allow them to rule unchallenged, long into the future. As Putin stay in the Kremlin until 2036, which now seems clearly possible, he will have ruled longer than Stalin himself. If you intend to imitate Stalin, why would you allow criticism of him?

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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