ZOiS Spotlight 38/2020

Engaging young Russians in military history

by Jade McGlynn 21/10/2020
Image of a diorama at the Great Patriotic War Museum in Moscow. © Dani Salvá / VWPics / Alamy Stock Foto

1 September 2020. On the first day of the new school year, Russian children listened attentively as their president condemned wartime collaborators and their modern-day equivalents: anyone who promotes a Western view of Russian history. Rather than shocking, the tone and content of Vladimir Putin’s speech was entirely predictable. It rested on over eight years of government policies that have fostered a selective narrative of Russian history, centred on the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russia—the unifying feature of Russian identity. This narrative has included the launch of various initiatives and government-run organisations that promote a patriotic vision of Russia’s military past.

Foremost among such organisations has been the Russian Military Historical Society (RMHS), set up in 2012 by presidential decree to inculcate pride in Russia’s military past. The society has sought to realise Putin’s 2012 call for youth organisations to engender ‘living forms of patriotism’. Some of RMHS’s most productive avenues in this field are its military history camps and festivals, attended by over 20,000 young people, and its Paths of Victory military history tours, which bring together over 700,000 participants aged twelve to seventeen over the last few years.

Reimagining the past

In 2015, RMHS released a manual explaining how to ‘correctly’ establish and run military history camps. The manual instructs organisers to teach exclusively positive versions of Russian history and encourage students to imagine themselves as past fighters. Reflecting the prominence of the Great Patriotic War in Russian culture, the manual and the RMHS-supported camps largely focus on events between 1943 and 1945. The second half of the war is also the most common theme for the thirty-three Paths of Victory tours on offer.

To help the young participants reimagine themselves as bygone military heroes, the tours and camps offer re-enactment activities, often buttressed by military equipment dating from the war. At the 2015 launch of the Platsdarm camp, participants repeated a 30-kilometre, three-day march originally undertaken by Red Army soldiers defending Leningrad. Adorned in wartime uniforms, the adolescents were accompanied by thirty pieces of World War II–era military equipment.

In a similar vein, attendees of the Zabytyi podvig (’The Forgotten Feat’) festival in Novgorod not only watch professional re-enactors restage battles but can also participate in them. Among the Paths of Victory tours, there are numerous museum visits during which participants can take part in re-enactments or dress up, including by storming a life-size replica of part of Germany’s Reichstag building at the Victory Museum in Moscow.

To help students visualise and make a personal connection to the past, the camps invite veterans to recount their experiences. The geography of the camps and tours fulfils a similar function, with almost all located at the historical sites on which they focus, enhancing their authenticity. The Strana Geroev and Platsdarm camps also allow students to participate in search battalions to locate the remains of Red Army soldiers who died in nearby battlefields. As well as authenticity, such activities encourage a personal, even emotional, connection, as reflected in the camps’ marketing literature. For example, the 2015 Platsdarm camp brochure quotes Vladimir Medinskii, president of RMHS and Russian culture minister from 2012 to 2019, who reminds young participants that ‘this land is soaked with blood, therefore it is holy.’

This evocative imagery is justified by the Red Army’s heroism and suffering during the war, but the appeal to emotion can overshadow the camps’ and tours’ educational purpose. The immersive and experiential nature of several tour sites also undermines the supposedly educational character of such initiatives. The tour of the Russia—My History exhibition stands out in this regard. The exhibition contains no artefacts, only screens that present a highly selective narrative of Russian history over the last 1,000 years. The Ministry of Education recommends that schoolchildren and teachers visit Russia—My History, which has been replicated in twenty-two locations, and praises its immersive nature as especially productive in conveying history to younger audiences.

Engaging versus engagement

By privileging experience and emotion, the tours and camps seek to make history more real and more relevant for their young attendees. The focus on engaging initiatives, combined with their ever-growing scale, could, in theory, allow the Russian government to unify future generations around their shared memories of re-enacting and re-experiencing patriotic history.

However, to fulfil this potential, the government—and RMHS—must overcome significant limitations. First, although RMHS has affiliates across Russia, almost all of the camps and tours are in the European part of the country. Plans to deliver military-history tours in every region are yet to be realised. Second, the insistence on patriotic history actively discourages critical intellectual engagement with the subject matter. Moreover, RMHS’s top-down management style, to ensure the ‘right’ history is taught, leaves little scope for participant agency in the re-enactment activities. Thus, while the activities might be engaging, the level of engagement is limited by geographical and organisational design before the participants even arrive.

Jade McGlynn is currently a researcher and lecturer at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on state(-aligned) actors’ uses of history in Russian domestic politics, foreign policy, and popular culture.