Note that Putin’s name is also found among those of the political leaders of all time, which means that Russia’s president is not just a contemporary politician of flesh and blood but a meme, a distant historical figure that, in people’s minds, stands for a certain set of values.
Even when authoritarian regimes do not allow independent political forces to grow into fully fledged political parties, people still huddle together in “virtual parties.” Human society’s predilection to assort into groups with diverging political views is impossible to suppress.
In Russia, history is the subject that often generates the most heated debate, but it is more than just a debate about history. “History becomes an ideological and political allegory that is used to discuss different, non-historical issues. When people in Russia argue about their past they, in fact, argue about their present and future,” wrote the authors of the report “What Kind of Past Russia’s Future Needs” recently published by the Voluntary Historical Society (Вольное историческое общество).
Russians will constantly argue over the role of major historical figures in Russia’s past or make fun of the similarities they see between today’s Russia and some well-known periods in the nation’s history. “Is it a thaw already?” some will inevitably ask, reacting to a news that a political activist was released and his sentence overruled by the Supreme Court.
Saying something like that is often meant as an irony. “The Thaw” was a period roughly between 1954 and 1961 when Nikita Khrushchev, then the party leader, denounced some of his predecessor’s crimes and opened up, just slightly, the Soviet Union to the outside world. Speaking of repressions or a thaw is often done tongue-in-cheek because many in Russia realize that history does not really repeat itself. We just pretend it does because we are short of words to describe our political reality.
All societies care about their historical narratives, but in Russia, history takes on a special role, that of a substitute language of politics. In many countries, political adversaries fight each other using the language of political ideas andappealsto popular causes. In Russia, political struggle is waged using historical names as flags. For lack of real political representation we sometimes feel “represented” by people who have long been dead.
There is a certain dynamic in the kinds of historical characters people choose to represent them. “When we were only starting our regular polls in the late 1980s and asked our respondents to name the greatest people of all time only 12 percent of them chose Stalin. Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Peter the Great and some other names were at the top. Stalin was the eighth,” writes Alexei Levinson, a sociologist with the Levada Center.