Who Controls the Past Controls the Future: The political use of WWII history in Russia & China


Under a perfectly blue sky in September 2015, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin strode out to the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the center of Beijing. This was the entrance to the Forbidden City when China’s last emperors ruled, and it was where Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, but that was not what they were here to commemorate. Instead, they had come to view a massive military parade to mark “Victory Day,” the anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia, or as the conflict is now known in China, “The Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.”

I was there as a foreign correspondent for the British broadcaster Sky News, squinting up at the tiny figures of Xi and Putin on the balcony high above our camera position, as thousands of soldiers goose-stepped past in robotic unison below. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, rocket-launchers, and tanks rolled by; the latter so heavy I could feel the ground vibrating beneath my feet. The live pictures looked impressive, but the atmosphere in the square itself was muted. In the bleachers opposite the press area, orderly rows of spectators in matching baseball caps waved their miniature flags politely, as I had seen a man in a suit demonstrating to them beforehand, while paramilitary police with armored personnel carriers and machine guns stood guard at all approaches to the square to ensure there would be no spontaneous crowds gathering along this route. Local residents had been told to stay inside and watch the event on television.

The security arrangements and choreography might not seem unusual – many countries go to great lengths to commemorate their war dead after all – but what was interesting was that this was happening at all. If the victory parade looked like a long-established tradition, it was not. In fact, this was the first time it had ever been held. “Victory Day” was one of three new national days that had been created the previous year as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping turned to the country’s wartime history to shore up support.

This was not confined to China. In Russia, where I was based for several years before moving to Beijing, I was struck by the degree to which the Second World War, or Great Patriotic War as it is known there, featured in the country’s current politics. Vladimir Putin had reintroduced huge displays of military hardware to Russia’s annual “Victory Day” celebrations on May 9 and placed himself front and center of proceedings. The wartime past, meanwhile, was a constant presence in state media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, where viewers were warned that a fascist threat was rising once again, which as I heard firsthand on reporting assignments, was having real consequences, inspiring real people to take up arms.

The more time I spent on the ground in both countries, the more I understood that history was not an abstract issue in either case. In fact, it seemed these past conflicts were being manipulated to consolidate domestic political control, and to justify increasingly aggressive foreign policy. This distorted history was used to frame Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its intervention in Syria, and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, for example, as well as China’s trade war with the United States, and its militarization of the South China Sea.

Of course, the political exploitation of wartime history is not unique to autocrats,

and this is far from the only basis on which Xi and Putin make their claim to power, but the degree to which these narratives are being revived and strengthened in Russia and China raises important questions about how and why WWII is being mobilized to shape popular perception by these regimes.1 While both men command formidable security services and show no compunction in the use of repression to retain control, they also appear to be seeking to maintain stability by generating public support, or at least acquiescence. As Johannes Gerschewski explains, “Rulers need to offer a justification of why the rulers are entitled to rule. Rulers need to credibly anchor their legitimacy claim in the hearts and minds of the people.”2 For Putin and Xi, WWII provides just such a credible anchor.

It has not always been like this. In fact, as this article explores, the prominence of the war, and the story of the conflict itself, has shifted dramatically over the last seven decades. In both countries, successive leaders have sought to harness the history of the conflict for their own political needs, understanding as George Orwell once put it, “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”3


The reality of victory for China in 1945 was far from triumphant. When the war ended, the country was on the winning side, but not because its military had defeated Japan. Landing at an airfield in the Chinese capital just after the surrender was announced, a senior British officer found Japanese troops in control. “There is clearly no realization of the extent of the disaster Japan has suffered,” Major-General Eric Hayes wrote, “It [the Japanese army] regards itself, with some reason, as an undefeated army which, to its regret, has been ordered by the emperor to lay down its arms.”4

And if the victory was not exactly glorious, the other major problem for the CCP in its subsequent re-telling of the story, is that it was Chiang Kai-shek – the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) – who presided over the end of the war. 5 The Communist Party was not in power at the time, nor were its troops involved in the most famous battles, and while victory celebrations were being held in the capital, which was then Nanjing, Mao Zedong remained in his mountain stronghold in Yan’an.

For Chiang Kai-shek, however, the celebrations were short-lived. His forces had been decimated by years of combat against the Japanese, the country’s economy devastated, and he fumed that China was still being humiliated, forced to cede territory by its former allies, and treated as a “vassal” state.6 “China was simultaneously in the strongest global position it had ever occupied and weaker than it had been for nearly a century,” explains Rana Mitter, “The war with Japan had hollowed China out.”7

The following spring, the Nationalist government announced plans for a “Victory Day” celebration in September 1946,8  but the country plunged back into civil war instead, and after the Communists’ eventual victory in 1949, the story of the war with Japan was rewritten and relegated to a lesser status. Chiang Kai-shek was cast as an enemy of the people who had tried to sabotage the Chinese resistance and collaborate with the Japanese. The Soviet role was elevated, while that of the United States disappeared as it was vilified as an imperialist enemy. History was now viewed through the lens of class struggle, and the focus was on Mao’s victorious revolution, not the Japanese invasion. “For thirty-five years after its victory in 1949,” writes Arthur Waldron, “the new Communist government of China took an approach to the Second World War that combined selective commemoration with general oblivion.” 9

In the Soviet Union, there was no civil war to confront, but here too, the celebrations would soon be scaled back. Stalin was in power, and he saw potential enemies all around, convinced of new plots and conspiracies against him, and new expectations among a population that had fought and suffered during the conflict, that life would now get better. Victory had not brought security, but a world of new threats.

News of the German surrender was broadcast on Radio Moscow in the early hours of May 9, 1945, and the day was declared a nationwide holiday: Victory Day.10 The immediate reaction was euphoric and heartfelt. “The spontaneous joy of the two or three million people who thronged the Red Square…was of a quality and a depth I had never yet seen in Moscow before,” wrote one witness, noting young men were so happy, “that they did not even have to get drunk.”11 Outside the United States embassy in Moscow, Ambassador George Kennan described an atmosphere of “almost delirious friendship… If any of us ventured out into the street, he was immediately seized, tossed enthusiastically into the air, and passed on friendly hands over the heads of the crowd, to be lost, eventually, in a confused orgy of good feelings somewhere on its outer fringes.”12

The first Victory Parade was held six weeks later, on June 24, 1945, with Stalin watching from the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square. Two of his most senior officers, Marshals Zhukov and Rokossovsky, rode out on horseback, mounted on black and white chargers respectively. Despite heavy rain, Marshal Zhukov recalled the “high spirits” and “elated faces” of the crowd, and his own pride that day: “As I reviewed the troops I could see little streams of rain trickling from the peaks of the men’s caps, but the unanimous spiritual uplift was so great that no one bothered to notice it.”13 In his speech, he attributed their victory to, “our great leader and brilliant commander, Marshal of the Soviet Union – Stalin!”14

The great leader, however, was keen to move on, and determined to ensure that wartime heroes did not become popular figures who might challenge his own position. Marshal Zhukov was demoted the following year, and moved to a less visible post, while Marshal Rokossovsky was reassigned to a command in Poland. Other senior officers found themselves banished from sight, or worse, sent to prison camps.15 The military’s role in the conflict in general was also downgraded, with praise being given instead to the socialist system, and the foresighted policies of Stalin. As he explained in a 1946 speech, “It would be a mistake to think that such a historic victory could have been won if the whole country had not [been] prepared beforehand for active defense… It would be a still greater mistake to say that we won owing to the gallantry of our troops.”16

The history of the war was already being censored. It was now forbidden to refer to wartime orders such as the notorious “not one step back” command, and contemporary historians understood, in the words of Lazar Lazarev, “that their job was to embroider prepared patterns using beautiful materials to delight the eye, not to conduct research into facts.” 17

The Soviet press signaled the shifting tone. The morning after Victory Day in 1946, Pravda featuredan article about a heroic former soldier who had returned from the front line and channeled his sense of patriotism and duty into running a collective farm. The moral of the story was not subtle: the model warrior would now become a model worker –  having fought the Germans, he would now fight to develop socialism with the same vigor.18 The following year, the Victory Day holiday was officially cancelled, with a short notice in the newspapers announcing that it would become a normal working day. 19 The message was clear: other than where it might serve his contemporary agenda, Stalin had no interest in dwelling on the wartime past.


Informal celebrations and meetings for veterans continued, but it would take almost twenty years for the Soviet leadership to rediscover their interest in the Great Patriotic War. It was not until 1965, with Leonid Brezhnev now in charge, that Victory Day returned as a public holiday, and the conflict’s profile began to rise again. In 1967, the newly-built Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was inaugurated in Moscow, and the ceremony itself was instructive as to where the Communist Party was now looking for sources of public support. The revolution was half a century old, the memory of Lenin fading, and that of his successor, Stalin, no longer sustaining, after his rule of terror and cult of personality had been denounced. The era of economic stagnation was beginning, and as Vladimir Putin would similarly discover, great Soviet achievements to rally the nation around were in short supply. So, the torch was being literally passed to the victory in the Great Patriotic War. An armored personnel carrier had transported the eternal flame from the revolutionary martyrs’ cemetery in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to the new memorial by the Kremlin wall, where a famous WWII fighter pilot now transferred the sacred fire to the unknown soldier’s tomb.

In case anyone had missed the symbolism, the first secretary of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, N. G. Yegorichev, spelled it out. “This fire,” he explained, “somehow transfers across an entire half-century the undimmed flame of October [the 1917 revolution]… It is as if the soldiers of the Revolution and the soldiers of the Great Patriotic War have closed ranks into one immortal rank, illuminated by the Eternal flame of glory.”20 The Politburo hoped these combined forces would now defend their position in power.

The vast Rodina Mat (The Motherland Calls) statue was unveiled later that year, said to be the tallest in the world at the time, as the wartime past returned to public prominence. But like these towering new monuments, the focus was on glory and larger-than-life heroic narratives that redounded to the benefit of the Soviet hierarchy, not on excavating the details. What limited literary scope had been emerging for critical evaluation of the conflict, was shut down. Konstantin Simonov’s One Hundred Days of War, for instance, which had been cleared for publication in 1966, was abruptly banned, and where his work had previously been praised, now it was considered “slanderous,” condemned as an attempt to debunk “the history of our party and people.”21

It would continue in this vein for a quarter of a century, with the Communist Party elevating the profile of the conflict to establish what historian Nina Tumarkin calls, “a full-blown cult of the Great Patriotic War, including a panoply of saints, sacred relics, and rigid master narrative.”22 Even as the economy flatlined, the promised socialist utopia repeatedly failed to materialize, and cynicism towards the authorities grew, the victory in the Great Patriotic War remained a shared source of genuine pride, which of course was also the point.

With Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of the late 1980s, however, history began to come in for greater scrutiny, with the new leader calling for the “blank spots” to be filled in.23 As the archives began to be opened, and the files gave up their secrets, those blank spots turned out to be hiding millions of corpses, and the real cost of the glorious victory became harder to ignore. The story of the war now included prison camps and forced labor, with Gorbachev describing “Victory Day” in 1990 as, “one of the very brightest and most tragic of our holidays,” and emphasizing the “colossal loss.”24

It was meant to be a parable about how the peoples of the Soviet Union had survived great hardship through unity, not fractured apart as they were threatening to do now, but the foundations were already crumbling beneath him, and with the collapse of the system the following year, it seemed the myth of the war would go the same way. “I sensed that I was witnessing the swan song of the cult of the Great Patriotic War,” wrote Tumarkin of the celebrations that year, “The swagger, the self-congratulation, the hyperbole about the USSR having defeated the enemy single-handedly were already missing. And the old hype about victory proving the superiority of socialism would have been laughable, in view of its recent and painful collapse.”25

It took the war longer to resurface in China. As Victory Day was becoming a public holiday again in the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong was about to embark on his final, disastrous campaign, unleashing a decade of chaos, violence, and fear he called a “Cultural Revolution.” Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang were still on the wrong side of Mao’s version of history, and it would be another twenty years before the conflict was recast as a struggle for national survival, and the KMT’s role was recognized.

Arthur Waldron dates the start of China’s “new remembering” of the war to 1985.26 With Mao gone, Deng Xiaoping was in charge, and set on a course of economic modernization and opening, as long as that could be achieved without ceding the CCP’s political control. The war story was now useful on two fronts: at home, where the appeal of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought was diminishing, and abroad, where the CCP could point to China’s role in the “world anti-fascist war” as it sought to burnish its international credentials, and in outreach to the KMT government in Taiwan.27 The conflict was now presented as an “all-nation war of resistance,” in which Chinese people, Communist and Nationalist, fought together to repel the Japanese invasion.28

Museums were updated and new memorials constructed, as the revised narrative stressed national cooperation, and for the first time since the foundation of the People’s Republic, began to focus on Chinese victimhood. A memorial hall was built in 1985 to commemorate the victims of the Nanjing Massacre, which Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking, called “China’s Holocaust,” and to become a symbol of Chinese suffering during the war.

Biographies of KMT military personnel were already starting to appear, such as, Kuomintang Generals who Died for their Country in the War of Resistance, in 1987, and Biographies of High-Ranking Military Leaders of the Republic, in 1988,29but China’s nascent remembering was about to be cemented by the events of June 4, 1989.

Five days after the military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping told senior officers, “During the last ten years our biggest mistake was made in the field of education, primarily in ideological and political education – not just of students but of the people in general. We didn’t tell them enough about the need for hard struggle, about what China was like in the old days and what kind of a country it was to become. This was a serious error on our part.”30

The protests had been crushed for now, but if the Communist Party was to stay in power in the longer term, it would have to do a much better job of making the case for its continued rule – of credibly anchoring its claim. “In the aftermath of 1989,” explains historian Paul Cohen, “there was a felt, if unstated, need on the part of the Chinese government to come up with a new legitimating ideology to burnish the rapidly dimming luster of the original Marxist-Leninist-Maoist vision; in the eyes of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and other key leaders, the logical candidate for the fulfilment of this function was nationalism, to be inculcated via a multifaceted program of patriotic education.”31

The new campaign targeted not just schools, but the population as a whole through newspapers, television, movies, and a network of “patriotic education bases,” as it stressed China’s history of “bullying and humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers (and the weak leadership and domestic corruption that had allowed this to happen) before the foundation of the new People’s Republic in 1949, when the Chinese people “stood up.”32

In fact, this was not an entirely new idea. National Humiliation Day had been an official holiday in Republican China from 1927 to 1940, 33 and Chiang Kai-shek had vowed daily in his diary to “avenge or “wipe clean humiliation” [xuechi],34 but with past humiliation once again a dominant theme, the war against Japan now had a key role to play. Not only was it the final act in what was known as China’s “century of humiliation,” the conflict told the story of national salvation itself.

Once again the country had been invaded by hostile foreign powers, and its people subjugated, but this time they had united (crucially, under the leadership of the CCP) to defeat the imperialists, reclaiming their national dignity, and winning their first complete victory. As the Liberation Army Daily described it, the war was the first real success after a century of losses, “wiping away the [national] humiliation with a single stroke.”35 “Commemoration of the Sino-Japanese War,” wrote Rana Mitter, “became a new source for the construction of a centripetal nationalism that would counter the separatist forces that threatened to tear China apart, and create a patriotic antidote to the pressures that had led to the 1989 confrontation.”36 And if there was any doubt about the urgency of the situation, it disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. The CCP elite only had to switch on their televisions or open a newspaper to see the consequences of failing to secure support unfolding in real time.

The campaign was rolled out from kindergartens to universities, neighborhood committees and government agencies, with weekly patriotic sing-alongs instituted in the People’s Liberation Army. By May 1994, it was reported that 95 percent of primary and middle school students in Beijing had watched the recommended patriotic films and written 1.5 million essays in response. “I will learn from his spirit,” vowed one student after watching a hero’s sacrifice in the war with Japan. 37

As the Chinese economy took off, the Communist Party’s sense of existential peril faded, but even through the years of double-digit growth, patriotic education, and the framework of China as a country surrounded by hostile foreign powers survived. And with the ascent of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, the profile of the conflict was about to rise again, as both men signaled they would not take the maintenance of power, or their control of wartime history, for granted.

Controlling history

When Xi Jinping became general secretary of the CCP in November 2012, serious commentators saw grounds for optimism. Xi would be a pragmatic economic reformer, it was predicted, and he would likely ease off in other areas too. “Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square,” forecast The New York Times, “and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.”38 But it turned out Xi had other plans. The Communist Party, he believed, was facing a looming political crisis: organizational discipline had collapsed, corruption and environmental degradation were turning the public against them, and ideological control was failing, the same mistake Deng Xiaoping had identified after the Tiananmen crisis. This was no time to ease off. In fact, if the party wanted to stay in power, it would have to step up political control, and that meant tightening its grip on history too.

Within Xi’s first months in office, a secret document, commonly known as Document No. 9, began circulating, detailing the most serious threats to the party’s hold on power. The outlook was grave, the communiqué warned, as they confronted a “complicated, intense struggle” in the ideological environment. Cadres were told to beware attempts to erode the CCP’s leadership through, amongst other tactics, the promotion of “universal values,” “civil society,” and “historical nihilism,” which was defined as using the “guise of ‘reassessing history’” to “distort Party history and the history of New China.”

“Historical nihilism,” the document explained, “seeks to fundamentally undermine the CCP’s historical purpose, which is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance.”39 The stakes were clear: if they failed to guard the party’s version of the past, its future could not be assured. In practice, this meant that what historical debate had once been possible was now shut down, and with it, the official narrative of the anti-Japanese war was sealed off from scrutiny.

Against this backdrop, Hong Zhenkuai released an article reexamining a famous Chinese war story about the “Five Heroes of Langya Mountain,” who had supposedly hurled themselves from the mountain to avoid capture during the conflict with Japan. The piece was published in November 2013 in Yanhuang Chunqiu, a liberal magazine that had previously managed to navigate the boundaries of permissible discussion, in part by steering clear of current issues, and focusing instead on the past.40But the times had changed, and history was now off-limits too. In 2016, Hong Zhenkuai was found guilty of libel and ordered to apologize for damaging the “Chinese nation’s spiritual values,”41 and the following month, the magazine’s editorial board was removed and replaced. 

The CCP went further, passing a new law to make it a potential criminal offense to “insult or slander” the country’s heroes and martyrs.42 And as the party has moved to silence any questioning of its version of the past, that official narrative is also being amplified. Patriotic education has been stepped up again, with eighty National Memorial Sites of the War designated in 2014, and another one hundred the following year, while local authorities have been instructed to organize mass visits and commemorative activities in order to “learn and publicize the heroic deeds of anti-Japanese martyrs, to greatly cultivate and spread the great patriotic spirit, further strengthen cohesiveness and solidarity of the nation.” Xi Jinping, for his part, invokes the “spirit of the Resistance War” directly, as he vows that, just as the Communist Party led the country to victory during that war, so it will now lead the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Civilization. 43

New national memorial days were established in 2014 to honor Chinese “Martyrs” and “Victims of the Nanjing Massacre,” with both annual events covered extensively by state media, and attended by the CCP’s Standing Committee, including Xi Jinping. The war has also gotten longer – almost doubling in length – with six years added to the conflict in 2017, so that it now officially starts on September 18, 1931, not July 7, 1937, as had previously been the case.44  

While there is certainly a historical basis to argue the validity of the change, it is also politically expedient. With the war beginning on September 18 – a date known across the country, albeit unofficially, as China’s day of “national humiliation” – it is now indelibly linked to the broader humiliation narrative, as well as increasing the span of the conflict to include the earlier years when the Red Army was more active. This includes, for instance, the Communist Party’s famous “Long March” in 1934, which is now woven into the national war story, and was recently referenced by Xi, as he called for a “new Long March” as tensions with the United States intensified in 2019.45

The outlook for the Communist Party has not become less complicated, or the struggle less intense, in the six years since Xi Jinping took power and Document No. 9 first appeared. At the very least, China is entering a period of protracted strategic competition with the United States, confronted by an unpredictable American president, and perhaps the start of a new cold war. Hong Kong is convulsed by protest, tensions in the South China Sea are rising, and domestic economic growth is slowing down. Strengthening the party’s hold on the past, therefore, will become even more important, as Xi Jinping seeks to direct domestic discontent away from his regime, and towards the hostile imperialist forces that CCP history teaches have always tried to keep China down.

In this Xi shares an interest with the man he describes as his “best, most intimate friend,” Vladimir Putin, who takes a similar view of the potency of history in contemporary politics, and has demonstrated an equally uncompromising approach to controlling the past. When he took office at the turn of the millennium, the new Russian leader inherited the remains of an empire. The Soviet Union was gone, the experiment with democracy failing, and the economy imploding; there was chaos where the superpower used to be. But from those very first days, Putin presented himself as a man on an historic mission to restore the country’s rightful status as a great power, and that meant, first of all, restoring its sense of pride in the past.

His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin had tried and failed to come up with a new “national idea” for post-Soviet Russia.46 Putin would not make the same mistake. Early on, he seized on the history of the Great Patriotic War as a unifying banner to rally the country behind, and set about elevating the conflict to its previous storied role. For Putin, even more so than Xi, there was not a great deal of useful recent history to choose from.47 The People’s Republic Mao founded had survived, and Xi could trace his lineage, both personal and political, to the Communist revolutionaries who had come before him, but Lenin’s system had collapsed, and the Bolshevik revolution was complicated in any case for Putin’s regime – the idea of a mass uprising to overthrow a corrupt elite was not something he wanted to encourage. The wartime victory was perhaps the only enduring achievement of a century in which even the space race had ultimately been lost to the United States, and it fit the contemporary narrative: at a moment of great peril, the country had united behind a strong leader, putting the survival of the state above the individual, and proving its undeniable status as a superpower.

The new president wasted no time positioning himself as the heir to that heroic victory, as the twenty-first century strongman who was making Russia great and respected again. “From his first inauguration on May 7, 2000,” writes Elizabeth Wood, “Vladimir Putin has repeatedly personified himself as the defender, even the savior of the Motherland… By making World War II the central historical event of the twentieth century, Putin and his handlers have chosen an event of mythic proportions that underlines the unity and coherence of the nation, gives it legitimacy and status as a world power.”48

Under Putin, the cult of the Great Patriotic War has been resurrected as the foundation myth of post-Soviet Russia, and it seems to resonate with an overwhelming majority of the population. In recent surveys, Nikolay Koposov finds, “usually, 70 to 80 percent of respondents agree that the victory over Nazi Germany (which in Russia is almost entirely attributed to the Soviet Army) was the most important event in the history of the twentieth century.”49

Putin has established, and personally chairs, the Pobeda (Victory) committee, tasked with coordinating commemoration of the war, where he talks about the need to “eternalize” its memory and to engage the younger generation using social media and popular entertainment to “link the past, present, and the future.”50 In 2019, the state broadcaster Channel One announced the launch of a new 24-hour Pobeda (Victory) television channel, designed to target young viewers with non-stop movies and programming about the war.51

The war is back in force in classrooms too, with the Soviet practice of “Memory Lessons” resumed in Russian schools, 52 and government spending on patriotic education almost tripling during Putin’s first decade in power.53 New traditions are being established too. As well as the increasingly bombastic displays of military hardware in Red Square every year on Victory Day, in 2019 a new military parade was held to mark the anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), despite local objections.54

And while the story of the war has been updated from the Brezhnev edition, now emphasizing patriotism and the leadership of the state, instead of the Communist Party, Putin has been able to build on the previous Soviet foundation. “The cult of the war is deeply rooted in the Russian historical memory,” explains Koposov, “An advantage of the revived cult was that it could leverage an enormous Soviet infrastructure of museums, associations of veterans, movies, and other institutions to create a widely shared ideological consensus.”55

As in China, the regime is taking steps to enforce its version of history. Putin has ordered new textbooks to standardize the teaching of history across the country,56 and signed a new law, nominally against the “rehabilitation of Nazism,” but which critics fear will be harnessed instead to silence dissenting views, and indeed has already been used to secure convictions.57

And just as Xi Jinping’s increased focus on wartime history augurs a more nationalist posture towards China’s place in the world, so too Putin’s revival of the Great Patriotic War has important consequences beyond its borders. In 2014, for example, Russian state media portrayed the Maidan revolution in Ukraine as the rebirth of fascism in Europe, insisting that a “fascist junta” had seized power in Kiev. Reporting on the crisis that spring, I was stopped by armed men wearing masks on the main road to Crimea, who identified themselves as local residents and volunteers, and said they had come out to defend their territory against the “barbarians and fascists” they believed had taken control in Kiev, as they had seen on television. Many of them were wearing the orange and black ribbon of St. George, a symbol of the Soviet WWII victory that has been popularized under Vladimir Putin (and since been banned in Ukraine58) and they had clearly absorbed the Kremlin propaganda message, linking the crisis directly with the history of the Second World War, and picking up weapons in response. “This is the land of our ancestors,” one man told me, “who spilled their blood in the Great Patriotic War. Now the fascists are on the rise again and we are here to show it’s not going to work.”59

“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “isn’t dead; it’s not even past.”60 Nowhere is this truer than in Russia and China. As we have seen, this is not a new development, in fact the current leaders are following in a long tradition of the manipulation of wartime history for political purposes, but as they attempt to maintain power in the face of mounting uncertainties at home and abroad, we can expect their reliance on that history to intensify. While repression remains an important tool in that armory, both regimes will continue to exploit these past conflicts to frame contemporary struggles, and build public support, which as Xi Jinping has said, is a matter that concerns the Communist Party’s “survival or extinction.”61 

When Xi and Putin stood together that day in September 2015, they were invoking a shared narrative, intended for their domestic audiences, as they positioned themselves as the strong leaders and global statesmen who are reclaiming their nations’ rightful place in the world, drawing on a deep sense of historical grievance that their respective regimes continue to amplify. There are differences in their stories of WWII, but they share common elements: that the scale of their contribution and suffering has been forgotten by their former allies, that they were invaded in the past and must therefore develop their strength to avoid future conquest, and that they only survived by uniting under necessarily forceful rulers, to whom Putin and Xi are the contemporary heirs.

Missing from both of these accounts is the contribution of the United States, which has largely been downgraded to a secondary role in the modern Russian and Chinese remembering of the conflict, as present-day relations deteriorate and Washington is increasingly cast as an imperialist villain by Beijing and Moscow, accused of stoking protests in Hong Kong and color revolutions in Europe to maintain its position as global hegemon. This is not to say that the relationship between Russia and China is uncomplicated, with its own legacy of mutual suspicion and “history with geography,”62 but as the two countries now increase military co-operation and identify a common adversary, we should anticipate more joint commemorations and more focus on the shared features of their WWII history, as this wartime past is exploited to serve the present, and to secure the future of these regimes.

1. See, for example, the discussion over the use of WWII imagery in the British vote to leave the European Union, Patrick Wintour, “German Ambassador: Second World War image of Britain has fed euroscepticism,” The Guardian, January 29, 2018https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/29/german-ambassador-peter-ammon-second-world-war-image-of-britain-has-fed-euroscepticism, or Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, John Haltiwanger, “Trump drew from Putin’s playbook by using WWII references in State of the Union,” Business Insider, February 6, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-drew-from-putin-playbook-with-wwii-references-in-state-of-the-union-2019-2.

2. It is worth noting the debate over the use of the term ‘legitimacy’ in political science, particularly as it pertains to autocratic regimes. See Johannes Gerschewski, “Legitimacy in Autocracies: Oxymoron or Essential Feature?” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 16, Issue 3, (Cambridge University Press, September 2018), 652-665.

3. George Orwell, 1984, (New York: New American Library, 1983), 204.

4. Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, “Witnessing Japan’s surrender in China,” BBC News, September 2, 2015 https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34126445.

5. The CCP and KMT halted their own hostilities to form a united front during the conflict with Japan, but the civil war later resumed.

6. Sergey Radchenko, “China Lost World War II,” Foreign Policy, September 3, 2015 https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/03/china-lost-world-war-2-china-world-war-ii-victory-parade/.

7. Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II 1937 – 1945, (New York: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2014), 362-362.

8. Daqing Yang, “China: Meanings and Contradictions of Victory,” in Daqing Yang and Mike Mochizuki ed. Memory, Identity, and Commemorations of World War II: Anniversary Politics in Asia Pacific, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 6.

9. Arthur Waldron, “China’s New Remembering of World War II: The Case of Zhang Zizhong,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, Special Issue: War in Modern China (Cambridge University Press, October 1996), 945-978.

10. ‘Prazdnik pobedy’, Pravda, May 9, 1945, in Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia, (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 89.

11. Alexander Werth, “Russia at War,” London, 1963, p969, in Catherine Merridale, Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 241.

12. George Kennan, “Memoirs: 1925 – 1950,” Boston, 1967, p240-241, in Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia, (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 90.

13. Georgii Konstantinovich Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1971), 653-654.

14. Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, 93.

15. Lazar Lazarev, “Russian Literature on the War,” in John Garrard and Carol Garrard ed., World War 2 and the Soviet People: Selected Papers from the Fourth World Congress for Soviet and East European Studies, Harrogate, 1990, (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993), 30.

16. “Speech delivered by J. V. Stalin at a Meeting of Voters of the Stalin Electoral Area of Moscow, February 9, 1946,” Information Bulletin, March 9, 1946 (Embassy of the U.S.S.R., Washington, DC), 8, in Matthew P. Gallagher, The Soviet History of World War II: Myths, Memories, and Realities, (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1963), 39-40.

17. Lazarev, “Russian Literature on the War,” 31.

18. Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, 104.

19. Mark Edele, “Soviet Veterans as an Entitlement Group, 1945 – 1955,” Slavic Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (2006), 111-137. Edele notes that the full text of this decision was never published, instead short notices appeared in Pravda, December 24, 1947, and Vedomosti Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, no. 45 on December 26, 1947.

20. Nina Tumarkin, “The Great Patriotic War as myth and memory,” European Review, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Academia Europaea, 2003), 595-611.

21. Polly Jones, “Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953 – 70,” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 234-235.

22. Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, 134.

23. David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1994), 46.

24. Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, 196-197.

25. Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, 200.

26. Arthur Waldron, “China’s New Remembering of World War II: The Case of Zhang Zizhong,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, Special Issue: War in Modern China (Cambridge University Press, October 1996), 945-978.

27. Daqing Yang, “China: Meanings and Contradictions of Victory,” in Daqing Yang and Mike Mochizuki ed. Memory, Identity, and Commemorations of World War II: Anniversary Politics in Asia Pacific, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 3.

28. “Weida de quanmin kangzhan” [The great all-nation war of resistance], Xinhua, and “Zhongguo kangri zhanzheng shi quanminzu de fan qinlue zhangzheng” [China’s War of Resisting Japan is a war against aggression by the entire nation], Renmin Ribao, August 23, 1985, in Daqing Yang, “China: Meanings and Contradictions of Victory,” in Daqing Yang and Mike Mochizuki ed. Memory, Identity, and Commemorations of World War II: Anniversary Politics in Asia Pacific, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 4.

29. Parks M. Coble, “China’s New Remembering of the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance, 1934-1945,” China Quarterly, Vol. 394 (2007), 400.

30. Deng Xiaoping, “Address to Officers at the Rank of General and Above in Command of the Troops Enforcing Martial Law in Beijing,” June 9, 1989, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping. Vol. 3 (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1994).

31. Paul A. Cohen, China Unbound: Evolving perspectives on the Chinese past, (New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003), 167.

32. For more detail on the patriotic education campaign see Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 96-117, and Suisheng Zhao, A Nation-State by Construction, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 218-227.

33. William A. Callahan, “National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol.29, No. 2 (2004), 199-218.

34. Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 80.

35. “Wuwang lishi, zhenxing Zhonghua,” [Do Not Forget History; Arouse China], in Peter Hays Gries, China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics and Diplomacy, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 73.

36. Rana Mitter, “Old Ghosts, New Memories: China’s Changing War History in the Era of Post-Mao Politics,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2003), 117-131.

37. Suisheng Zhao, A Nation-State by Construction, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 218-221.

38. Nicholas Kristof, “Looking for a Jump-Start in China,” New York Times, January 5, 2013, cited in Jude Blanchette, China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 152.

39. “Document 9: A ChinaFile translation,” ChinaFile, November 8, 2013, http://www.chinafile.com/document-9-chinafile-translation.

40. Jude Blanchette, China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 137-138.

41. Kiki Zhao, “Chinese Court Orders Apology Over Challenge to Tale of Wartime Heroes,” New York Times, June 28, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/world/asia/china-hong-zhenkuai-five-heroes.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer.

42. Simon Denyer, “China criminalizes the slander of its ‘heroes and martyrs,’ as it seeks to control history,” Washington Post, April 27, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/china-criminalizes-the-slander-of-its-heroes-and-martyrs-as-it-seeks-to-control-history/2018/04/27/c4b48f16-49e9-11e8-ad53-d5751c8f243f_story.html.

43. Daqing Yang, “China: Meanings and Contradictions of Victory,” in Daqing Yang and Mike Mochizuki ed. Memory, Identity, and Commemorations of World War II: Anniversary Politics in Asia Pacific, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 5-6.

44. Javier C. Hernandez, “China, Fanning Patriotism, Adds 6 Years to War with Japan in History Books, The New York Times, January 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/11/world/asia/china-japan-textbooks-war.html.

45. Alexandra Stevenson, China faces new ‘Long March’ as trade war intensifies, Xi Jinping says, New York Times, May 21, 2019,https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/21/world/asia/xi-jinping-china-trade.html.

46. Michael R. Gordon, “Post-Communist Russia Plumbs Its Soul, in Vain, for New Vision,” New York Times, March 31, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/03/31/world/post-communist-russia-plumbs-its-soul-in-vain-for-new-vision.html.

47. Beyond the scope of this essay, Putin’s approach to the revival of history in other areas, such as the Orthodox Church, and the pre-revolutionary era is detailed in Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C, 2015), 63-75.

48. Elizabeth A. Wood, “Performing Memory: Vladimir Putin and the Celebration of WWII in Russia,” The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review, Vol.38 (2011), 172-200.

49. Nikolay Koposov, Memory Laws, Memory Wars: The Politics of the Past in Europe and Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 247-248.

50. “Meeting of the Pobeda (Victory) Organising Committee,” December 12, 2018, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/59388.

51. “Russia Launches World War II-Themed TV Channel Targeting Youth,” The Moscow Times, April 10, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/04/10/russia-launches-world-war-ii-themed-tv-channel-targeting-youth-a65175.

52. Wood, “Performing Memory,” 172-200.

53. Government spending on patriotic education programs rose from 178 million rubles (approx. $2.7m) in 2001-2005, to 497 million rubles (approx. $7.4m) in 2006 – 2010, Nataliya Danilova, The Politics of War Commemoration in the UK and Russia, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 176.

54. Daniel Kozin, “To Mourn or Celebrate? St. Petersburg Divided Over Anniversary of Leningrad Siege,” The Moscow Times, January 28, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/01/28/mourn-celebrate-st-petersburg-divided-over-marking-anniversary-of-leningrad-siege-a64310.

55. Nikolay Koposov, Memory Laws, Memory Wars: The Politics of the Past in Europe and Russia, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 248

56. Gabriela Baczynska, “Putin accused of Soviet tactics in drafting new history book,” Reuters, November 18, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-history/putin-accused-of-soviet-tactics-in-drafting-new-history-book-idUSBRE9AH0JK20131118.

57. “Man in Russia’s Perm Fined for ‘Nazism Rehabilitation,’” The Moscow Times, July 1, 2016, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2016/07/01/man-in-russias-perm-fined-for-nazism-rehabilitation-a53543

58. Ukraine Bans Russian St George Ribbon, June 12, 2017, Radio Free Europe, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-bans-russian-st-george-ribbon/28542973.html

59. Author interview, Ukraine, March 2014.

60. Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, 1.

61. Chung-yue Chang, “Study history, be close to the people,” China Daily, July 9, 2013, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2013-07/09/content_16749701.htm.

62. Leon Aron, “Are Russia and China really forming an alliance?”, Foreign Affairs, April 4, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2019-04-04/are-russia-and-china-really-forming-alliance.

Now Reading Who Controls the Past Controls the Future: The political use of WWII history in Russia & China