We are witnessing a war against history itself

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This op-ed is is written by Karena Avedissian, a political scientist focused on new media, civil society, and social movements in Eurasia.


The Russia-Ukraine war offers us a stark reminder that we are living in a golden era of historical revisionism. The form has an ignoble record around the world, flourishing especially where there was imperialist expansion. But it is being driven to new heights by post-modernist denial of absolute truth, and amplified by social media.

Historical lies

This resurgence of historical lies on the global stage is especially useful to dictators who harness them to justify present-day aggression – and at the vanguard marches Russia, revisionism starkly on display in Vladimir Putin’s annual May 9 speech this week commemorating victory in WWII.  Putin used the occasion to claim falsely that he sent his army against Ukraine “so that there is no place in the world for butchers, murderers and Nazis.” Meanwhile, for good measure, he accused the West of “rewriting history.”

Through various periods and under different regimes, Russia has long relied on  disinformation of the garden variety for  politics and statecraft. But in justifying its attack on Ukraine, its spinning of history has reached Orwellian dimensions. Putin has variously claimed  that Ukraine is simultaneously both a creation of Lenin and the home of Nazis. That is a claim so utterly daft that it seems to challenge the listener to dare disbelieve it.


The idea – perhaps inspired by the very Nazis it invokes – is that an untruth so grotesque, so big, must have some basis in truth, else the speaker could not have dared to speak it. And it works: farcical though the claims may seem to outsiders – or Ukrainians – for Putin’s intended audience the assault on the very idea of Ukrainian independence is effective.  

Most of the world mockery of the claims that Ukraine needs de-Nazification has focused on the Jewish lineage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which appears to render the claims absurd. The the truth is deeper, going even beyond Ukrainians’ historical role in defeating the Nazis in World War II.  Ukraine has in fact gone far beyond most other countries in condemning both the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian regimes at the legislative level – which reflects the fact that few places suffered more under both.

Mainstream media

But in today’s relativist environment, lies can be spun as just alternative facts. With the decline of the mainstream media, the filter has been weakened; on social media, everyone’s a publisher and all the claims have equal weight. Bot armies do the rest.

Putin’s assertion that Lenin – meaning Russia – created Ukraine is another point of historical revisionism. Putin framed the declaration as a deep historical grievance for Russia, since in his narrative Ukraine’s creation was at the expense of Russian lands – the same Russia that even without Ukraine accounts for the world’s largest land mass. Yet Ukraine dates back to the 9th century; one need only consult real history books.

Putin may be the gold standard, but he is far from alone.


Elsewhere in the region, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, a dictator who is perhaps even more genocidal, has been using historical revisionism to justify ambitions to ethnically cleanse the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh of its remaining indigenous Armenian inhabitants. Using force, Azerbaijan has managed to partially conquer the area, widely acknowledged as historically Armenian, during the 2020 war.

For example, on February 3, the Azerbaijani government announced it would target hundreds of Armenian historical monuments that have come under its control for erasure. A group of specialists was announced to have been set up “to remove the fictitious traces written by Armenians”, said Anar Karimov, Azerbaijan’s culture minister. Armenian presence in the region goes back thousands of years.

Azerbaijan’s decision to do this is even more surprising in light of the fact that the International Court of Justice has already ordered Azerbaijan to stop destroying Armenian monuments.


Azerbaijani propaganda further claims that the territory of the Republic of Armenia itself is not Armenian. In 2008, Aliyev said that Armenia’s capital Yerevan “was a gift to the Armenians in 1918. This was a great mistake. The Iravan khanate was Azerbaijani land, (and) the Armenians were guests here.”  Aliyev and his puppets speak of a so-called “final resolution” that would remove Armenians from the region.

Those who would distort history are relying on the impatience of global audiences with the need to unravel clashing narratives – even when one of them is false. Our era’s superficiality is part of the problem. The Anglo-American media’s obsession finding  “two sides” to every issue – because conflict is clickbait – is another.


But sometimes there is indeed a truth. Sometimes there is a presentation of history that is fundamentally false.

Preserving the integrity of the historical record helps us resolve and prevent conflict. At stake is not only the lives and livelihoods of Ukrainians and Armenians, but of any group of people that might be singled out for discrimination and persecution in the future.

History tells us the story of how we got to this point. When the stakes are death and destruction of whole communities, it’s a story that deserves our full attention.

We should remember George Orwell’s cautionary words from “1984”: „Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”  

Let it not be the liars.

Karena Avedissian, Ph.D. is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  Follow her at twitter.com/karenaav


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