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From historical revisionism to nationalist sci-fi: How the Kremlin controls the domestic narrative on Ukraine

An Eastern European political and security researcher has taken to X to detail how the Russian government has manipulated Russian history, literature, and the media to drum up domestic support ahead of its invasion of Ukraine – rehabilitating figures such as Stalin to drive Russian nationalism.

An Eastern European political and security researcher has taken to X to detail how the Russian government has manipulated Russian history, literature, and the media to drum up domestic support ahead of its invasion of Ukraine – rehabilitating figures such as Stalin to drive Russian nationalism.

Eastern European politics and security expert Sergej Sumlenny, founder and managing director of the European Resilience Initiative Center, took to X overnight to detail how the Russian government exploited the nation’s media, history, and literature ahead of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine to generate support for Russian militarism and revanchism.

Central to the Russian Federation’s strategy was rehabilitating Russian historical figures and reshaping the nation’s borders, in an attempt to sanitize its past and justify an expansionist agenda.


Since the early 2010s, Sumlenny recorded an increase in the production of literature praising Stalin and appearing in bookstores across the country, with headlines including: “Be proud, not sorry! Truth about Stalin Age” and “Stalin’s Repressions: A Great Lie.”

To Sumlenny, the proliferation of revisionist Soviet and Stalinist literature would had to have been supported by the Russian intelligence agencies who maintain control over the nation’s publishing industry.

In fact, the glorification of the nation’s past was so significant that bookstores would sell Red Army memorabilia, including uniforms and military accessories.

To capture the imaginations of the Russian population, historical revisionism turned into fictionalising future conflicts. Since 2014, Russian publishers began writing books on fictionalised conflicts – including a series which was based on fighting Nazis in Ukraine – that depicted Russian battlefield superiority.

In one novel, the conflict in Ukraine was a precursor to World War III, where Russian bravery saves the Russian people from destruction at the hands of NATO.

Sumlenny explained that this genre of military fiction is closely related to “popadantsy”, a popular historical and science fiction-based genre whereby a time travelling Russian protagonist is given the opportunity to right historical wrongs against the Russian people.

Ukrainian writer Yevhen Mahda does not mince his words on analysing the popularity of this strikingly odd genre.

“Contemporary Russian literary critic Vasil Vladimirsky explains that the popularity of ‘popadancheskoy prose’ is taken from the features of mass psychology, based on the exploitation of a ‘loser complex’ which diminishes when a person gains confidence after realising that he or she has a hidden potential which was suppressed only by external circumstances,” Mahda wrote.

“The literary quality of the books that feature popadancheskoy fiction has been steadily declining because of their mass appeal. Plots in the popadanchestva are repeated in many variations but are obviously used as a comfort for cushioning against the shock that Russians has associated with the collapse of the USSR and an expression of their desire to return to it (at least through fantasy) and to their country’s states as a super power.”

Prejudice abound, popadantsy novels spare no imagination in destroying Russia’s European rivals at different time periods throughout history. Some bordering on the absurd. Sumlenny continues: “Let’s start with easy reading, ‘Tsar from the future’: a guy wakes up in a body of Russian Nicolas II emperor, prevents Russian revolution, defeats Great Britain, and conquers Istanbul with modern weapons,” Sumlenny wrote.

“While digging into this genre, one sees interesting patterns. The biggest enemy is the UK (and a lesser one the US).”

Interestingly, in Sumlenny’s analysis, much of the propaganda is not as much anti-Nazi, as it is critical of the Nazis for breaking the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

“One of the greatest Western misunderstandings about Russia is that the West believes, Russia is anti-German-Nazis. Russia is not. Russia’s trauma is that Hitler had broken Stalin-Hitler alliance and started to kill Soviets, instead of to kill other nations with the Soviets,” he posted on X.

“‘Comrade Hitler. Execute Churchill!’ Description: ‘Popadanets gets into Adolf Hitler’s body. Will he manage to execute Churchill for war crimes, create an alliance with the USSR? Will comrades Hitler and Stalin defeat the US and get a nuke before the US?’”

However, reading historical science fiction is not necessarily for everyone. In addition to this unique literary genre, the Russian government prosecuted a well-known domestic influence campaign through state-owned and aligned media outlets to normalise the notion of war with the West which has included satirical music about a nuclear attack on the United States and played on Russian music channel RuTV.

With the proliferation of media that supports acts of warfare against the United States and United Kingdom, Sumlenny questioned why diplomatic missions in the West were willingly blind to an influence operation targeting Russian civilians to drive anti-Western prejudice – instead placing unfounded belief in Russia’s desire to join the global rules-based order.

So has the Russian Federation’s historical revisionism worked?

Yes. According to polling by the Levada Center in 2019, some 70 per cent of Russians approved of Stalin’s legacy on Russia, up from 54 per cent a few years earlier. Likewise, a year and a half following Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Putin has seen a surge in popularity.

So much has Russian exceptionalism been absorbed into Russia’s zeitgeist, that neo-Eurasianist thinker Alexander Dugin – who posits that civilisational confrontation between Russia and the West is a predetermined reality – is compulsory reading in the nations’ policing and military academies. This thinking has flowed through to Putin himself, who has claimed that conflict with the West is a necessity to reach parity in the global geopolitical order.

Meanwhile, as the War in Ukraine drags on – Russia’s political leaders use the West’s support of Ukraine as retrospective justification for the war. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that economic sanctions are evidence of the West’s ongoing war on Russia with voters continuing to rally around the flag in support of their nation.

While many hold out hope that Russian ambitions in Ukraine may fade, while the levers of media and information remain firmly in the hands of the Kremlin – little is likely to change.

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