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Russian libraries purge books telling ‘the wrong history’ about the USSR in WWII

27.07.2021
Halya Coynash

Little solders of the Great Patriotic War - one of the books which will certainly not be purged, (right) Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman which may well be removed for the author’s commitment to historical truth

Libraries and book shops in Russia and, presumably in occupied Crimea, have been feverishly purging their shelves since a new law came into force making it a criminal offence to equate the actions of the USSR and Nazi Germany during the Second World War.   Since the two regimes collaborated until 22 June 1941, with both invading Poland in September 1939, the censoring of history will not be easy.

Novaya Gazeta writes that the panic began on 12 July, after the relevant bill, which was signed by President Vladimir Putin on 1 July, came into force. As reported, the bill first tabled in the State Duma on 5 May on Amendments to the Law ‘On immortalizing the Victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945’, bans any public statements likening the roles played by the USSR and Nazi Germany in World War II.  On 12 July, amendments were also made to the Federal Law ‘On countering extremist activities’ which prohibit not only the use of symbols linked with Nazi criminals, but also their pictures.

The Russian Book Union sent around recommendations that all books not meeting these requirements be removed.  Unsurprisingly, bookshops demanded a more detailed explanation, although they clearly did not feel much more confident after Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov came up with his ‘explanation’.  He said that “if there are some big, major images on the cover, then it’s clear that some popularization is, of course, absolutely not required and inadmissible by law.  If you’re talking of reference information, some kind of images inside and not on the cover, then that’s quite a different matter.”  Novaya explains that the Justice Ministry is now undertaking work on explaining the legislation, with the participation of various historical and book associations.

For the moment bookshops and libraries are waiting this verdict, with vast numbers of books for the moment removed from the shelves.  Nobody is prepared to say what will become of the books.  Burning them on the streets would, after all, be all too reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

While Novaya devoted most of attention to the ban on images that very often form part of a book cover, the real minefields doubtless lie in the content which bookshop owners and librarians may well now be worried about holding.

What should they do, for example, with material which explains in depth the secret Molotov – Ribbentrop protocols by which Stalin and Hitler arranged to carve up Poland between them?    It is more than likely that bookshops will feel very worried about stocking historical accounts of the Katyn Massacre in which the NKVD murdered 22 thousand Polish officers and intelligentsia. It is, of course, possible that many booksellers had long understood the present climate in Russia and avoided such ‘delicate’ subjects, but now you are potentially talking about criminal prosecution.  

The draft bill tabled by three high-level members of the ruling ‘United Russia’ party spoke of prohibiting “the denial of the decisive role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the humanitarian mission of the USSR in liberating the countries of Europe”.  

It is likely that booksellers will be loath to stock critical assessments about the Soviet Union’s supposed ‘liberation’ of the Baltic Republics; Poland; Czechoslovakia or other eastern European countries.

This is, undoubtedly, the aim of amendments to the law apparently drawn up in compliance with Putin’s instructions following a meeting of the President’s Committee on Culture and Art on 27 October 2020. 

As reported, they were immediately supported by Russia’s Investigative Committee, whose spokesperson, Svetlana Petrenko said that “attempts to re-write history must receive a warranted response in the legal realm, just like any other actions which denigrate the symbols of military glory and insult the memory of the victorious nation.”  Petrenko added that in September 2020 the Investigative Committee had created a department “for investigating crimes linked with the rehabilitation of Nazism and falsification of history”.

While the amendments supposedly leave ‘scope’ for historical assessment, who wants to discover to their cost that such ‘scope’ does not cover their specific line of investigation?  Strictly in theory, the arrest and prosecution of world-renowned historian of the Terror Yury Dmitriev in 2016 had nothing to do with his work in uncovering the unmarked graves of victims at Sandarmokh and in also identifying NKVD executioners.  When fellow historian and colleague in work at Sandarmokh,  Sergei Koltyrin was arrested in October 2018, also on purportedly unrelated charges, a public discussion over the attempts to rewrite history about Sandarmokh which both Dmitriev and Koltyrin rejected,  was immediately cancelled.

There are also no grounds for believing that librarians cannot be expected to answer for the books held in their library.  In June 2017, 59-year-old Natalya Sharina was convicted on ‘extremism’ charges linked with material in the Ukrainian Literature Library, and on a far-fetched charge of squandering public money.  She had been under extremely strict house arrest since late October 2015 and it was only thanks to the efforts of her lawyers, Ivan Pavlov and Yevgeny Smirnov from Team 29 that she was not held in detention and, probably, that she eventually received a suspended sentence.  She had been charged with‘inciting national enmity or hatred, as well as of denigrating human dignity of a group of people on the grounds of nationality [i.e. Russians]”  on the grounds that she supposedly had, in her capacity as Director of the now closed library ‘circulated prohibited books’.  It is likely that the main book was, in fact, brought by the officers who carried out a ‘search’ of the library, however other material mentioned in the indictment included children’s magazines.

Children in uniform during the Immortal Regiment procession in Russian-occupied Crimea screenshot from video

See also:

Russia exploits war veterans for offensive against opposition activists and historical truth

Russians name Stalin as the most ‘outstanding’ figure of all times

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