How ‘Memory Wars’ Fuel the Conflict in Russia and Ukraine 

Posted February 8, 2022

In recent weeks, the news cycle has been crowded with commentators discussing the current ramifications of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and offering explanations as to what Russian President Vladimir Putin likely hopes to get out of it. However, much less has been said about the historical context of the conflict, especially the so-called "memory wars" that infuse the political and cultural conversations in the region.  

Nikolay Koposov, a distinguished professor of the practice in Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology and School of Literature, Media, and Communication, is a historian with a deep understanding of the region. Koposov wrote a book on memory wars and laws in Russia and Eastern Europe, and he is an expert on the politics of historical memory. 

“This crisis between Russia and Ukraine largely comes from several memory wars in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Koposov says. “The rise of nationalism, populism, authoritarian regimes — all that is largely legitimized by some claims about the past that began in the 1990’s, and I see the current armed conflict as a continuation of this memory war.”  

With an understanding of the historical narratives driving the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Koposov believes, we can better approximate what’s coming next.  


What are memory wars? 

The term “memory war” describes political conflict fueled by differing perceptions of a shared history. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, Koposov says, the most important of those shared events is World War II.  

Because of the Soviet Union’s role in the decisive victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War and the territory it controlled when the war ended, Russia still claims the right to govern the area previously controlled by Moscow, which includes Ukraine. When a nation such as Ukraine starts to develop a more western-leaning attitude and begins to pull away, or organizations such as the European Union or NATO attempt to increase western influence in the area, Russia interprets it as an assault on their status as the official winner of the Second World War.  

Russia sees its history as that of heroic liberators of the region from Nazi occupation, “but of course, not everybody in Eastern Europe agrees with that,” Koposov says. “Most people in Eastern Europe consider the Soviet role in the Second World War in far less positive terms.” Rather than a rescuer in World War II, many countries saw Russia as a second occupier. 


Fueling the current conflict 

Now, Koposov says, Russian messaging frames the conflict as a continuation of the Second World War, where Moscow is a force for peace, once again liberating Ukraine.  

The most critical accusation the Kremlin is making against the Ukrainian government today is that Ukraine is resisting Russian control because it is controlled by fascist influences, Koposov explains. However, on the other side of the border, the government in Kyiv sees Russia as aggressors threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty.  

Both countries deploy “weapons” in these memory wars — movies and documentaries that justify these national narratives and laws prohibiting certain statements about the past. In Russia, it’s illegal to refer to the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe as an “occupation.” Those who do can go to prison for up to five years. Ukraine has similar rules prohibiting criticism of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in World War II — a group that fought against both Soviet and German forces throughout the conflict, collaborating at times with the Nazis and committing crimes against humanity. 


What now? 

“Nobody in the West has any reliable information about Putin’s intentions,” Koposov cautions. 

Russia sees Western influence in Eastern Europe as a threat, and the most powerful Western influence is the United States. But right now, Putin also sees weaknesses in the United States and therefore believes this is an opportune time to make a stand.  

If the U.S. doesn’t back down, Koposov says, Putin may create a more immediate danger by “raising the level of problems closer to a nuclear war.” 

“Putin wants everyone to believe that the U.S. is afraid of him,” says Koposov. “He thinks that American leadership is weak and would not react too aggressively to any kind of aggression on his behalf. He expects America to capitulate. The image of an inherently anti-Russian and weak America is the most important idea that underlies his politics. So, America needs to be strong in all their stances, including military stance. I think that this is the main takeaway from the analysis of this crisis. We need a strong America.” 

Nikolay Koposov specializes in modern European intellectual history, modern France, post-Soviet Russia, historiography, historical memory, and comparative politics of the past. He participated in expert groups on the politics of historical memory coordinated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights, and Körber Foundation (Germany). Learn more and contact him on his profile page.  

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