How autocrats manipulate history to retain power

Katie Stallard was reporting from Ukraine in 2014 as the Russian military annexed the Ukrainian peninsula from southern Crimea. As a foreign correspondent for UK outlet Sky News, she had a front row seat when Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked World War II to justify and celebrate the invasion.

In Stallard’s new book, “Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea,” she analyzes how leaders in Russia, China, and North Korea manipulate and distort historical narratives about war to maintain and strengthen their hold. on power. Stallard drew heavily on her experience reporting on the ground in all three countries.

In Russia, Putin “raised the memory of the Great Patriotic War to the status of a national religion,” writes Stallard. Meanwhile, in China, President Xi Jinping used World War II as a marker for the end of China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” And war stories are particularly prominent in North Korea, where Kim Jong-un is falsely portrayed as a war hero who liberated the country from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 and won a victory over the United States in the Korean War eight years later.

It’s history, underlines Stallard, stained with a “veneer of patriotism”.

I recently spoke with Stallard on the phone. She is currently based in Washington, DC as the China and Global Affairs Editor at The New Statesman. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You set out to explore how autocrats exploit history to stay in power. How would you sum up your report?

It’s about how effectively and how often the leaders of these regimes manipulated historical narratives to suit their own political purposes and position themselves as patriotic defenders of their country – and all who stand in it. oppose, therefore, as traitors. But really, above all, they are doing this to consolidate their own power and their own popular support.

I understand that the title of your book – “Dancing on Bones” – comes from a Russian activist. What does the phrase mean and why did it resonate with you?

The rough backstory is that there was this Russian activist who together with his friends founded this grassroots movement – the Immortal Regiment – which was basically meant to be an alternative to what they saw as the very explosive official commemorations , WWII militarists. War. It was about scrolling quietly with photos of your loved ones. But once it became very popular, and the authorities took it over, he gave this very exasperated interview, saying, “Guys, stop, stop. Like, we all have parents who died. It’s dancing on the bones. And to me, that was really about the very cynical manipulation of what are devastating, personal memories and experiences.

As a means of maintaining power, how does the exploitation of these historical narratives compare to other methods? How important is this particular method for maintaining power in these three countries?

The way I think about it is that there are all these different elements that work together very effectively, so it’s hard to eliminate one and consider it in a completely discrete way. Timothy Frye has a quote in his book “Weak Strongman” on Putin about how much easier it is to be a popular autocrat than an unpopular autocrat, which to me pretty much sums it up. If tomorrow you removed all references to history, would these regimes remain standing? I think so. But in terms of building resilience and making the regime more secure and making it less brittle, less fragile, I think the more you can also integrate and build on those popular ideas and some of the population is buying – even if that’s not is not a majority – it makes the regime safer, more resilient.

What historical accounts have going for them is that they endure, especially in times when there are economic problems, when the country is facing difficulties, when you ask people to accept a certain degree difficulties and sacrifices in their own lives. Being able to frame this in terms of past struggles and outside enemies that you can blame for your problems is very helpful and quite effective. So it’s hard to separate them, and I think it’s important to think of them as part of a toolbox or an arsenal.

It would probably be impossible to measure how much all of this costs, but it would be interesting to know the approximate price of manipulating the story.

In the case of North Korea, this is one of the things that struck me. There is a price to pay, as with the reconstruction of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. It is an absolutely extraordinary building in terms of its scale and ambition. Another example is the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities. Obviously we don’t know what the budget was because there’s no transparency, but in a country where there are people right now who desperately need enough calories and kids are lagging behind growing and chronically malnourished, it was a choice to spend a conservative estimate of what must have been millions on these museums. It’s a choice, when that money could go elsewhere.

What role does state media play in these campaigns?

Each has a slightly different tone. One of the things that Russia has done more effectively than China is to make particularly public television channels very entertaining, very watchable. If you can suspend your disbelief at the content, they really put a lot of effort into putting together these very provocative and very dramatic talk shows and making their message very appetizing. Often, evening Chinese TV news is very dry. It’s not something you would turn to for entertainment. But they’ve become much more proactive in recent years in using other mediums – in particular, I’m thinking of some of the big-budget films of recent years.

In the book’s conclusion, you said you were writing his last words in January with Russian forces massed on the Ukrainian border. Russia then invaded Ukraine in late February. Not specifically about Russia, you wrote: “This distorted version of history is the backdrop against which future wars will be fought. How has it been for you to watch what has happened since?

It was really surreal. When Putin said that morning that it was a denazification operation, I partly had the impression: “Of course”, as if I should have understood that this was where it was. was heading. I didn’t expect him to go all the way. But in hindsight, of course, that’s how he would frame it. I felt like it was the ideas in the book coming to life. It’s the worst case scenario. I had spent a lot of time thinking about it in this abstract, theoretical sense, but to see it being used to take the lives of real people and destroy towns and villages in Ukraine is truly sickening.

What are the implications of these campaigns for people who do not live in China, Russia or North Korea?

I think we should all be very careful, and it made me very aware of how leaders in other countries like here in the United States and in the United Kingdom where I come from – how people who have power or seek power or want to stay in power, turn to history. These historical narratives are effective because they resonate, so they can be very dangerous in the hands of those in power. There is a live debate here in the United States about whether we should focus on the darker aspects of the past as well or if that is an unpatriotic thing to do. We should problematize – to use a horribly scholarly term – as much as we can.

It reminds me of a quote from your history book functioning as a comfort blanket in Russia.

Yeah, it’s really nice. It’s nice to believe that you are the hero of the story, that your country is the greatest in the world. But we have to be aware that this is also what all these other countries tell their citizens, that they are the heroes of history, that their countries are the force for good. I want to emphasize the non-exceptional nature of the desire to do so. Leaders in all countries draw from various versions of the past, so it’s not an exceptional push, but it has been taken to extremes in these three countries. It’s definitely not just autocrats who are drawn to this idea, so we should all be really on guard against it.

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