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Historical Revisionism in Russian State Media: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Nostalgia and Impacts Collective Memory

Photo: Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of No changes were made. View the license here

By Ruty Korotaev

“One is nostalgic not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been. It is this past perfect that one strives to realize in the future.” – Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 2001

On a recent video call with a cousin in Moscow, during a particularly heated conversation about Russian politics and the COVID-19 vaccine, he abruptly proclaimed: “We need another Stalin.” An employee of the Russian media industry in his mid-30s, having spent only his early childhood under the Soviet Union, he is convinced that Russia needs another strongman who will lead with an iron fist and restore order to a country that, in his words, is under constant threat from the West. What I found particularly striking was how many themes emerged in just one conversation with an individual who not only regularly consumes Russian state-sponsored media, but plays an active role in producing it. Among these themes was a profound dislike and fear of the West, including organizations like the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), distrust of vaccines and government institutions, a strong belief in conspiracy theories, and a certain degree of reverence for the Soviet past. I argue in this essay that these themes all fall within the sphere of post-Soviet nostalgia, a phenomenon that has been the subject of much scholarship over the decades following the fall of the USSR. 

These tropes, which are mostly unoriginal in content, have been making their way back into Russian public discourse since the late-1990s and are further being amplified and refashioned by the Putin regime. Whether it be through the reinstallation of memorial plaques and statues that honour notorious Soviet figures, or by bringing back the Stalin-era national anthem, the Kremlin has been working to reframe Russia’s collective memory since the early days of Putin’s presidency.[1] Historical revisionism that emphasizes centralized leadership and the strong state has become a defining aspect of Russian politics and state media’s “rhetorical toolbox.”[2] This essay will explore how Russian state-sponsored media fosters feelings of nostalgia throughout Russia and the former Soviet space. Starting with an overview of the study of post-Soviet nostalgia, I will analyze how common Soviet tropes within Russian media, including many conspiracy theories, tie into nostalgia and how these sentiments ultimately support the Kremlin’s political goals – including Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In studying the role that the media plays in spreading Soviet nostalgic tropes, this paper argues that the Kremlin has weaponized nostalgia in a way that aims to justify Putin’s aggressive policies and his tightened grip on power.

Introduction: Nostalgia in Russia’s media sphere

Over the last 30 years, amid the many societal, cultural, and political changes throughout the former socialist region, the media environment has gone through many iterations. Having served as a state propaganda machine since the Bolshevik revolution and throughout the Soviet years, the period of glasnost allowed for journalists to write openly for the first time in modern Russian history. However, press freedom in post-Soviet Russia has been challenged since the 1990s, when under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership, media moguls began to put pressure on Russian publications.[3] With the appointment of Vladimir Putin in 2000, media and journalist rights were further restricted and state censorship was reintroduced.[4] Further, there is scholarly consensus that authoritarian states must exert control over the media to maintain legitimacy domestically, and that is precisely what is taking place in the Russian Federation.[5] In their article, “Broadcasting Agitainment: A New Media Strategy of Putin’s Third Presidency,” Vera Tolz and Yuri Teper note that neo–authoritarian regimes aim to maintain a media environment that permits a certain degree of diversity in media ownership and discourse, which is why independent outlets like TV Rain, Echo of Moscow, and Novaya Gazeta have been able to operate until the most recent crackdown on the media in March 2022. However, the government ultimately has control over the public agenda and official discourse, which frequently involves instances of historical distortion.[6] Though there is some disagreement among scholars in terms of how much power Putin has over the media, it is clear to any observer that the media ecosystem in Russia is not without its issues, and there has been an increased effort in creating a homogenized information ecosystem within Russia amid growing domestic and international tensions. Currently, most of the media outlets are either directly funded by the Kremlin or by pro-Putin oligarchs, including many publications that used to be considered oppositionist and left leaning. Other popular platforms, like the blogging site and email service, are also under oligarch control.[7] As such, with the Kremlin’s tightened grip over state media outlets like Channel 1 and Vesti, alongside its heightened censorship of the internet, it is able to propagate pro-government narratives through a myriad of widely consumed sources. Among these narratives, nostalgia continues to be a dominant sentiment that is weaponized by the Kremlin. 

Post-Soviet nostalgia 

The study of nostalgia for the Soviet Union has become the topic of much scholarship over the last few decades. The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym has been a leading monograph that offers a comprehensive analysis of this subject. Boym writes that nostalgia “works as a double-edged sword [as] it seems to be an emotional antidote to politics,” therefore  continuing to be a powerful political tool.[8] In her book, Boym aims to understand why Soviet myths, practices, and affections were able to live on after the fall of the USSR, and how nostalgia has been linked to the Soviet Union in the years following its demise.[9] Boym characterizes nostalgia in two ways, which has been used as a framework in many other studies of nostalgia. First, restorative nostalgia emphasizes the idea of rebuilding the lost home and filling in memory gaps, which then leads to reconstructions of the past and nationalist tendencies through the “antimodern myth-making of history.”[10] This form of nostalgia encourages a conspiratorial worldview that frequently involves the “scapegoating of the mythical enemy.”[11] The second type is reflective nostalgia, which hinges on feelings of longing and loss, and on what Boym calls the “imperfect process of remembrance.”[12] Reflective nostalgia does not aim to reconstruct anything, but rather focuses on the ruins of the past, mourning a world that no longer exists. While Boym notes these two nostalgic tendencies are by no means exhaustive, I will be using these definitions in my analysis of contemporary Russian state media, which I believe is dominated by restorative nostalgia.

The Soviet Union has a long history of distorting history by encouraging feelings of nostalgia. Boym explains that in the 1920s and 30s, official Soviet discourse aimed to combine revolutionary and restoration narratives, portraying this period as a time of prosperity and stability, instead of one defined by collectivization, starvation, purges, and mass repression. In the years of the Perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, reflective nostalgia dominated the art world and media.[13] Discourse within these two realms was filled with discussions of nostalgia for the historic glory of each nation within the Soviet Union, as well as nostalgia for a time of stability, which greatly contrasted the political turmoil that occurred during the Perestroika. Interestingly, Boym says that media and public discourse during this time were focused on internal affairs and directed at challenging the “Soviet myth,” with little regard for the West.[14] In the early 1990s, nostalgia in the media was largely characterized by a longing for the stability of the Brezhnev era, due in part to the re-emergence of old Soviet films on Russian television.[15] By the mid-1990s, as glasnost intellectuals fell to the wayside, journalists began to note the rise of what they called unreflective nostalgia within the media and public discourse, with the word “old” becoming increasingly popular and used for commercial purposes.[16] This “old,” as Boym notes, refers to a somewhat ambiguous “ahistoric image of the good old ages… sometime before the big change.”[17] This affinity for the old, for a past associated with one’s youth and societal stability, has become a common trope within contemporary Russian state media.

While Boym’s book ends with a discussion of how cyberspace and the Russian internet (RuNet) spread nostalgia, I believe it is pertinent to start with it. Aside from state television, the internet is the main vehicle through which the government disseminates its narratives.[18] Two platforms are of particular interest to the Kremlin: Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte, which was modelled after Facebook and has groups of thousands of people who are active in politics; and Yandex, a search engine that, among other things, shares news headlines that continue to be an essential part of daily news consumption for many Russian speakers.[19] Both of these home-grown outlets have widespread usage both in and outside of Russia’s borders, especially throughout the former Soviet region. In their book The Red Web, RuNet specialists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write that the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea was one of the first notable instances in which the Russian leadership exercised enormous control over these two platforms to “win the hearts and minds of Russian-speaking populations at home and abroad,” in an effort to persuade them to believe the Kremlin’s narrative about the conflict in Ukraine.[20] This point is also noted in Ivan Kozachenko’s 2019 article, “Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0: Digital nostalgia and national belonging in the context of the Ukrainian crisis.” Kozachenko explains that during the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin used VKontakte to promote Soviet-era narratives, symbols, and myths in the hopes of fostering nostalgia that will lead to the creation of a new USSR. These efforts, Kozachenko says, reconstruct memories from the Second World War in a way that justifies Russian aggression and undermines Ukrainian history and cultural identity.[21] Thus, while Boym does not put a large emphasis on the internet’s role in fostering nostalgia, it has proven to be an important tool used by the Kremlin to propagate pro-Soviet narratives that reach audiences well beyond Russia’s borders.

The ‘mediatization of memory’

Historically, media has had an important impact on collective memory within many different contexts. Dr. Astrid Erll, in her 2010 article, “Literature, Film, and the Mediality of Cultural Memory,” ascertains that cultural memory is based on communication through media, as significant historical events are continuously repeated on different forms of media over prolonged periods of time.[22] This in turn leaves a lot of room for re-interpretation of historical events, as well as the distortion of historical facts. The mediatization of media is especially important when it comes to understanding collective trauma, as Amit Pinchevski explains in his book Transmitted Wounds: Media and the Mediation of Trauma. He states that trauma’s “teetering between past and present, presence and absence, proximate and distant” is frequently manifested in media.[23] Throughout his book, Pinchevski argues that media is not only a carrier of a “preformulated” message,[24] but rather a system which shapes these messages, quoting John Durham Peters in saying that “media are our infrastructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are.”[25] Though Pinchevski’s analysis is focused on trauma, his framework of viewing the media as a setting for conditions of possible traumatic representations – rather than simply looking at how trauma is represented – can be applied to the study of nostalgia in the media. No matter what the sentiment is, the media is constantly producing and reproducing an “excess of content”[26] that is filled with “sensation in excess of sense,”[27] demonstrating what Pinchevski calls the media’s inability to represent trauma in a way that is “non-discursive” and “non-hermeneutic.”[28] As such, the media plays a critical role in impacting and shaping both collective and traumatic memory. 

Moreover, Sabina Mihelj, in her article “Memory, Post-Socialism and the Media: Nostalgia and Beyond,” explores a similar idea, stating that the media should not necessarily be seen as a vehicle of memory, but rather as an “object of remembering in its own right.”[29] Mihelj believes much of the scholarship surrounding nostalgia in the post-socialist space is reductive of the experiences and “vernacular remembering” of individuals who lived through this time.[30] These memories, says Mihelj, do not necessarily have to be related to nostalgia, but rather reveal a “nuanced and polysemic relationship with the state socialist past.”[31] Further, she notes that most research on post-socialist nostalgia is based on small-scale works that are hyper-focused on nostalgic practices, as opposed to analyzing these tropes in a broader context, and existing literature fails to account for the diversity of opinion among these post-socialist populations.[32] Therefore, based on the works of both Mihelj and Pinchevski, it is important to reconsider how media is viewed and what role it plays in the context of nostalgia, keeping in mind that not all memories of the Soviet Union should be characterized as nostalgic.

In addition, individual agency is something that must be incorporated in the context of memory mediatization. In her book Losing Pravda: Ethics and The Press in Post-Truth Russia, Natalia Roudakova criticizes the black-and-white notion that media audiences, whether Soviet or post-Soviet, are either fully indoctrinated or political oppositionists who can see past the propaganda.[33] Roudakova is equally critical of the common trope that journalism in an authoritarian regime is only used as an outlet for resistance or a vehicle for indoctrination, and that journalists are either “cynical careerists, spineless yes-men, or closeted dissidents.”[34] These beliefs force the view that Russia’s media-political transformation was driven solely by powerful elites and political figures. These assumptions overlook the sociocultural aspects of the transitions from the Soviet Union to glasnost to Yeltsin’s Russia and the current Putin regime.[35] While Roudakova’s book reviews the Russian media sphere from an ethics-based perspective, her main argument focuses on the idea that Soviet-era journalists shared a “truth- and justice-seeking ethic for which they were recognized by their audiences.”[36] Moreover, Roudakova states that because of these conventional narratives, there has been a devolution of Russian journalism, and with it, the societal value of truth and justice-seeking. Instead, these values have been replaced by “state-sponsored cynicism” which the Putin administration has monopolized.[37] In framing freedom of speech as a democratic, and therefore Western ideal, Putin has paved the way for what Roudakova calls “society-wide acceptance of rabid ultranationalist propaganda in Russia.”[38] Though her book has little to do with nostalgia, the idea that these common anti-journalism frameworks should be challenged is helpful in understanding the media’s role in propagating nostalgia and the agency that individual journalists have in this process. 

The history of historical distortion

This Kremlin’s use of media to distort and rewrite history has been a cornerstone of its work to spread nostalgic sentiment in Russia. The period of glasnost in the late 1980s was characterized by what Boym calls a “memory boom,” in which people sought to find historical “black holes and blank spots.”[40] Amid all this interest in history and lifting of taboos, however, the collective past began to change from one day to the next, as more and more people began to share their own interpretations of history and what had occurred during the Soviet years. There are also many instances in which the Soviet leadership has used media to revise history and foster nostalgia. Boym points to the October Socialist Revolution of 1917 as the “first spectacle of communist restoration.”[41] Since the actual storming of the Winter Palace was poorly documented and there was a lack of public memory, the Soviets monopolized on this and produced films that turned this revolution into a “Seventh-of-November demonstration.”[42] In reality, however, there was little bloodshed during this storming, and had many looters in attendance.[43] Boym notes that by framing the October Revolution in such a grandiose way, the early Bolshevik leadership was able to nationalize time, and represent this historic event as the “culmination of world history [consisting of] the final victory of communism and the ‘end of history.’”[44]

Andrei Linchenko and Daniil Anikin build on Boym’s argument in their article “The Political Uses of the Past in Modern Russia: The Images of the October Revolution 1917 in the Politics of Memory of Russian Parties.” Linchenko and Anikin write that memory politics have been revitalized by communist parties in Russia, particularly since 2017 which marked the 100th anniversary of the October revolution. This event serves as the “founding myth” for many of these parties, who ascertain that it was the most important event in Russian history.[45] Moreover, the authors note how the use of mass media has transformed the political mechanisms in Russia, stating that platforms are not focused on a specific set of ideas or beliefs, but instead are based on the expectations and interests of the target electorate. This has led to some bizarre political hybrids, as communist leaders now refer to Jesus Christ as the “first communist” and make a point to celebrate Christian holidays.[46] As such, the continuous historical distortion of the October Revolution of 1917, partly done through the media, is an important example of how nostalgia has been politicized in contemporary Russian politics. 

The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 is another example of how the Kremlin distorts history and promotes nostalgia through the media. Emily D. Johnson, in her article “Remembering Chernobyl Through the Lens of Post-Soviet Nostalgia,” examines this very issue. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a consensus among Soviet leaders and experts that Chernobyl contributed to the erosion of the public’s confidence and trust in the Communist Party, making Gorbachev’s Perestroika policies all the more important. The Soviet press began releasing damaging information related to Chernobyl, among other things, further bringing the legitimacy of the Soviet leadership into question. However, Johnson argues that Chernobyl has since shifted from being a symbol of all the challenges of late-Soviet society into a narrative of “heroic triumph.”[47] Moreover, the individuals who participated in clean-up efforts, called the “liquidators,” have been framed as the last great generation of heroes.[48] Johnson identifies early Soviet media coverage as the root cause of this trope – in the days following the disaster, local media aimed to minimize the extent of the damage to reassure local and international audiences. Media coverage emphasized how seemingly well-prepared the government was in taking care of this crisis, praising how organized and efficient clean-up efforts were. Additionally, other early coverage portrayed the clean-up workers in very heroic terms, emphasizing the brotherly collaboration among Soviet peoples, which laid the foundation for what Johnson calls “the liquidator cult.”[49] Through the creation of monuments, documentaries, and other commemorative activities, alongside the continued media coverage that proliferates this heroic narrative, Chernobyl has gone from being a geopolitical disaster that destroyed countless lives to being something that shows late Soviet society as unified and highly capable in times of crisis.[50] This reframing serves as an example of Boym’s restorative nostalgia, as the Kremlin seeks to rebuild this “lost home” and create a Soviet history that is characterized by solidarity and heroism, rather than trauma.[51] Therefore, through the manipulation of early media coverage and the continuous commemorative efforts, the Putin regime has worked to refashion collective memory about Chernobyl, emphasizing its heroic aspects and downplaying government shortcomings. 

Further, Russia’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine – including its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – serves as a more recent example of how the Kremlin uses nostalgic tropes to control and propagate its anti-Ukrainian narratives. The notion of Slavic unity and the politicization of the Russian language, coupled with the Kremlin’s alleged responsibility to protect Russian populations throughout the region and rejection of Ukrainian national identity and legitimacy as a sovereign state, have been used as justifications for the invasion in Ukraine.[52] In his article, “Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0: Digital Nostalgia and National Belonging in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis,” Ivan Kozachenko states that Russian state-sponsored media and subsequent online debates on popular social media outlets such as VKontakte serve as important tools for political mobilization, and work to justify Russian aggression against Ukraine. Kozachenko writes that Ukraine has been a “battleground” for two competing historical narratives in the media.[53] The first narrative is seen as “Ukrainophile,”[54] that paints Ukraine as a peaceful country that has long been suffering under various occupations; and the other is “Sovietophile,”[55] which prioritizes Slavic unity and relays Soviet history as one filled with numerous achievements, victories, and triumphs. In 2014, as relations with Russia grew increasingly tense, there is general scholarly consensus that social media played a critical role in mobilizing thousands of individuals and serving as a place not just for the consumption of information, but one where online discussions reframe the past and elicit feelings of nostalgia.[56] Moreover, in an article published in July 2021, entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin incorporates this narrative of Slavic unity, stating that Russians and Ukrainians are a “single whole.”[57] He writes that the “wall”[58] which has emerged between Ukraine and Russia has been a “great common misfortune and tragedy,”[59] while at the same time, does not take any ownership for the conflict. Instead, he looks to the past, inaccurately stating that the territory of Ukraine was created by Vladimir Lenin in the early Bolshevik years, while emphasizing their shared religion and language. In effect, Putin is using his online platform to distort history and question Ukrainian sovereignty, framing it as a history that can only be understood in relation to Russia.[60] Therefore, Ukraine has become an important frontier for building nostalgia for a united Slavic people, particularly as Putin continuously aims to downplay and outright reject Ukrainian history and sovereignty, and using this argument as a basis for its ongoing aggression.

Vladimir Putin at a press conference. Photo courtesy of No changes were made. View the license here

Pro-Soviet tropes within Russian media culture 

In a 2005 national address, Putin was quoted as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” going on to blame NATO expansion for Russia’s tensions with the West.[61] This quotation is often considered to be a defining moment in Putin’s effort to build nostalgia for communism, which has been prevalent since the start of his time in power. Mariëlle Wijermars builds on this idea in her article “Memory Politics Beyond the Political Domain: Historical Legitimation of the Power Vertical in Contemporary Russian Television.” She states that Putin’s consistent historical revisionism is a key part of justifying his political decisions, as they promote the trope that “Great Russia” is under constant threat from enemies both in and outside of its borders.[62] The need for a strongman to lead Russia is related to this trope, which frequently emphasizes the success of the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler in the Second World War under Josef Stalin’s leadership. In his book, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, Angus Roxburgh is among many scholars who argue that Putin is not nostalgic for the communist system, or what Roxburgh calls the “mighty, unified, multi-ethnic state,” but rather a state that has a strongman at the helm.[63] Throughout his presidency, Putin has aimed to portray himself as this generation’s strongman, frequently flaunting his physical strength on camera, with media outlets showing videos of him swimming in cold Siberian rivers and putting out wildfires.[64] Moreover, with Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he is frequently referring to the Ukrainian leadership as fascist and calls for the need to “de-Nazify” the country, building upon the trope that he is the new strongman of his generation.[65] Therefore, the strongman trope is a dominant one throughout Russian media as it is being used to foster both fear of the West and nostalgia for the Soviet Union through its connection to the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis during WWII. 

The Kremlin also works to spread Soviet tropes in what disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz called, “the gateway method.”[66] In her book, How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, Jankowicz describes how in Georgia, media outlets that are on the “Russian payroll” duplicate and spread information from Russian state media that glorifies the Soviet Union for the benefit of the Kremlin.[67] According to Jankowicz, the gateway method does not “[slap] the reader in the face” with the Russian media’s narrative, but rather works by amplifying cultural ties stemming from the Soviet Union.[68] Within this, media campaigns focus on Soviet successes, such as the accomplishments of Soviet-Georgian athletes, the quality of the Russian literary canon, and the Red Army’s defeat of Hitler. As Jankowicz notes, the Russian media portrays the Soviet Union’s actions during the war as “an unblemished force of good,” ultimately with the aim of fostering nostalgia for this period.[69] Therefore, emphasizing Soviet cultural ties with countries throughout the post-Soviet region is another way in which the Kremlin has weaponized nostalgia.  

Another example that Jankowicz discusses is the Russian media’s role in fostering nostalgia among ethnic Russians in Estonia. More specifically, in 2007, the Estonian government relocated a statue that honoured Soviet soldiers from the centre of Tallinn to a military cemetery outside of the city. In response, the Kremlin launched a media campaign aimed at the many ethnic Russians who had settled in Estonia during the Soviet period. The campaign hinged on a call for preserving and honouring the memory of those who had fallen, but as Jankowicz notes, there was no battle in Estonia between the Nazis and Red Army, as the Germans left the area before it was annexed by the USSR. Thus, the statue itself was “at least two-thirds propaganda and one-third reality.”[70] As with other diasporic Russian-speaking communities, the Putin regime uses “history as a means of connection.”[71] In the case of Estonia, as Jankowicz notes, the Kremlin knew that its ethnic Russians did not typically have a special attachment to the local Estonian culture or language. Therefore, during the Bronze Soldier incident, the Russian media campaigns that targeted Estonia’s Russian population aimed to build on these ethnic divides and emphasize the greatness of the Russian people and the USSR, largely though the glorification of the Red Army. While Jankowicz’s analysis does not specifically mention nostalgia, I would like to build on her argument and note that these tropes do indeed attempt to propagate and weaponize nostalgia for the Soviet Union in a way that benefits the Kremlin. 

The prevalence of conspiracy theories within state-sponsored Russian media is also connected with the spread of nostalgia throughout the post-Soviet space. The graph (Figure 1) below is part of Scott Radnitz’s research into the politics of conspiracy theories throughout the post-Soviet region. Radnitz’s book, Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region, investigates how the consumption of Russian state-sponsored media may correlate with an individual’s belief in certain conspiracy theories, particularly ones stemming from Soviet-era tropes. Such theories include the belief that: Mikhail Gorbachev was a spy working for the CIA when the Soviet Union collapsed; the United States government funds fascists in Ukraine to increase its geopolitical influence; and that Jews control the world.[72] Though not directly related to nostalgia, as Boym states, many of these claims relate to the pamiat movement which incorporates a certain nostalgia for “traditional Russian culture,” and has resurfaced many aspects of pre-revolutionary Russian right-wing culture.[73] Conspiratorial and mythical in nature, it blames the Judeo-masonic movement for the failures of both Russian totalitarianism and democracy, and as Radnitz’s work shows, has entered into the mainstream via the media. According to Radnitz’s research, most people in Russia get their news from television, as do over 85 percent of Georgians and Kazakhs, demonstrating the sheer impact that this form of communication has on the population.[74] However, as Radnitz notes, this does not necessarily prove that watching Russian state television causes individuals to believe in conspiracy theories, as the people who are tuning into Russian television may already believe hold a certain set of beliefs, and simply enjoy engaging with content that confirms their beliefs.[75] 

Along the same lines, Boym writes that while there are many differences between the USSR and Eastern and Central Europe, something they have in common is the existence of an “alternative intellectual life…[including the] development of ‘counter-memory’ that laid a foundation for democratic resistance.”[76] According to Boym, counter-memory consists of oral memory that is shared within networks of close friends and relatives, which is then unofficially spread to wider society. It is built on finding “blemishes” in the official narrative and focuses on how the lived experiences of individuals diverge from what they are told by the government.[77] I believe this notion of counter-memory relates to Radnitz’s work on conspiracy theories, as this culture may encourage people to distrust authority, including state media, and seek information from fringe publications and online forums that are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories.[78] Thus, the culture of counter-memory goes hand-in-hand with Radnitz’s work, which shows that Russian state media is widely consumed throughout Russia and the surrounding region, and may play a role in promoting conspiracy theories that hinge on nostalgic tropes.

Figure 1: This graph shows the correlation between being Russian and viewing Russian television in Kazakhstan. In order from left to right, respondents were asked about their belief in the following conspiracy theories: the government is involved in the murder of innocent citizens and/or public figures; there is a single group controlling the global governments; man-made global warming is a hoax; Masons control world events; Mikhail Gorbachev was a spy working for the CIA at the time of the collapse of the USSR; America supports fascists in Ukraine to increase its geopolitical influence; Russia and America are secretly working together to control world events; the United States government is responsible for 9/11; Jews control the world; America employs local nongovernmental organizations to overthrow governments throughout the Former Soviet Union.

Possible motives for the concerted spread of nostalgia

The motivation behind the Kremlin’s actions for spreading nostalgic sentiments is a point of contention among experts in this field. In her 2007 article, “Yugo-Nostalgia: Cultural Memory and Media in the Former Yugoslavia,” Zala Volčič writes that during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, media was used to recreate a shared cultural memory and identity which aimed to counter the nationalistic tendencies that were spreading in the region.[80] At the same time, local media also played an important role in the nationalization process of each Yugoslav republic, serving as a space in which these nationalistic sentiments were regularly shared with the public.[81] She states that a wide range of media contributed to the overall shift from the promotion of a “supranational sense of Yugoslav identity to the more local nationalisms of the republics.”[82] Volčič writes commercial culture attempted to resurface feelings of pan-Slavic nostalgia in the face of increasing violence, which led to the “nostalgic reappropriation” of Yugoslav symbols, films, and music.[83] Though Volčič is writing about a different time and region, her analysis can relate to contemporary Russian media, as it too is working to propagate a sense of nostalgia that aims to unify Russian speakers and ethnic Russians throughout the Former Soviet Union, especially with relation to its conflict with Ukraine.[84] As such, one of the potential motives for the spreading of nostalgia could be to promote a similar pan-Slavic nostalgia that calls for the recreation of a second Soviet Union.

Ekaterina Kalinina, however, counters this notion. She states that the “myth about a paradise lost”[85] does not fit in with the priorities of ruling elites, who she says are looking for a “scheme to legitimize the present,”[86] by reworking history to foster patriotism and willful ignorance of the misgivings of the past. In her paper “Beyond Nostalgia for the Soviet Past: Interpreting Documentaries on Russian Television,” Kalinina echoes Radnitz’s argument and explains that television plays a critical role in sharing historical, political, and cultural narratives, as watching television is one of the main ways audiences shape their worldviews. The way the Putin regime revises Soviet history in the media—by focusing on its triumphs and downplaying its failures—aims to remove the public’s negative associations with Soviet symbols. In turn, the Kremlin can operate with “symbolic values, cultural capital, memory, and history” to consolidate and maintain power.[87] Documentaries in particular are important mechanisms for these efforts, as they often relay a “perceived loss”[88] of Soviet culture, leading to nostalgic sentiments which further lay the foundation for the reconstruction of Russian national identity.[89]  Therefore, Kalinina argues the Kremlin is attempting to create a “national idea,” one in which Russia’s Soviet past is devoid of any historical or political wrongdoing, with any missteps merely being seen as part of the country’s development.[90]  

Finally, the notion of a collective forgetting of what took place during the Soviet era also poses a threat to Russia’s future, particularly as older generations who lived through the most challenging Soviet years begin to pass away. Boym quotes writer Milan Kundera in saying that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”[91] It seems that by replacing memory with sentiments of intense nostalgia and nationalism, the Kremlin is working to reframe how the next generation will view the Soviet Union. During the period of glasnost, there was an active effort to avoid the “mankurtization of human beings” – referring to the Kazakh legend where warriors turned a group of captives into “happy slaves, people without memory.”[92] However, if future generations do not know about the many implications of Soviet history and the nuances of the communist experience, there is a risk that history may repeat itself – indeed, the process seems to have already begun. While it is difficult to discern how much today’s youth in Russia know about the Soviet Union, or whether they think about it at all, future scholarship of nostalgia in the post-Soviet region should aim to understand how nostalgia is being cultivated among younger members of the population who have no personal recollections of the Soviet Union. Evidently, the Russian government stands to benefit greatly in developing a generation that is not familiar with the more unsavoury aspects of the Soviet Union, particularly as Putin increases his grip on power. 


It can therefore be concluded that the constant repetition of Soviet-era tropes through state media, whether it be the glorification of the Red Army, praise of the strongman model of leadership, or distortion of history, the Kremlin is engaging in a concerted effort to weaponize nostalgia. In other words, the more state media repeats and revises Soviet-era tropes, the further they will veer from historical accuracy. While the media’s role in impacting collective memory is contested among scholars, it does inevitably have an impact on public opinion and can be used as a mouthpiece to spread historical mistruths, conspiracy theories, and other tropes that work in favour of the Kremlin. In continuously propagating nostalgia, and with it a fear of the West and foreign interference, the Kremlin is seeking to maintain domestic legitimacy that would allow it to further tighten control over all aspects of society, including the media and internet. Considering the legacy of media control in the region and the notably nostalgic content of Russian contemporary media outlets, it can be noted that the Kremlin is weaponizing nostalgia in order to solidify its hold on power, promote an anti-Western agenda that fosters feelings of fear and distrust, and justify Putin’s actions in the name of restoring the perceived former greatness of the Soviet Union.


  1.  J. Martin Daughtry, “Russia’s New Anthem and the Negotiation of National Identity,” Ethnomusicology 47 (2003): 43.
  2. Mariëlle Wijermars, “Memory Politics Beyond the Political Domain: Historical Legitimation of the Power Vertical in Contemporary Russian Television,” Problems of Post-Communism 63, no. 2 (2016): 84.
  3. Natalia Roudakova. Losing Pravda: Ethics and The Press in Post-Truth Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2017): 3. 
  4.  Roudakova, Losing Pravda, 3.
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  6.  Tolz & Telper, “Broadcasting Agitainment,” 215. 
  7. Soldatov, The Red Web, 291.
  8.  Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 58.
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  10. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 41.
  11. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 43.
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  13.  Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 66.
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  20. Soldatov & Borogan, 291.
  21.  Ivan Kozachenko, “Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0: Digital Nostalgia and National Belonging in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 52, no. 1 (2019): 2. 
  22. Astrid Erll, “Literature as a Medium of Cultural Memory.” In Memory in Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2008): 145–71. 
  23. Amit Pinchevski, Transmitted Wounds: Media and the Mediation of Trauma (Oxford University Press, 2020): 4.
  24. Pinchevski, Transmitted Wounds, 4.
  25. Pinchevski, Transmitted Wounds, 3.
  26.  Pinchevski, Transmitted Wounds, 11.
  27.  Pinchevski, Transmitted Wounds, 11.
  28.  Pinchevski, Transmitted Wounds, 11.
  29. Sabina Mihelj, “Memory, Post-Socialism and the Media: Nostalgia and Beyond.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 3 (2017): 245.
  30.  Mihelj, “Memory, Post-Socialism and the Media,” 236.
  31. Mihelj, “Memory, Post-Socialism and the Media,” 241.
  32.  Mihelj, “Memory, Post-Socialism and the Media,” 238.
  33. Roudakova, Losing Pravda, 3. 
  34. Roudakova, Losing Pravda, 3. 
  35. Roudakova, Losing Pravda, 4.
  36. Roudakova, Losing Pravda, 7.
  37. Roudakova, Losing Pravda, 8.
  38. Roudakova, Losing Pravda, 9.
  39.  Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 44.
  40.  Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 62.
  41.  Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 59.
  42.  Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 59.
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  44.  Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 59.
  45. Linchenko and Anikin, “The Political Uses of the Past in Modern Russia: The Images of the October Revolution 1917 in the Politics of Memory of Russian Parties.” European Politics and Society 21, no. 3 (2020): 360.
  46. Andrei Linchenko and Daniil Anikin, “The Political Uses of the Past in Modern Russia:” 360.
  47. Johnson, Emily D. 2020. “Remembering Chernobyl Through the Lens of Post-Soviet Nostalgia.” In Post-Soviet Nostalgia, 1st ed., 115–32. Routledge. 116.
  48. Nina Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict. (London: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2020): 42. 
  49. Johnson, “Remembering Chernobyl,” 119. 
  50.  Johnson, “Remembering Chernobyl,” 129.
  51. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 41.
  52.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 77.
  53.  Ivan Kozachenko, “Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0: Digital Nostalgia and National Belonging in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 52, no. 1 (2019): 2.
  54. Kozachenko, “Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0,” 2.
  55. Kozachenko, “Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0,” 2.
  56.  Kozachenko, “Fighting for the Soviet Union 2.0,” 8. 
  57. Office of the President, and Vladimir Putin, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians (2021).
  58. Office of the President, and Vladimir Putin,
  59. Office of the President, and Vladimir Putin,
  60. Office of the President, and Vladimir Putin,
  61. Angus Roxburgh, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012): 150.
  62. Wijermars, “Memory Politics Beyond the Political Domain,” 84.
  63. Roxburgh, The Strongman, 247.
  64. Roxburgh, The Strongman, 151.
  65.  Oxana Shevel. 2022. Op-Ed: Putin Is a Prisoner of His Own Delusions About Ukraine. They Will Be His Undoing. Los Angeles Times (Online). Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times Communications LLC.
  66.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 74.
  67.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 104. 
  68.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 76.
  69.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 77.
  70.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 25.
  71.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 27.
  72.  Scott Radnitz, Revealing Schemes: The Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021): 137.
  73. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 63.
  74. Radnitz, Revealing Schemes, 140.
  75. Radnitz, Revealing Schemes, 142.
  76. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 61.
  77. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 61.
  78.  Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 74.
  79.  Radnitz, Revealing Schemes, 141.
  80. Zala Volčič, “Yugo-Nostalgia: Cultural Memory and Media in Former Yugoslavia,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 24, no. 1 (2007): 31. 
  81. Volčič, “Yugo-Nostalgia,” 24.
  82. Volčič, “Yugo-Nostalgia,” 25.
  83. Volčič, “Yugo-Nostalgia,” 25.
  84. Jankowicz, How to Lose the Information War, 75.
  85. Ekaterina Kalinina, “Beyond Nostalgia for the Soviet Past: Interpreting Documentaries on Russian Television.” European Journal of Cultural Studies (2017): 303.
  86. Kalinina, “Beyond Nostalgia for the Soviet Past,” 303.
  87. Kalinina, “Beyond Nostalgia for the Soviet Past,” 290.
  88. Kalinina,“Beyond Nostalgia for the Soviet Past,” 303.
  89. Kalinina,“Beyond Nostalgia for the Soviet Past,” 290.
  90. Kalinina,“Beyond Nostalgia for the Soviet Past,” 290.
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