In the Soviet days, when Communist leaders periodically tried to rewrite history, the country’s historians had a favorite joke: anyone can predict the future, they would say, what’s hard is predicting the past.
The Soviet Union may now be history, but Russian lawmakers are busy trying to create their own version of the past.
Russia’s parliament is considering several measures that would change the interpretation of major events in order to justify the country’s actions today. The main driver is Russia’s seizure of Crimea last March from Ukraine.
Russia calls that move a “reunification,” but it’s regarded as an illegal land grab by Ukraine, the United States the European Union and many other countries.
In making its case, Russia’s upper house of parliament is considering legislation asserting that Crimea was never legally part of Ukraine in the first place.
Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev transferred the Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 as a gift. It was an administrative move that didn’t seem to matter much at the time, because both republics were part of the Soviet Union.
However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Crimea remained part of Ukraine. Many Russians felt they’d been deprived of a region that had belonged to them for centuries.
Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, says she expects to pass a bill this spring that will “establish the fact that … in 1954, an illegal act was committed” when Crimea was transferred to Ukraine.
The aim, she says, is to restore “historic and legal justice.” If Crimea was never legally given to Ukraine, then it should still belong to Russia today, the reasoning goes.
Then there’s the matter of German reunification in 1990.
That’s when the East Germany government effectively collapsed and the previously communist state joined with West Germany, ending decades of a divided Germany.
But a Russian lawmaker, Nikolay Ivanov, recently described it as West Germany’s “annexation” of East Germany and the lower house of Russia’s parliament recently considered a statement condemning this 25-year-old development.
According to the Russian news agency TASS, Ivanov, a member of parliament from the Communist Party, complained about the use of the word “annexation” with regard to Russia’s action in Crimea.
Ivanov said, in effect, that that West Germany’s action was less legal than Russia’s “reunification” with Crimea, because people in Crimea voted for the move in a referendum.
He did not note that the Crimean referendum was widely dismissed in the West because it was hastily organized and unmonitored by the international community. It was also conducted under the guns of Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms who had taken over Crimea from the Ukrainian government and security forces.
Another inconvenient fact he did not mention was that the Soviet Union agreed to Germany’s reunification a quarter-century ago.
It appears unlikely that Ivanov’s proposal will go any further, but if it did, it would once again pit Russia’s parliament against moves taken by the former Soviet Union, a country that no longer exists.
And there’s more.
Another proposal in Russia’s parliament would treat Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union when it came to collecting reparations from Germany for the damage inflicted by Hitler’s troops during the Second World War.
Mikhail Degtyaryov of the Liberal Democrat Party is setting up a working group that will calculate the cost of the damage, which he believes will amount to between 3 trillion and 4 trillion euros ($3.4 trillion to $4.5 trillion dollars).
According to TASS, Degtyaryov says the issue is still relevant, especially since Germany is still damaging Russia by taking part in the sanctions imposed by the European Union over Crimea.
But this proposal would seem to cut two ways. If Russia is the sole successor to the Soviet Union, that could also make it liable for any reparations for the millions of people killed, imprisoned or deported during the Soviet period.
Historians might want to warn the lawmakers that there are also potential downsides when it comes to altering history.