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Russian history 2.0: Kremlin wants to 'correct' the record.

A proposed law could make comparing Soviet rule with that of the Nazis a crime. Intellectuals fear a manipulation of Russia’s past.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2009

A woman holds a portrait of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during a demonstration in central Moscow on Victory Day, commemorating the end of World War II, on May 9. The Kremlin announced the creation of a special 28-member panel tasked with examining and combating examples of "historical revisionism" that harm Russia's image.

Alexander Natruskin/Reuters

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A bitter joke from the Soviet-era has it that Russia is the world's only country with an unpredictable past.

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That jibe has come winging back in recent days, after the Kremlin announced the creation of a special 28-member panel tasked with examining and combating examples of "historical revisionism" that harm Russia's image.

The committee, which has no legal power, is chaired by the head of President Dmitry Medvedev's administration, Sergei Naryshkin, and includes a sprinkling of historians but also lawmakers, Kremlin officials, the armed forces' chief of staff, and members of the FSB security service.

But a companion law, drafted by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and soon due to be introduced into the State Duma, will stipulate fines and prison sentences of up to five years for anyone found guilty of "denying the decisions of the Nuremberg Tribunal."

This is a reaction to a growing body of historiography in former Soviet and Eastern European countries that depicts the long years of Soviet domination as similar in nature to the Nazi occupation, and suggests that for these nations, liberation arrived only when the USSR collapsed. Even more irritating for the Russians are perceived attempts in some places, like Ukraine and Latvia, to "rehabilitate" citizens who wore German uniforms during World War II to fight against the oncoming Red Army.

"It is high time to make a study of what is going on here, and to decide what kind of documents we need to dig up and publish to counter these new interpretations," says Natalya Narochnitskaya, a historian, former Duma deputy, and member of the new commission. "If a nation is unable to come to a united view in interpreting its own past, it will be unable to formulate its national interests."

Ms. Narochnitskaya insists that the panel's brief is to study the problem and make recommendations, not to impose a Sovietesque party line. "All nations have this problem of balance and need to find their own path between humiliation and normal self-criticism," she says.

Critics are alarmed by what they see as a blatant throwback to Soviet methods of intellectual control.

"You cannot struggle against falsifications of history by creating bureaucratic commissions," says Sergei Solovyov, editor of Scepsis, a Russian quarterly journal that aims to promote cross-cultural debate. "Either it will be completely useless or it will become a tool for suppressing people with different points of view."

Former Soviet states have a different view of the facts

The Kremlin has been infuriated by what it sees as attempts to "revise" the results of World War II in some Eastern European and former Soviet countries. The removal of Red Army war memorials in Poland and the Baltic states has drawn particular ire, as have street marches by Latvian SS veterans, a Lithuanian law banning the public display of Soviet symbols, and an Estonian prosecution of a decorated Soviet war veteran, Arnold Meri, on charges of genocide for his alleged role in postwar deportations of Estonians to Siberia. (Mr. Meri died two months ago, before the trial finished.)