A bitter joke from the Soviet-era has it that Russia is the world's only country with an unpredictable past.
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.)
Another sore point has been Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's public praise for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought a CIA-backed guerrilla war against the USSR for nearly a decade following the end of World War II, as well as official Ukrainian efforts to get world governments to classify as an act of "genocide" the mass famine caused by farm collectivization in the early 1930s, which killed millions of Soviet peasants and is known in Ukraine as the "Holodomor."
In his recently launched blog, Mr. Medvedev recently complained that "such attempts [to revise history] are becoming more hostile, more evil, and more aggressive.... We find ourselves in a situation in which we have to defend the historical truth and once again prove facts that not long ago seemed most clear. But it is necessary to do."
War history a touchy subject
A public opinion survey conducted last month by the state-run VTsIOM agency found that almost two-thirds of Russians agree that attempts to "deny the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War" should be outlawed, referring to the Russian term for World War II. Many older Russian historians appear to agree that the panel, and its brief of fighting revisionism, is a good thing.
"We had to do this long ago," says General Makhmut Gareyev, a war hero and president of the official Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow. "One cannot tolerate historical falsifications, particularly of World War II. Once the state organs make their decision, some things will possibly be corrected in the near future."
Roy Medvedev, a dissident historian from the Soviet period, told the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station that the commission is not an objectionable idea in principle – if it sticks to reviewing history and opening up archive access. But he added, "I have strongly protested against any measures for criminal prosecution for falsification because this would be a restoration of Soviet practices.... It will be very bad if publishing various kinds of theories and research ends up being banned."
In search of a stable past
Russia's own national identity has been in flux since the collapse of the USSR, along with its ideology and multi-ethnic empire. The early post-Soviet years were marked by excoriating self-criticism and widespread public demoralization. Vladimir Putin came to power nearly a decade ago amid a patriotic backlash, which aimed to banish that pervasive sense of national humiliation by restoring pride in Russia and recognizing the positive achievements of the Soviet years.
Some ultranationalist thinkers, such as Alexander Dugin, who heads the influential International Eurasian Movement, suggest that the creation of a national myth that will unite Russians is a worthy goal.
"We should fix some limits to freedom of speech in order to establish a national consensus and preserve it for future generations," Mr. Dugin says. "To have a myth that provides a stable point of reference for society is necessary to define our historical path. That's not false."
But critics have long complained that the downside of the Putin-era "feel good" approach to Russian history includes a tendency to minimize a multitude of past crimes, including mass murders carried out by Joseph Stalin's NKVD security service.
"I don't even think [the commission] is legal. Our Constitution forbids the establishment of a state ideology and mandates ideological pluralism in Russia," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent Duma deputy. "You can debate history, but it shouldn't be imposed by those who happen to be in power. For centuries, our history has been written and rewritten by czars and commissars. So, this new commission can only raise doubt and protest."