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How autocrats manipulate history to hold on to power

The cynical framing of narratives about war to score patriotic points is a tactic we should guard against, even in democracies

Katie Stallard was reporting from Ukraine in 2014 as the Russian army annexed the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. As a foreign correspondent for the British outlet Sky News, she had a ringside seat as 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 as a way to maintain and strengthen their hold on power. Stallard drew extensively on her experience reporting on the ground in all three countries.

In Russia, Putin “has elevated the memory of the Great Patriotic War to the status of a national religion,” Stallard writes. Meanwhile in China, President Xi Jinping has used World War II as a marker of the end of China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” And war narratives are especially important in North Korea, where Kim Il Sung is falsely presented as a war hero who freed the country from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 and secured a victory over the United States in the Korean War eight years later.

This is history, Stallard points out, stained with a “veneer of patriotism.”

I recently spoke with Stallard on the phone. She is currently based in Washington, D.C. as senior editor for China and Global Affairs 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 summarize your reporting? 

It’s about how effectively and often how cynically the leaders of these regimes have manipulated historical narratives to suit their own political purposes and to position themselves as patriotic defenders of their countries — and everyone who opposes them, therefore, as traitors. But really, first and foremost, they do this to shore up 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, with his friends, founded this grassroots movement — the Immortal Regiment — which was basically intended to be an alternative to what they felt was the very bombastic, militaristic, official commemorations of the Second World War. It was about marching quietly with photos of your relatives. But once it became very popular, and the authorities had taken it over, he gave this very exasperated interview, saying “Guys just stop, stop. Like, we all have relatives who died. It’s dancing on bones.” And to me that really spoke to the very cynical manipulation of what are devastating and personal memories and experiences.

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

The way I think about it is that there are all of these different elements that work together very effectively, so it’s difficult to strip one out and consider it totally discretely. Timothy Frye has a quote in his book “Weak Strongman” on Putin about how it’s much easier to be a popular autocrat than an unpopular one, which for me captures it quite neatly. If you removed all references to history tomorrow, would those regimes stand? 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 embed and draw on these popular ideas and some of the population buys in — even if it’s not a majority — it makes the regime more secure, more resilient.

What the historical narratives have going for them is that they endure, particularly in times when there are economic problems, when the country is facing difficulties, when you’re asking people to accept a degree of hardship and sacrifice within their own lives. It’s very helpful and quite effective to be able to frame that in terms of these past struggles and external enemies that you can blame for your problems. So it’s difficult to separate them, and I think it’s important to see them as part of a toolkit 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 tag of the manipulation of history.

In the North Korean case, that was one of the things that struck me. There is a price tag, like with rebuilding the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. It’s an absolutely extraordinary building in scale and ambition. The Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities is another example. 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 are desperately in need of sufficient calories and where children are stunted and chronically malnourished, it is a choice to spend a conservative estimate of what must have been millions on these museums. That is 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 Russia has done more effectively than China is to make particularly state television channels very entertaining, very watchable. If you can suspend your disbelief at the content, they really have put a lot of effort into having these very provocative, very dramatic talk shows and making their messaging very appetizing. Often Chinese evening television news is very dry. It’s not something you would turn to for entertainment. But they have become much more proactive in recent years in using other mediums — particularly I’m thinking about some of the big budget films in recent years. 

In the book’s conclusion, you said you were writing its final words in January with Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s border. Russia then invaded Ukraine at the end of February. Not specifically about Russia, you wrote, “This warped version of history is the backdrop against which future wars will be fought.” What was it like for you to watch what has happened since?

It was really surreal. When Putin said that morning that it was a denazification operation, partly I felt like, “Of course,” like I should have understood that this was where this was heading. I just didn’t expect that he would go through with it. But with hindsight, of course that’s how he would frame this. I did feel like this was the ideas in the book come to life. This is 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 real people’s lives and destroy towns and cities in Ukraine is really sickening. 

What are the implications of these campaigns for people who don’t live in China, Russia or North Korea? 

I think we should all be very wary, and it’s made me very conscious of how leaders in other countries like here in the United States, and in the U.K. where I’m 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 people who are in power. There’s a live debate here in the United States about whether we should also focus on the darker aspects of the past or whether that’s an unpatriotic thing to do. We should problematize — to use a horribly scholarly term — as much as we can. 

That reminds me of a quote in your book about history functioning as a comfort blanket in Russia. 

Yeah, it feels really nice. It’s nice to believe you’re the hero of the story, that your country is the greatest in the world. But we should be aware that that’s also what all these other countries tell their citizens, that they’re the heroes of the story, that their countries are the force for good. I want to emphasize the unexceptional nature of the desire to do this. Leaders in all countries do draw on various versions of the past, so it’s not an exceptional impulse, but it’s been taken to extremes in these three countries. It is absolutely not only autocrats who are attracted to this idea, so we should all really be on our guard against it. 

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