People around the world have been astounded to hear Russia’s president Vladimir Putin claim that he waged war with the goal of the “denazification” of Ukraine. It is absurd and distasteful for Russia to compare Ukraine’s democratically elected leaders to the Nazis (note that the Ukrainian head of state, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is Jewish). It is even more perverse to liken a war of aggression to “denazification,” the historical term describing efforts to remove Nazi influence from Germany after World War II.

Faced with a war justified by such blatant historical falsification, it has been suggested that Putin is unhinged after long years in power and isolation during the pandemic. But Putin-style “denazification” rhetoric cannot be written off as the ravings of a mad emperor. The waging of war based on historical comparisons between the Third Reich and democratic Ukraine is a logical outcome of Putinism.

Since his assumption of office in 1999, Putin has instrumentalized historical memory of the country’s victory in World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it. Of course, Russians, Ukrainians and the other peoples of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics suffered unspeakable horrors during World War II, with an estimated 27 million soldiers and civilians perishing. But the Soviet government used the people’s painful memories of war for political purposes, justifying their rule by stressing the USSR’s exclusive role in liberating humanity from Nazism. Under Putin, the war cult has become even more politicized and dogmatic. Massive victory celebrations dominate public culture, while a 2014 law makes it illegal to “spread intentionally false information about the Soviet Union’s activities during World War II” or to “publicly desecrate symbols of Russia’s military glory.”

Russian collective memory of the Great Patriotic War has helped to create conflict with its post-Soviet neighbors. The Russian claim to sole ownership of victory in World War II means that any opposing narratives of the war are automatically associated with a defense of fascism and Nazism. Since they gained independence in 1991, Ukrainians have increasingly come to read their own history differently, seeing World War II as a battle between Stalinism and Nazism whose outcome was merely a change in the power occupying the country. For Moscow, Ukrainian perspectives on the war serve as proof that Kyiv is dominated by fascists who follow in the footsteps of wartime collaborators. Since the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in 2014, Putin has drawn on memory of war to justify actual war. 

The notion that the independent Ukraine is tainted with Nazism relies on the dubious claim that only Moscow can determine the proper legacy of World War II. Putin’s war history is also highly selective and distorted. It is true that some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazi invaders, and some contemporary Ukrainians have praised the xenophobic Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists-Ukrainian Insurgent Army. But it is rarely recognized that Russians also collaborated with the Nazis during the war, including through a project to create a Russian Liberation Army under the leadership of captured Soviet general Andrei Vlasov. This is not to mention the many “White” Russians, or émigrés who had been expelled from their homeland by the Bolsheviks, who saw World War II as an opportunity to fight for the liberation of their homeland from what they saw as the scourge of godless and “Jewish” communism. The point is that World War II remains a complex and difficult subject for national histories in all of East Europe, Russia included.

Putin might believe his own rhetoric of “denazification,” but he also finds it politically useful. In past years, the Western press has devoted great attention to Ukraine’s small far-right movements, helping to tarnish the image of the emergent democratic country. International outrage over the new invasion of Ukraine and its spurious justification suggests that Putin can no longer capitalize on war memory on the international stage. But patriotic memory of World War II remains a powerful tool for holding Putin’s domestic base together. Ever since Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Russian state-owned media has been telling its consumers that Kyiv is dominated by fascists, and this propaganda has had some effect due to the important place of the Great Patriotic War in Russian national identity. It remains to be seen whether Putin will succeed in mobilizing Russia behind war through manipulation of the powerful symbols of fascism and Nazism.