IT ISN’T KNOWN for certain whether they talked to the person behind the concession stand, but chances are they did. The lights had come up and moviegoers were putting on their coats and hats and preparing to leave Moscow’s Pioner Cinema in late January when half a dozen armed police officers and a number of plainclothes officials swooped in and began questioning the staff about that afternoon’s matinee feature. The Pioner had just begun a 10-day run of The Death of Stalin, a black comedy about the bloody struggle for power in the days following the demise of the Soviet leader by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish writer-director best known to American audiences as the creator of the political sitcom Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Days before the film premiered in Russia, the Ministry of Culture revoked permission for its release and threatened any theaters that dared to defy the ban with fines and potential shutdown. After a special closed screening attended by Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s minister of culture, ministry lawyers, and a smattering of prominent persons from the world of contemporary Russian culture, it was determined that Iannucci’s satire was both “extremist” and a “provocation” to the Russian people. “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot,” stated one member of the ministry’s advisory board, referring to the great Soviet military commander. When the question of the film had originally been put to Medinsky in November, he had dismissed any notion that it would be banned in Russia, telling a gathering of journalists, “We have freedom of speech.” Still, the question had merit. In 2015, the ministry banned Child 44, a Hollywood thriller about a serial killer in Stalin’s Russia. Back then Medinsky noted: “It is important that we should finally put an end to the endless series of schizophrenic reflections of ourselves.” Child 44, in his words, did not so much depict “a country, but a Mordor, with physically and mentally inferior subhumans.” In an official statement, the ministry justified the film’s ban given its “distortion of historical facts and original interpretations of events before, during, and after the Great Patriotic War.”

The wording, and the logic behind it, is mirrored in Medinsky’s statement on this latest ban: “It is impossible not to agree that many people of our older generation, and not only they, will see this film as insulting mockery of our entire Soviet past, of the country that defeated fascism, of the Soviet army, of the common man — and what is most offensive of the victims of Stalinism.”

The scandal around The Death of Stalin speaks to issues of memory, history, and the limits of free speech that lie at the core of Nikolay Koposov’s new book Memory Laws, Memory Wars. A Russian-born historian at Emory University, Koposov was trained as a specialist in European intellectual history, and he approaches his subject not only as a prominent authority who has already published widely on the question of historical memory and power, but also as an intellectual committed to open and honest research who, along with his wife, fellow academic Dina Khapaeva, was fired from St. Petersburg’s Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences after running afoul of what he calls the new “nationalistic politics of memory” in Putin’s Russia.

His interest in the idea of criminalizing comments about the past first arose when he was lecturing as a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris in the 1990s. France had just passed the Gayssot Act in 1990, which criminalized Holocaust denial, and the French historical community was very much behind the law, as was Koposov himself upon learning of it. France was not the first country to pass such legislation. Germany created its own memory law in 1985 criminalizing Holocaust denial, followed by Israel the next year. After that, the number of countries banning certain types of statements about the past took off, as did the number of specific laws: from a mere five national memory laws passed in the 1980s, to 19 in the 1990s, to 27 in the first decade of this century. In Memory Laws, Memory Wars, Koposov sets out to try to make sense of this phenomenon, namely: How are we to understand this proliferation of legal acts intended to control conversations about the past? How do the various laws differ? What role do they play in present-day politics? And what can we say about their cultural meaning, their significance as markers of contemporary historical consciousness and tools of political legitimization?

Central to Koposov’s understanding of the rise of memory laws is the shift in recent decades from “the age of ideologies” to “the age of memory.” With the death of the great master narratives such as Marxism and Nazism, Western historical consciousness, in Koposov’s telling, became fragmented and fixated on highlighting specific national communities and other groups. The causes for this grand shift are many, from the collapse of communism, to various civil rights movements and the broader preoccupation with global human rights, to changes within the historical profession — most importantly the interest in writing “history from below” and unearthing the experiences of subaltern and other marginalized peoples — to the “new culture of victimhood,” as he describes it. With the demise of the future, be it Marxist or some more general notion of the march of Progress, people have turned to the past in order to try to explain to themselves, as well as to others, who they are and, most importantly, what they have been through.

Here is how Koposov formulates it:

[H]istorical consciousness has become largely focused on particular misdeeds committed against particular groups, and memory laws are one of the most salient manifestations of this new form of historical consciousness: no single memory law actually bans any philosophy of history. They prohibit only misinterpretations of individual historical events that are regarded as sacred symbols of different “imagined communities.”

Memory laws developed from two largely contemporary processes: first, the rise in the memory of the Holocaust itself as the ultimate “‘crime of crimes’” in the 1970s and 1980s, and second, the growing and increasingly aggressive denials of the Holocaust, as evidenced by l’affaire Faurisson in 1978, involving a French academic who publicly denied the existence of the gas chambers.

Koposov presents this first phase of memory law legislation as both understandable and defensible. These laws grew out of undeniably democratic impulses to defend the memory of victims of ruthless state violence and were part of a broader movement toward acknowledging and combating racism. But as more victimized groups started to lobby for their own memory laws, things began to shift. In 1987, the European Parliament recognized the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide, while around the same time members of the Ukrainian diaspora began campaigning for the acknowledgment of the Holodomor, the Soviet-era famine of the early 1930s that killed millions, as a genocide perpetrated against the Ukrainian people by Stalin. Some began to push for the transatlantic slave trade also to be recognized as genocide.

Increasingly, more and more communities wanted their specific tragedies officially recognized. The surge in memory laws gave birth to both a competition of victimhood and a new understanding of how the laws might be used: not to protect traumatized populations, but powerful states. Turkey, outraged by the 1987 ruling on the Armenian Genocide and intent on glorifying for contemporary political purposes its Ottoman past, passed a law that made it illegal to call the massacre a “genocide.” Moreover, the new law banned any affront to the Turkish nation and its government, a crime punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.

Many historians in the West who had endorsed the original memory laws came to recognize their dangerous, unanticipated consequences. In 2008, a group of eminent historians, including Carlo Ginzburg and Pierre Nora, the dean of French historians of memory, published a manifesto known as the Blois Appeal:

History must not be a slave to contemporary politics nor can it be written on the command of competing memories. In a free state, no political authority has the right to define historical truth and to restrain the freedom of the historian with the threat of penal sanctions. […] In a democracy, liberty for history is liberty for all.

The cat, however, was out of the bag.

Koposov shows in great detail how as memory laws spread from West to East they became ever less democratic and ever more despotic, weapons not of the weak, but of the strong, used to silence competing narratives about the past and to foster a mythical national history, often one of both unrivaled victimization and awesome heroism, as has been most fully realized in the last years of the Putin regime. A deeply researched, nuanced, and rich work, Memory Laws, Memory Wars makes clear the dangers in trying to legislate our understanding of the past.

¤

Douglas Smith’s books include Former People and Rasputin. He is currently writing a history of American famine relief in Russia in the 1920s.