If there is one person in Russia who is more unhappy than Vladimir Putin to watch Russian troops underperform as they struggle to encircle Kyiv, it is likely Vladimir Medinsky. Unfortunately, that is also the person Putin chose to lead the Russian delegation in talks with Ukraine.
Many have rightly insisted that Russia and Ukraine must arrive at a diplomatic solution to end this war. But Medinsky has already sought to use these talks to justify further hostilities. Russian shelling shattered hopes this past weekend for a humanitarian corridor, which had been the only real diplomatic victory of the previous week’s worth of negotiations. Speaking before the third round of talks on Monday morning, Medinsky blamed Ukraine for the breakdown of the corridors and claimed without evidence that Ukrainian “nationalists” using Ukrainians as human shields were at fault for civilian deaths over the weekend. (These deaths are widely attributed to a Russian military strike.)
Medinsky, an aide to Putin on history and humanities policy since 2020, is widely known in Russia as an ultraconservative nationalist firebrand and military history enthusiast. Over his eight years as Russia’s minister of culture, between 2012 and 2020, he made regular headlines for lambasting Russian filmmakers “whose main message is that ‘Russia is shit,’ ” accusing Poland of information warfare, postponing the Russian release of major Hollywood films like Paddington 2 in order to give Russian movies a boost at the box office, and being credibly accused of plagiarizing both of his dissertations. A government overhaul in 2020 cost him that post, and Medinsky has spent the past two years in his position as an adviser to Putin editing new history textbooks and lecturing on YouTube. The Russian government has many people much more qualified to negotiate a peace deal with Ukraine, let alone to do so under a heightened nuclear alert.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was blunt from the start about his lack of expectations for these talks. Choosing Medinsky to lead this delegation was a clear signal that Putin is likely not serious about reaching a negotiated peace. But sending Medinsky also sends an additional, very specific message: that Putin is doubling down on his inaccurate historical justification for this war, a narrative that claims Ukraine has no right to exist within its internationally recognized borders.
The Russian government expends significant resources toward promoting a patriotic historical narrative that it says should serve as a force for “national unity.” Russia’s 2009 National Security Strategy codified a special role for history, stating that “attempts to reexamine perspectives on Russian history and its role in the world and world history are creating a negative impact on the state of national security in the cultural sphere.” In 2009, then-President Dmitry Medvedev attempted to apply this logic within the policy realm by establishing the Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests. The commission did not even last Medvedev’s short tenure. Upon returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin immediately switched tacks. He brought Medinsky on board as minister of culture and established a new entity, the Russian Military Historical Society, with Medinsky as its head.
From that perch, Medinsky spent the better part of the past decade elevating his strongly nationalist (and often inaccurate) views of Russian history and Russian military supremacy to the level of state policy. Medinsky’s appointment was a controversial departure from previous cultural ministers, who were generally less political and certainly less invested in a specific view of Russian history. He was already widely known as the author of the bestselling book series Myths About Russia, which purports to debunk stereotypes, such as that Russian people are “backward” or that Russian history is uniquely cruel. Russian historians have criticized these books for widespread factual errors and absurd manipulations, including sweeping mischaracterizations of everything from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to the role of race in Russian social and political history. Poor eyesight kept Medinsky from his dream of pursuing a military career, but his early background in public relations helped him learn how to shape a compelling narrative. By directing state funding toward the films, performances, and artistic productions of his choosing, Medinsky was able to dramatically raise the profile of the Ministry of Culture as one of the primary public arbiters of historical truth in Russia.
Departing from standards of accuracy commonly recognized in the field of history internationally, Medinsky has advertised his casual relationship with the truth as a feature, not a liability, of his historiographical approach. One telling example is his response to the controversy over the historical inaccuracy of the 2016 blockbuster film Panfilov’s 28 Men. The Soviet government knew by 1948 that the story of 28 soldiers defending Moscow from dozens of German tanks in World War II did not, as they put it, “correspond to reality.” But the tale remains a popular narrative in Russia to this day. In 2015, Medinsky lambasted the head of the Russian State Archive for declassifying and publishing documents online that confirmed the story had indeed been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Medinsky insists that Panfilov’s 28 Men, which his ministry helped to fund, should be applauded for its perpetuation of that mythicized episode, in which Soviet Gen. Ivan Panfilov and his 28 men died only after (supposedly) taking 18 tanks with them. “My fundamental conviction,” he said, “is that even if this story is completely made up from beginning to end, even if there was no Panfilov, even if there was nothing—this is a sacred legend that you just can’t touch. And anyone who does is wretched scum.”
The day after making that statement, Medinsky published an article in the state press defending the Panfilov myth’s historical accuracy. The Kremlin chimed in as well, with Putin’s press secretary lauding Medinsky for using “strong words to defend historical truth.” To cap off the episode, the film was awarded a prize for being “faithful to historical truth”—by Medinsky’s own Russian Military Historical Society.
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian government has become only more persistent in its quest to establish a specific historical truth highly favorable to Russian nationalism. An updated National Security Strategy published in June 2021 dedicates a full 10 percent of its space to “the defense of traditional Russian spiritual-moral values, culture, and historical memory.” Putin commonly insists that history “should unite and not divide society.” In practice, he means that Russian society should understand that Crimea is historically part of Russia, that Nikita Khrushchev had no right to give it to Ukraine, and that Russia therefore has every right to take it back. Putin has now declared war on all of Ukraine using an extension of this same argument. This time, the history lesson is that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin invented Ukraine in 1922, its territory consists of “gifts” from Russian czars and Soviet leaders, and that geographical, historical, and cultural ties supersede Ukraine’s national sovereignty.
Russia has no more appropriate ambassador for this gross distortion of history than Vladimir Medinsky. The fact that he is lead negotiator is itself an aggressive sign of escalation. The last anyone heard publicly from Medinsky before his departure for the Belarusian-Ukrainian border was a provocative Instagram post “in honor of Feb. 23.” This date is usually associated with Russia’s militaristic Defenders of the Fatherland holiday, but it is also the birthday of renowned Soviet artist Kazimir Malevich. While Malevich was Ukrainian-born with Polish roots, Medinsky wrote in this post that he was actually a “Russian artist” born in Kyiv. It is equally possible that Medinsky is recasting Malevich’s heritage on purpose as it is that he believes this to be true. But in his world, that’s a distinction without a difference. Malevich is one of the most famous Soviet artists; therefore, he is Russian. Medinsky is more interested in his own version of historical truth than objective reality. That is more than likely the worldview he has brought to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.
Medinsky capped off that Instagram post with the hashtag #z. Initially a nod to the “Z” that marks certain armored vehicles that Russia has used in its invasion of Ukraine, this letter has become a national symbol of support for military action. Many of those vehicles are now smoldering on the side of the road, reduced to ashes by everyday Ukrainians’ Molotov cocktails. He added a second hashtag: #zamir, which would normally translate as “for peace.” In Medinsky’s world, it means precisely the opposite.