Despite the deluge of information available on the web, students and scholars still need to know how to locate a trustworthy source, whether analog or digital. As the following example demonstrates, this is a process that requires at least some basic grasp of the cultural and political contexts in which information is created. One cannot learn about a topic such as Russia’s participation in World War II merely by plugging keywords into a new database on war-time operations, military decorations, and heroic feats. But one can use this database to discuss the meaning of open access, the reliability of government publications, and contemporary attempts to appropriate history for political purposes.
A People’s Feat, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s “freely-accessible, electronic repository of documents” about the Soviet Union’s participation in “Great Patriotic War” (aka World War II) is, at least potentially, a useful tool for research and teaching. This searchable, Russian-language database currently includes 310,127 historical documents and 787,534 records of decoration (which covers the first year of the war and constitutes only 2.6% of all decorations). The Defense Ministry expects to complete loading the remaining records by 2012.
But does the ideological agenda behind this new digital project belie its claims of free and easy access? What exactly does “free access” mean if a small, hand-picked, committee of political appointees is charged with making decisions about what to include (or exclude) from an official government website?
One of the Russian Defense Ministry’s acknowledged goals in launching this website was the need “to create the documental basement [sic] for counteraction to attempts of falsification [sic] of World War II history.” This clumsily-translated statement of purpose reflects President Dmitrii Medvedev’s controversial decision to set up a “Commission to Counteract Attempts at Falsifying History to Damage the Interests of Russia.” This so-called “Truth Commission” was formed in May 2009, a year before the celebration of the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. It was felt necessary to create such a commission because some of the former Soviet republics (particularly Ukraine and the Baltic states) no longer celebrate Victory Day and often try to give what Russian critics have described as “extremely loose interpretations of history” – interpretations that not only question the motives of Soviet “liberators” but even seek to criminalize the actions of the Red Army.
Coming in the wake of post-Soviet Russia’s apparent retreat from press freedom, Medvedev’s move has elicited angry letters of protest from scholarly associations from around the world, including the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). It has been even more sharply criticized by bloggers, who have suggested that “the true goal of this operation” is “tapping into Russian nationalism, not actually promoting historical truth.”
Despite the controversy, and the selective nature of all government publications, the question remains: is “A People’s Feat” still a useful resource for students of World War II? Or is it so tainted by the regime’s ideological agenda as to make it virtually worthless? Perhaps only those who actually use the online database for research and teaching will be able to answer this question with any degree of certainty. So if you have used this resource, we’d like to hear your opinion.
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