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Who rewrites history? The portrayal of the Legionnaire Day in pro-Kremlin media

Each country has its history, and sometimes chapters tend to be controversial, especially for those unaware of or unwilling to see the facts. Third countries tend to misuse history for their benefits, selectively employing details, hiding, or even abusing historical context parts. One of Latvia’s most controversial history sections is the Nazi Germany’s mobilisation of Latvian soldiers into legions to fight the Soviet Union on the front line in 1943. Narratives related to those events are often used in Kremlin related media to undermine the image of Latvia.

As noted by Latvia’s War Museum, an institution under the direct supervision of Latvia’s Defence Minister, even though they were characterised as “volunteers”, the absolute majority of the legionnaires were forcibly mobilised. Moreover, as the museum describes, although formally the Latvian Legion was under the subordination of the SS and its leader Heinrich Himmler, the legion was a regular component of the German military forces. As official sources claim, the Latvian unit did not participate in repressive actions against civilians. None of the Latvian legionnaires were accused at the Nuremberg trial of having committed war crimes that have been done within the context of the legion activity.

Since the beginning of time, Russia disagrees with Latvia’s official position on the legionnaire activity. It tends to employ its interpretation in the informational space not only in Russia but also in Latvia. Because the 16th of March each year is the unofficial day of Latvian Legionnaires, pro-Kremlin media intensifies the flow of disinformation about this particular event and the historical context around the Remembrance Day.

In March 2021, Debunk EU identified 67 articles discussing the historical context and the unofficial Remembrance Day misleadingly, mainly ignoring Latvia’s interpretation of the facts, and even delivering new information unknown to Latvia’s government and historians. The ‘problematic information’ about the legionnaires in March reached around 35 million contacts worldwide, signalling that the pro-Kremlin interpretation of historical events is pursued by targeting the Russian speaking minorities in the Baltics and presenting this position for local audiences in Russia.

“Fascism in the Baltic States” filter’s dynamics in March 2021, @DebunkEU data
“Fascism in the Baltic States” filter’s dynamics in March 2021, @DebunkEU data

The main disinformation actor discussing the events and bringing up new facts still unknown to Latvia was Aleksandr Dyukov, a director of Russia’s “Historical Memory” foundation. It is essential to mention that Mr Dyukov is a persona no grata in Latvia and other Schengen countries. He has been in sight of Latvia’s State Security Service, which identifies him as a pseudo-historian, who strives to discredit the Baltic states in his professional activity. His actions have led to consider him a threat to Latvia’s integrity and security.

In March 2021, Mr Dyukov and the “Historical Memory” foundation organised an event called “Retired executioners. Nazi criminals from Latvia in the CIA’s service”. The foundation was quoted in Kremlin related media, claiming that the foundation investigated the historical context of Latvian legionnaires and found out that numerous former members of this unit worked for the American intelligence to pursue anti-Soviet propaganda. Moreover, it was claimed that some of the previously justified Latvian legionnaires were involved in the mass killing of civilians, for instance, in the massacre in Zhestyanaya Gorka’s village in the north-western region of Novgorod. Also, it is claimed in the “investigations” of the “Historical Memory” foundation that “Daugava’s Hawks”, a Latvian legionnaires’ welfare organisation founded in Belgium in 1946, had alleged collaboration with the American intelligence because the US preferred to work with war criminals. Notably, the report is still one-sided because the publicly available official data in Latvia does not support any of these claims. There are no recent publications on this matter in Latvia.

Apart from unverified facts and the foundation hurrying to present the “evidence” before it collaborates with respective professionals in Latvia, pro-Kremlin media tended to exaggerate the Legionnaire Day in a descriptive matter. Instead of stating the Remembrance Day simply as “16th of March” or “Legionnaire Day” how it is presented in Latvia, the Kremlin-funded and supported outlets noted the event as “Waffen SS legionnaire event”. Moreover, in some articles, these historical events and their interpretation in pro-Kremlin media led to discussions that current Latvian government and some society’s individuals still sympathise with the Nazi radical ideas. For the pro-Kremlin side, the alignment of legionnaires with the Nazis is a more favourable interpretation. Articles tend to “shame” members of society commemorating the soldiers and, in turn, support the pro-Russian minorities who deny the occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union after the WW2. Generally, most Kremlin related news organisations tend to position themselves with Russia’s history interpretation where the Soviet Union has been portrayed as a “saviour”.

TOP 10 articles by social interactions, @DebunkEU data
TOP 10 articles by social interactions, @DebunkEU data

Disinformation actors employed almost all disinformation techniques when presenting the misleading content and employing it in the articles. However, the direct approach which was apparent in most of the misleading content about Legionnaire Day in March was the association method where 57 articles used the “credible” sources, such as previously mentioned Mr Duykov and the “Historical Memory” foundation, to emphasise the “truthfulness” of the uncovered facts discussed above.

While analysing the data, it became clear that pro-Kremlin source stood out, discussing 20.9% of the Latvian legionnaires’ disinformation.

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