Annals of Russian “Education”

Shaun Walker, writing in the Independent:

Critics are accusing President Vladimir Putin’s government of a Soviet-style rewriting of Russian history with a series of new “patriotic” textbooks to be unveiled in the new school year.

New laws passed this summer have given the government sweeping powers over which textbooks will be used in schools. Teachers and other critics have voiced concerns that this will allow the government to force the use of a single, approved book in each subject – essentially a return to Soviet practice.

Mr Putin has complained that the negative view of the Soviet past in current history textbooks is down to the fact that the authors received foreign grants to write them.

Now, the Kremlin claims it wants to change that situation and a recommissioning of Russia’s history textbooks is under way. A handbook for teachers, on the basis of which a future textbook for students could be written, is called The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006. Only one of the authors is a professional historian. The book calls Joseph Stalin a “contradictory” figure, and states that while some people consider him evil, others recognise him as a “hero” for his role in the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) and his territorial expansion.

“Learning history should make people feel part of the nation, but it depends on how it’s done,” said one history teacher from Moscow. “If the idea is to hide everything that was bad and only speak of strength and military victories, I’m not sure that this is the best way to create that kind of feeling.”

The law seems to have come from a meeting Mr Putin held with teachers when he lamented the state of history teaching in the country, saying that both society and teachers were “confused”. He called for a more patriotic approach to the subject.

Officially, little attention has been paid to the darker aspects of Russia’s Soviet past, such as the Stalinist purges or the deportation in appalling conditions of 3 million of its own citizens during the Second World War, with the focus instead on the strength of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the victory over Germany.

On 5 August, the Orthodox Church held a ceremony to mark 70 years since the start of Stalin’s “Great Purge”, but no government officials attended. Mr. Putin said that while 1937 shouldn’t be forgotten, other countries had behaved far worse, making references to Hiroshima and the Vietnam War. “We should not allow anyone else to make us feel guilty. Let them think about themselves,” he said.

Vladislav Golovanov, a history teacher from Yakutsk in Siberia, told Putin at the meeting that Russia’s history should help the country to be unified. The state should return to the teaching of history, he said, and ensure that it is used to instil a sense of patriotism and pride. “Our history should not be about self-flagellation.”

“In the official state view of history, the main event of the twentieth century is the victory in the Second World War,” said Boris Dubin, an expert at the Levada Centre think tank and polling agency. “The Holocaust is hardly taught at all in Russia, nor is the history of the gulag system. The rehabilitation of Stalin is connected to the emphasis on the war victory.”

The textbook’s final chapter covers Mr Putin’s rule. It describes the Yukos affair as a message from government to big business: “Obey the law, pay your taxes, and don’t attempt to rise above the state.” The message was heard, says the book. This or similar books could soon be the only option Russian history teachers have for use in the classroom.

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