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Under No Illusions

As new textbooks on Russian history, close to the Kremlin playbook, are rolled out in the country’s high schools, some teachers make clear that they are not so easily fooled.

by Wasse Jonkhans 23 May 2018

“The state, any state, will always try to put history at its service,” says Konstantin Chekmenev, a history teacher in Yaroslavl, 250 kilometers (160 miles) north of Moscow.


Two months ago, Vladimir Putin secured his fourth term as president of Russia. The current constitution obliges him to finally step down in 2024, having ruled Russia by that time for almost a quarter of a century. How will this man go down in history? Well, some say, he has already taken care of that.


The subsequent Putin governments have been actively trying to instill a “useful” kind of historical awareness in the Russian people. A conspicuous example of this is the creation of new, state-endorsed textbooks on Russian history for high schools. These books received government accreditation in 2015 and are now gradually being integrated into high school curricula.


Textbook from the Drofa and Prosveshchenie publishing houses


The new textbooks are based on the so-called Historical Cultural Standard, a set of guidelines that Kremlin-commissioned historians drew up. The guidelines were severely criticized at home and abroad when published in late 2013. The Kremlin was accused of rewriting history to make it serve its own state ideology and political agenda. In an article for The Moscow Times Vladimir Ryzhkov – a historian, opposition figure, and former State Duma deputy – charged that the guidelines “could have been written by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s classic 1984.”


Mark von Hagen, a prominent professor of Russian history at Arizona State University, expressed similar reservations: “I fear any history approved by Putin and written by his court historians would affirm the old (...) wisdom that Russia needs strong autocratic rulers and one faith, Orthodoxy, one ‘multinational’ culture that is spoken and written in Russian,” he said, as quoted by Reuters.


Russia’s Free Historical Society (VIO), an independent civil initiative of professional historians that stands for freedom of scientific inquiry, condemned the government’s approach to history education. In its founding manifesto, the society expressed its worries about “the instrumentalization of history” by politicians and other actors, who can use it for “manipulating the consciousness of people by substituting knowledge, based on scientific work with sources, with arbitrary opinions.” The Kremlin’s “control on the textbook narratives” is a matter of great concern for the VIO, Ivan Kurilla, one of its founding members, told TOL via email.


The Origin of an Idea


It was evidently early in his third presidential term, on 19 February 2013, when Putin first spoke about the need for the new history textbooks that are now being rolled out across Russia. At a meeting of the Council for Interethnic Relations in Moscow, he said:


“Perhaps it is worth considering a unified textbook on Russian history, designed for [students of] different ages, but drawn up within the framework of a unified concept, within the framework of a unified logic of uninterrupted Russian history, the interconnectedness of all its stages, respect to all pages of our past.”


Putin went on to say that it would be right to involve the Russian Historical Society (RIO) and the Russian Military-Historical Society in the process of creating this new, all-Russian history textbook. Both societies were imperial Russian institutions, patronized by the tsar, and charged with the popularization of national history. They were disbanded after the October Revolution of 1917, but revived soon after Putin’s third presidential term commenced in 2012.


It was indeed the RIO that took the initiative. Barely a week after Putin’s speech, the society started discussing the creation of a new textbook, and formed a working group to draw up a Historical Cultural Standard, guidelines on which it would be based. The group then chose Sergei Naryshkin, head of the RIO and then the speaker of the State Duma, as its chairman, and appointed as his deputies Minister of Education and Science Dmitriy Livanov and Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.


Photo of Sergei Naryshkin from the Drofa textbook


The choice of Medinsky was not without controversy. He has frequently been accused of plagiarism and using selective, biased sources in his own historical PhD thesis and other works. The expert council on history of Russia’s Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) first decided to rid Medinsky of his title, but the commission’s presidium later overruled the decision. As for Naryshkin, he was previously chairman of President Dmitri Medvedev’s controversial and short-lived “Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia's Interests,” which, like the Historical Cultural Standard, critics also labeled Orwellian.  


After the guidelines were finished, publishing houses could submit their series of textbooks to examination by the RIO. In the end, not one unified textbook, but three series of textbooks on Russian history were deemed to be in accordance with the guidelines and subsequently accredited by the government. Announced on 24 April 2015, the winners were the publishing houses Prosveshchenie, Drofa, and Russkoe Slovo.


The textbooks up to then included on the federal list were also re-examined. None of them made the cut: they were excluded from the list on the basis of not complying with the guidelines. The three publishing houses that won now found themselves in the lucrative position of being the select few with government endorsement to produce textbooks for all high school students in the entire country.


That reality also brought charges that the selection process had conveniently served the business interests of some close to the Kremlin. One of the victorious few, the publishing house Prosveshchenie (Russian for “Enlightenment”), was in Soviet times controlled by the Education Ministry and held a monopoly position in the textbook industry. It was privatized in 2011, following a suspicious procedure, and came under the control of Arkady Rotenberg, a friend from Putin’s youth and judo partner.


To provide some idea of just how profitable the textbook business could be: schools purchase textbooks for their students, and Medvedev said recently that around 15.5 million children are attending school this year.


What Are the Textbooks Actually Like?


As noted above, when the guidelines came out almost five years ago, the overwhelming reaction abroad and among some historians at home was an assumption that Putin was deploying Soviet tactics in rewriting history. They all wrote about the laudatory account of Putin’s rule, and the absence from the guidelines of any mention of opposition to the regime. They all noted the silence about the mass protests in Russia after Putin won the 2012 presidential elections, as well as the absence of the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oppositionist oligarch who was imprisoned in 2003. Ryzhkov scolded the guidelines for calling Stalin a “modernizer.”


Map of Russia from the Prosveshchenie textbook


Some of the critique was premature (the textbooks themselves had yet to appear), one-sided, or just too harsh. In his article, Ryzhkov fails to admit that the guidelines do call Stalin’s rule a “dictatorship,” and mention “mass political repressions,” Stalin’s cult of personality, “ideological control over society,” the gulag system, and other atrocities of his regime. These characterizations of Stalin’s rule can also be found in the final versions of the textbooks.


But much of the critique turned out to be prescient. Khodorkovsky made it into the Prosveshchenie textbook, which, however, only said that he was arrested and sentenced for tax evasion, without noting his opposition to Putin (or that many viewed the charges as politically motivated). The post-election protests appear in the Drofa and Prosveshchenie textbooks, but the former concluded that “the government, too, admitted the necessity of further democratization” – and then called attention to some of the government’s democratizing efforts. The Prosveshchenie textbook merely states that demonstrations were held after the elections, “in support of, as well as against the results.”


Overall, the Drofa and Prosveshchenie books depict Putin’s rule as a success story (the Russkoe Slovo series contains no book covering events after 1914). The emphasis is almost exclusively on economic growth, political and societal stability, the government’s effective social policies, Russia’s growing power in the geopolitical arena, the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church and religious piety among the people, Russia’s accomplishments in the spheres of sports and science, and – last but not least – the return of Crimea to the motherland.


The VIO’s Kurilla labeled some of that storytelling as propaganda. “The Crimean annexation, the Ukrainian revolution, and recent Russian-U.S. relations are told the same way that state TV describes them,” he said. However, Kurilla referred to the Historical Cultural Standard as “not very bad.” It is “not an ideology itself,” he said.


If not an attempt to completely whitewash history, then what are these textbooks?


The most likely answer is that they are a nation-building project. Looking back, the occasion where Putin first announced his plans for a new unified textbook was probably quite meaningful: the Council for Interethnic Relations. Formed in 2012 to enhance government policy on ethnic questions, the council aims to reduce ethnic tension and conflict among the country’s more than 180 nationalities.


The Kremlin has had to find a balance between emphasizing the multinational identity of the Russian Federation, while at the same time mollifying ethnic Russian nationalists by stressing the central role of the ethnic Russian people and the Orthodox religion in the formation of the state.


A core objective for Putin and his United Russia party has always been to keep the enormous and multinational Russia united. Putin himself has frequently confirmed this, also in regard to the new textbooks. At a conference in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, during the early stages of work on the Historical Cultural Standard, he said:


“If we will study one history in the east, in the Urals a second one, in the European part a third, then, on the whole, this can – and most probably will – destroy the unified humanitarian space of our multinational nation.”


A photo of Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev published in the Drofa textbook


The goal of the textbooks could then be to present a history of Russia in which all different nationalities form one people. The Prosveshchenie textbook even goes as far as to say that “The moral-political unity of the multinational Soviet people became the most important condition for its victory in the Great Patriotic War.”


Another aim of the new textbooks might be to instill patriotic ideals in high school students. That much becomes clear when reading not only the textbooks, but also the webpage where the RIO introduced the guidelines: “The Concept aims at improving the quality of school history education, fostering civic consciousness, and patriotism …”


The writers of the textbooks have, indeed, done their best to make young people proud of their historical countrymen. When treating the world wars, both the Prosveshchenie and the Drofa books frequently laud the “mass heroism” of the Soviet people. Prosveshchenie singles out Kozma Kryuchkov, who almost single-handedly destroyed a detachment of 24 German soldiers in World War I, sustaining 16 wounds, while his horse had 11. Drofa devotes a paragraph to the heroic deaths of under-age, partisan-pioneers Marat Kazei and Valya Kotyk during World War II. Many other war heroes – of different ethnic backgrounds – are praised, not neglecting the medals they received for their heroic deeds. Other exemplary compatriots – including scientists, artists, statesmen, and sportsmen, of tsarist, communist, and post-communist times – also get their fair share of attention.


Yet another objective of the textbooks seems to be to badmouth the very idea of “revolution.” The scientific debate about the Kremlin’s historical politics has focused on the essentially statist approach to history the Kremlin favors. In a 2010 article, Kurilla said this has been the new modus operandi for the Kremlin ever since the color revolutions that toppled Russia-friendly regimes in Ukraine and Georgia with the support of Western powers in the early 2000s. These revolutions “delegitimized the notions of revolution and popular sovereignty” in the eyes of post-Soviet political elites and led to the historical policy tactics of ascribing “everything progressive in Russian history to the efforts of the state,” said Kurilla.


We can observe this especially in the Prosveshchenie textbook that deals with the Russian Revolution. The description of events is rather factual and neutral. But, at the end of the chapter, students are encouraged to “study the documents.” One of the two historical documents presented in that chapter is a letter by anti-Bolshevik General Lavr Kornilov, who writes that the Soviets act “in total accord with the German general staff” and that “our great motherland is dying.” The second is a letter by Marxist and Lenin antagonist Georgi Plekhanov, who writes that the revolution “will lead to civil war” and that “power should operate on the basis of a coalition of all living powers in the country, which would comprise all classes and layers [of society] that are interested in a revival of the old order.” The chapter ends with the opinion of a historian, who says that all revolutions follow more or less the same path, which basically entails a lot of upheaval, after which the old order is partially restored. The idea, in short, is that revolution is destructive and senseless.


Last but not least, the new textbooks contain their fair share of anti-Western sentiment, though much subtler than on Russian state TV, or some other channels of state propaganda. Of course, creating the image of a hostile outside world is another way of keeping one’s own people together. The Prosveshchenie textbooks, for example, describe Western wartime allies as unreliable. Russia saved France from German aggression during World War I, but when Germany threw the brunt of its forces against Russia, France gratefully accepted the afforded respite to regain its strength instead of coming to Russia’s aide. Justifiable or not, the Prosveshchenie as well as the Drofa textbooks blame the expansionist policies of NATO for the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West in the post-Soviet era.


“The Unhappiest Science”                                                            


It would be a mistake to think that the Kremlin’s version of history is communicated to students exactly how it is offered in state-endorsed textbooks. Several Russian high school history professors interviewed for this article were very much aware of state propaganda in history textbooks. Though the new textbooks, based on the Historical Cultural Standard, are still in the process of being adopted by schools, most teachers in Russia – except for teachers in certain pilot schools – have not yet worked with the new books in class. That includes the interviewed teachers. However, respondents were familiar with at least one of the series of new textbooks, as well as with the standard.


Without exception, the teachers said they had no illusion that anything like an objective or unbiased account of history in school textbooks could exist. However, they all added that this applies not only to Russia, but to every other country in the world.


Svetlana Alekseeva, a history teacher at a state high school in St. Petersburg, characterized history as “the unhappiest science,” because, she wrote, “it always goes under the yoke of state politics at a given moment in time.”


Ruslan Sulejmanov, a history teacher at another high school in St. Petersburg, said that the quality of history textbooks had actually improved over the past few years. While familiar with the Prosveshchenie series, he had not used them in class yet. He also said that “talking about history as an ‘unbiased’ science makes no sense.”


Asked whether he thought that the new textbooks were more politicized than the previous ones, Sulejmanov said that they were more or less politicized to the same extent. When hearing Ryzhkov’s opinion that the guidelines on which the textbooks are based could have been written by the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984, Sulejmanov said: “I love Orwell very much, but I think that this comparison is not entirely correct.”


Teachers interviewed for this article said they would always tell their students when their own opinion did not coincide with textbook narratives. Alekseeva said that she taught her students how to analyze information instead of taking it at face value. When treating important historical events, she would sometimes hand out five different texts, written by people from different ideological backgrounds, to show her students how much one’s ideology can color the interpretation of an event.


Even if the state tries to push its own version of history, there are still teachers in Russia who encourage free thinking. As Alekseeva said: “Next to the textbook, there is always a teacher in the classroom.”

Wasse Jonkhans just finished five months as an editorial intern at TOL. He studied Russian and Eurasian Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg until the Russian authorities shut down the institution. He is currently finishing his master’s program at King’s College, London.

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