June 18 (Bloomberg) -- Like Josef Stalin before him, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided that schoolchildren are confronted with too many versions of their country’s history.
So he’s planning to provide his own.
This week, the newspaper Vedomosti published a document in which government officials set out guidelines for a definitive series of history textbooks, meant to replace the myriad texts currently being used in Russian schools. Under Putin’s orders, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Historical Society must submit proposals for the official books by November 1, after a public discussion period.
History has always been a political issue in Russia. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was arguably undermined as much by a flood of public revelations about Stalin’s purges as by falling energy prices. Now, as Putin works to establish a new Russian ideology, based on Orthodox Christian values and a sense of national pride, he needs his own official version of history for the classroom.
“This is a battle for the future,” eminent historian Yuri Pivovarov told TV Dozhd. “What version of the past we get will determine our future.”
Judging from the guidelines, the official version of history will hew close to Putin’s. For example, they paint a stark picture of the rule of Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin: “By the end of the 1990s the country started losing manageability. A crisis of central authority was exacerbated by economic failures, rapid changes of government and a war in Chechnya. Public discontent and separatist sentiment in the regions grew. The integrity of the country was at stake.”
The section on Putin, who took over from Yeltsin in 2000, glosses over some important episodes. It makes no mention of a second war in Chechnya and describes the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 as a “tactical correction in socioeconomic development.”
It’s possible that the Putin section won’t make it to the final version. Two government ministers have said they favor ending the textbooks in 2000. As Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky put it, under the Romanovs “the textbooks only mentioned the previous emperor.”
The guidelines also attempt to paint a “balanced” picture of Stalin’s rule. They describe Stalin as a modernizer who brought about Russia’s ultra-fast industrialization, laid the foundation for the Soviet Union’s scientific achievements and its victory in World War II, but also orchestrated mass purges “to liquidate a potential fifth column” and used forced labor to achieve an economic breakthrough.
The soft-lens picture of Stalin is consistent with some of Putin’s utterances on the tyrant. “I very much doubt that had Stalin had the atomic bomb in the spring of 1945, he would have used it on Germany,” Putin said during a recent visit to the state-owned Russia Today TV station.
In the 1930s, Stalin presided over his own effort to craft a version of Russia’s 1,000-year history. He personally edited textbooks, painstakingly marking up manuscripts with a pencil and criticizing academic working groups for ideological lapses. The exercise culminated in the publication, in 1938, of the “Short Course of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” a chiseled propaganda masterpiece for which Stalin wrote a chapter on Marxist philosophy.
Until the demise of the Soviet Union, all history books were based on Stalin’s structure, terminology and interpretations, slightly modified by the dictator in charge at the time. Yeltsin allowed multiple history textbooks that needed to be vetted only by the Education Ministry. Teachers could choose freely which book or books to use in class.
Would a single textbook be a totalitarian throwback? Not at all, according to Putin: “It is the teacher’s business to bring it to the students’ attention that there are divergent views of such and such an event.”
The real problem, according to Putin, is the lack of an official version of events. “Without an official assessment there will be no backbone of understanding what happened to our nation in the past decades and centuries,” he said during a call-in session with voters in April. “Last year, we had 41 recommended 10th grade history textbooks, this year we have 65. Is that normal?”
The guidelines have already provoked harsh reactions. The popular nationalist blog Sputnik and Pogrom slammed them for being too soft on Stalin: “The ’new education standard’ illustrates the disgusting things that can replace historical memory if the people (or the ruling Soviet elites) refuse to talk honestly and frankly about their past.”
The outcome probably won’t please anyone. Given the amount of disagreement that exists among Russians over the interpretation and even the facts of their history, it may be impossible to write a single fair and balanced text.
“We live in transitional times. So the textbook and the standard approach to history can only, of necessity, be transitional,” political scientist Dmitri Oreshkin told Echo Moscow radio. “The only thing we can hope for now is a departure from the Soviet tradition of direct lies and historical falsification.”
To be fair, the new guidelines are an improvement on the Stalin textbooks. Still, I’ll miss the heedless pluralism of the Yeltsin era. In Russia, teaching dozens of versions of national history may be the only honest approach.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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