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Russia: Is The Education Ministry Trying To Rewrite History?

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The Russian Education Ministry's recent decision to review the country's history textbooks follows the recent ban of a book that had been popular with many Russian history teachers for its thought-provoking approach. This weekend, in yet another move, the Kremlin is due to receive a report on the "patriotic content" of textbooks. The trend has teachers worried about the temptation to revert to comfortable, Soviet-style "truths" -- and even some of the historians charged with vetting new texts appear to be having second thoughts.

Moscow, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At an ordinary high school on Dostoyevsky Street in central Moscow, the students in Class 11A are preparing for their final exams, still six months away.

For these 17-year-olds, Lenin, Stalin, and totalitarianism are notions of the past. In fact, their history teacher, Yekaterina Kozlova, sometimes has a hard time convincing them that traces of the country's Soviet past can still be felt today.

"This is an attempt to use command methods to solve a problem that is objectively complex."
In the course of the day's lesson -- about the political regimes of the 20th century -- Kozlova turns to Ilyusha, a gangly boy in the third row. "What could we call the regime in Russia today, 10 years after the fall of the communists?" she asked. "How might it develop?"

Kozlova: "Perestroika. Do you know what that is? It's a period of post-totalitarian renewal. But is there a risk that the [current regime] could move toward authoritarianism?"

Ilyusha (hesitant): "I think there is a risk."

Moving on to nationalism and national socialism, Kozlova tries to draw on parallels taken from contemporary events. Kozlova: "But we're also quite good at that sort of thing, aren't we? I think we can find a present example, can't we?"

Student: "Well, yes, for instance, in the lack of respect we show those we insult as 'people of the [North-]Caucasus nationalities.' That kind of nationalism is visible everywhere, especially in the capital."

Throughout her history and political science classes, Kozlova says she tries to stick to one guiding principle. "My main credo is to not impose my own views, but to give [students] the broadest possible look at various points of view, insofar as that is possible," she said. "Until this year, there was a large selection of study materials, so I could offer a lot to choose from, and that gives [the students] the opportunity to widen their perception of history."

As simple as these convictions may seem, Kozlova admits she adopted them with difficulty after her Soviet education. Kozlova was about to begin her first teaching job in 1988, during the peak of perestroika. But as the country slowly became aware of the scope of Soviet historical revisionism, she says she was overwhelmed by the thought of teaching a history she wasn't sure she knew anymore.

So for 10 years, she refused to teach, plowing instead through history books and archives in an attempt to catch up. But now she says teaching has once again become difficult, for a different reason -- the moves by Russian authorities to scale back what they saw as the liberties taken by new history texts.

One such text is Igor Dolutskii's "National History, 20th Century," which served as a textbook for half a million students across Russia over the past 10 years, and which has now lost its Education Ministry seal of approval. Kozlova says she hated giving up the Dolutskii text, which dips generously into archive materials to help trace Russia's tumultuous history from the fall of the Romanovs to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Each chapter in the Dolutskii text ended with a paragraph presenting different opinions and questions on a historical event.

One chapter ends with an invitation for students to discuss whether contemporary Russia is a democracy. Such provocative questions prompted the Education Ministry's ban, with one ministry official saying the Dolutskii text "elicits contempt, natural contempt for our past and for the Russian people."

But Kozlova says such "provocation" is good not only for students but for teachers as well, many of whom need a re-education of their own. "Most of the teachers working in schools were educated in a different time, and not everyone can adapt," she said. "So today, there's much too wide a gap in how history is taught."

Kozlova says she is also worried by the move by President Vladimir Putin to appoint historians from the Russian Academy of Science to review textbooks to make sure they are sufficiently "patriotic."

Late last year, a group of World War II veterans complained to Putin that some textbooks failed to stress the heroism of the Soviet troops during the conflict, and shed light on more unflattering aspects of the war. But Kozlova says it is not her job to teach patriotism, a quality she says most people have regardless. Instead, she sees her job as teaching young people to think for themselves about their past. "When they grow up they'll be patriotic anyway," she said. "But what they still have to learn is to make choices in life, and for that you have to show them the different sides [of a story]."

The Education Ministry takes a different view. When it finishes its own review of existing texts, a final selection will be made for use in schoolrooms, where -- according to Education Minister Vladimir Filippov -- there "will be no place for pseudo-liberalism directed at the distortion of history."

Historian Lyudmilla Aleksashkina is a leading member of the Institute for School Education, an official body charged with reviewing school itineraries and texts for the Education Ministry. Citing the ministry's decision to ban Dolutskii's 20th-century history text, she says the move was justified -- even though she admits the text is factually accurate. "We can't dispute any of the facts that the author uses," she said. "The main thing is that the picture he draws of [Soviet] history has a sarcastic hue; the author writes with condescension and irony about some tragic things."

Dolutskii's style, she added, is typical of the unrestrained criticism of the early 1990s. But now, she said, "it's time for a more moderate approach to our history." Even so, she says the ministry method of decision making is worrisome. "This is an attempt to use command methods to solve a problem that is objectively complex. Even in the academic world and in research papers on history, you have different points of view. So you can't just declare that [a book is guilty of] 'deformation of history' -- and a ministry bureaucrat has even less right to do so," Aleksashkina said.
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