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Russia: Education Ministry Doesn't Like What It Learned About Free-Thinking Textbook

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia's Ministry of Education has decided to remove its seal of approval from a high school textbook that encouraged students to research and discuss controversial topics in Russia's history. After a decade of unprecedented openness, the pendulum now appears to be swinging back toward a new conservative ideology in the nation's schools.

Prague, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian ruler bent on establishing a new dictatorship in Russia. President Vladimir Putin is a democrat at heart whose structural reforms are paving the way for Russia to emerge as a liberal democracy. Present your evidence and discuss.

That, in essence, is the assignment which Igor Dolutskii's textbook poses to Russian students about to graduate from high school. It is an assignment considered so objectionable that the Russian Ministry of Education's council of experts last week recommended the book's removal from the classroom. This week, the ministry confirmed the decision and formally withdrew its stamp of approval from the text. Unless the decision is reversed, Igor Dolutskii's "National History, 20th Century," which has served as a textbook for half-a-million students across Russia over the past 10 years, will be permanently shelved.

There is a well-known proverb that says, "Those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it." Dolutskii told RFE/RL he wants Russia's high school students to know their history -- the good and the bad -- to be able to discuss it, analyze it, and form their own opinions. But, he lamented, the Education Ministry no longer sees it that way.

"Critics consider my textbook to be Russophobic, that it undercuts the collectivist values of the Russian people, that it inculcates individualist, Western values that are alien to the Russian people, that it blackens the history of a great country, that [World War II] -- as I show it -- is painted in too dark a color. Critics were especially vexed that the second front is constantly mentioned, that the allies who fought against Hitler starting in 1939 are mentioned," Dolutskii said.

Dolutskii says he fears the ministry officials are taking their cue from President Vladimir Putin, who, in a meeting with historians last month said textbooks for schools and universities should not take up divisive political issues but instead foster in Russia's young people "a feeling of pride" for their homeland.

Yelena Zinina, head of the Education Ministry's textbook-publishing department, told RFE/RL that Dolutskii's book does precisely the opposite. "The textbook elicits contempt, natural contempt for our past and for the Russian people," she said.

Dolutskii counters that he is a patriot but he believes Russia will be better served by a generation of well-informed critical thinkers than docile, happy drones. His textbook reflects this philosophy by presenting the available evidence on important moments in Russia's modern history, asking students to debate the issue and defend their position -- whatever it is.

"I have been working in schools for a quarter-century and I have always worked like this. And I see that it's very effective," Dolutskii said. "It's one thing to come out and tell students, 'This is how the [Russian] Civil War developed, this side was in the right.' It's another matter altogether to say: 'Here's the Civil War. There were Reds, Whites, Greens.... And now let's look to see who was right.' And to the horror of everyone, it turns out that one side was right, and the other side was also right. And yet in another class, the students prove to me that everyone was wrong in the conflict. So you understand?"

The point is that in history, there are no right answers, says Dolutskii -- only different interpretations. He readily admits that many teachers find it difficult to accept this approach. "Many teachers are opposed to my book. It's hard to work with it because there is a purely methodological problem," he said. "There are no ready-made answers, as our president would like. He wants ready-made answers but they are not in my book. I propose searching for the answer to questions I pose. This is what we call an 'open textbook.' There can be very different answers to the questions posed, just as with the latest edition, which has become this stumbling block for me and has led to all this criticism."

In the 10 years it has been used in schools, Dolutskii's textbook has weathered criticism from several quarters, as he explained: "During its 10-year history, the textbook has constantly met with opposition. There was opposition from several fronts. Until 1996, in the ministry, the opposition came from those you could call Communist ideologues, who were horrified by some facts but couldn't do much because there was a process of relative liberalization taking place across the country. After 1996, opposition began from those in the ministry, in the council of experts, who openly favored a state ideology filled with pseudo-Orthodox, pseudo-nationalist content."

That camp now seems to have gained the upper hand, strengthened by Putin's call for patriotic education. For such critics, the textbook's sorest point appears to be the last chapter of its latest edition, which includes the question about Putin's style of governance as well as controversial details of Russia's two recent wars in Chechnya.

"Naturally, in connection with this, the last, 45th, chapter about modern Russia, where there are two Chechen wars, where it is written that Chechen villages were destroyed using multiple-rocket launchers, with a rise in the president's approval rating afterwards, etc. -- the mention of Putin, it seems to me, is one of those details that served as the straw that broke the camel's back after many years of publishing this book. The textbook has been published, after all, since 1993. That's how I see the situation," Dolutskii said.

The 45th chapter, Dolutsky notes, first appeared in 2001 and caused little debate at the time. The Education Ministry that same year renewed its stamp of approval for the book.

It was only after a visit to 2003 Moscow Book Fair by former Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin and Media Minister Mikhail Lesin -- who personally requested their own copies of the textbook from the publisher -- that events took an ominous turn.

"Since that time, since September, things have appeared which can only be called denunciatory letters -- in the Russian tradition. These denunciatory letters are anonymous tracts or print-outs from the Internet, reviews from unknown magazines. Two weeks ago, the ministry sent these messages to my publisher, saying, 'Look, we have been receiving criticism about this book.' There were, in total, three or four letters," Dolutskii said.

The rest has been reported by the media. Earlier this week, echoing many of the criticisms expressed in those anonymous letters, Russia's Education Ministry definitively removed its stamp of approval from the book, sealing its fate. Although the text will not be banned, the revocation of its approval means that no state-run schools will be permitted to buy it.

At the Ministry of Education, Yelena Zinina denies that Igor Dolutskii's "National History, 20th Century," has fallen victim to a Kremlin-inspired purge. She says the ministry independently reviewed all history textbooks this year and found Dolutskii's to be particularly unbalanced and inappropriate on an entire host of topics, from its treatment of World War II and the role of the former NKVD secret police at the front to the actions of Russian soldiers in the most recent Chechen war.

Zinina does not explain why the ministry found no objection to the same edition just two years before, preferring instead to quote President Putin: "I have looked at the textbook and it does indeed contain things that are improper. Here one can only agree with Putin, who said that a textbook is not an arena for political battles. Here, modern and ancient history must be presented in a balanced fashion."

The Russian Education Ministry says there are plenty of other historians up to the task of presenting Russia's history in a manner that is at once inspiring and patriotic without being unbalanced. It is a task that has faced Russian historians in the past. As an old joke has it: "The future is assured, it's the past that keeps changing."

(RFE/RL's correspondent Sophie Lambroschini in Moscow contributed to this report.)
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