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Long Under Attack, A Russian History-Essay Contest Now Draws Scrutiny From FSB

Submissions often touch upon chapters from Russia’s history that the government and state media rarely shed light on.
Submissions often touch upon chapters from Russia’s history that the government and state media rarely shed light on.

MOSCOW -- The essay, written by a teenager in the central Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, is unsparing in its recollections of a great-grandfather sent to a gulag labor camp in 1933 for crossing the Soviet border, without even knowing what country he was entering.

"Ten years in a concentration camp without the right to correspondence for an illegal border crossing and espionage on behalf of Japan," the teenager wrote. "Great-grandfather Vanya admitted later to his son that he and a friend didn't even understand they were crossing the border."

The extract is from one of thousands of essays submitted in recent years to Memorial, one of Russia's oldest and most respected human rights organizations, as part of a nationwide history contest for high-school students.

Held annually for the past 20 years, the contest has drawn the ire of nationalists for years. This year, however, things are different.

According to Memorial, teachers in a number of Russian regions have been summoned to the offices of school directors for questioning by local officials and members of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

"The teachers are asked questions about the ways information about the competition is disseminated. They're asked to hand over the work of entrants (including from previous competitions) and pressured to sever ties with Memorial," the group said in a statement published June 4.

In some cases, the group said, the students themselves have been questioned.

Person In History

Since its founding in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Memorial has gained widespread acclaim among professional historians for its work to expose crimes of the Soviet regime. Under President Vladimir Putin, however, it has come under growing pressure amid a focused government campaign to diminish uncomfortable pages from Russia's past and trumpet the Soviet victory in World War II.

Irina Shcherbakova, who heads Memorial's educational division and is one of the contest organizers, told RFE/RL that a majority of the entrants live in rural localities far from Russian urban centers. It's also because of that, she suggested, that teachers who contacted Memorial to report the interrogations said they were afraid of speaking publicly.

RFE/RL was unable to contact any of the teachers or schoolchildren who have been questioned for their essays.

The competition -- titled Person In History: Russia -- 20th Century -- has been held for the past 20 years. Each year the group receives over 1,500 entries from across Russia from teenagers aged 14 to 18. Shortlisted candidates are invited for workshops in Moscow in advance of an awards ceremony held each spring.

The main aim of the competition, according to Memorial, is to "inspire in schoolchildren an interest in their country's history, in the history of their family and their birthplace."

A basic criterion is that entrants submit a historical investigation based on primary sources, and not merely an account of a past event. The other requirement is that essays focus on the role of an individual or a group of individuals in history.

Submissions often touch upon chapters from Russia’s history that the government and state media rarely shed light on. That includes the conduct of Russian soldiers during wars in Chechnya and in Afghanistan and the legacy of Stalinist repressions. Parallels are often drawn with Russia today.

The jury has featured high-profile public figures including Soviet author Daniil Granin and Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

The contest has irked nationalist politicians and pro-Kremlin groups, who have branded the contest treasonous, and have even assaulted participants.

In 2016, the awards ceremony in Moscow was picketed by activists from the nationalist neo-Soviet movement NOD, who sprayed members of the jury and guests with a green antiseptic liquid and hurled eggs at them.

State-funded news channels have aided these nationalist groups with positive coverage, and regularly attack Memorial.

The group, meanwhile, was designated a "foreign agent" by the Russian government in 2016 for taking money from German nonprofits including the Koerber Foundation and the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

The flagship state news channel Rossia-24 has called organizers of the competition "modern-day Judases," and portrayed the initiative as a deliberate effort to invert the historical consciousness of young Russians.

This year, in a report released to coincide with the awards ceremony, a Rossia-24 commentator accused Memorial of "intensively brainwashing kids using Western money, under the disguise of educational and research activities."

Fear Of Freedom

Putin himself has openly discussed the "excessive demonization" of Soviet history. And Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has routinely emphasized positive aspects of Russian and Soviet history, often at the expense of negative ones. In February, Medinsky sent a letter to museums nationwide ordering directors to pay particular attention to "the embodiment of [state priorities] in exhibitions about the most important events in the history of modern Russia."

One of the Culture Ministry's flagship historical projects is called Russia -- My History, a network of identical historical exhibitions in more than 20 cities. "Every visitor will feel solidarity with the events of the 1,000-year history of his Fatherland," according to the project's website.

Shcherbakova said she believes the government fears the effects of encouraging young Russians to ask questions about events that have shaped the regions they live in, and the processes that have affected their family histories.

"I think they dislike the freedom that we encourage, the free choice of subjects and sources. And the fact we are outside government control," she said.

"What danger does the government see in rock festivals or rap festivals?" she said, drawing a parallel with recent bans on music concerts by popular rap artists. "I think they fear a certain freedom. They fear they've lost contact with the youth."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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