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'A Dangerous Commission': Russian Historians Alarmed As Putin Creates State Body On 'Historical Education'


The new commission is to be headed by controversial former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, who is now an adviser to President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin last month ordered the creation of an interagency commission on historical education, and his reasoning was clear from the preamble to the decree, which said it was "in order to ensure a planned and aggressive approach to the matter of defending the national interests of the Russian Federation.

Defenders of the decision took Putin's reasoning further. Historian and member of the advisory Public Chamber Pavel Pozhigailo told RFE/RL that "like any country, the government is trying to preserve the state."

"Undoubtedly the question of history, in my opinion, is a crucial question for the existence of the state within its current borders," Pozhigailo said. "If history is rewritten, then the state will no longer exist."

Because Russia is a "multinational" country, the need for a "unified" version of its history is urgent, Pozhigailo said. There cannot be a presentation of history that "tells how great the people of the Far North are and how bad the Russians are or how great the North Caucasus are and how bad the Russians are" because "Russia would simply collapse into an enormous number of tiny states."

"In order to prevent this, undoubtedly, we need some agreement in society and in the state regarding our history," he added.

'Historical Battlefield'

Writing for the RIA Novosti state news agency, historian and publicist Pytor Akopov wrote: "Among other things, our history has taught us one simple truth: There is nothing more frightening than division and disunion. And they arise from confusion and hatred, which are incompatible with love for one's own history."

Russia, he added, must defend its sovereignty "on the historical battlefield."

The brief of Putin's commission covers historical "prosveshcheniye," a broad term that includes not only formal education but also museums, culture, entertainment, and the citizenry's overall immersion in a subject.

The new commission is to be headed by controversial former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, who heads the uberpatriotic Military-Historical Society whose own dissertations have been derided as "simply unscholarly, and in places downright absurd" while "ignoring sources if they contradict his theses." Medinsky, who serves on the General Council of the ruling United Russia Party, was removed as culture minister in early 2020 but is now an adviser to Putin.

"Medinsky is not simply Medinsky," Pozhigailo said. "Medinsky is counsellor to the president. As I understand it, the task now is to have a unified view of the history of Russia in order to combat the likely liberal interpretation of that history."

'Fundamentally Different'

Medinsky headed a similar commission aimed at combating the purported falsification of history when he was culture minister under President Dmitry Medvedev. But that commission never amounted to much, said historian Nikolai Svanidze, who was a member.

"I can't say that I remember much about that commission, although I was on it," he told RFE/RL. "But the composition of the new commission is completely different. Representatives of the Federation Council and the Duma have been removed...to say nothing of your humble servant. And representatives of the security forces have been brought in, which no doubt will change the way the commission works."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, (center) Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (left) and Vladimir Medinsky visit a Moscow exhibition on World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it is often known in Russia and other former Soviet republics. (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, (center) Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (left) and Vladimir Medinsky visit a Moscow exhibition on World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it is often known in Russia and other former Soviet republics. (file photo)

According to Putin's order, the new history commission will include representatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry, the Investigative Committee, the presidential administration, the staff of the Security Council, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the foreign intelligence service (SVR), and others.

"I don't think it will be more serious," Svanidze said, comparing the new commission with Medvedev's. "But it will certainly be more dangerous."

'Ideologically Motivated'

Nikita Sokolov, a historian and chairman of the Free Historical Society, agreed that the composition of the new commission is "fundamentally different."

"These are very powerful players in the ideological sphere and when they start playing at history, it scares me," he said.

"I am very concerned about the fate of historical science in Russia after the formation of this commission," he added. "Because things will get mixed up and ideology will enter into the sphere of science."

Attempts to enforce an ideologically motivated concept of history are shortsighted and likely to exacerbate divisions within society, Svanidze said.

"History is interesting, like a detective story that has no end," he said. "But lies are boring. Those who want to create a 'correct history' are simply trying to pass off what they desire for what was real. We will suffer because the people being told these stories won't listen like they are supposed to. And they will be punished for it."

The current Russian government "doesn't talk much about the future," Svanidze said, turning its attention instead to reinterpreting the past. "Instead of a future, we have the past…. We are aspiring to a great past."

No vision of the past can unify a diverse country, Sokolov added.

"You can only unite the country around a vision of the future, around moral principles that we can see in our future," he said. "Yes, the past is full of sins and crimes, but in the future we intend to live differently and achieve reasonable and humane goals. That should be the aim of politics, and politicians should keep themselves out of the study of history."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov.
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