History has long been an object of reform since the collapse of the USSR. It has been used as an impetus for championing democratic change and explaining the chaos of the Russian Federation’s first decade. In addition, it is an important part of Vladimir Putin’s policy rhetoric to champion Russia’s ‘great powerness’ (derzhavnost’).
In the last twenty-eight years, history in schools has journeyed from one single view enforced by a strict interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, to an explosion of textbooks and debate under Boris Yeltsin and then to closer state control of an open discussion under Putin. An open discussion, it must be said, with a ‘preferred’ version of the past based upon cherry picked segments reflecting triumph, strength and unity.
It has not gone unnoticed that school history textbooks under Putin have become more praiseworthy of the nature of the state and other historical leaders who asserted authority. The infamous 2007 Filippov teacher handbook, for instance, was widely criticised for glossing over the Stalinist terror and praising him as an ‘effective manager’. The recent 2015 series also stress the need for built up, strong institutions to avoid national catastrophes, although contains no anti-western or nationalist language.
Stalin aside, history in contemporary Russia has many tasks to perform at once. As well as promoting citizenship in what is a notionally democratic state, it must explain the collapse of the USSR, experience of democracy and not to mention help the population come to terms with the more traumatic episodes of its past. Most importantly, history in Russian schools is designed to promote patriotic loyalty through past glories – namely the Great Patriotic War.
History is a profile subject – one that shapes the profile of a student. It teaches us about societal norms, traditions, the way things are and the way they ought to be. The values of the nation are portrayed through the textbooks and treat students as passive observers and members of a nation. In Russia, it is an elective subject after the age of sixteen.
A recent Levada poll showed Russians consider history to be the most important school subject, yet, history’s popularity lags behind the sciences and Maths. Also strange considering pride in Russia’s history has also topped recent polls.
History in schools has a symbolic place in contemporary Russia. Students must feel connected to their motherland but also leave school knowing how to act within it. This is why history education has become an important part of ‘upbringing’.
Russian history teachers are also kept busy and are increasingly squeezed between balancing modern pedagogical standards (obuchenie) and a child’s upbringing (vospitanie). As well as preparing students for the Unified State Exams (YeGE), teachers must also provide students with the correct knowledge and skills to enter the workplace. Since 2000, four patriotic education programmes have also impacted the history curriculum.
In general, the patriotic programmes have focused on military components, overusing words and phrases such as duty and military patriotic work. It was also hoped these would combat radicalism in the form of nationalism and terrorism. The latest patriotic programme (2016 – 2020) has focused increasingly more on national security in response to the geopolitical situation and economic conditions. Lessons and textbooks on Crimea’s history as a part of Russia were introduced after the annexation, and these focus on military aspects.
However, as Anna Sanina writes, these programmes are ‘hollow documents’ and were essentially hurried through. Performance and success is hard to measure as indicators are either not provided or so broad and ambiguous. Moreover, most schools often ‘sign off’ on these programmes and spend the money elsewhere.
Many teachers, like one school director in central Moscow I spoke to, simply have no idea what to do for patriotic programmes. One school visited in Vladimir has an Orthodox priest attend the first day of school ceremonies whereas another in Novgorod organises archeological digs for its students. For many, a museum trip will suffice.
Another teacher in Volokolamsk stated how careful one should be in teaching history patriotically. This came after I viewed her lesson on the formation of the Russian state under Ivan IV, where she stressed to her students the need for national unity among the many regions of Russia. In her own words, ‘being patriotic does not mean making the past better in our own eyes. We have to tell the truth’.
Last year was the centenary of the 1917 revolutions. The state kept this at arm’s length and made no official statement. Revolutions have negative connotations in modern Russia, and this period is associated with chaos, bloodshed and generally considered a tragedy. While school textbooks largely go along with this narrative, 1917 is also treated as two parts of one process. More importantly, one that had catastrophic consequences for the Russian state and society alike.
Russian children are growing up learning about the need for serving society and upholding traditions that underpin it. A big part of this is respect for the state organs of power that lead the countries to glories on many occasions in the past. And this is something school textbooks do not attempt to hide.
One student, Ivan, told me that monuments to Stalin are a good thing. Why? Because he modernised the economy and sent a man to space, he said. When I asked him about the terror, he described it as ‘necessary to achieve the goals of the state’. Ivan and 77% of all young people, according to a 2015 RBK poll, have in one way or another justified the terror.
The reasons why statehood (gosudarstvennost’) is being championed in contemporary Russia has something to do with the fact that the last 100 years are tarred with discontinuities. Stability and normality are sought after, and as history teaches Russian teenagers, only a strong state can guarantee this.