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A Whiff Of Revisionism In Russia's New Standards For Teaching History

A classroom in Yekaterinburg, Russia
A classroom in Yekaterinburg, Russia
Viktor Khamraev and Aleksander Chernik

MOSCOW - Russia’s history is not going to be just “political” anymore.

Publishers of new history textbooks for Russian schools have been charged with the task of “encouraging patriotism in the younger generation.” That is not all: History is now going to include "religious history," especially the history of Eastern Orthodoxy. These are the backbones of the new historical-cultural standards that have been prepared by the Russian Historical Society, which are meant to serve as a guide for school teachers and history textbook authors.

Vladimir Putin requested that the Historical Society prepare these new standards. Aleksander Chubaryan, a representative of the Historical Society, tried to downplay the changes, saying it was nothing more than a list of dates, people and events that should be included in any history textbook. Chubaryan also stressed that the current version posted on the Society’s website was provisional -- it would be finalized by November 1, when the Kremlin is supposed to have delineated its vision for how history should be taught.

But this "skeletal" list of dates, as Chubaryan describes it, includes several that seem intended to please certain political groups. It was clear from reading the documents who had a say in their preparation, and which parts were meant to please which constituencies. In fact, there seemed to be something for everyone in the new standards.

Supporters of democracy could celebrate the demise of traditional political history, which downplays the role of individuals, civil society and civil structures and cultural factors, with the new history to be taught in a way that emphasizes both the biographical details of major players and the details of the lives of ordinary citizens.

Teacher autonomy?

Communists should also be happy, since the new standards specify that "labor issues" are what lead to the establishment of the one-party system in the Soviet Union, and to dictatorship under Stalin. Indeed, most of the dates, events and individuals that are meant to appear in the new history books are identical to those taught during the Soviet era. On the other hand, Communists have something to be wary of -- almost half of the events that the guidelines call "difficult" happened during the reign of the Soviet Union.

Sometimes the new standards seem to be trying to satisfy different constituencies in the same paragraph, for example describing the Stalinist period in a way that is eventually unlikely to please anyone.

For those who think patriotism is important, above all, there will probably be little to criticize. The standards remind teachers and textbook authors that the goal of history is to encourage patriotism. “One must keep in mind that for a student’s sense of patriotism, pride in our forefathers’ military victories is an essential component of historical knowledge," the text reads.

There are also reminders to teach students that "we are citizens of a great country with a great past.” Meanwhile, a healthy dose of religious history, in particular Eastern Orthodox history, is supposed to "systemically permeate the contents of history books.”

History teachers around the country are not impressed by the new standards. Leonid Katsva, a history teacher in Moscow, says it is no different from the sorry curricula that the Russian Historical Society had prepared dozens of times before. He adds that it will only really matter for the textbook authors, since history teachers are more or less unbound by such government recommendations.

Other teachers are concerned that this new "standard" is simply a way to control how teachers do their jobs. Whether or not that is the case, Aleksei Kondrashov, a teachers’ union representative, says that, “teachers will continue to do their jobs as they see fit.”

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Photo of women walking in Ecuador

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