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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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