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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Russia's Future History Teachers Are Battling Kremlin Propaganda

Russia has introduced new history textbooks criticized for replacing facts with propaganda. Students preparing to teach history are torn between "patriotic" and "liberal" narratives, even as they refuse to accept the state's version without debate.

image of students and a teacher taking a class

A lesson on key aspects of life in modern Russia, at a Moscow secondary school.

Veronika Gredinskaya

Since the start of the new academic year in Russia, high-school students have been learning history from new textbooks that include a chapter on the invasion of Ukraine. The revised text has been criticized for its substitution of historical facts with propaganda – a live example of how the authorities are rewriting the country's history.

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Russian independent news site Vazhnye Istorii spoke with a few students of history at Russian universities who intend to become history teachers when they graduate (their names have been changed for security reasons).

Anna, fifth year student at Leningrad State University

When I started my studies, I was really excited about the prospect of becoming a school teacher. I was inspired by one of my own teachers who had a unique approach to teaching. She didn't just stick to the textbook; she created her own teaching methods and often brought in additional materials. For example, in our social studies class, she would use newspaper clippings to discuss current events. I admired her ability to look at each topic from multiple angles, and I wanted to do the same in my future teaching career.

That was my mindset until the Special Military Operation (SVO) began. Surprisingly, this topic wasn't discussed much at my university, except for some ironic comments from professors. A few of my fellow students even dropped out and went abroad in response to the unfolding events. But at the time, I didn't think it would have a significant impact on school education.

In my fourth year, I had the opportunity to do two teaching practicums in local schools. One of them focused on patriotic education, which included naval symbols like the letter 'Z' on windows and patriotic celebrations. We, the trainees, were actively involved in these events. One of the events fell on Hero of the Fatherland Day, a day we didn't celebrate when I was in school. On that day, I had a class hour with fifth graders, and the classroom was filled with posters featuring heroes from the Great Patriotic War.

My friend and I were initially hesitant to focus solely on military heroes, as our supervisor had suggested. Instead, we proposed a broader definition of "hero" and suggested discussing figures like the poet Akhmatova.

I noticed that the responsibility for "patriotic education" seemed to fall heavily on the history teachers. Additionally, the new history textbook had been introduced, and as I read through it, my enthusiasm for working in a conventional school with children started to wane.

The textbook didn't cover events within Russia, implying that problems only existed beyond our borders.

I had two main concerns. Firstly, I was surprised at how quickly this textbook had been produced. Writing textbooks usually takes a lot of time to ensure that assignments allow students to think critically and come to their conclusions, especially in high school. Secondly, I watched an analysis by historian Tamara Eidelman, who pointed out how historical facts were presented in the textbook. It linked American influence with the deployment of troops in events like the Czechoslovakian revolution in 1968 and the Hungarian revolution in 1953, and this pattern continued with the situation in Ukraine. Strangely, the textbook didn't cover events within Russia during this period, implying that problems only existed beyond our borders.

My fellow students and I discussed how we would handle teaching about the Special Military Operation from this textbook. We contemplated organizing seminars that encouraged students to express their opinions and foster critical thinking.

The only silver lining for me was that teachers who graduate from pedagogical universities typically start with lower grades, teaching fifth or sixth graders. This meant that, hopefully, we would have a few more years before having to work with these new textbooks.

image of a girl reading a Russian history textbook

A school student looks through a copy of a new Russian History textbook.

Alexander Reka/TASS/ZUMA

Mikhail, first year student at St. Petersburg State University

While I chose to study history at university, my enthusiasm for the subject was not mirrored by my experiences at school. I found my history teacher's approach to be problematic. Her lessons were heavily laden with ideology, lacking structure, and frequently infused with references to the prevailing state rhetoric. Instead of fostering a genuine historical perspective, her teaching often leaned more towards political science. For instance, during my tenth and eleventh-grade years, she frequently brought up the Munich Conference and Putin's speeches about a multipolar world. When discussing the 1990s, her personal experiences and negative attitude towards that period took precedence, with numerous anecdotes from her own life. The transition to the beginning of Putin's presidency marked a noticeable shift in her discourse, as she began to speak more positively about the era, emphasizing a sense of stability.

Ira, graduate student at Leningrad State University

After the outbreak of the war, I found myself torn between two poles. On one hand, there was the instinct to flee and ensure my own safety, and on the other hand, a strong desire to contribute in a meaningful way, utilizing the skills I possessed. Amidst the chaos, I found a glimmer of hope in the idea that while history was being distorted, I could impart historical knowledge with clarity, challenging the notion that only the traditional, state-fed perspective existed.

I began my postgraduate studies in 2022. The influence of one's supervisor looms large during academic training. The academic community is often an ivory tower, making it difficult for outsiders to break in. Many professors adhere to the Soviet historiographical school, where history was often intertwined with ideology. For instance, there's a professor who adamantly rejects the use of the term "totalitarianism" when referring to the Stalinist regime, contending that it was merely a management style rather than true totalitarianism.

The term "World War II" is not even permitted.

In the process of writing scholarly papers, I've encountered a form of unspoken censorship. For example, the term "World War II" is not permitted when discussing events that transpired on the USSR's territory from 1941 to 1945; it must be referred to as the "Great Patriotic War." There are also restrictions on citing certain historians who paint a more varied, non-propagandised picture of the past century.

Today, I occasionally give history lectures to adults. However, I have not yet ventured into tutoring 10th-11th graders, as I haven't found a morally acceptable way to prepare them for the Unified State Exam with its new textbook and content.

With adult learners, I emphasize critical thinking, encouraging them to consider different perspectives on historical events. The goal is to equip them with the ability to question loud declarations that exploit history, prompting them to ask whether something is truly accurate. I hope to instil a sense of doubt, inspiring them to fact-check, delve into sources, and resist propaganda when necessary.

image of two girls reading the Russian national anthem posted on a wall

Students read the Russian national anthem at school.

Dmitry Yagodkin/TASS/ZUMA

Varvara, third year student at Higher School of Economics, Moscow

Currently, I work as a curator at an online school that prepares students for the Unified State Exam. When I teach classes, I consciously avoid making personal comments because they aren't relevant to the material, and I'm uncertain about how the students might react to my personal opinions. Even if they were to ask about my stance on a historical figure, say, Alexander Nevsky, I would decline to answer. However, the current state of affairs troubles me deeply. It's difficult not to be personally affected by what's happening in the world today; it's impossible not to care. It's painful.

In my classes, I refer to the war as the "Special Military Operation", as it is officially termed. I felt a complex mix of emotions when a student in one of my groups reached out to me on our school messaging platform. He had the letter 'Z' on his profile picture, which symbolizes support for the war. He simply asked to be added to our chat. I added him but was taken aback. It had been a while since I encountered school students who openly declared their position in such a way.

At any university's history department, you'll encounter a diverse range of individuals, from monarchists to communists. When I began my studies in 2021, we engaged in discussions with varying viewpoints, but over time, these discussions have gradually faded away.

Alexander, fourth year student at Tomsk State University

I don't sense any significant political pressure at our university. Academic freedom of thought remains intact. Occasionally, there have been intense discussions between teachers and students, with students falling into two broad categories: the "liberal" group advocating for allowing schoolchildren to explore historical truths on their own, and the "patriotic" group emphasizing the need to provide a single, correct perspective to students. Teachers critiqued both sides from a pedagogical standpoint: the former might struggle to impart sufficient knowledge with their approach, while the latter risked veering into propaganda territory.

These debates primarily unfolded within the bounds of academic discourse. It seems that Tomsk, where our university is located, is somewhat disconnected from the national agenda. Our social life has largely remained unchanged when compared to the period before the Special Military Operation began. While there have been detentions at anti-war rallies, the atmosphere here appeared to be somewhat milder compared to the situations in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

The textbooks appear one-sided and prematurely celebratory.

In general, I'm feeling a sense of disillusionment. While the ideas present in the Federal State Educational Standards (FSES) may not be methodologically flawed, the content often leans towards traditional values, particularly in light of the ongoing military operation. The new textbooks, especially the one for the 11th grade, leave much to be desired. They appear one-sided and prematurely celebratory. How can we confidently declare victory when we don't yet know how it will all conclude?

Archaeologists suggest that an object only becomes an artifact after a century has passed. Similarly, historical events need time to evolve into history, allowing the emotional intensity and trauma to dissipate somewhat. With these textbooks related to the military operation, it feels like they will be printed in a batch, used briefly, and eventually cast aside. In time, these textbooks may well find themselves relegated to the scrap heap of history.

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