Sovereign Democracy Gets a History
President Vladimir Putin has made clear his belief that the country’s 20th-century history is criticized unfairly and that Russians should be proud of their past. Many teachers are unhappy with how they are being asked to pass that message along to their students.
In particular, they say the history they are being called on to teach is too politicized and based on the work of Kremlin ideologists instead of professional historians, as the two most prominent figures involved hold only undergraduate history degrees.
“I don’t like the way they are trying to impose their vision of Russian history,” said Izabella Ganovskaya, dean of the Institute for Upgrading Teaching Qualifications in Yekaterinburg. “They are all trying to promote a manual providing a tendentious and shallow view of history.”
Among those to whom Ganovskaya was referring were Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the president’s administration, and Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads the Effective Policy Foundation, a think tank with strong ties to the Kremlin. Both were present at the unveiling of “A Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006: A Teachers’ Manual” at a conference for history and social sciences teachers in Moscow in June.
Both men’s ideas are clearly represented in the content of the new manual.
The manual’s final chapter, “Sovereign Democracy,” covers the period from the beginning of Putin’s presidency in 2000 and takes its title from the Kremlin ideology Surkov is credited with creating.
Surkov is liberally quoted in the chapter, explaining that qualifying the idea of democracy with different adjectives is common practice and that Russian policy should be based on a refusal to be “dictated to from outside.”
The chapter also reads as an apologia for some of the more controversial events during Putin’s tenure.
One example is the coverage of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, in which a second-round victory by Viktor Yanukovych, whom Putin had openly supported, was thrown out as a result of vote rigging, paving the way for a win by his pro-Western opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, in a rerun.
“Yanukovych was the only candidate capable of truly resisting Yushchenko,” the teachers’ guide explains. “So Russia’s choice was clear.”
The chapter also explains that the point of the campaign against the now-bankrupt oil major Yukos was that “a government that had become stronger sent business an unambiguous message: Obey the law, pay your taxes, and don’t try to put yourselves above the government.”
“They took the hint,” the section concludes.
High school students are also given an introduction to political theory.
“Political science and political practice unambiguously confirm one thing: Elections based on proportional representation reflect the nuances of voters’ political preferences more accurately than do elections by majorities.”
The author of the chapter, Pavel Danilin, holds a bachelor’s degree in history, as does the editor of the manual, Alexander Fillipov. Danilin is projects manager at Pavlovsky’s foundation, while Fillipov is deputy director of the National Center for Foreign Policy, a think tank founded by Nikita Ivanov, who works in the presidential administration.
Among historians, there was doubt about whether the authors’ backgrounds in history were up to the challenge.
“I am certain that no one qualified to write a good high school history textbook was invited to the presidential reception after the conference,” prominent Russian historian Roy Medvedev said.
Actually, the only professional historian mentioned in the credits at the front of the manual is Anatoly Utkin, director of the Center for International Research at the Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Although he is singled out for thanks by Fillipov for his “participation in the work on the project,” Utkin said he had no direct involvement at all.
“Maybe the authors of the manual have read some of my books, because I have written 45,” Utkin said. “But I haven’t written anything specially for this textbook.”
Utkin did say he thought textbooks should help develop a love for country, but that the current efforts could only be considered as a very early step in that direction.
Medvedev said there had been no good history textbooks written for Russia since 1905. “All the textbooks we have had either contained the ‘Soviet lie’ or the ‘anti-Soviet lie,'” Medvedev said, adding that two or three entirely new textbooks were needed.
In the Soviet period, history textbooks were reviewed by historians from the country’s Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, after which they were sent to a number of test schools before being certified for huge print runs by state publishers. There was one textbook for the whole country with one view of what the “real” story was.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, replacing old textbooks was a real need, and new regulations meant that publishers were only required to attain the approval of two “independent experts.”
The textbook industry was plagued by the same corruption rife in the rest of the economy, and approval often depended more on the size of bribe a publisher was willing to pay the experts than the quality of the product.
The average bookstore today might have as many of 20 different volumes all offering a history of modern Russia.
“I have looked through about 10 of these,” Medvedev said. “They were all mediocre.”
Although there is broad agreement that new textbooks are needed, the current effort hasn’t earned many fans outside government circles.
“There is no question that professional historians, and not young political operatives, should be involved” Utkin said.
“Textbooks shouldn’t just be agitka,” he added, referring to simplistic, Soviet agitational works.
The manual’s introduction takes a different outlook, however, talking about the need “to create a strong civic outlook in each graduate ” and saying the manual was concerned “not so much about the facts, but about their logic and consequences.”
In an attempt to reassure critics at the June conference, presidential aide Dzhakhan Pollyeva told the teachers that there would have to be revisions and corrections made in the book before it was finalized. She said this was a result of the fact that the manual was the product of authors of “different levels.”
But Danilin’s reaction to criticism of the manual does not generate much confidence that the teachers’ concerns would be addressed. Although he declined to comment for this article, his position was clear in a blog posting on LiveJournal.
“You can vent your spleen as much as you like,” he wrote. “But you will teach children in line with the books you are given and in the way Russia needs.”
The Moscow Times 11.7.2007
By Svetlana Osadchuk