“Sovereign Democracy” and Politicization of History

OSC Analysis:

Commentators See Politics Behind Putin Comments on History

President Vladimir Putin’s recent comments on the need for new history textbooks sparked concerns that the Kremlin was attempting to rehabilitate Russia’s Soviet history and remove from citizens any sense of guilt for the country’s Soviet past. While Putin has long defended his country’s Soviet legacy, observers discerned a new and deeper effort to infuse the teaching of history and other social sciences with an ideological component in line with the notorious “sovereign democracy” concept. Commentators warned that such a politicization of history risked returning the country to its totalitarian past.

During a 21 June meeting in Novo-Ogarevo with delegates from the Kremlin-organized conference, “Contemporary Issues of Teaching Modern History and Social Sciences,” Putin criticized existing history and social science textbooks for presenting recent events in “abstract and contradictory” terms and called for new books that “deeply and objectively” portrayed Russia’s modern history. Putin was presented with two new textbooks, one on history and the other on the social sciences, both intended as guides for teachers in these fields. According to Putin, these textbooks will be available to teachers in the upcoming school year and “soon after that textbooks … will be published for school students too” (ITAR-TASS, 21 June).

On 6 July the Duma adopted amendments to the current law on compulsory education that make the Ministry of Education and Science the final arbiter in determining which textbooks will be used in schools (Kommersant-Vlast, 16 July). Some media predicted this would result in a “sharp reduction” in the number of publishers producing educational textbooks (Lenta.ru, 6 July) and lead to “unified, correct views” where before there had been “different points of view” (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, 25 June).Soviet History Rehabilitated Putin has long defended Soviet history and rejected attempts to force a sense of guilt on Russia for its Soviet past.

In 2000 during the debate over the adoption of a new state hymn and other state symbols Putin asked, “Is there really nothing from our country’s Soviet period to remember besides Stalinist prisons and repressions?” He insisted that a rejection of Soviet symbols would mean that “our fathers and mothers lived useless, meaningless lives” and concluded “I cannot agree with this” (RIA-Novosti, 4 December 2000).

During his 2005 address to the Federal Assembly, Putin called the Soviet Union’s collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” (Rossiya TV, 25 April 2005).

During a joint interview with then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2005, Putin declared, “I cannot agree with equating Stalin with Hitler. Yes, Stalin was certainly a tyrant and many call him a criminal, but he was not a Nazi” (Russian Federation President Press Service, 7 May 2005).

During the meeting in Novo-Ogarevo, Putin declared Russia was not the only country with “black pages” in its history and highlighted as proof the US use of the atom bomb on Japan and its conventional bombing of Vietnam. He went on to insist, “We can’t allow people to force a sense of guilt on us. Let them think about themselves” (Rossiya TV, 21 June).

State TV reinforced Putin’s notion that Russia should not be made to feel guilty for its Soviet past and that more positive interpretations of Soviet history were justified.

Channel One rejected the notion that Soviet history could be summed up as that of an “evil empire,” agreeing it would be difficult to “love such a country.” The channel broadcast a history teacher declaring the negative label of “adventurism” traditionally attached to interpretations of the Cuban missile crisis and the Soviet war in Afghanistan “no longer answers to the realities of a changed world” (24 June).

Rossiya TV asserted that in addition to “obvious problems” in the Soviet Union there were “obvious successes” and not only “repression and prisons” (21 June).Commentators from across the political spectrum discerned a deliberate effort to portray Soviet history in a more positive light.

Writing in government-owned daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Aleksandr Tsipko saw “occurring before our eyes” a reappraisal by the authorities of the “essence” of the Soviet period, which he attributed in part to an “immoral climate” reminiscent of Stalin’s time (4 July).

Noting the “enormous number of black pages” in Soviet history, opposition commentator Yevgeniy Kiselev observed the authorities need “heroic pages” with “victories over our enemies” and “daring feats…. Everything else is mudslinging” (The Moscow Times, 27 June).

The Memorial human rights organization’s Marina Shcherbakova declared, “Everything other than victories and achievements is being excised from our history” (Vremya Novostey, 22 June).

Opposition commentators claimed the Kremlin wants to remove from Russians any sense of guilt for their history and warned this would facilitate Russia’s return to its totalitarian past.

Grani.ru’s Lev Rubinshteyn accused the Kremlin of seeking “to remove from Russians a sense of guilt” for their history (6 July).

Citing German efforts to atone for their country’s actions in World War II, International Institute of Humanitarian-Political Studies Director Vyacheslav Igrunov warned that “if a people do not feel guilt for their past, then they will have no chance to change the future” (Grani.ru, 22 June).

Opposition Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov observed, “If our children, like German students, are told that totalitarian regimes have no right to exist, then there will be one Russia,” but if not, then there will be “a completely different country” (Itogi, 2 July).Sovereign Democracy For Schools Allowing that Russia “mustn’t forget” its history, Putin alluded to the “sovereign democracy” concept originated by deputy head of the Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov when he asserted the “most important principle and way of organizing our state and our society is to take our orientation from the needs and requests of our citizens” (Rossiya TV, 21 June).

Official media contained several reports furthering Putin’s implied linkage of history teaching and Surkov’s “sovereign democracy” ideology.

RIA-Novosti reported Surkov on 20 June telling participants in the conference “Contemporary Issues of Teaching Modern History and Social Sciences” of his desire that Russians “come up with our own interesting, popular and … fashionable philosophical doctrines” and “own views on how society is organized” (RIA-Novosti, 21 June).

Channel One broadcast commentator Sergey Markov condemned efforts to “cross out the positive role of Russia in 20th century European history” and called for “intellectual sovereignty” in this “war over history” (1 July).

In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Aleksandr Fillipov, deputy director of Kremlin-connected National Laboratory for Foreign Policy and author of the new teachers’ guide on history “A Modern History of Russia 1945-2006,” observed that Russia “even in the most difficult, bitter pages of its history … demonstrated unique reserves of self-preservation as a sovereign state” (11 July).

Several independent media also clearly identified Surkov’s “sovereign democracy” ideology as propelling the proposed changes in history teaching.

In an article entitled “Sovereign Democracy Gets a History,” English-language daily The Moscow Times reported “many teachers” were “unhappy” at the prospect of teaching a “politicized” history “based on the work of Kremlin ideologists” like Surkov (11 July).

Polit.ru commentator Sergey Markedonov saw the Kremlin attempting to “translate” the “sovereign democracy concept” into “school history textbooks” (25 June).

The weekly Itogi interpreted Putin’s concern over history teaching as evidence that “sovereign democracy urgently demands a corresponding ideological basis” (2 July).”Short Course” Reinstated While some media raised the specter of a new “Short Course” (Itogi, 2 July; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 3 July), Putin denied seeking “standardized thinking” or “complete uniformity” and insisted textbooks “should present different points of view on social development and state development.” Curiously, however, he cited as an example of the need for alternative points of view the desire to counteract Western interpretations of the “Great Patriotic War” which were “totally unacceptable” and “sometimes … an affront to our people” (Rossiya TV, 21 June).

Some officials and those involved in writing the new textbooks openly contradicted Putin’s assurances, leaving little doubt that, as in Soviet times, political goals would determine the state’s approach to history teaching.

Minister of Education and Science Andrey Fursenko explained that education in general was being transformed from a “thing in itself” into something aimed at fulfilling an “external public order (zakaz).” He added that history was “an instrument of state development” (Ogonek, 2 July).

Higher School of Economics professor Leonid Polyakov, one of the participants in the 21 June meeting with Putin and author of the new teachers’ guide for the social sciences, described the new teaching initiatives as aimed at creating a “national ideology” (Channel One, 8 July). He earlier admitted “it would be useless to offer a national ideology” that was “not accepted by the authorities” (Sobesednik, 4 July).

Pavel Danilin, who works for Gleb Pavlovskiy’s Kremlin-connected Effective Politics Foundation and authored the chapter in the history guide for teachers chronicling Putin’s reign and entitled “Sovereign Democracy,” responded to blog criticism of his work by declaring on his own blog that “you can vent your spleen as much as you like … but you will teach children in line with the books you are given and in the way Russia needs” (leteha.livejournal.com, 25 June). He also insisted the book was written at the behest of the Presidential Administration (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 3 July).

Some historians opined that the attempt to introduce a uniform, positive view of history aimed at uniting the country was not in keeping with a modern, democratic society and in reality a step backwards toward the Soviet past.

Historian Boris Sokolov interpreted the call for “like-mindedness” (yedinomysliye) in the teaching of history as a step toward “censorship” and the establishment of a “rigid authoritarian regime.” He added that the teaching of a “positive” history was “vitally necessary in the absence of democracy” (Grani.ru, 29 June).

Historian Nikita Sokolov viewed the prospect of a Stalinist “like-mindedness” as “unthinkable” and the “death of the nation” (Svobodanews.ru, 10 July). He also opined that the desire for a “historical myth that will consolidate the nation” was not compatible with “our present-day information society” (Vremya Novostey, 22 June).Mobilization Through Education Putin expressed regret that the state had for so long abandoned the educational field, asserting its absence had been exploited by Russia’s enemies. “Many textbooks are written by people w ho work on foreign grants,” he maintained, adding, “They dance the butterfly polka, ordered by those who pay them.” As a result, there is “mush in the heads” of both society and the teachers (Rossiya TV, 21 June; Channel One, 24 June).

Some opposition commentators contended Putin’s comments were reminiscent of the worst anti-Western paranoia of the Soviet period.

Noting Putin’s clear implication that those receiving any kind of foreign support are “traitors,” Pavel Felgengauer elaborated on Putin’s curious reference to the “butterfly polka,” explaining, “It is an expression from the Stalinist era that Putin perhaps remembered from long ago, and it is a notion of total paranoia and xenophobia, minted during a time when anti-Americanism was the cornerstone of ‘military-patriotic education'” (Eurasia Daily Monitor, 27 June).

Yevgeniy Kiselev opined Putin sounded like “a caricature of the Soviet polemicists” (The Moscow Times, 27 June).Officials and official media, meanwhile, developed Putin’s anti-Western theme, characterizing history teaching as a tool with which to mobilize society against external enemies.

Speaking to the conference on teaching history and social sciences, Surkov recalled the famous words of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who contended it was the Prussian teacher who won the decisive battle of Sadowa during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Surkov maintained Russia’s own future victories would be owed to the service of its teachers (NTV, 20 June).

Channel One cited Leonid Polyakov noting approvingly that an emphasis on Russia’s “national interests” would infuse students with a “skeptical view” of the outside world (8 July). In a related vein, he told the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta “We are building a ‘fortress'” and need to focus on “who will man it and run the country” (27 June).

RIA-Novosti commentator Andrey Vavra declared “national history” an “effective instrument” in the “fierce competition” over “politics, economics, and ideology” that Russia faced from the outside world (29 June).


OSC [US Open Source Center] Analysis:
Commentators See Politics Behind Putin Comments on History
July 18, 2007.

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