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Russian history in the classroom

Did you know that the majority of Russians think Stalin has played a positive role in Russian history? After reading this article, I see why: Omitting the past's darker chapters

Russians remember the Siege of Leningrad--a brutal, 872-day blockade of Russia's second-largest city by Nazi troops that killed 1.7 million people--as a dark, crucial moment in their history. Yet one of the most popular history textbooks in Russian classrooms casually distills the event into a mere four words.

"German troops blockaded Leningrad."

Glaring omissions abound in Nikita Zagladin's textbook, "History of Russia and the World in the 20th Century." The Holocaust is never mentioned. The book barely acknowledges the Gulag labor camps.

And it flits past Russia's 10-year conflict with separatists in Chechnya, reducing a pivotal episode in modern Russian history to seven paragraphs.

For some Russian academics, Zagladin's penchant for smoothing over the bumps in Russian history is precisely the reason his textbooks have become mainstays in Russian classrooms.

In recent years, authorities have increasingly sought to whip up patriotic fervor among Russians, often at the expense of illuminating Russian history's darker chapters.

Josef Stalin oversaw a murderous regime that killed millions of Russians. But with the country's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Georgian-born ruler has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. The Siberian city of Mirny erected a statue of Stalin earlier this month, calling him "a great son of Russia who gave the people everything he had." The city of Orel recently asked the federal government for permission to change street names to honor Stalin.

It is in Russian classrooms, however, where authorities particularly want a renewed sense of national pride to take root.

When President
Vladimir Putin met with historians at the Russian State Library in late 2003, he stressed that history textbooks should "cultivate in young people a feeling of pride for one's history and one's country."

A month later, Putin asked the Russian Academy of Sciences to scrutinize the country's history textbooks "at the earliest possible date."

At the time, one of the most widely used history texts was Igor Dolutsky's "National History: 20th Century." For years, the book had been favored by teachers for its upfront discussion of sensitive topics, including Stalin's purges, Chechnya and anti-Semitism in Russia.

Dolutsky's textbook also did not shy away from talking about Putin, challenging students to discuss whether the former KGB colonel should be considered an authoritarian leader.

The Kremlin leader's comments were heeded by Education Ministry officials, who suddenly pulled Dolutsky's book from classrooms after having given it their endorsement for seven straight years.

"They said my book was `blackening' Russian history," Dolutsky said during a recent interview. "It was the first prohibition of a textbook in schools in 25 years."

The offending portions

Later, Dolutsky's publisher told him which historical references in the book irked authorities: Stalin's non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939; Soviet occupation of the Baltic states; the execution of thousands of Polish officers by Russian intelligence agents at Katyn in 1940; Stalin's deportation of legions of Chechens to Kazakhstan in 1944.

"Basically, they were dissatisfied with chapters devoted to Stalin's regime and Putin's leadership," said Dolutsky, 51. "Sections that dealt with [Nikita] Khrushchev and [Mikhail] Gorbachev, they ignored."

Dmitry Ermoltsev, a Moscow teacher who has used Dolutsky's book, said he believes Kremlin attempts to polish the history taught in classrooms simply reflect a national reluctance to examine and learn from low points in Russian history.

"Russians don't like sharp criticism of their country's history--it makes them feel humiliated," Ermoltsev said. "Revising history and history books helps them overcome this discomfort. And Putin reacts to these signals from society."

Dolutsky, who teaches at a private school in Moscow, says his students have little appetite for lectures on human-rights abuses or Stalin's repressions. Recently, when he tried to rouse students into a discussion about the human toll that World War II took on the Soviet Union--26 million Soviet citizens died in the war--they appeared bored.

"Their reaction was, `Let it be 100 million--we don't care about that,'" Dolutsky said. When he explained the war's impact in terms of the number of tanks and fighter planes destroyed, his students sat up in their seats.

"That's what really impressed them," Dolutsky said. "They didn't care about human life, but they cared about equipment."

Should textbooks shame?

Author Zagladin's view of history in the classroom differs radically from Dolutsky's. He agrees with Putin--a history textbook should make a pupil feel proud about Russia. It shouldn't depress, and it shouldn't shame.

"If a young person finishes school and feels everything that happened in this country was bad, he'll get ready to emigrate," Zagladin said during a recent phone interview. "A textbook should provide a patriotic education.

"It's necessary to show Russian youths," Zagladin continued, "that industrial development during the Stalin era was successful, and that the repressions and terror during that era did not touch all of the population."

Zagladin acknowledged making mistakes in "The History of Russia and the World in the 20th Century."

He said he barely mentioned the Siege of Leningrad because he believed he didn't have enough space. In hindsight, he said, "that's my mistake."

He added he should have included material about the Holocaust: "I decided to delete it because, if I mentioned it, I would have had to mention other repressions, also in detail," Zagladin said. "And I didn't have enough space in this book."

Despite such omissions, Zagladin's book has fans. Irina Safanova, a teacher at School 818 in Moscow, called the textbook "a very calm book, which tries to avoid shocking or extreme remarks. It's a strong point of the book.

"History books should not condemn," Safanova said. "It's important to avoid provoking feelings of shame in students."

Zagladin's critics say Russian students do not need to be shamed, merely enlightened about history's darker chapters, especially in a country where the truth has been lacquered over for so many years.

"According to polls, the majority of the population still considers Stalin to have played a positive role in Russian history," said Yuri Samodurov, director of the Andrei Sakharov Museum. "And the problem here is, our schools don't do anything to change this attitude."

Posted by zorkmidden on Jun 01, 2005 1:00 pm

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