Kaleidoscope Pasts: Teacher’s Manuals in Russia and the Contested ‘Soviet Question’

Soviet mozaic down the former Prospekt Mira, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

While the past is not conceivable through remembering in its entity (Apperley 2018; Aylesworth 2015) events are selectively chosen and plotted in line with overriding motifs — from ‘romantic plots’ such as the national quest for self-determination or the emancipation of the international workers’ class to ‘tragic plots’ such as the persistence of colonial rule or the decline of a civilization. Historical narratives can be informed by a variety of different motifs that embed a set of otherwise ambivalent and polyvocal historical experiences in a meaning-constitutive grand-scale plot. Drawing from such ‘grand-scale plots’ a selective and ideologically-charged interpretation of the past is fostered that legitimizes — and eternalizes — the claim to power of the group that favors. Simultaneously, this interpretation seeks to delegitimize the claim to power of other groups as it marginalizes, silences or replots their historical experience.

One of the most prolific of these grand-scale plots is doubtless that of the nation and its narrative, the ‘national history’. The hegemony of ‘national history’ in the public sphere is hardly imaginable without mass schooling and a nation-wide history curriculum. Nowhere does ‘national history’ manifest itself in a more formalized form than in the history text book: issued by or with explicit approval of state authority they are designed and actually reach large parts of the population as they provide a canonized form of the national narrative. Historical contents preconfigured by the text book “tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified“(Freire 2000: 75). In return, this creates the illusion of a historical reality that is „motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable“ rather than a fluid “process, undergoing constant transformation” (Ibid.).

“Six years ago on February 19 2013 the Russian government initiated a policy to formalize their history by creating a unitary history school book which according to President Putin would be free from ‘double interpretations’ and conveyed to students a sense that the ‘feat of veterans is also a subject of their own pride.’ ”

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Following what Freire criticizes as a banking concept in education, students in conservative teaching institutions are viewed as mere containers to be “filled” by the teacher with the narrative of the dominant minority along the seemingly sharp dichotomy of the knowing teacher and the ignorant student — “education as the practise of domination” (Ibid: 81). They foster ‘historical fatalism’; that is, they discourage students “to perceive critically the way they exist in the world in which and with which they find themselves” (Ibid: 84). Instead, they subject them to a seemingly static world of rigid and fixed categories.

Six years ago on February 19 2013 the Russian government initiated a policy to formalize their history by creating a unitary history school book (yedinyy uchebnik istorii) which according to President Putin would be free from “double interpretations” (dvoynykh tolkovaniy) and conveyed to students a sense that the “feat of veterans is also a subject of their own pride” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta 2013[1]). The policies sought to formalize history under one overarching concept and, by doing so, eliminate mutually exclusive interpretations of historical events. Ultimately, it sought to forge a sustainable consensus between professional historians, teachers and state authorities. Efforts to find the smallest common denominator resulted in a history text book that according to its critics possessed the descriptive qualities of a “telephone directory” — a text made of names and dates, yet void of a coherent narrative.

“And precisely at this point — so called ‘posobiya’ — or teachers’ handbooks entered the game. Reflecting the whole multi-facetted spectrum of Russia’s political landscape, the handbooks of different authors — from monarchists and democrats to socialists and Stalinists — flooded the market to ‘help’ teachers interpret history.”

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And precisely at this point, the so called posobiya — or teachers’ handbooks — entered the game. Reflecting the whole multi-facetted spectrum of Russia’s political landscape, the handbooks of different authors — from monarchists and democrats to socialists and Stalinists — flooded the market to “help” teachers interpret history (Filina 2019[2]). At the one end of the spectrum, the handbook of the Moscow State Pedagogical University which sees in the February Revolution 1917 “the collapse of liberal democratic illusions” and in the Soviet Union “a unique social system”– or, the handbook of Yevgeny Spitsyn, a freelance “history teacher with 20 years experience” who regards the “so-called execution lists (nazyvayemykh rasstrel’nykh spiskov)” a “direct conscious forgery of (…) anti-Stalinists” (Spitsyn 2018; Ananchenko, Popov, Tsvetkov, Churakov 2016: 13).

At the other end of the spectrum, the handbook of the Development Society for Russian Historical Education sees in Stalin the manifestation of “profound quasi-religious fanaticism” (glubokiy kvazireligioznyy fanatizm) and turns the political failure of Nicolas II into a moral sacrifice: “Russian monarchs traditionally regarded the people as their children, so how could the father of the people fight with his children? Nicholas II decided to sacrifice himself” (Musafarov 2018). The different teachers’ handbooks aptly reflect the deep political and ideological divide that run through present-day Russian society. On the one hand, segments of society that see in the Soviet experience an outstanding example of state-orchestrated modernization and actual progress that in an actual and sustainable manner had improved the actual living conditions of vast populations from Eastern Europe to the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia.

“For many proponents of this first group, life in the Soviet Union was ‘marked by a deep humanism, a sense of social justice, and faith in a better future.’ On the other hand, other segments of society see in the advent of communism an inevitable drive towards barbarity that had torn asunder the fabric of late-Czarist society and had annihilated the intellectual capital of the ancien régime.”

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For many proponents of this first group, life in the Soviet Union was “marked by a deep humanism, a sense of social justice, and faith in a better future.” (Suny 2017, 7) On the other hand, other segments of society that see in the advent of communism an inevitable drive towards barbarity that had torn asunder the fabric of late-Czarist society and had annihilated the intellectual capital of the ancien régime. In eyes of the latter, “failure and collapse appeared to be written into the story, even into the genetic code of the revolution.” (Suny 2017, 2) Each armed with its own, competing narrative on the past, the teachers’ handbooks contest state efforts to formalize and synchronize historiography in a bottom-up direction.

At the end, the Russian censorship bureau Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) issued its own statement. Manuals that reflected “the decisive role of violence in the ideology and practical activities of the Bolsheviks” and “the brutality of the Bolshevik leaders (Lenin, Stalin and others) against their own people” (Filina 2019) were deemed not suitable for schoolchildren and removed altogether from the website of the Regional Ministry of Education. Yet to no avail: the myriad of different handbooks continues to be available on the internet for download as representations of Russia’s polyvocal and contested past on the embattled landscape of present-day historiography.

Further annotations:

[1] (04/25/2013). “Prezident: Uchebniki istorii dolzhny imet’ yedinuyu kontseptsiyu,” Rossiskaya Gazeta, https://rg.ru/2013/04/25/uchebnik-anons.html.

[2] Filina, Olga (01/21/2019). “Koreshki Istorii,” Kommersant’, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3853906.

Turkey | Southern Caucasus | Central Asia | Iran and Afghanistan — Postdoctoral Researcher

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