Are Russian educators trying to rewrite history?

science | May 08, 2007 | By RFE/RL 

The Russian Education Ministry's recent decision to review the country's history textbooks follows the recent ban of a book that had been popular with many Russian history teachers for its thought-provoking approach. This weekend, in yet another move, the Kremlin is due to receive a report on the "patriotic content" of textbooks. The trend has teachers worried about the temptation to revert to comfortable, Soviet-style "truths" -- and even some of the historians charged with vetting new texts appear to be having second thoughts.

At an ordinary high school on Dostoyevsky Street in central Moscow, the students in Class 11A are preparing for their final exams, still six months away.

For these 17-year-olds, Lenin, Stalin, and totalitarianism are notions of the past. In fact, their history teacher, Yekaterina Kozlova, sometimes has a hard time convincing them that traces of the country's Soviet past can still be felt today.

In the course of the day's lesson -- about the political regimes of the 20th century -- Kozlova turns to Ilyusha, a gangly boy in the third row. "What could we call the regime in Russia today, 10 years after the fall of the communists?" she asked. "How might it develop?"

Kozlova: "Perestroika. Do you know what that is? It's a period of post-totalitarian renewal. But is there a risk that the [current regime] could move toward authoritarianism?"

Ilyusha (hesitant): "I think there is a risk."

Moving on to nationalism and national socialism, Kozlova tries to draw on parallels taken from contemporary events. Kozlova: "But we're also quite good at that sort of thing, aren't we? I think we can find a present example, can't we?"

Student: "Well, yes, for instance, in the lack of respect we show those we insult as 'people of the [North-]Caucasus nationalities.' That kind of nationalism is visible everywhere, especially in the capital."

Throughout her history and political science classes, Kozlova says she tries to stick to one guiding principle. "My main credo is to not impose my own views, but to give [students] the broadest possible look at various points of view, insofar as that is possible," she said. "Until this year, there was a large selection of study materials, so I could offer a lot to choose from, and that gives [the students] the opportunity to widen their perception of history."

As simple as these convictions may seem, Kozlova admits she adopted them with difficulty after her Soviet education. Kozlova was about to begin her first teaching job in 1988, during the peak of perestroika. But as the country slowly became aware of the scope of Soviet historical revisionism, she says she was overwhelmed by the thought of teaching a history she wasn't sure she knew anymore.

So for 10 years, she refused to teach, plowing instead through history books and archives in an attempt to catch up. But now she says teaching has once again become difficult, for a different reason -- the moves by Russian authorities to scale back what they saw as the liberties taken by new history texts.

One such text is Igor Dolutskii's "National History, 20th Century," which served as a textbook for half a million students across Russia over the past 10 years, and which has now lost its Education Ministry seal of approval. Kozlova says she hated giving up the Dolutskii text, which dips generously into archive materials to help trace Russia's tumultuous history from the fall of the Romanovs to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Each chapter in the Dolutskii text ended with a paragraph presenting different opinions and questions on a historical event.

One chapter ends with an invitation for students to discuss whether contemporary Russia is a democracy. Such provocative questions prompted the Education Ministry's ban, with one ministry official saying the Dolutskii text "elicits contempt, natural contempt for our past and for the Russian people."<



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