What Russia’s New History Textbook Reveals
August 18, 2023
  • Sergey Ivanov

    Academic historian
Sergey Ivanov looks at how the compilers of the single, obligatory school textbook build their narrative. Their inability to formulate a coherent view toward the past is a symptom of the regime’s inability to offer society any kind of coherent ideology.
The original article was published in Russian in Republic. This is an authorized translation of the version specially adapted for Russia.Post by the author.

A storm of liberal criticism came down on the new school history textbook on the internet as soon as its text became available, and even earlier – it had been announced in advance that this would be the only textbook allowed for use in school. Thus, not a single schoolteacher, even the most free-thinking, will dare to teach children anything else from now on: after all, they will have to pass the Unified State Exam based on this textbook.

The chapter on the war in Ukraine, and in general the entire section on Putin’s rule, became an obvious target of criticism. A lot of caustic words have been said, which are all fair, and the number of invectives could easily be multiplied. For example, there is the fudging of the story about the constitutional amendments: the whole pandemonium was arranged in 2020 for a single, obvious reason – to allow Putin to rule basically for life – yet it is hidden at the very end of the section, behind the bashful phrase, “restrictions related to the number of terms in office of the country’s president were clarified.”

One indisputable truth

The most important thing in any textbook, and even more so the only one, is the worldview that inevitably hides behind it. It is this view that is broadcast to the students – not the kaleidoscope of names and dates that will be immediately forgotten. In Soviet times, the iron frame of the overriding Marxist-Leninist doctrine showed through all history textbooks, no matter how convoluted the party line was. Any phrase from them could be easily traced back to the first principle, so no matter how the heroes and interpretations changed, the meaning of history – the movement toward communism – remained constant. The textbooks that have appeared in post-Soviet countries are marked by the same unity of conception: a nationalist discourse makes its way through all narratives.

In conditions of pluralism, when there are many textbooks, the tendentiousness is balanced, though it does not disappear. In fact, no textbook can claim to be impartial: its version of history is too short and simplified for that. Thus, it is important not so much to criticize the new textbook edited by presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky and Moscow StateInstitute of International Relations Rector Anatoly Torkunov for its biasedness, but rather to make sense of the worldview that comes through in it.
Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s ideologue, mastermind of the fierce anti-Western campaign of the late 1940s, presided over persecution of many prominent cultural figures. Some of the anti-Western phrasing in the 2023 textbook is eerily reminiscent of Zhdanov’s rhetoric. Source: Wiki Commons
The view of the world offered by Medinsky and Torkunov has one indisputable feature: it is permeated with a fierce hatred of the West. It makes itself felt from the first pages, where the authors practically identify with the Stalinist struggle against “cosmopolitanism:”

“As the Cold War intensified, people closely associated with public figures and politicians abroad came under suspicion. In 1948... interest in the Western way of life and kowtowing to Western culture were condemned.”

Who knows whether the suspicions were justified, but “kowtow” migrated to the textbook directly from the speech of Stalinist ideologist Andrei Zhdanov. As did “excessive attention to the plays of Western playwrights.”

Of course, everything “was actively used by the West to shape critical attitudes in intelligentsia circles.” It goes without saying that “the catalyst for the Hungarian crisis [of 1956] was the actions of Western secret services,” that “the dissidents were heavily ‘patronized’ by the West, and therefore their activities were monitored by the state security agencies,” that “Western media... carried out coordinated propaganda campaigns,” etc. etc.
The authors of the textbook mention the West 250 times (of course, every time stigmatizing it), while Stalin is mentioned 148 times and Putin only 61.
Stalinist brass and Brezhnevian cud

Whereas the obsession with the West does not cause the slightest ambiguity, the rest of the textbook is full of contradictions, with bits of narratives from various eras emerging. In some places, clearly Stalinist rhetoric sounds:

The USSR began to return... displaced persons. They were checked. Those who had sullied themselves by collaborating with the Nazis were sentenced to prison, and in exceptional cases the death penalty;” “Soviet artists and sculptors who worked within the framework of the socialist realist method created outstanding works of art;” and so on.

For example, the post-war conflict with Yugoslavia is described in a completely Stalinist tone. However, already in the story about the civil war of 1948 in China the unified discourse cracks: on the one hand, “Western countries recognized as legitimate the government of the Kuomintang that had dug in on the island of Taiwan,” a phrase that came into the textbook directly from a Pravda editorial in 1949; yet elsewhere, in a completely neutral tone, it says: “the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s army were evacuated to the island of Taiwan.” So, did they dig in or were they evacuated?

Much more often, the authors seem to be compiling a Brezhnev-era communist functionary's report: “in production, the movement for the communist approach toward labor developed. Its followers pledged to combine high productivity with a higher level of education and culture of behavior” .

This tale so captivates the imagination of the authors that they tell it again: “brigades of communist labor became widespread. Their workers not only exceeded production targets without additional pay, but also showed exemplary labor and social activity”.
A Moscow mural “We are building Communism,” erected in 1967. The communist rhetoric and symbols grew hollow half a century ago and were reused and represented through parody and ironic interplay by Sots Art, an underground movement of the 1970s. In the 2023 textbook the official language of the 1970s is often used in a straightforward manner. Source: Twitter
Why did they seize on this communist work so much? Where did Torkunov, who was born in 1950, see even one real enthusiast in the 40 years of his life in the USSR? Nevertheless, for some reason they found it necessary to revive this zombie.

Putin can be fingered for many things, but he never set out to revive communist ideology and rhetoric. All the same, the authors continue to dutifully pump it out:

“the house committees carried out major organizational work to unite the population: ‘red corners’ were created in adapted cellars;’” “amateur art groups... were active... in many production collectives;” “gymnastics became commonplace in institutions and at enterprises during special breaks;” and so on without end.

After all, during the Khrushchev thaw, the authors admit, writers “backed away from glossing over life around them.” So, “glossing over” was wrong? Why then are Medinsky and Torkunov themselves so shamelessly glossing over everything? This language was dead already 50 years ago, and it was not for nothing that it gave impetus to the development of SotsArt, an underground movement in the 1970s. Fifty years ago this officialese referred to the origins of ideology. Fifty years ago, the phrase “staff turnover has increased, the level of labor discipline among young workers has decreased” was perceived as just white noise and did not trigger any emotions at all, except a desire to yawn. Today, I would like to ask Medinsky and especially Torkunov: among middle-aged workers, did discipline remain at the appropriate level?

Schizophrenic discourse
The discourse is impenetrable as long as it remains the only one that exists, though other voices sound in the textbook, as if coming from today, and this creates a schizophrenic bifurcation:”
“new scientific laboratories arose – speaking in modern terms, ‘startups’;” this contributed to the development of a sense of collectivism, or in today’s language – ‘team-building.’” In some places, the authors recall that the textbook is meant for young people, who need to be met halfway, and their categoricalness suddenly softens: “In communicating with each other, they used a lot of anglicisms, were fond of rock and roll, which was then popular in Europe and the US. Despite the negative reaction from the conservative-minded society, among the youth, stilyagi (as they began to be called) aroused a definite interest.” Whose voice is this all of a sudden? Why was stilyagi allowed to walk around unguarded by quotation marks?

In general, quotation marks, designed to show whose speech is recognized as legitimate and whose is not, are placed in this textbook in a rather bizarre way. For example:

“Mikhail Suslov... was considered a gray cardinal under L. Brezhnev... His conservative perspective... made his name one of the symbols of ‘stagnation’ in the USSR.” So, there was no stagnation, and the Brezhnev ideologist Suslov really was a cardinal? Another example: “the level of well-being… the provision of high-quality and ‘fashionable’ goods... lagged the growing demands of the population.” So, the desired goods were actually unfashionable? When the authors are nervous, the number of quotation marks rapidly increases: “among the creative intelligentsia, there was a growing desire to express their ‘oppositional position’ by means of ‘contemporary art.’ At the same time, the main measure of ‘success’ was their coverage in the Western media.”

The authors of the textbook more than once undermine their own pathos with an ironic slip: “This would have meant acknowledging the inability of the authorities (as they used to say, ‘the party and government’) to ensure the implementation of the ‘principles of socialism.” For this rhetorical estrangement we will forgive them even the factual error that the phrase “party and government” went out of official use in the 1970s amid the rise of Brezhnev and the weakening of Kosygin. But what do such trifles matter?

And then, without any warning and for no reason at all, a secret liberal snuck into the ranks of the compilers of the textbook and stealthily wrote something completely unthinkable.

“Intellectual gatherings’ in the kitchen became commonplace among the urban intelligentsia. Here without worrying about censorship, one could talk about politics, about reading ‘forbidden’ books or broadcasts from foreign radio stations.

Only the quotation marks next to “forbidden” books (apparently they were actually allowed?) indicate that we are still reading the Medinsky-Torkunov textbook. But where does this touching intonation come from? Did these gatherings not undermine the moral and political unity of society? These “gatherings” destroy the entire monumental framework of the textbook. Totalitarianism is mighty as long as it is total.
In an inexplicable twist, Vladimir Sorokin’s dystopia Day of the Oprichnik is included in the list of books recommended in the new history textbook. Sorokin, one of Russia’s most brilliant contemporary writers, portrayed the Russia of 2028 as securely shielded from the West by a Great Wall. With Western influence fully eradicated, it is China that captures the Russian imagination. Source: VK
Unexpectedly, in the list of literature recommended for high school students in the textbook, there are the books of contemporary postmodern Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin Goluboe salo (Blue Lard), Ice Trilogy and Day of the Oprichnik. Sorokin, one of the most popular figures in contemporary Russian literature, was one of the leading members of the artistic underground in the late USSR, meaning if today’s schoolchildren reach for his books on this recommendation, they will receive a good inoculation against any kind of indoctrination. And against sympathy for Stalinism the younger generation will be saved by the film Khrustalyov, My Car by Alexei German, also recommended in the textbook.

Who does not own the past does not own the future

The point is not that Medinsky and Torkunov overlooked or did not properly edit some things. Their textbook reflects the true ideological state of the regime. On the following pages there you can read that “in the 1990s, under the influence of Western propaganda, instead of the values traditional for our culture – goodness, justice, collectivism, mercy, sacrifice – the mood of individualism and the lack of responsibility of a person in relation to society were actively imposed on the population. It was argued that the main goal of a person is personal success, the achievement of material well-being and prosperity” – and right there, without a hint of accusatory pathos: “at the beginning of the XXI century, Russian society entered an era that is commonly called the ‘era of consumption.’”

The authors of the textbook themselves are not sure what is right: to consume or sacrifice, whether the Soviet regime was attractive or not, whether enemies of the people were arrested for something or in vain. “Gradually, the idea was imposed on society that the cause of all problems is the existing socio-political system,” they complain; however, after reading their entire book, we never know what, in fact, the cause was. Is it again the machinations of the West?

On the pages of the textbook, scraps of undigested and contradictory discourses are thrown about such that, taken together, it becomes a complete absurdity.
Knowing that young people still get their information about history – like about everything else – from the internet, the authors try to dissuade them:
“When getting any information on the internet… remember that the global industry for making staged clips, hoaxes, fake photographs and videos never sleeps. Western social media, which dominates the global information space, enthusiastically spreads any informational hogwash. So be vigilant.”

But in the end, on the last page, they admit:

“We live in a difficult, critical time. For such periods, let’s be honest, there is always a scatter of opinions in society. Not a single decision of the authorities, not a single event of foreign or domestic policy triggers, as they wrote in Soviet times, ‘unanimous general enthusiasm.’ Know that life is always more difficult than any ideological or magazine-newspaper cliches. Decades will pass. Our present time will be the subject of scrupulous study. Historians will rummage through archives, compare documents, articles and probably even videos on the internet. They will also look at the textbook that you are now holding in your hands. They will ask questions: what steps of world leaders, including the leadership of our country, were taken correctly and in a timely manner, and in what cases was it necessary to go another way?”

To put it simply, this tirade means: our textbook is meaningless, because the regime it is intended to justify is senseless.

Honestly, we did not expect such frankness.
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