Vladimir Putin and Russian History. Will School Textbooks Help Him Outlive His Time?
August 14, 2023
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer
Oleg Kashin writes that a new Russian school history textbook, which includes the time of Putin’s rule, is designed to make him an impeccable national hero. Over the past century, all the leaders of Russia and the Soviet Union have been discredited, and now the same fate awaits Putin, according to Kashin.
When a person dies and is buried, it is customary to put up a tombstone no earlier than a year later. There are no metaphysical explanations – the reasons are purely practical: time must pass and the season must change so that the soil can settle and stabilize, and only then is it possible to put something down without fear that when the weather changes, the tombstone will sink into the ground or float away with the spring rains.

This cemetery tradition is common knowledge, familiar to everyone except perhaps Vladimir Putin, and one might darkly fantasize that when the Russian leader passes away, his associates will erect a (big, expensive, showy) monument on his grave the very next morning – a great spectacle for another edition of the nightly news. But if the monument collapses in a few months, who will care?

Moreover, his associates probably suspect that the posthumous fate that awaits Vladimir Putin is at best being forgotten, though most likely disputes about him will go on for years, with curses and blame being heaped on him for everything that happened to Russia recently.

Doomed to be rewritten

This is the curse of all Russian and Soviet leaders of the last century – starting with Emperor Nicholas II, demonized as “bloody” during his lifetime and shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918 – none of them managed to go down in national history as an undisputed, positive hero, a monument on the square, a portrait on the wall.
Everyone posthumously (or even during his lifetime, if he left, like Khrushchev or Gorbachev) saw their time in power reevaluated, everyone got his fair share of curses, and even if he had managed to have himself immortalized in bronze or marble, then the monuments were eventually felled, the name taken off city maps.
In 1953, Joseph Stalin's body was placed in Lenin's mausoleum. Source: Wiki Commons
Until a certain point, Lenin, deified by the Bolsheviks, could have been considered an exception, though even he, albeit belatedly, had to become a villain, apparently doomed forever to at least remain a controversial historical figure. There is no need to mention the rest: the tsar was cursed, Kerensky was followed into exile by rumors that he had fled the capital in a dress, Stalin was accused of conducting the terror and maintaining a cult of personality, Khrushchev of “voluntarism,” Brezhnev of stagnation.

Monuments, even the most significant, were picked up and melted down just a few years after they had been opened with pomp, multi-volume collected works were thrown out with wastepaper; however, when the country was learning to be free at the end of the 20th century, the turn away from past leaders could take on the most exotic forms – for example, in 1988 at the premiere of the cult film Assa, the audience entered the cinema by walking along a portrait of Leonid Brezhnev on the floor. Not too long before then, he had hung on the wall, but now go ahead and stomp on him – you won’t be punished for it.
The new history school book for 17-year-olds. Compiled by loyal Putin aides, the book seeks to make sure that Putin's achievements will be indisputable among future generations. Source: Telegram
Vladimir Putin, as a person of the late Soviet generation, cannot help but know that the more people are forced to sing the praises of the current ruler, the more furiously they will eventually stomp on his portrait; nevertheless, Putin behaves as if he hopes to remain in Russian history as a man whose achievements will be indisputable among future generations. The school history textbooks prepared by his aide Vladimir Medinsky, which outline Putin’s rule, including the war, based on the official Russian narrative – no matter how much you laugh at or are horrified by them – look quite rational from the point of view of Putin’s historical ambitions. If you want to go down in history, propaganda alone is not enough – you need to educate a generation of future Putinists in advance. And who will educate them, if not school?

Bringing TV into schools

The findings of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian school libraries occupy an important place in Russian state propaganda – books on the history of Ukraine that describe it in terms unacceptable from the point of view of official Moscow were even shown at special exhibitions in Russian cities.

The Russian authorities, who still do not seem to understand why they failed to take Kyiv in three days in 2022, are trying to explain what the problem is, and among the discoveries is this: it turns out that Ukrainians are educated in an anti-Russian spirit starting from middle school. Perhaps this is what jumpstarted the production of “pro-Putin” Russian history textbooks?

The fragments that have already become public indicate that the new school history curriculum will repeat almost word-for-word the content of TV propaganda, while some pages are accompanied by a QR code that allows you to watch a special video on the Russian state TV website.
Basically, this is the integration of high school students into the multimillion-strong community of Russian adults who trust television.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, statues of Communist leaders (by far not all of them) were dismantled and moved to a monument park in downtown Moscow. Source: Wiki Commons
The technology, which is dubious from a pedagogical point of view, looks quite effective from the point of view of pure propaganda – television, which once managed to turn Putin from a little-known official into a national leader, remains for the Kremlin an almost religious, sacred phenomenon. This is not only about the obsession with controlling the content of TV channels, but also about superstitions that are touching in their absurdity. For example, on the eve of each presidential election, Vladimir Putin visits the filming of the popular KVN show. Not that it somehow affects his ratings, but rather Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin started this tradition after he, a then-disgraced critic of Mikhail Gorbachev, was deprived of access to television channels in 1989 and was shown sitting in the KVN audience. (When Yeltsin came to power, one of the producers of KVN, Mikhail Lesin, would become a key Kremlin PR manager and create Russian television propaganda in its current form.)

If television brainwashing has proven effective, then it makes sense to extend it to schools as well. This is probably the reasoning of people pushing for the new version of school history, though there is a factor that they are not taking into account.

Technology and history

The Russian authorities learned to make use of the technology a long time ago. Opinion polls, which for years have indicated stable loyalty to Vladimir Putin on the part of the majority of Russians, prove that the propaganda machine works effectively and is not breaking down even now, during the war, when the television has to compete not just with the fridge, as before, but literally with the cemetery.

History as a dynamic plot that connects everyday life with a centuries-old context does not fit well into the perfected technology of propagandistic manipulation.
Russian propaganda is able not only to impose its view of events on the audience; perhaps even more important is its ability to ensure forgetfulness, to make people not remember what was important yesterday.
In 1961, Lenin was left alone again after Stalin's body was removed from the mausoleum following his official denunciation as the mastermind of mass terror. Source: Wiki Commons
The practical meaning of this is obvious: unnecessary reminders of the past, combined with what is in the present, trigger the most uncomfortable questions, and the Russian government, far from being a model of political consistency, is least of all interested in society remembering what was happening a month or a year ago.

Even in relation to the most recent events: back in the spring, Russian propaganda celebrated the accomplishments of Wagner PMC, whereas now it prefers not to mention that organization anymore. General Surovikin was called the savior of Russia last fall – if the textbooks had been written six months ago, Surovikin would have been celebrated in them, whereas now, with rumors about his arrest circulating, the pages with his portrait would be urgently replaced at printing houses or already in school libraries (like under Stalin, when the latest “enemy of the people” had to be erased from books), a circular about deleting the dangerous name having been sent out.

Omissions instead of a concept

Russian propaganda really can do a lot. But to create a coherent narrative about any kind of long period of time, it must play around with omissions and deceptions.

A few years ago, the creators of the Putin cult became interested in the genre of big documentaries – at least a dozen films were shot, one of which was even directed by the famous American Oliver Stone. In each film, Vladimir Putin speaks about the years of his reign and, obviously, he chose the events that he considers key in those twenty-odd years.

For someone who follows Putin’s time not through the official chronicles of Russian TV, the choice of episodes may seem strange. In the hagiography of Vladimir Putin, there would definitely be a place for his trip to Dagestan during the hostilities of 1999, when at a meeting with officers in the headquarters tent, Putin raised a toast, but did not drink, saying that he would only after the terrorists were defeated. Certainly, there would be the meeting with oligarch Oleg Deripaska when Putin forced him to sign a paper to take on social obligations and then asked for his pen back. Such films always show the 2007 Munich speech, when Vladimir Putin at an international security conference unexpectedly spoke in favor of a “multipolar world” without mincing words.

As a rule, there are no episodes of real nationwide shocks in the films about Putin – neither the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, nor the Nord-Ost siege in 2002 or Beslan in 2004 – when society held its breath, waiting for a tragic outcome, and Putin looked either bewildered or simply vanished from public view. These episodes are remembered either in passing or ignored altogether – Putin looks unfavorable there, so better to bring up the Munich speech again.

He cannot figure out his own political biography, he is not able to describe his 23 years in power without omissions and exaggerations – and you think he will be able to rewrite Russian history in his favor? The resources that Putin has now are enough to impose any historical concept on society, but nothing will help if, instead of history, it is a set of manipulative tricks focused on addressing his momentary political needs.
Vladimir Putin himself does not know how to be part of history, and it is not worth waiting for him to (or fearing that he will) remake it to his tastes
– the most that he can do is rewrite school textbooks that will become obsolete when they are released and eventually give way to others in which the next government will not hold back on the nastiest epithets aimed at him, Putin.

Many generations ago, people realized that even putting up a tombstone takes time – you need to let the soil settle and the emotions rest. Vladimir Putin forgot about this tradition. Years of absolute power have conditioned him to getting everything immediately, as soon as he wants it. But absolute power has its limits. The war has showed them in the present, and history will show them in the future.
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