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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Putin and his schoolbook…

What will happen in Russian schools to the history of the peoples that used to be part of the USSR and the Russian Empire is a foregone conclusion: there will be no history at all
29 January, 2014 - 18:01

The choice of this subject may seem strange and out of place, as blood is being shed in Kyiv. But why not talk about history when historic events are taking place? Maybe, “fatal minutes” is the best time to understand what was lost in the making of a nation’s historical knowledge and what time bomb has gone off.

In Russia, very much to our regret, it is not even the state but a narrow group of narrow-minded persons. Irina Karatsuba, my fellow student at Moscow University’s School of History, said the other day in the Daily Journal what she and many of her colleagues thought of the company Putin had gathered for discussing a new history schoolbook. She pitied Putin himself, but I recently published in Den (No. 239, December 27, 2013) a list of his historical (not historic) bloopers about national history. And nobody will dare make a correction or a comment here.

I also spoke about a different thing. What makes Putin’s project lowdown is the fact that all – teachers, pupils, and parents – will know all too well that schoolbooks contain lies and assessments that run counter to the idea of morality. But parents will be asking pupils not to expose themselves (five minutes of shame and a whole lifetime are things incomparable), pupils will be saying, with a snigger or a feeling of shame, the “right” things, while teachers will pretend that they are taking all this at face value.

The goal of the Soviet school, particularly, of ideological subjects, was not to instill the communist ideology but to reproduce the homo Sovieticus for whom such things as duplicity, absence of any persuasions, and the priority of social adaptation in the motivation of social behavior are the norm.

Putin told the gospel truth: the schoolbook must lay the groundwork for the historical legitimacy of his regime and the Russian national identity which this regime needs and reproduces.

Therefore, what will happen in Russian schools to the history of the peoples that used to be part of the USSR and the Russian Empire is a foregone conclusion: there will be no history at all, or it will exist in such a shape that the wording of Soviet schoolbooks, coordinated with the Union republics’ central committees, will seem a model of political correctness.

I also said that the chance had been missed. Historical knowledge has been placed under the government’s control, whereas its formation is the task of the entire society and the political class. The applied importance of history lies in searching for personal and historical identity and in forming a nation that has a life story.

The road to this passes through the knowledge that should generalize the experience of a nation’s key historical problems in terms of its relations with the neighbors. The imperial practice hindered this as much as possible. The repercussions of those disputes can still be heard. This may be a debate on which people is more ancient, who holds a “copyright” on the word “Rus’” and on caroling. The ideological authorities used to encourage this kind of disputes, for they created an atmosphere of hostility and arrogance in the relations between peoples. And, to top it all, they substituted for disputes on the main thing – national development in modern and contemporary history, in an epoch when nations were assuming their shape and differences from one another.


Everything used be decided in Moscow. Suffice it to recall the history of Caucasus wars and the never-ending changes in the appraisal of Shamil. Landmark figures of national history were subject to selection. There was an all-USSR cult of Shevchenko who was counterpoised to Kulish, with the latter being mentioned as seldom as possible. And this is just one example.

From 1991 onwards, paramount importance began to be attached to seeking national identity, which caused Moscow’s discontent with every passing year. Whether the Holodomor can be considered genocide is the example of an absurd dispute. It is quite obvious that the manmade famine in Ukraine and Kuban had the signs of both socio- and genocide. Eliminating peasants meant eliminating Ukrainians and the Ukrainian culture which was linked with all kinds of folklore elements to a far greater degree than the Russian culture was. Naturally, this in no way belittles either of the cultures but explains that Ukraine received a multi-vectored blow.

The “shock forces” of agitprop were mobilized to counter this interpretation. What is more, these forces included not only such odious figures as stand-by liberal Nikolai Svanidze. It was totally impossible to understand the Kremlin’s concept of the Holodomor in this case.

But the Holodomor was only part of a major topic which had not been properly addressed. I mean the transformations in national history that were connected with Ukraine being part of the Russian Empire and the USSR. What amounted to extreme imperial ignorance and arrogance was Putin’s statement that the Russian Federation could have beaten Nazi Germany even without Ukraine’s help.

This load of bull needs no comments, but it is connected with one more topic – collaborationism in World War II which was unleashed, incidentally, by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, when both of them invaded and partitioned Poland and the former annexed the Baltic states.

What catches the eye is a striking indifference of the Russian public to Russian collaborationism which involved far more people than that of other nations. It is just a matter of statistics, for the Russians outnumbered the others. Almost all the European nations were represented by units and formations that fought on Germany’s side. Many Russians often recall General Vlasov but know nothing about Bronislav Kaminsky and his 1st Russian SS Division (a.k.a. RONA – Russian People’s Liberation Army). He excelled so much in suppressing the Warsaw Uprising that the Germans dismissed him from the SS and soon executed for excessive cruelty.

But Ukrainian collaborationism… Incidentally, the collaboration of, for example, the French authorities with the Nazis defies comparison to what was happening in Eastern Europe.

However, it is a propagandistic subject. And what is outside the agitprop’s domain is totally unknown in Russia. The history of Ukrainian statehood between the two empires, the activities of Petliura and Vynnychenko, Ukrainian culture, literature, and philosophy is all terra incognita. The only exception is religiously and philosophically educated people who know about Patriarch Nikon’s reforms as a result of Ukraine’s annexation and acquaintance with the heritage of the Kyiv Caves Monastery and other Orthodox religion centers.

As for the way the Ukrainians know their own history, I think the current crisis of Ukrainian statehood was caused by lack of interest in the particularities of the development of the Ukrainian nation as part of the Russian empire no matter what it was called. It is, first of all, about integration of the national elite into the imperial one and its further evolution. It was the main way to expand the Russian Empire, but it was applied with the least success in Poland, where the open imperial violence played the greatest role throughout the empire. But this method justified itself in Georgia and Ukraine. Russia would intervene if there was a foreign aggression and internecine strife, integrate a part of the national elite, and gradually reinforce its positions.

The countdown began with crude Russification pursued by the two last Russian tsars, when the peoples’ socio-cultural institutions became more sophisticated. The new identity came into conflict with the previous, imperial, one.

The Soviet era necessitated the creation of new national elite. This brought about the policy of cadre indigenization (“korenizatsiya”) and such a phenomenon as Soviet Ukrainian nomenklatura.

Soviet Ukrainization was a controversial process. The 1920s saw a struggle for the Ukrainian language and Ukrainization of the sociopolitical life. But the overzealous Ukrainization activists began to be arrested in the first half of the 1930s, especially during the Holodomor.

Nevertheless, the percentage of ethnic Ukrainians in the Communist Party of Ukraine rose from 23 points in 1922 to 60 points in 1930. This produced the Ukrainian nomenklatura, a cadre reserve for the all-USSR nomenklatura in all the spheres of administration. And, no matter how hard you call the Yanukovych grouping a criminal gang, they are successors to this very part of the Ukrainian elite. I stress the word “successors” because many of them launched their careers in the latter.

Politically, they are implementing the USSR-era supranational identity.

This is just one example of how the current events may be linked to the historical processes and phenomena that were left outside the applied historical interest. So Putin and his schoolbook is no trouble. Self-imposed ignorance is the trouble.

By Dmitry SHUSHARIN, historian, political journalist, Moscow, special to The Day