Russian history has ceased to be a scientific discipline and has become part of the military propaganda machine.
Photo: Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg. Photo by Alexey Komarov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Freedom to teach history entails not only freedom for professors to interpret historical events in their own way, but also students’ freedom from ideological pressure during the learning process.
Both of these freedoms—for the students and for the teachers—are being restricted within historical studies programs in Russian universities. For example, in 2022, the Ministry of Education and Science published a framework for teaching Russian history to non-history majors.
History in an Ideological Light
As a science, national history has always been an ideological battlefield. Some radical historians have even denied its neutrality, claiming that “history is past politics.”
Without rejecting outright the possibility of a version of history not directly tied to politics, it is worth noting that history—or, more precisely, our depiction of it—really does fluctuate constantly along with society. Changes in our approach to history are directly related to political transformations within society.
History and democracy. Consequently, history in a democratic society, particularly national history, is a constant dialogue. It represents an opportunity for pluralism—that is, not for establishing “correct answers” but for discussing topics with a larger audience. This makes history an invaluable component of the education of any democratically minded citizen.
History and patriotism. But historical education is another thing entirely under a government that seeks to educate its citizens to believe that “our country is always right” and “only enemies slander us.” One proponent of this approach, for example, is former Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, who is convinced that foreigners have only ever written badly about Russia because this was “ordered by political circles.”
Such a government believes that only those who know their enemies and are completely convinced of their own correctness can be patriots. The patriot, of course, believes that any criticism of the state’s actions is just an “enemy” plot.
As such, the task and the content of a historical education are both dependent on politics, albeit in different ways.
- If the state views its task as educating a critically minded citizen, it will teach a certain history.
- If, instead, the goal is to educate an obedient executor of the state’s will, it will be a different story.
Samples of History Instruction in the 2020s
The events surrounding history instruction in Russian universities, especially since the start of the war, demonstrate an active push to turn history into a weapon. Researchers are calling this the “weaponization of history.” The key element of this process is the denial of Ukraine’s statehood and the justification of the ongoing aggression.
In February 2023, Minister of Education and Science Valery Falkov stated: “Universities have always set themselves the task of preparing a patriotic civilian base, one that is thoughtful and has a broad outlook and critical thinking skills.”
Belying this opinion, the new Framework for teaching history can be viewed more through the prism of military history and patriotism, and less through the lens of critical thinking. It is no coincidence that the head of the Russian Historical Society, Sergey Naryshkin, is an active participant in discussions of the framework. At the same February debate, he not only confirmed the general goal of the state policy in the field of history education—”the transition to a single history curriculum in universities all across the country”—but also mentioned that the debate was taking place “on the day of Soviet troops’ victory at Stalingrad.”
“Celebrating the Constructive Nature”
The Framework for Russian History Instruction is a strategic document. Among its authors are Academic Director of the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Chubaryan and Director of the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yuri Petrov. Most likely, this is the framework all those teaching the History of Russian Sovereignty course (which we have written about previously) will have to draw from.
In the Framework’s preamble, the authors suggest that we combine essentially incompatible concepts:
“…maintaining a sense of objectivity and historicism, to celebrate the primarily constructive nature of the activities of the Russian state and the peoples inhabiting it in the economic development of vast territories.”
While revealing the “problems and contradictions of national history,” university professors “must avoid negative bias and ‘slander.’”
To reiterate: teachers are encouraged to “remain objective” while promoting the “constructive nature of the activities of the Russian state.” This refers to the state starting with the Kievan Rus and ending with the modern Russian Federation.
The reason for drafting a new framework is stated rather transparently. The authors propose paying particular attention to “periods when Russia faced serious historical challenges or experienced crises, to consider their causes and the background against which they arose, as well as ways to overcome them.”
The authors view the main task of the course to be engendering patriotism on the Soviet military model, noting that “priority attention should be paid to heroic pages dictating Russia’s struggle for freedom and independence against foreign invaders, for the purpose of national interests and security.”
The Framework depicts the “struggle for independence” through the positive characteristics of Russia’s imperial foreign policy. This policy was less about defending the country from an aggressor than it was a series of wars of conquest.
According to the Framework, “Russia’s international prestige” grew in connection with “an active foreign policy.” This policy included—among other conquests—”the annexation of the Northern Black Sea region and the beginning of the settling of Novorossiya…Right-bank Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as a result of the divisions of the Commonwealth.”
This territorial expansion of the empire, carried out mostly through military means, is described in the Framework as a neutral act, as if the space the Russian army invaded had been empty before it got there. In particular, it claims that Russia “moved Eastward,” “acquiring” territory, “annexing,” and “beginning settlement.” Sure, and on this logic, Poland must have “divided itself up.”
The Ukraine Issue
The Ukraine issue occupies a special place in the Framework. There is practically no mention of the Kievan Rus in the curriculum—now it is simply “Rus.” They quietly neglect to reference its capital city.
The word “Ukraine” appears for the first time in the section about the seventeenth century, but in the phrase “Ukrainian lands”—that is, not as a separate entity. These “lands” were “annexed” in order to help those who had experienced “increased national, social and religious oppression in the Ukrainian and Belarusian lands” (this oppression apparently vanished after joining Russia).
According to the Framework, the western parts of Belarus and Ukraine miraculously “joined” the USSR in the same way in 1939.
In the section on the war, there is a separate section dedicated to describing “attempts by Ukrainian nationalists” to establish contacts with the Nazi administration; the OUN-UPA is listed in the section on “collaborators.”
The Beginning of the Second World War
The issue of responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War is discussed as its own topic. The difference between democratic history and authoritarian history is in the wording. The proposal is to teach this period of history according to the opinion of a non-professional historian with an obvious political agenda.
The Framework plainly indicates which interpretation is correct, noting “the groundlessness of accusations that the USSR bears equal responsibility to Germany for the outbreak of the war.” The wording was clearly inspired by Vladimir Putin’s article “75th Anniversary of the Great Victory: Shared Responsibility to History and our Future.”
Moreover, criticisms of the Soviet army’s actions are preemptively called “falsifications.” The Framework states that students must know “the most famous instances of falsification of history related to the liberation mission of the Red Army in Europe.”
The political component of the new course is most noticeable—in terms of both content and style—in the section devoted to recent Russian history.
- The collapse of the USSR is described as a conspiracy by the leaders of the national republics, including Yeltsin, who “was used by the leaders of the Western countries in their own interests, and…the USSR was declared the loser in the Cold War.”
- Dramatic events such as the war in Chechnya are described as “military operations to normalize life and restore the constitutional order.”
- The text contains arguments completely foreign to historians, claiming that some “oral promises” about not expanding NATO were unfulfilled and that the Russian leadership of the 1990s “continued to surrender ground on foreign policy.”
One gets the feeling that if this recent “history” was so lightly edited for the present day, then the history of modern Russia was written not by professional historians, but by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Instead of relatively neutral phrasing and historical facts, we see such ideological statements as:
“The main goal of the U.S. leadership was to turn Russia into a country that adhered to American policy lines.”
“[There was an] inflow of foreign charitable foundations into Russia that provided financial assistance in exchange for ideological loyalty.”
Not only is the course of history directly replaced by ideology, but every hint of polemic speech, criticism or even discussion is included. Use ideological interpretations!
The End of History
Modern history ends with references to the “anti-constitutional coup in Kiev,” the “Kiev regime,” the “torpedoed Minsk agreements,” and “Ukraine as anti-Russia,” and claims that NATO helped them prepare for “the return of Crimea and Donbass.”
In fact, this last period of history disappears entirely. They propose talking with students about history and forming their “objective” views on contemporary events in ideological terms kindly provided by Putin and the Russian Foreign Ministry.
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It is evident that the proposed Framework (already approved by the Ministry of Education) is unable to educate the “critically thinking student.”
This version of history is necessary for the regime to continue its aggression against Ukraine, serving to explain the “justice and legality” of the Russian government’s actions to its new cannon fodder.
At the same time, history thus ceases to be a scientific discipline, becoming instead a part of the military propaganda machine. Teaching this curriculum would deal a serious blow to the freedom of Russian students and teachers to study and teach history.