As Russian students headed back to school this year, many were given updated history textbooks – part of an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to reaffirm his chosen narrative of Russia’s place in the world. The new books include a glorified account of Russia’s history, derision aimed at its enemies and justifications for the invasion of Ukraine.
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, no sector escapes the reach of the state. As students began a new year of classes last week they were presented with new textbooks, each written within the space of a few months and presenting a revised interpretation of the fall of the Soviet Union, the Putin era and the causes of the Ukraine war. The books are part of a larger attempt by the Putin regime to shape how younger generations see Russia’s place in the world and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Formally introduced in mid-August by Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov, the new texts garnered immediate criticism after they were leaked online for illustrating Putin’s efforts to establish an “alternate reality” that rejects widely accepted historical facts, even those facts that were once accepted by Russia.
One of the textbooks is aimed at 17-year-olds and covers the postwar period from 1945 to today while another new edition, for 16-year-olds, discusses World War II. Chapters covering the Soviet Union in the final decades of the Cold War and events in Russia in the years that followed have been rewritten.
The texts also absolve Russia of responsibility for the war in Ukraine; what Russia calls its “special military operation” (using the term “war” can carry lengthy prison terms) is instead blamed on the United States. Some sections proclaim that “Ukraine is a neo-Nazi state” while “Russia is a country of heroes” and feature a quote from Putin falsely claiming that “Russia did not start any military actions but is trying to end them”.
At a press conference that coincided with the first day of classes, presidential aide and a key author of the texts, Vladimir Medinsky, was forthright in saying the new schoolbooks present the “state’s position on current events”.
“It is important to see the textbooks as only a small part of the efforts of the regime to rewrite history and to present Russia as a country with its own laws, which do not correspond with the laws of the West,” said Galia Ackerman, a writer and historian who specialises in modern Russia and the post-soviet states. “It is also unsurprising that the books were [co]-written by Medinsky, a former culture minister who has been trying to develop lessons on patriotism since 2012.”
Convincing the world Russia is a victim
The new textbooks come after the introduction last year of obligatory weekly ideological sessions known as “Conversations About Important Things” in which teachers offer the official view on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to children as young as 10. Putin himself spoke to children about the ongoing war during one of these sessions on September 1 as students headed back to school.
The new textbooks are part of a larger gas-lighting movement in which Putin has repeatedly tried to persuade his own population – and the world – that Russia is a victim rather than the aggressor in a disastrous war that has now left some 500,000 people either killed or wounded on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, according to US estimates released in mid-August. US officials caution that casualty figures are estimates as Moscow is suspected of minimising losses, while Ukraine does not disclose official figures.
In a chapter dedicated to the war in Ukraine, the books affirm that Ukraine is “an ultranationalist state” where political opposition is “forbidden”. Over the course of the 28 pages devoted to Russia’s “special military operation”, the authors frame Russian actions as a response to an increasingly aggressive West that sought to use Ukraine as a “battering ram” with which to destroy Russia, echoing rhetoric repeatedly used by Putin.
Putin’s regime lacks ‘a coherent ideology’
“The fact these textbooks exist is part of a broader, more pernicious attempt by Putin and his regime to create a national framework to justify their actions,” said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian security issues and a non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington, DC-based think-tank.
“Putin’s regime doesn’t have a coherent ideology; the existing one is civilisational, based on the Motherland, but it is hollow.”
The new textbooks rewrite Russian history to appear as a succession of victories over enemies, whether the Poles or the West. The victory over the Nazis during World War II – long a source of Russian pride – features prominently.
“Europe is labelled ‘fascist’”, said Ackerman, while the Ukrainians “are depicted as an emanation of the Nazis” – another echo of an oft-repeated Kremlin talking point.
The hardships of the years under Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from the 1920s until his death in 1953, were also minimised, with the millions of lives lost under his rule either downplayed or erased from the record. By contrast, the textbooks criticise former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his rapprochement with the West.
For Tatar journalist Leyla Latypova, a reporter for The Moscow Times, the content of the new schoolbooks was unsurprising.
“With over 20 ethnic republics in the Russian Federation, the curriculum being pushed in these republics has always been one that effaces the story of their colonisation,” she said.
‘History has become a battlefield’
The move to erase any narrative that goes against the one promoted by Putin’s regime is a systematic practice, Latypova said.
“They have been doing it in regions of Russia for years, through schoolbooks, through statues and through songs for children.”
In the chapter dedicated to the war in Ukraine, the book praises it as having “united Russian society”, evoking the millions of Soviet deaths during World War II.
“Like their grandfathers, they are fighting for goodness and truth, shoulder to shoulder,” the book says of the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. “Courage and bravery to give up your life for the Motherland is something inherent to a Russian, Soviet soldier.”
Latypova went on to point out some of the contradictions inherent in the Kremlin’s messaging.
“This whole war is presumably about safeguarding Russia as a Slavic nation, based on the Orthodox religion. Yet a lot of people who are dying are not Orthodox; they have none of those features,” she pointed out. Many, if not most, of those fighting for Russia are from ethnic minorities or poor backgrounds.
It is too soon to say whether students will accept the new material as the truth.
“History has become a battlefield,” said Hawn. “This is an attempt by the regime to create an organisational narrative, but no matter how hard they try, the contradictions in their system will ring true.”
Yet some hope remains for students who wish to remain immune to the propaganda in their new curriculum.
“In the ’90s, there were remarkable history books in Russia,” said Ackerman. “Then they progressively changed, and the books today have a level of propaganda that never existed before. But if students want to look for books from the past, they are there to find.”
(with AFP and Reuters)