Putin legacy: In the classroom, a more controlled view of history

A textbook that will be introduced this fall calls Stalin the Soviet Union's 'most effective' leader.

Brought up amid the Soviet empire's collapse, many 20-something Russians like Anastasia Chukovskaya received an education rich in varied historical viewpoints. Today's youths may not get that opportunity.

"In the 1990s, there were different views, different textbooks.… Teachers were eager to tell pupils about [things that were a secret in the past]," says Ivan Bolshakov, leader of the youth wing of the democratic Yabloko party. "Now, they try to accent important events that emphasize Russian statesmanship."

Perhaps the most prominent example of that is a high-school history teacher's manual by Alexander Filippov, which calls Stalin the USSR's "most successful" leader and an "effective manager." Students will use an adapted version starting in September. President Vladimir Putin's administration, which has prioritized education as one of five "national projects," called the work the most accurate history text available.

Criticized by liberal journalist Alexander Arkhangelsky as a bid to "create in our children a common conscience," Mr. Filippov's book signals to liberals that the state is depriving its young generations of the context necessary to renounce a history of oppression.

"[T]he only way to resist authoritarian power is education," says Evgeny Bunimovich, head of the education committee of Moscow's parliament and a Yabloko member. "I do not believe that today state priority is education. An authoritarian state doesn't need education, because then it is more difficult to deceive the population. It is difficult to introduce different myths."

Natalia Zarkaya, an expert on youths at the liberal Levada Center in Moscow, agrees. "A country that wants to pass from totalitarianism cannot do it unless the past is analyzed," says Ms. Zarkaya, whose institute found last year that half of young people view Stalin positively and 20 percent would vote for him today. "Unfortunately, there is no work being done, except specialized studies that are not made public."

Estimates of the number who died under Stalin's 30-year rule range from 3 million to 60 million, and are highly controversial. But in a speech to teachers after Filippov's book was announced, Mr. Putin admonished Russians not to let other countries impose guilt on them. Russia's darkest days paled in comparison with Hiroshima and the Holocaust, he said.

Similarly, in an interview with the state-owned Rossyiskaya Gazeta last year, Filippov emphasized the positive aspects of Russian history. "I think Russia has a lot of things to be proud about in its past," he said, citing the need to counter a "propaganda offensive" at home and abroad. "Even during the ... the most bitter pages of its history, Russia revealed a unique ability to preserve itself as a sovereign state."

Zarkaya says that Filippov implies that those who don't want to see the overarching greatness and sacrifice in Russia's history are enemies. "The idea that he who criticizes is an enemy has penetrated public thinking," she says.

Andrei Zolotov, editor of the state-funded Russia Profile magazine, says the tone of criticism is key. "If you are a patriot, you should criticize your country and your past as long as you love it," he says.

"That's something I feel very acutely in Western press coverage – when you speak about these negative things, do you do it in order to ... have our country in better shape...?" he asks. He cites a Gorbachev-era rock song that calls Russia "my motherland, the ugly one."

"As a Russian, you should be able to say that – but you should do it with pain.... Then someone else says, 'Oh, that ugly woman' – what do you do? You hit them in the face immediately."

• Researcher Olga Podolskaya contributed to this report.

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