Ahead of presidential elections, Russia rewrites history and promotes nationalism at schools

Screenshot of video shown in classes during Important Conversation class in Russia, from YouTube. Fair use.

Prominent individuals, educators, and authorities in the North Caucasus republics  of Russia are voicing their objections to a new history textbook that they perceive as biased. For once, civic activists and regional authorities are expressing the same concerns. As reported by Radio Liberty, critics argue that the book paints a favorable image of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and perpetuates misconceptions about the ethnic groups that were victimized during his rule. 

During a recent visit to Karachay-Cherkessia, Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov acknowledged the concerns and committed to amending contentious portions of the textbook, as relayed by the regional leader, Rashid Temrezov, on September 23 via his Telegram channel.

The controversial textbook has been criticized for minimizing Stalin's role in the forceful removal of several ethnic groups, such as the Chechens, Karachais, Ingush, Balkars, Kalmyks, Meskhetian Turks, Crimean Tatars, and more. These groups were forcibly relocated under the pretense of alleged collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. This resulted in a significant demographic disaster, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands from these communities. Yet, the textbook only touches on this issue briefly, echoing Stalin's charges of treachery and implying that the deportations were rooted in valid evidence of collusion with the enemy.

This is only one of the trends of rewriting history and promoting Russian nationalism  among the latest developments in the Russian education system. 

Rewriting history

On September 1, 2024, Russian school students in grades 5–9 will pick up their social studies textbooks to find a revised, mandated narrative of Russian history. Tenth and 11th graders are already using the new books as part of their curriculum this school year. The textbook  will specifically prescribe and justify the reasons for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He is quoted in the textbook with a phrase that is all too familiar to those keeping up with his remarks about the “Special Military Operation”: “We were not the ones to begin this war, we are the ones trying to end it.”  Radio Liberty highlights that the text of  the book  mirrors statements made by Putin. These include deliberate lies that Ukraine is dominated by “ultranationalist” and “neo-Nazi” ideologies, that Western powers have influence over Kyiv with intentions of fragmenting Russia and exploiting its resources, that NATO consultants encouraged Kyiv to take action against the Donbas in 2020, that covert US bio-research facilities exist in Ukraine, and that Kyiv is actively pursuing nuclear arms acquisition, among other false claims.

Critics of the textbook have aptly noted that the Western world is portrayed as the historical enemy of Russia, as the root of all of its problems, and as the catalyst of its conflicts.  Additionally, the extent of Stalin’s repressions have been toned down significantly, reversing the past decades’ slow reconciliation with a brutal, bloody Russian history. The goals the textbook sets out to achieve are clear-cut: by unifying the collective image of a glorified Russian history, the Kremlin seeks to bolster patriotism and national pride among its youth.

Nationalism seeps into every recess of Russian life, including the schools. Putin sees the Russian education system as a way to control the youth and build support for what he is doing. In fact, Putin has chosen to make 2023 the “Year of the Pedagogue.”

This decision comes in an increasingly patriotic succession of yearly themes: 2020 was the “Year Commemorating the Soldiers of the Great Patriotic War,” 2021 was the “Year of National Unity,” and 2022 was the “Year of Historical Memory.” Although it may seem out of place at first, the Year of the Pedagogue fits right in — after all, Putin wields educational reform as a weapon for propagandizing his people. The Kremlin has considered the importance of shaping Russian minds from the ground up for a few years now. A white paper on national security from 2021 contains a section on the “protection of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, culture, and historical legacy.” In order to battle the supposed “attempts at falsifying the history of the world and Russia,” the government ordered a deliberate adjustment of the system of education.  A year later, Putin signed a decree declaring 2023 to be the Year of the Pedagogue

Nationalism on the rise in classrooms

Starting in 2022, every Russian school subjected its students to a series of lessons called “Important Conversation,” held on a weekly basis. Minister of Education Sergei Kravtsov said that “students will not be left to fight against the campaign of misinformation on their own.” The lessons were meant to discuss current events, such as the “Special Military Operation,” as well  as promote patriotism in young Russian students. Starting on September 1, 2022, the week was to start with the singing of the Russian national anthem  and the raising of the national flag. The government devoted around RUB 1 billion (about USD 10 million) to furnishing schools with “national symbols” — flags and coats of arms. 

The curriculum is structured both to directly plant certain patriotic ideas in the minds of young students, but also to subtly build a foundation on which feelings of national pride flourish. On September 18, teachers of every grade level followed the specified curriculum for the theme “Russia – our land.” 

Screenshot of video shown during the Important Conversation class in Russia, from YouTube. Fair use. The text reads “elections are caring for our future.”

Six- and sever-year-old students watch a video with video clips of Russian nature, with an enthusiastic narrator’s voice projecting across every classroom in the nation: “One cannot remain indifferent to the nature of our country, Russia — it is beautiful and diverse.”

The goal of these more subtle tactics becomes apparent in the third and fourth grade Important Conversations on the same theme. This time around, the narrator of a similar film makes a direct connection between the natural world of Russia and patriotism. He reads poetry by Sergei Yesenin, a lyricist renowned for his portrayals of Russian nature, and the students are encouraged to explore the role of art and writing in provoking feelings of pride in Russia.

Among other topics of discussion in the Important Conversations are the “Day of National Unity,” the “Day of Crimea’s Reunification with Russia,” the “Day of Russian Special Forces,” and “Russian Symbols”. One of the newer additions includes “The Russian voting system,” staged at a time when Putin’s reelection campaign is starting to ramp up. The discussions in this case aim to inform young Russians about the importance of democratic elections in electing leaders who represent the interests of their people, despite the opposite historically being the case in Putin’s Kremlin.

While many observers are still hesitant to call the Russian society ‘fascist’ because of the low level of popular enthusiasm and absence of clear ideology, nationalism propaganda in schools  might very well lead to this grim change.

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