Censoring History in Russia

Roundup: Talking About History

Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra Journal, in the Wash Post(March 21, 2004):

Rewriting history was an important part of the Bolshevik project to remake the world. Throughout the decades of Communist rule, the U.S.S.R. was a country with an unpredictable past: Russia's -- and in fact the world's -- history was continuously being reshaped by Communist ideologues.

Events of remote and recent times were reinterpreted, distorted or erased so as to better fit Marxist theory and ensure the political dominance of the Communist Party.

Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika was in large part about a return of history. His policy of glasnost brought an avalanche of disclosures -- of hidden and hideous stories of the totalitarian past. And while this policy was initiated from above, Soviet intellectuals responded with enthusiasm.

Uncensored speeches and newspaper articles were followed by archival research, scholarly volumes and new history textbooks. The sense of liberation was genuine, and though decommunization was never codified, anticommunist sentiment seemed to be shared by an impressive majority of the Russian nation in the late 1980s.

Even after this early enthusiasm had waned, after the trial of the Communist Party had failed to yield any significant results and the Communist opposition to democratization had consolidated, the figure of President Boris Yeltsin continued to symbolize the victory won over the Soviet past.

This symbolism is not to Vladimir Putin's liking, however. He reintroduced the old Soviet anthem commissioned by Joseph Stalin and brought back the style and some of the methods of the Communist government. It was only a matter of time before the need to revise history would reappear.

Recently the ministry of education pledged to review all 107 history books in use in Russian schools and ensure that all over the country, the teacher's choice is reduced to no more than three books for each grade.

Liberal teachers, publishers and historians have spoken out against the initiative, but they will be largely unheeded. While they seek to defend intellectual freedom, the ministry's party has an unbeatable argument: The review of the textbooks is something the president wants.

Late last year it was brought to Putin's attention that one of the Russian textbooks dealing with 20th-century history cited opinions critical of the current regime. Soon thereafter Putin said history schoolbooks should state facts that"foster a sense of pride for one's history and one's country."

The ministry responded by getting rid of the inappropriate book -- it was withdrawn from the list of recommended school reading. In addition, the ministry vowed to work out a"uniform concept that would objectively treat the most critical periods of Russian history."

"Objectively" today implies the sort of treatment that will please Putin and fit the new political regime. There is no way -- and indeed no desire -- to reproduce the old Soviet system, which conformed strictly to ideology and had scores of specialists shaping and formulating opinions that were then channeled down for public indoctrination. Nor does the Russian government seek to fully re-Sovietize history courses. But the bureaucratic state, with its hierarchy and obsequiousness, brings back old reflexes.

Putin's general message is unmistakable. It is a call for a return to a paternalistic state with virtually no political competition and a limited venue for independent opinion. This message was well read by the minister of education, who promised that there will be no space for"pseudoliberalism aimed at distortions of history."

The ministry has picked its No. 1 book on 20th-century Russian history.

This work, which is likely to be the one and only textbook on the subject recommended to schoolteachers, makes no mention of Stalin's ethnic deportations (perhaps to avoid a"distorting" connection with the current Chechen war), largely reduces the period of the Red Terror to 1936-38 and describes the years of Putin's rule in laudatory terms. If history has not been rewritten more thoroughly, it's only because of the time lag: The book took some time to compile; in the meantime paternalistic and authoritarian trends have grown significantly stronger in Russia. There's no doubt that if the same authors were writing their book today, the slant would be even more pronounced. ...

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