gathering of schoolchildren

New Russian high school history textbook blames West for war in Ukraine

This coming school year, high school students in Russia will receive new history textbooks. They offer a rewritten rendition of Russian history that reflects the Kremlin’s narrative about the war in Ukraine. The textbooks are part of a wider effort by the state to tighten control over the flow of information.

The World

Until recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin would host an annual televised event that he described as a “direct line” to him. 

The idea was to portray himself as a leader who speaks directly to the Russian people, hears their needs and gets things done.

A decade ago, during one of these televised events, Putin said that there needs to be a set of standardized textbooks on Russian history.

He said that it’s unacceptable that there are dozens of different textbooks that teachers can choose from. Now, Putin is finally getting his wish.

New, rewritten history textbooks recently hit the presses in Russia. Students in 10th and 11th grade will begin using them this coming school year. The books were introduced earlier this month in Moscow by Russia’s education minister, Sergey Kravtsov.

Kravtsov said that “the Ministry of Education developed a uniform program for teaching history.”

He said that, up until now, teachers developed their own lesson plans, which he claimed led to varied interpretations and confusion.

Kravtsov said that the new textbooks will cover what he called the “reunification” of Crimea, in addition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — which he referred to as the “Special Military Operation.”

“Books for other grades will be revised for the 2024-2025 school year,” Kravtsov said.

Ivan Kurilla is a history and political science professor at the European University at St. Petersburg.

Kurilla explained that the textbook attempts to connect the current generation of Russian students back to the perceived grandeur of the Soviet Union.

“Everything which was celebrated by the Russian society after 1991, freedom of speech, freedom of [the] press, freedom of worship, that is something that the current regime does not tolerate anymore, and to a big extent, they already reversed it,” he said.

The textbooks echo Putin’s belief that the fall of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe, and it portrays Putin’s presidency, and the war in Ukraine, as a correction of history.

“How to explain the war in Ukraine, they tried several different explanations and the most convincing was that they are just restoring the old empire, old state, the Soviet Union,” Kurilla said. “And that helps them, the association of themselves with the Soviet Union, helps to explain the decision to conquer Ukraine.”

Kurilla said that, in the past, it was up to each teacher to plan his or her own lessons, but now, the situation is shifting.

“There are new fears that some of the schoolchildren, and parents of schoolchildren, may report if the teachers [do] not say [the] right things,” Kurilla said. “They can complain, they would say that, 'OK, that teacher spent enough time talking about the special military operation or the war in Ukraine.' And I know that many schoolteachers are now afraid.”

And that fear of losing independence in the classroom has made some Russian teachers like Mikhail Kopitsa decide to leave the country.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kopitsa taught history at school in Arkhangelsk in northern Russia.

But given recent events, “I understood that it would be impossible for me to live and work the way I used to,” said Kopitsa, who left Russia in March of 2022.

He added that he would have to “hold himself by the throat” in order to keep working.

Kopitsa, who is now based in Montenegro, and continues teaching there, said that the pages of the new textbooks feel like “they’ve been soaked in poison.”

And he said that there’s one clear theme that stands out to him: “There’s always an enemy. The West, or the US, is always the enemy.”

He said that the textbooks are filled with Kremlin propaganda, and he drew another analogy: He said that “diamonds are formed under great pressure,” and that some people thrive under this kind of pressure. They resist, and their values become stronger.

But he worries that there are very few people that are like that. Most people, he said, get crushed by the system.

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