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Books To Boots: Critics Say New Russian History Textbook Is Propaganda, Preparation For War

Kremlin aide Vladimir Medinsky presents a new schoolbook for high-school students on general world history and Russian history in Moscow on August 7.
Kremlin aide Vladimir Medinsky presents a new schoolbook for high-school students on general world history and Russian history in Moscow on August 7.

As schools across Russia and the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine prepare for the start of the school year on September 1, some 650,000 copies of a brand-new history textbook for students in 11th grade -- the final year of high school -- are being distributed.

"The section about the period from the 1970s until the 2000s has been completely reworked," Vladimir Medinsky, a nationalist aide to President Vladimir Putin who served as culture minister in 2012-20 and is one of the authors of the new textbook, said at a presentation on August 8.

He said that "a section has been added that covers the period from 2014 to the present" -- the period, in other words, since Russia seized control of Crimea and fomented a war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region that was supplanted, in February 2022, by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"There are many micro-histories and interesting facts. Many new illustrations.... And, of course, there is a separate chapter devoted to the 'special military operation,'" he added, using the Kremlin's euphemism -- enshrined in Russian law -- for the invasion and the war that persists 18 months later.

Critics say the new textbook has little to do with history but rather is a return to Soviet-style practices of ideological indoctrination aimed at youths who could soon find themselves drafted into the military. With some exceptions, boys become eligible for one year of mandatory service when they reach the age of 18.

"The new history textbook is a book addressed to pre-conscripts and their girlfriends," Aleksei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, wrote on Telegram. "The government today actually has few effective ways of communicating with young people. Young people don't watch television and there is no way to make them do so."

"History is being turned into a tool to make students obey," Russian educator Dima Zitser told RFE/RL.

'Cheap Manipulation'

The complete textbook has not been made available, and RFE/RL had not seen a hard copy as of August 31. Earlier in August, the media outlet RBK published photographs of what it said was the textbook, including the table of contents and some key pages on the war in Ukraine and Russian relations with the West.

Wording on the pages depicted in the photos published by RBK repeats President Vladimir Putin's false claims that Ukraine is an "ultranationalist" and "neo-Nazi" state; that Kyiv is controlled by the West, which seeks to dismember Russia and steal its natural resources; that NATO advisers pushed Kyiv to "attack the Donbas" in 2020; that "strictly secret" U.S. "biolaboratories" were created in Ukraine; that Kyiv has been "aggressively" seeking to acquire nuclear weapons; and more.

Western sanctions imposed on Russia after Moscow's occupation of Crimea in 2014 and its waging of a hybrid war against Kyiv in parts of eastern Ukraine, as well as in the wake of the full-scale invasion, are dismissed as "absolutely illegal" acts that "violate all norms of international law."

According to the photos published by RBK, the textbook estimates without evidence that the Western sanctions resulted in what it calls the "theft" of $300 billion in Russian state and private property, and it falsely claims that the West's actions "do not essentially differ" from the looting of Soviet museums by Nazi forces in World War II.

"The main beneficiary of the Ukraine conflict was the United States," it says, referring in the past tense to the current war, which the United States attempted to avert through diplomacy as Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine's borders before launching the full-scale invasion. "It managed to hook Europe up to its expensive natural gas and other resources. The United States fully intends to fight 'to the last Ukrainian.'"

The text shown in the photos warns students about what it claims is nefarious activity of "foreign agents," a reference to the many activists, media outlets, and civil society groups that Russia has shut down or placed under enormous pressure under legislation that has grown progressively harsher over the past decade. It instructs them to "be vigilant" against the influence of "oppositionists," "opinion leaders," and "popular bloggers" so that they "don't become victims of cheap manipulation."

It includes short biographical sketches of Russian soldiers who have been killed in the war on Ukraine.

"There are photographs of heroes," Medinsky said at the August 8 presentation. "Everything was approved by the commanders and the families. By the children of the heroes. By the wives and widows."

'History Is Crucial For Us'

Medinsky, the most prominent of the authors of the new textbook, is a historian with a questionable reputation. He is the author of numerous books, including a series called Myths in which he tries to debunk what he claims are stereotypes that foreigners have invented to discredit Russia and Russians. His book War: Myths Of The U.S.S.R. 1939-45 has been described by historian Aleksei Isayev as "agitprop" and "nonsense."

In January 2012, a group of historians accused Medinsky of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation and published excerpts from the document alongside quotations from other historians. Historian Lev Usyskin said at the time that Medinsky was a "fraudster" with a "fraudulent academic degree."

In October 2017, a top Russian academic council recommended revoking Medinsky's doctorate on the grounds that his research was "unscholarly" and ignored "sources if they contradict his theses."

Language scholar Ivan Babitsky described the dissertation as a "propaganda pamphlet."

Others named as co-authors of the new textbook include the academic director of the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Aleksandr Chubaryan, and the rector of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), a prestigious foreign-policy school that produces numerous Russian diplomats, Anatoly Torkunov.

At the presentation of the book in August, Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov described it as part of "a single educational program for literature, social studies, and history."

"The subject of history is crucial for us," he said. "Our president has said repeatedly that we can't distort our historical memory and that it is important that objective facts be taught in schools. We have added to the textbooks -- particularly this one for the 11th grade -- those facts that are most relevant today."

Putin, who frequently talks and writes about history, is widely accused by critics in Russia and abroad of distorting the past. His decision to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was preceded by numerous false statements about the history of that country, its people, and its relationship with Russia over the centuries.

'Historically Absurd, Logically Illiterate'

The new textbook is the latest manifestation of the program of "patriotic education" that has been a defining feature of Putin's more than two decades as president or prime minister. During the last school year, Russia introduced a program called Important Conversations, weekly meetings during which teachers raised patriotic themes and laid out Kremlin narratives about international and domestic topics.

"Any repressive dictatorship, particularly one waging an aggressive foreign war, needs this," said former Russian parliament member Aleksandr Osovtsov, a Kremlin opponent who now lives abroad. "In the 21st century there is no other way to justify foreign aggression except through myths."

"They can only justify -- if only superficially -- what they are doing by pasting together a historically absurd and logically illiterate cocktail of mythical achievements, combining Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Lenin, Stalin, and all those who can somehow be presented as 'gatherers of the Russian lands,'" he added.

Yevhen Mahda, a Ukrainian political scientist and director of Kyiv's Institute of World Policy, told RFE/RL that "the authors of the textbook are hoping it will help intensify patriotism in Russia" and facilitate military mobilization.

"This textbook is for the graduating class -- that is, the kids who will read it need to understand why they are putting on uniforms and boots," he said.

Ukrainian historian Serhiy Hutsalyuk, of the Institute of National Memory, said the new textbook could someday be entered as evidence at "an international criminal tribunal."

"It is a demonstration of how the ideological component is conducted in Russia to support its policy of aggression," he said.

'A Country With An Unpredictable Past'

Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said the Putin government's attitude toward history harks back to Soviet precedents in which "history has no relationship to reality but is intended to form the ideological basis for bolstering the authorities."

Marxist historian Mikhail Pokrovsky, who oversaw the instruction of history in the years after the 1917 Bolshevik coup, said that "history is politics projected onto the past," Oreshkin noted.

"That is, history changes depending on the interests of the ruling party," he added. "That is why Soviet Russia always was a country with an unpredictable past."

He noted in passing that although Pokrovsky died of cancer in 1932, many of his followers were persecuted in Stalin's Great Terror and his textbooks were destroyed after the dictator decided Pokrovsky did not give sufficient importance to the role of personalities like Tsar Ivan the Terrible.

"When the agenda of the day changed, Pokrovsky's followers were shot, imprisoned, destroyed," Oreshkin said.

Russian historian and educator Sergei Chernyshov, from Novosibirsk, said Medinsky's textbook was "an appeal not to facts or analysis, but to emotions."

"Its main goal is to incite anger toward Ukrainians," he told RFE/RL.

However, he expressed doubt that it will do much to shape young minds. "This propaganda will be opposed by healthy, youthful indifference," he said. "I really hope that the 11th-graders, like all good 11th-graders everywhere, aren't going to read textbooks. At that age, they have more important things to do."

Zitser agrees, saying that 11th-graders are "fully formed personalities" who probably already have formed their views of the war and issues such as Russia's relations with the West.

"For now, we are talking about a textbook for 11th-graders," he cautioned. "That doesn't mean -- and they are already promising this -- that books for the fifth- and sixth-graders won't come next."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Current Time

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