MOSCOW, Russia — Yevgeny Yamburg has spent decades pioneering new forms of education in Russia.
But still, the prominent school director says he’d hate to have to write a new history textbook the government hopes will soon make its way into schools across Russia.
“I really feel for the academics who were given this assignment,” he says in his office at School No. 109, on Moscow’s grimy outskirts. “Our history is not a simple one.”
The subject is as controversial as it is tumultuous.
But the authorities are looking to finally set the record straight about more than 1,000 years of conquest, suffering and achievement by commissioning a unified textbook to be introduced nationwide.
The book, whose preliminary outline was submitted last month for approval by President Vladimir Putin, is slated to replace the nearly 250 various tomes currently in use, whose wide-ranging interpretations of history experts say have helped leave Russians more divided than ever over their own history.
But some observers are worried the project may become an instrument of the Kremlin’s increasingly prominent patriotism campaign, meaning that a reconciliation of Russia’s troubled history would remain far off.
“The authorities have been actively engaged in propagating their own concept of history, and they’re ready to spend a huge amount of money to do it,” says film critic and culture commentator Daniil Dondurei.
The interpretation of history in Russia, especially during the 20th century, has long been a notoriously sensitive issue. Unlike Germans, Russians have never made a national effort to come to terms with their recent bloody past.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — who historians believe killed more people than Hitler — is still admired among many elderly people and staunch conservatives who credit him with industrializing the Soviet Union and defeating Nazi Germany during World War II.
The body of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin still rests prominently in a mausoleum on Red Square. Debated time and again, his removal has so far been postponed.
Researchers say the collapse of the USSR helped discredit both communism and democracy, two ideologies that would have offered a vision for the future.
As a result, says Alexei Levinson, a sociologist at the independent Levada Center think-tank, many Russians are left to “escape” into nostalgia for an imagined bright past.
“A third concept for the future — a clear, developed one — still hasn’t emerged,” he says, adding that that’s provided fertile ground for the “politicization” of history.
Putin himself has sent mixed signals over Russia’s past, at once reviving both Soviet-era institutions and Tsarist symbolism. The ex-KGB spy has prominently supported the Russian Orthodox Church and also once famously declared that the atheist Soviet Union’s collapse was the 20th century’s “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe.”
Russia’s multi-ethnic character has further complicated the matter. The country is home to hundreds of nationalities that practice most of the world’s major religions, and tensions between ethnic Russians and mostly Muslim migrant workers from Russia’s North Caucasus have flared in recent years.
Yamburg, the Moscow school director, says the wide range of textbooks currently in use reflects drastically different interpretations of history, especially in historically non-Russian regions that Moscow conquered by force, such as Chechnya.
Russia’s acquisition of the Caucasus Mountains in the 19th century was particularly violent.
“One textbook might talk about Russia’s progressive role in integrating the ‘savage’ locals, but another might decry how the ‘shameless Russian soldiers’ behaved there,” he said.
The conflict hasn’t been lost on the Kremlin, which has stepped up its drive to promote its own brand of patriotism since Putin’s return for a third term last year. He has often oscillated between Russo-centrism and touting the country’s multinational character.
He instructed the Education Ministry in April to draft the concept for the new textbook in a bid to foster a sense of national unity among young Russians.
Produced by historians, the 80-page outline was approved by a working group from the Russian Historical Society, chaired by parliament speaker and Putin loyalist Sergei Naryshkin. He previously chaired a presidential committee “to counter attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests” from 2009 until 2012.
The proposal pulls relatively few punches by discussing Ivan the Terrible’s police state, Stalinist repression and Soviet stagnation, albeit with cautious language.
But it also includes a list of 20 “difficult questions” that require further development, suggesting agreement on those issues is still far off. They include the “cost of victory” during the World War II, as well as the “reasons, results and evaluation” of the fall of Russia’s monarchy that led to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Special modules, the outline says, should be prepared which reflect “the most common point of view of those events.”
Although the outline warns against seeing history as a “series of triumphal processions, successes and victories,” it also highlights what it says is Russia’s historic sense of resolve.
“One cannot gloss over the tragedies, but it is necessary to emphasize that Russians and other people of our country found the strength to overcome together the hardships that befell them,” the introduction reads.
That’s causing a stir over perceived bias, starting with the treatment of the past two decades.
Critics have decried the exclusion of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a key political and business figure in post-Soviet Russia whose 2003 arrest for fraud and tax evasion they believe was a key watershed in the Putin era.
The outline does, however, mention the “stabilization” under Putin’s first two terms as president, from 2000 until 2008.
There’s also no allusion to the widespread anti-Kremlin movement that emerged after allegedly rigged parliamentary elections in 2011, even though Putin’s reelection the following year is included.
The president has long sought to marginalize the opposition’s mostly urban followers by casting himself as the leader of the predominantly provincial, working-class majority.
The authors say there’s still time to work out any kinks in the outline.
“It’s actually a very difficult job to find that public consensus and find figures who wouldn’t cause sharp criticism from a certain part of society,” said Sergei Zhuravlev, deputy director of the Institute of Russian History at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a recent interview on the independent TV Rain network.
He said Khodorkovsky’s omission came after veterans, religious figures and others criticized an earlier draft that mentioned him and Boris Berezovsky, another anti-Putin oligarch.
Zhuravlev said he hopes the anti-Kremlin protests will make it into the final product.
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But others doubt the authorities would authorize a version of history that strays too far from the Kremlin’s own vision.
That rendering amounts to little more than fostering “a cult of victory” around the brighter parts of Russia’s complicated history, critic Dondurei says.
He points to Russia’s struggling film industry, recently infused with state cash for promoting patriotic movies such as the recently released war epic “Stalingrad,” a box office hit that is Russia’s first IMAX film.
“For them, history is like an endless ‘Stalingrad,’” he says. “They think that whoever wins the battle for history wins in the battle of life.”