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‘I hope I won’t have to talk about the war’ How the next generation of Russian history teachers is preparing to teach a reimagined past

Source: iStories
Alexey Maishev / Sputnik / imago images / Scanpix / LETA

Russian pedagogy students are preparing to teach history, even as Russia tries to rewrite it. Since the beginning of the new academic year, high schools have started using a fresh history textbook, put together by Putin aide Vladimir Medinsky. Journalists have called attention to the textbook’s numerous blatant falsehoods, mischaracterizations of past events, and preoccupation with the present, and the book has become a prime example of the government’s efforts to manipulate historical narratives for its own ends. Independent outlet iStories spoke with history majors in Russian colleges to find out what they think about propaganda in history and teaching, and how they plan to talk to their students about the war. With permission, Meduza has translated the future teachers’ responses into English.

Anna (name changed)

Fifth-year student at Pushkin Leningrad State University

The first three years of college, I was eager to work in a school. From the very beginning, I chose to go to a pedagogical college, inspired by our school teacher. She created her own methodology, would give something from the textbook and something else, some outside materials. For example, she also taught our social studies class, and we’d read newspaper clippings when discussing events. I wanted to be the same: to consider every topic from different viewpoints. I got in, and then the special military operation started.

It wasn’t a topic that was discussed that much in the department. Unless the faculty said something ironically. For example, if we’re discussing the War of the Roses, and the faculty member says, “Or, as they say nowadays, special military operation.” Since the beginning of the special military operation, three boys from our major have dropped out and moved abroad. But that was the end of it. And I thought schools wouldn’t be much affected by what was going on.

And then in my fourth year, we had two internships in schools. One was a naval military school. Letter Zs on the windows and patriotic celebrations. The teachers and we, the student teachers, took part.

We got there on December 9 — it was Heroes of the Fatherland Day (when I was in school, we never celebrated this). On that day, we had an assembly with the fifth graders. There were posters hanging in the classroom with heroes from both the Great Patriotic War and the special military operation. My friend and I didn’t really want to talk about military heroes like the coordinator told us to. There was no specific list of “heroes” or any methodology, it was just this particular school’s initiative. So, we suggested considering the concept of “hero” more broadly. For example, talking about [Yuri] Gagarin or [Anna] Akhmatova. The coordinator agreed.

In the other school, we were in the first graders’ “Important Conversationslesson. The teacher offered two ninth graders the chance to teach it. They just used the book, basically. Why is this even necessary in first grade? It’s the first lesson, the children are 6 or 7 years old. They talk to them about [Ivan] Kulibin, about scientific and technical developments, and some children don’t even know what a scientist is.

In both schools, this kind of “patriotic education” seems to fall more on history teachers’ shoulders. This year they even introduced a new textbook by Medinsky. When I saw how information was presented there, my desire to work in a regular school with children completely disappeared.

First, I’m still surprised that this textbook was written very quickly — in a year, or even less. Because textbooks take a long time to write: the exercises have to be developed, children should come to their own conclusions, especially in high school, rather than reading ready-made statements.

Second, I watched an interview with historian Tamara Eidelman, and she talked about how some historical events are presented in the textbook. For example, the revolutions in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Hungary in 1953 are presented as: America influences Hungary — we send troops. Then, America influences Czechoslovakia — we send troops. And now, the West is influencing Ukraine, and we’re sending troops again.

[When I was] in school, we also studied the modern period, but only up to 2014. Now, the textbook is more and more about the situation in Ukraine from 2014 onwards. But no events that took place in Russia during this period are mentioned. No reforms, nothing. As if it was bad only outside our country, and here we were solving this problem. We’re right, but over in America…! They’re a bad influence on us! (Anna laughs.)

We were talking in our group about what to do if you come to school, open a textbook, and realize that the next topic is about the special military operation. [We thought that] instead of using the textbook, we could have a workshop where the children could share what they think. To develop critical thinking.

The only thing I’m happy about is that new teachers who just graduated from college don’t get the higher grades right away, they’re given fifth or sixth grade. So, hopefully, there are still a couple of years where we don’t have to work with the new textbooks.

The new textbook

‘Such unique times are rare in history’ Russian authorities unveil new high school history textbook that includes section on war in Ukraine

The new textbook

‘Such unique times are rare in history’ Russian authorities unveil new high school history textbook that includes section on war in Ukraine

Mikhail (name changed)

Freshman at Saint Petersburg State University

I got the idea of studying history back in 9th grade. TikTok got me into history. I stumbled across a woman who was talking about history and recommending textbooks. I was curious and started reading these books.

I didn’t like my teacher in school. Her lessons were highly ideological, unstructured, and she constantly made references to the current state rhetoric. I didn’t see a historical approach; she had a bias towards political science. For example, in 10th and 11th grade, she often mentioned the Munich conference and Putin’s speech about a multipolar world. When we discussed the 90s, she spoke more from her own point of view as a person who lived in the 90s. She told a lot of stories from her life, was very negative about that period, said that it was very difficult. With the smooth transition to the beginning of Putin’s presidency, her tone changed: she started to speak positively about a certain stability.

I’m now in my first year of college. In general, we don’t have heated discussions about what’s going on, teachers talk about it very little, but we discussed the new textbook edited by Medinsky. And the last chapter, it’s about the events of the 2020s. This isn’t history at all. The events have just begun, they aren’t over yet. It’s important for history to know where everything began and where it ended, it’s important to get a good base of sources, to wait 50 years at least. History is the science of the dead. A lot of the political figures of this time are still alive, [so] for now, it’s all political science.

Now I work in an online school, prepping kids for the EGE. We checked with FIPI about whether or not the events from 2022 will be on the second part of the exam, where there are open-ended questions and you need to write comprehensive answers. We were told they wouldn’t be. Even the [first] part doesn’t really require knowledge of this period. There’s a task where you have to match people with events — if you see an unfamiliar name, it’s probably someone related to the special military operation.

Ira (name changed)

Graduate student

After the beginning of the war… on the one hand, I wanted to run away and escape, and on the other hand, I wanted to do something that I’m really good at. The silver lining for me was the idea that, seeing how history is now being twisted, it’s possible, conversely, to convey historical knowledge in an evidence-based way, to shake up people’s ideas that there’s only the traditional point of view. Graduate school gives you the opportunity to teach anywhere, not just in schools.

When I applied in 2022, everyone around me told me it was the worst time. But I thought, “If not now, when?” I wanted to catch the sciences in a place where not everything is off-limits yet. I think I just made it.

A lot of things during studies depend on the academic advisor. The academic community is pretty antiquated, and it's hard to break in from the outside. The professors are mostly from the Soviet historiographical school. And history in Soviet times was mostly ideology. For example, we have a professor who doesn’t allow the word “totalitarianism” in reference to the Stalinist regime. [He says that] it was just a style of government, but not totalitarianism.

When writing academic papers, I face implicit censorship. For example, we’re not allowed to use the term “World War II” when referring to the events that took place on USSR territory from 1941 to 1945. They correct it to “Great Patriotic War.” Or they don’t let us cite the works of some historians, such as Kirill Alexandrov. He studies collaborationism during the Great Patriotic War. There’s an established opinion about collaborators: they were all traitors and degenerates. But he researches this movement and proves that the social composition there was very diverse: both White Russian émigrés, and ordinary people who disagreed with the Soviet state. He’s seen as justifying collaborationism, although that’s altogether unscientific. Science doesn’t pass judgment; you can’t speak of “justification.”

Within our historiographical tradition, they try to introduce the idea that collaborationism is a very unambiguous phenomenon. Hence the name of this war — the Great Patriotic War. Because if for some reason someone was against [Soviet power], he was against his fatherland, and therefore he should be called a traitor. But collaborationism has very complex roots: social (the ineffectiveness of the Soviet government), economic, and religious (because churches were treated very harshly during Soviet times).

When we study the causes [of collaboration], we ask ourselves the question: “What could make a man turn against his own country?” It sounds scary, but it becomes even scarier when you realize what drove him to do it. How must he have been treated, what was needed to bring him to this point?

Now, I sometimes give history lectures to adults. I’m not tutoring 10th and 11th graders for now. I haven’t found any moral way to prepare them for the EGE with its new questions. With adults, I try to develop critical thinking as much as possible. For example, considering different points of view about the same event. So that the next time they hear yet another grand statement that speculates on history, they can think — is it really true? So they doubt it a bit, look into it, check the sources. So they can resist the propaganda.

propaganda in classrooms

‘Genocide’ with seventh graders Moscow schoolteachers describe how they navigate the Russian state’s new ‘patriotic’ curriculum

propaganda in classrooms

‘Genocide’ with seventh graders Moscow schoolteachers describe how they navigate the Russian state’s new ‘patriotic’ curriculum

Varvara (name changed)

Third-year student at HSE University

I plan to apply to a master’s program that’s related to pedagogy. But being a school teacher is one of the last options I’m considering.

Now I’m working as a supervisor in an online EGE prep school. [When I teach classes], I try not to add any personal commentary; it’s not relevant to what I do. Besides, I don’t know how the kids would feel about my opinion. Even if they ask me what I think about some historical figure — Alexander Nevsky, for example — I won’t answer. What kind of personal opinion could I have about him? But what’s going on now… It’s hard for me. Of course, you don’t want to be afraid to say whatever you think. How can what’s happening in the modern world not affect you personally? Of course it does. It hurts.

In class, I call the war the “special military operation.” Well, because officially it’s... a special military operation. I can pick and choose who in my circle I can talk to about it, but when it comes to disseminating ideas... I had very mixed feelings about this when a boy from the group I teach wrote to me. He had a Z on his avatar. He wrote just asking to be added to the chat room. I added him, but I was surprised. It’s been a long time since I’ve met students who are so open about their stance.

In the history department of any college, you can run into a huge number of different people: from monarchists to communists. When I started my studies in 2021, we discussed different views. After the war started, my classmates’ opinions didn’t change much. In the beginning, we talked a lot about what was happening. At this point, the discussions have died down.

Alexander (name changed)

Fourth-year student at Tomsk State University

I don't feel any political pressure at our university. There’s still freedom of academic thought. Yes, sometimes there were stuffy conversations between professors and students. The students were more divided into the conventionally “liberal” (“let’s let schoolchildren figure out for themselves where the truth is in history”) and “patriotic” (“we need to give schoolchildren a single, correct point of view”). Teachers criticized both sides from a pedagogical point of view: the former wouldn’t be able to give enough knowledge to their students with this approach, and the latter would go into propaganda.

All these debates took place within the academic discourse. Tomsk is probably just disconnected from the federal agenda. Our life is the same as it was before the beginning of the special military operation. Yes, people were detained at anti-war rallies. But, compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, it seemed to be less extreme.

When I was applying, I had the idea of being a major researcher and doing scientific studies. I still want to do that now. I guess it’s easier for me — no one really pays attention to Tomsk, and you can be free enough to pursue topics that interest you. For example, I'm interested in the 90s now.

We have an internship at a school next year. I, as a crazy guy who likes the 90s, will probably beg the internship coordinator to let me tell the students about it. I hope I won’t [have to] talk about the war. I don’t know how to talk about it. It’s difficult from a methodological point of view. And from an emotional point of view — what if there’s a student who has a brother or father who died in the war?

In general, I feel so frustrated now... The ideas that are in the [Federal State Educational Standards], they might not be bad methodologically. But the content is about traditional values... especially in connection with the special military operation. Or the new textbooks. The 11th-grade [textbook] is just cringe. It’s one-sided, cannibalistic. How can you say we’re about to win when you don’t know how everything’s going to end?

Archaeologists say that an object only becomes an artifact after 100 years. It’s the same with events: for it to become historical, some time must pass for the traumas and emotions to fade a bit. And so, these textbooks with the special military operation, well, they print a batch, and then... After a while, the textbooks can safely be sent off for recycling.

protecting children from propaganda

‘I won’t let them turn into pawns for the military’ Meduza’s Russian readers on how they’re protecting their children from pro-war propaganda in schools

protecting children from propaganda

‘I won’t let them turn into pawns for the military’ Meduza’s Russian readers on how they’re protecting their children from pro-war propaganda in schools

Story by Veronika Gridinskaya

Translation by Emily ShawRuss

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