Russia: New school history books justify war in Ukraine

Friday, 11 August 2023 (18:21 IST)
"Chapters focusing on the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and the 2000s have been completely revised and rewritten. A new section has been added from 2014 to the present day, with a specific focus on 'the special military operation,'" Vladimir Medinsky, adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said during a press conference as he introduced the new textbooks that are due to enter schools at the start of the new school year in September. "Special military operation" is the term the Kremlin uses to describe its war against Ukraine.
Russia’s former culture minister co-authored the four new history textbooks, along with Anatoly Torkunov from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and Aleksandr Chubaryan, scientific director at the Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences.  
What is the new history book about? 
From September 1, updated history books will be used across grades 10 and 11 in all Russian schools. During 2024, new history textbooks for years five through nine will also be written by the same team of authors. In the new "Medinsky Book," named after the conservative presidential aide who presented the book to the press, one chapter referring to present-day events has been rewritten to include the Donbas war, which began in 2014, and the Minsk agreements that sought to end the conflict. The section then concludes with the so-called "special military operation."
The authors of the book home in on the notion that the West is "fixated on destabilizing the situation in Russia." Paragraph upon paragraph, the writers build on a chain of events to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. From the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s to the Russo-Georgian war in 2018. It goes on further to detail the destruction of Soviet memorials in Eastern Europe, and the "resurgence of Nazim" in the Baltic countries, before concluding with the emergence of "Ukrainian neo-Nazism."
According to the authors, this is "fierce national, linguistic and cultural violence which is being perpetrated by an aggressive minority against the majority." The textbook also seeks to convey the message that any cooperation between European countries, the US and Ukraine is "not a strong Ukraine, but a weak Russia" and that the "current Ukrainian junta" came to power as a result of the "bloody uprising of 2014."
The textbook’s authors also refer to Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. This, according to the three co-writers, is the final straw that led to Russia's so-called "special military operation." It is here that they try to appeal to the students' propagandistic emotionalism by writing: "That [Ukraine entering NATO — editor's note] would most likely be the end of civilization. That must not be allowed to happen."
The goal of the "special military operation," the authors wrote, is "the protection of the Donbas and a proactive guarantee for Russia’s security." The section on present-day events then concludes with information about "fakes," and "foreign agents," before ending with a detailed section profiling the "heroes of the special military operation."
According to Medinsky, the new textbook contains "significantly fewer numbers, dates and dry statistics, and, instead, focusses on stories about people and real concrete events." The language in the textbooks is fundamentally different from any linguistic style commonly used in education. It does not use academic language, but prose that appeals to one's emotions and feelings. 
Instead of using the terms "Russia" or "Russians," the new textbook refers to "us" and "our country." The authors fail to present the facts, preferring instead to appeal to the students: "You are adults, dear high school students … do not miss this opportunity … today’s Russia is a country of opportunities."
Ideology and propaganda  
Konstantin Pachaljuk, a historian and political scientist who focuses on Russia, was involved in writing school history textbooks in Russia before the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. "I wrote a chapter on World War I for one of the textbooks. But it was edited and turned into patriotic agitation. Such a fuss was made, and I had to defend some of my points," he said.  
Historians are no longer surprised by the ideologization of textbooks in Russia. "History textbooks are all about ideology. We react so intensely because we see how editorially they follow the propaganda media — they are not always quite right, but they are never completely wrong," said Sergei Chernyshov, a historian at a university in Novosibirsk. 
Previous editions of history textbooks used in Russian schools contained chapters focused on Crimea, international sanctions and other contemporary events. For example, in the textbook used for grades 10 and 11, the section on Russia’s history from 2012 to 2020 talks about the "reunification of Crimea with Russia," describing it as a reaction to the takeover of power in Kyiv by "radical nationalists."  
Brief mention is made of the subsequent international sanctions and the referendum for constitutional change in 2020. The "referendum" was the largest constitutional reform in Russian history and effectively secures power for Russian President Vladimir Putin beyond 2024. 
Historians consider the fact that current events in Russia and Ukraine have become the subject of historiography to be completely inappropriate.  
"This approach, where current events are included in history textbooks, is not common practice. Many historians are critical of this. The present should not be the subject of history. There needs to be historical distance. Perhaps the reason why the state wants to combine history with the present, is so the present appears as stable as their history," Pachaljuk said.  
Including present-day events in school textbooks, the historian added, allows the Russian government to blur the line between history and propaganda.

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