Parroting history

History teaching has fallen victim to politics in Russia. Educational standards are falling and children are not being taught to think. They learn that Russia is great, but not the reasons why. Could this be because it is easier to run a nation of naïve, illiterate people who do not know their history?
Elena Godlevskaya
23 April 2010

While scholars dispute the epistemological foundations of the discipline known as history, educationalists are working to solve a task of national importance – how to use the past to glorify the present. In the Russia that was conquered by the Bolsheviks, this was a problem that took many years to solve, and so for a long time history was not taught in school at all – it only appeared as a subject in 1934. From that time on, Soviet people were taught that the history of any nation is the history of class struggle, the crowning glory of which was the Great October socialist revolution. Then there was continuing conflict with counter-revolution, capitalists, kulaks, wreckers, cosmopolitans, Western ideology etc. – until the last enemy, in the form of low oil prices, brought about the collapse of the USSR.

The bacchanalia in the economy and politics also invaded the history textbooks. Grandchildren told their surprised grandparents that everything in their lives had been wrong, that the revolution was not a revolution and the war was not Great, that it would have been better if Nazi Germany had won.  They laughed at the heroism and ideals of old people who, impoverished and bewildered, themselves no longer knew what was positive in their life and what was negative.

The ideology of textbooks today is different: Russia is a great country. We really do have something to be proud of. But as you read paragraph after paragraph, you start to think that you’re missing the most important thing. There are plenty of victories, no problem with that. The facts which before could only be read about in samizdat or discovered from reports by Western radio stations, which were jammed with enviable consistency,  – they’re all here: the destruction of the peasantry, the repressions and the undemocratic nature of the one-party system. Names have appeared which were previously unmentionable. So what’s missing?  Reasons and arguments. Russia is a great country simply because it is great.

In the early 20th century the renowned French historian Lucien Febvre complained: “…universities don’t require their students to have a critical understanding of the text.  They teach them to make do with mere words – dates, names of historical figures and places…” He called this “parrot history” and called on his colleagues to “fight for history”.

History teacher Alexei Semyonovich has been fighting this battle for 31 years now.

“School textbooks have improved,” he says. “But how can there be any depth of knowledge if only two hours is devoted to studying history per week and Russian schoolchildren only study eight months a year?  And that’s only if there are no frosts or flu quarantine etc!   Things are presented in black or white, so a historical figure is either good or bad.  In many cases what used to be hushed up, still is.  The past is still mythologized. The main problem is that the textbooks don’t make the pupils or the teachers think.  Alexander Nevsky made concessions to Batu Khan, the enslaver of Rus’, so why was he canonized by the Orthodox church? Why did Ivan the Terrible need book printing? Why is Joseph Stalin still so popular among the people that even though he wiped out millions of our fellow citizens, he came third in the TV history project “Name of Russia”, getting just 4,000 fewer votes than the great reformer Pyotr Stolypin?



The TV show "Name of Russia", which invited nominations for the greatest Russian in history, provided a playground for mythologisation


“The beginning and end of any historical study involves the formulation of a problem. Where there are no problems, there is no history. But our textbooks avoid this, so there are no arguments or assessments.  Either the children decide for themselves or the teacher has complete control.  In this case everything depends on the person – a teacher may have communist leanings, he may have liberal views, be a ‘Stalinist’, a ‘Putinist’ or a globalist. There is no standard. The result is that the pupils are totally confused, with no understanding of cause and effect. Whether we’re talking about Prince Svyatoslav, Alexander II, Khrushchev or Gorbachev – they’re all figures from an unnecessary past, which for some reason pupils are forced to study”.

“But can’t the teacher teach the topic in such a way as to interest the child?”

“Yes. I’ve been doing it all my life. But I’ve become more cautious recently, since the Presidential Commission was set up to counteract attempts at falsifying history and damaging Russia’s interests. One of the stated aims of this commission is to collect and analyse information about the falsification of history, which is designed to detract from the international prestige of the Russian Federation. When Hitler attacked our country and we completely lost the beginning of the war, our forces were five times superior to those of Germany.  But when we tell children this in a history lesson, are we disparaging the prestige of the Russian Federation, or simply telling the truth which people prefer not to discuss, but which is worth thinking about? When Peter the Great finally defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War, the Treaty of Nystadt (1721) brought the Baltic lands into the Russian Empire.  Many of those who thus acquired Russian citizenship decided they didn’t want to live in conditions where they wouldn’t be free and left for the West – is this is a plus for the Russian Federation or a minus?  

“I’m not a young man, I’ve seen a great deal and have a good idea of the possible consequences of words that someone considers a falsification. These days it’s better to repeat what the textbook says and for the exams, which children have to sit when they leave school, it’s better for them to know less, paradoxical though this may sound.

“Traditionally the student sat an oral exam involving discussion of a topic allocated by ticket.  The Education Ministry then invented the Universal State Exam, which assesses a student’s knowledge of history by multiple choice test.  I’d like to come face to face with the person who devised these questions… Just imagine: the child is given possible answers to very simplistic questions about the start of the war between Germany and the USSR. How can they get their bearings? What answer should they choose, if they know more than is in the textbook and realise that the answers on offer are essentially incorrect, or only correct when combined with other facts? So, to avoid harming the children, we have to make sure we don’t study a subject in depth, but just cram them with dates, names, periods and so on. I remember the Gorbachev era with nostalgia.  My wife almost divorced me because almost every day I stayed out talking with my pupils until midnight.  We used to find a place where we could argue ourselves hoarse about the development of the virgin lands in Kazakhstan, errors in the campaign to take Berlin in 1945 and the pluses and minuses of the Brezhnev era… But today children don’t even ask questions at lessons. None at all. The state is breeding a generation of people who don’t think. They are happy with what they are told. They are told: this is a great country. A great people. The conclusion is: they too are great. Even if they are good-for-nothing. Sometimes this frightens me.”

Suddenly the peace of the café where we are talking is disturbed by the shouts of a group of tipsy youths of about 19. They’re in the mood for a party and they’re having fun choosing songs on the jukebox. First they put on a prison song “I’m leaving all my money in the kitty, I don’t need a lot or a little…” and then “Victory Day”, a song that isn’t exactly a part of youth culture, about the victory in the Great Patriotic War.  “This Victory Day smells of gunpowder, it’s a holiday with grey hairs, it’s joy with eyes full of tears. Victory Day! Victory Day! Victory Day!”  What an odd symbiosis, I thought, they’ve probably made a mistake.   But no, “Victory Day” came on again. “Victory Day, Victory Day” – they either sang it or demanded it should be played, bawling the words at the top of their voices. Suddenly I realised that this was no coincidence, and that the boys were singing for a reason. They had a feeling of doom and a strong desire for victory day. Victory over everyone and everything… a living illustration of our conversation.

The next day I go to secondary school №19.  My son is in year 9 there and I want to hear for myself how they teach history, and see how the children react. How naïve of me. The history teacher Irina Ozeranskaya shows me the door, saying that my presence will simply be “highly irregular in relation to the children”. The headmaster Alexander Bykovsky, also a historian, suggests I go to the Teacher Training Institute, where they’ll be able to give me a better explanation of how things are done.

I hear from my son, when he gets home from school, that the teacher had been telling them about the success of the first five-year plans in the USSR. I can only guess what I was not supposed to see or hear at this lesson.

Professor Oleg Fyodorov teaches at the Oryol State Institute of Arts and Culture.  He doesn’t attend school lessons, but he knows the problem inside out, as he has to teach school-leavers from every kind of schools. He says the level of education gets lower every year.

“Firstly, children have no knowledge of historical terminology. If you don’t understand a term, you don’t understand the sentence. If you don’t understand the sentence, then you don’t understand the paragraph or the topic as a whole. General knowledge in the humanities is very low. School leavers don’t know about maps. They can distinguish North and South, but only a third can show you East and West. Without maps understanding or learning history is impossible.  I conducted an experiment: I allowed the students to use atlases at lessons – but this helped practically no one to form a correct answer. At the last exam I allowed students to use the textbook, even to copy answers out of it, but on condition that they talked at the oral exam with the book closed. You won’t believe it, but it didn’t improve the result at all! Children lack the skill of singling out what is most important or retelling something in a logical way. The only thing they do with any success is giving dates and names. The problem with school education is that the problem is not clearly set out and there are no general conclusions or reasoning.  Even the most splendid selection of facts, names, figures and dates can’t be understood or remembered without these. When you don’t know what you are looking for, you don’t understand what you find.”

It may seem that the professor is exaggerating, but I have some written works by first year students of another institute right here in front of me. They are answers on the subject of “The Decembrist movement and its constitutional projects”.  Permit me to remind you that the Decembrist uprising was an attempted coup d’etat in St. Petersburg on 14 December 1825.   The rebels were like-minded members of the nobility backed up by military units. The goals were to stop Nicholas I from ascending the throne and to liberalise the Russian socio-political system.

For example, this is what Darya S., a student of the economic faculty, wrote (spelling and punctuation preserved) [attempted in English ed.]:

“The Decembrist uprising took place on 14 December 1825. It were preceded by the transformation of the new emperor, actually not – more the death of the old one, and the throne was supposed to Nicholas I. At this time various opposition parties formed… Therefore, on the night of 14December 1825, the army came out on to Red Square in front of the Kremlin, under the leadership of Trubetskoi and they had laid down their arms. But the government headed by Nicholas I saw this as a rebellion. The Decembrists were surrounded without the help of a single battalion.

“Almost half of them were shot. A large number were exiled to Siberia. And the leaders of the Decembrist uprising: Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Pestel, Muraviev-Apostol, and two others whose names I unfortunately don’t remember, perhaps they’re not that important, although… A knowledge of history is necessary, as if you are a LOSER on the subject of the National history of Russia, you will disgrace not only yourself, although generally no one has any sense of conscience left, not even a drop!!! A true citizen of the Russian Federation should know his rights and obligations, should have his own viewpoint and opinion, and ignorance, and what’s more a shameful ignorance, of history, is a blot on your future reputation… Generally, if a person doesn’t even know when Rus’ was Christened, then shame on him! And if the death penalty was permitted in Russia, I would have this person shot… So, the families of the Decembrists were in exile, and many wives of the Decembrists, as we know from many works, followed their husbands to Siberia, to their loved ones, so as to see them and look at them again… To listen to them and feel their breath. Just to know that he’s alive, and spend the rest of your life next to him…in their thoughts… with their loved ones…. To suffer alongside him, I think this is what every woman dreams of. To do this crazy act, although men in our country, and in the world in general, are not worthy of this, unlike the Decembrists… All men these days are a bunch of assholes! Real men are few and far between. Where are you going to find them?”

What can you add to this? Only one thing: unfortunately, answers of this type are not uncommon.

As we know, a diagnosis is made as a result of historical analysis. Including a diagnosis of what is going on in the country today. The answer by a first-year student of the economics faculty I have quoted above is also a diagnosis. Not of a child, but of the education and the perception of the world in today’s Russia. But it is unlikely that this worries the government. It’s easier to rule naïve, illiterate people who are incapable of expressing their thoughts, and don’t understand the historical lessons of the past. It’s a shame that schoolchildren aren’t told about this.

Elena Godlevskaya is a journalist in Oryol and former editor of the independent newspaper Orlovskie Novosti

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