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Russia and the Holocaust – whose genocide was it anyway?

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27 January, anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, is widely marked as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but Russia pays little attention to it. Why in a country so deeply affected by this genocide, has raising awareness of it been an uphill struggle?

Ilya Altman
27 January 2014

Speaking at a conference in Stockholm in 2000, Valentina Matvienko, then Deputy Prime Minister of Russia and now speaker of its Federation Council, described the place assigned to the Holocaust in its moral value and education systems as the litmus test for democracy in Russia.

Unfortunately it is taking a long time for the importance of this issue to be recognised in a country which occupies a large part of the former Soviet Union, whose citizens made up almost half of the victims of the Holocaust. In the West the very word is central to people’s collective memory – a constant reminder of the need for tolerance and resistance to all forms of violence. When in 1991 Mikhail Gefter, the eminent historian and philosopher, and I set up the first Research and Educational Holocaust Center in Europe, few people in Russia even knew what the word meant. That is no longer the case: the Holocaust is spoken and written about not only by professional historians and educators, but increasingly by our rulers, including Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, as well as Patriarch Aleksei, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Awareness of it is at the core of our opposition to those who seek to condone the crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War, and the Russian parliament is considering criminalising Holocaust denial.  

The term however, borrowed as it is from the West, has acquired different meanings for different people. Even back in the 90s both nationalists and communists used it to mean ‘Russian genocide’, and in his manifesto for the 2012 presidential election Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky proposed creating a Russian Holocaust Institute.

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Train tracks leading up the the Auschwitz concentration camp. This photo was taken by a Red Army soldier two days after the camp was liberated. 

In the 90s both nationalists and communists used 'Holocaust' to mean ‘Russian genocide.’

Meanwhile our young people’s main source of information, apart from school history lessons, is the war films that Russian TV channels have been showing regularly since the early 90s, including director Pavel Chukhrai’s remarkable documentary about Holocaust survivors ‘Children of the Abyss’ (2000) and serials based on novels set in the period, such as Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’ and Anatoly Rybakov’s ‘Heavy Sand.’ The term ‘Holocaust’ isn’t always explicit, but the subject of the Nazis’ and their collaborators’ extermination of Jews and the death camps situated on occupied Russian soil has long ceased to be a closed book.

The beginnings of Holocaust studies

However, while the Holocaust’s place in history has been the subject of widespread public debate in many former Eastern Bloc countries and former Soviet Republics, this has not happened in Russia.    

Our schoolchildren, whose main source of information is the Internet, can only be confused and misled by much that they read there, since dozens of sites describe the Holocaust as a myth. Around the turn of our new century, Russian publishers brought out blockbuster editions of ‘compositions’ written by Holocaust deniers; the recently closed ‘Duel’ newspaper, the journal ‘Our Contemporary’ and other publications have been trying to persuade us that the subject should not even be raised in Russia today, since it belittles not only the heroic exploits of the Red Army, but people of other ethnicities who died in World War II.

Nevertheless back in the 90s a few enthusiasts began to teach the history of the Holocaust in Russian schools, with much help from the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center and its Foundation (created in 1997). More recently the Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, opened by president Boris Yeltsin in 1998 and financed by the Russian Jewish Congress, has been running interesting educational projects, including training courses for Baptist Sunday school teachers.

Some publications still argue that the subject should not even be raised in Russia.

One of the Holocaust Center’s priorities, however, is the teaching of Holocaust history in Russia’s schools and universities. In 1999 the Center was instrumental in producing the first course materials and teaching manuals on the subject at various levels, compiled by eminent specialists at the Russian Academy of Education. Since then its work has grown to include government-funded professional development courses for teachers around the regions, workshops at international ‘Lessons of the Holocaust for Russia Today’ conferences and ‘Living History’ seminars co-organised with Swedish educationalists in cities all over Russia, while the publication of papers from these events have allowed their lessons to be shared by tens of thousands of teachers. 

The Center’s courses for teachers are now accepted as the core source material for teaching about the Holocaust, and since 2010 more than 350 teachers from over half of Russia’s regions studying on our advanced courses have had placements abroad at key sites connected with it:  the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies in Israel, the Wannsee House Holocaust Memorial in Germany (where senior Nazis met in 1942 to plan the ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’), the Shoah Memorial in France and the Auschwitz Oswiecim Museum in Poland. 

The circle widens

The turning point for teaching the subject in Russia came in 2003, when the draft ‘General History’ curriculum included the Holocaust for the first time. Twenty or so authors of history textbooks for secondary schools then produced individual essays on the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators: in 2010 these were published together as a handbook, accompanied by recommendations on their use in class. In 2011 the Russian Ministry of Education and Science agreed to the Holocaust Center’s request that questions about the Holocaust be included in the Common National Examination taken by school leavers.

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Auschwitz prisoners recreate the liberation of the camp by the Red Army for the cameras.

Discussion of the Holocaust was also encouraged by a government programme, run between 2001 and 2005, designed to develop tolerance awareness. Again, the subject wasn’t mentioned explicitly in the programme outline, but it was widely covered in accompanying materials and teachers’ seminars. Over the last 12 years the Holocaust Center and Foundation have been sponsoring an international competition for schoolchildren, students and teachers under the heading: ‘Remembering the Holocaust – the Way to Tolerance’, with the winners presenting their work to an audience of prominent international figures at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.  

Since 2011 questions about the Holocaust have been included in the Common National Examination taken by school leavers.

In other words, Holocaust studies in Russia have been going from strength to strength, and have been further boosted by a module on ‘Outlines of World Religions’ recently introduced to the school curriculum, which includes the history and culture of Jews and Judaism. And materials for a multimedia Holocaust studies course are also in preparation.

Reaching the general public

All this does not however mean that the Holocaust is now being given the attention due to it in Russia. International Holocaust Remembrance Day, for example, is not marked here, although Russia was one of the countries that brought a resolution on the subject to the UN General Assembly in 2005, and the date, 27 January, was chosen to mark the liberation of Auschwitz  in 1945 - by the Red Army. This feat by our forces is recognised by the entire civilised world, but not in its homeland, whose politicians vie with one another in complaining that Russia’s role in the defeat of Nazism is constantly underplayed by the West.

The absence of public events outside Moscow and some other cities, combined with a lack of media interest in International Holocaust Remembrance Day, mean that we are still far from achieving wide awareness of the subject among Russians. The school history curriculum rightly highlights the wartime heroism of the Red Army, but devotes little attention to such things as life under Nazi occupation and the role of collaborators and the Resistance. Given that the entire Second World War has to be covered in only six lessons, there is no time to deal with the Holocaust as a separate theme and pupils with an interest in it have to study it in their own time. The fact that Russia (unlike the Baltic States) is not a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a UN Outreach programme, also limits the place of Holocaust studies in both schools and Colleges of Education.

The school history curriculum rightly highlights the wartime heroism of the Red Army, but devotes little attention to such things as life under Nazi occupation.

Another negative element is a certain level of anti-Semitism among Russians (in 2012 a spoof story in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda claiming that schools were running a 72 hour long course on the Holocaust sparked a mass online campaign against any teaching of the subject) – but this is not a deciding factor.

There are however some grounds for optimism: the shockwave that went through the media and the public when a young TV quiz show contestant, asked for a definition of the word ‘holocaust’, suggested it was a brand of wallpaper paste, suggests that Russians are finally learning its lessons – and not just in school, either.  

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