Teaching History in Orenburg

Against a backdrop of an ever increasing politization of the Soviet past, journalist Elena Strelnikova returned to her old classroom. Her fly-on-the-wall account shows the contentious debates played through the eyes of 14-year-olds.

Elena Strelnikova
4 May 2010

It's 20 years since I was last here.  The furniture is new, but the walls, the projector… and “our” map of the battle for Kursk is not.  This too has wandered from its previous life into a new country.  For some reason the layout of the battle, the defences, counterattacks and the German ring are clearer and brighter than they would be on up-to-date computer graphics.  WWII is allocated 6 hours in year 9 by the Ministry of Education.  In the '80s of the last century we studied this topic for 2 months.

Yuri Nikolaevich Minakin comes into the class energetically.  He is a history teacher with 33 years experience behind him.  His lessons consist of debates, communication and discussions. He rings the bell which hangs near the board, as he did for us 20 years ago.  3 times.  The 9th year "parliament" is in session

Teacher: Good morning!  Sit down and clear your desks. Put away anything you don't need.  We're going to be looking at events in the Great Patriotic War [WWII] before the dramatic turning point, which means before 2 February 1943, when General Paulus capitulated and the Battle of Stalingrad was won.  Pay attention, please.  What are the most important events of the Great Patriotic War?  Girls, I asked to you to tidy away your things.  When did the war begin?

Whole class (almost) together: 22 June

Teacher: We agreed that there would be no shouting out.

Girl:  22 June 1941 at 4 a.m.

Teacher: So, where were the German fascist armies directing their offensives from?

Boy:  North, centre and south

Teacher: The “Central” army group moved towards… 

Boy 1: Moscow

Teacher: the “Northern” group… 

Boy 1: Leningrad

Teacher: “Southern”..

Boy 1: Kiev.

Teacher: So..we retreated from Moscow.  How come?  Preparations had gone on for such a long time.  Remember the years of industrialisation?  Heavy industry was all for defence.  How was it that the Red Army retreated with such colossal losses?

Girl 1 and Boy 2 together: Because the attack was unexpected.

Teacher: Stop, stop right there.  Express it properly.  Your opinion.

Girl 1:  The shells weren't ready.  The tanks and the aeroplanes….

Teacher: Stop.  Sit down, please.  Who else will attempt to formulate it?  Clearly, please.

Girl 2: Stalin thought that Hitler would seize England first, then march into the USSR….

Boy 2: And…..

Teacher:  Stop, you're interrupting.  Let her finish what she was going to say.

Girl 2: But it turned out differently, because Hitler marched into the USSR straight away.

Teacher: Yes, the attack was unexpected.  Stalin was convinced that Germany would not risk attacking the Soviet Union without first defeating and plundering England.  So our troops were not on a war footing.  Yes, yes, it's true.  And what was the outcome of this?

Girl 1: They didn't manage to conceal all their supplies.

Teacher: Quite right.  They didn't have enough time to evacuate them from the areas under threat.  All our Western Front supplies fell into the hands of the Nazis.  And what else?

Boy 1: Planes.  We lost our planes…

Teacher: Absolutely.  We lost 1200 planes on the first day of the war. Most of them were still on their stands in the aerodromes.  They hadn't even managed to take off.  In the first week of the war we lost 5,000 planes.  And what happened as a result of this? The Germans had secured for themselves…

Boy 2: Air supremacy.  Attempts to concentrate our forces to strike back ended with the German air force attacking and destroying them.

Teacher: Quite right.  All true.  And?

Boy 3: We were afraid that Japan would attack.  We were holding 20 divisions in the Far East.

Teacher: That is certainly one of the reasons.

Boy 4: Germany's experience.  She was confident of victory.

Boy 1: We were fighting a coalition.

Teacher: Who was on the side of fascist Germany?

Boy 1: Italy, Hungary, Rumania and Finland.

Teacher: Quite a force ranged against us, I think you will  agree.  We had only ourselves to blame that Finland was against us, didn't we?

Boy 4: The 1939-40 war.  We started it.  It was an aggressive war for which we were expelled from the League of Nations.

Teacher: Correct.  Good.  Any more reasons?  You've forgotten the main one.  The military command lost control of the troops and the retreat was disorderly.  In 1941 more than 3 million people were captured.  We lost our professional army.  The balance of strength changed in Germany's favour.  But there's another reason no one has mentioned.  Who wants to tell us what it is?

Girl 3: The apportioning of blame.

Teacher: Good. When we started retreating, the hunt for the guilty started up again.  The Commander of the Western Front was shot.  Yes, Stalin hunted down the guilty people.  But that's not what we're talking about now.  What happened just before the war?

Boy 1: Events in Poland?

Teacher: No.

Girl 2: Mass repressions?

Teacher: Yes.  What does that mean?  Did the mass repressions weaken the army?

Boy 4: The remaining officers were young and inexperienced.  80% of the commanders had been shot or sent to the gulag.  Three of the five marshals.

Teacher: But not all of them were shot – Meretsky, Rossokovsky.  They were set free and sent back to fight.  I'd like to point something out here.  It's not even that some were shot.  I repeat, many of those who were not shot were sent back into battle.  Something else.  Fear!  The spirit of initiative was hobbled by fear.  Commanders were afraid of accepting responsibility.  In a totalitarian system, where the lower echelons unquestioningly carry out the orders of their superiors, no one wanted any responsibility.  So much had to be decided by Stalin personally, because without him people were afraid of responsibility.  So when control over the troops was lost, it turned out that we were unable to act independently.  In that system the fear is completely understandable and was a very important factor.

OK. Let's look at another unpleasant fact.  We all know that in the Baltic states, the Ukraine (these days we say Ukraine) and Western Ukraine those who fought on the side of fascist Germany are currently regarded as heroes.  Why did some of the local population welcome the Germans?

Boy 1 (uncertainly):  The repressions again?

The others have not even attempted an audible answer.

Teacher: Girls and boys, tragic as it may seem, we ourselves are to blame for the fact that a part of the local population welcomed the Fascists.  After all, no one yet knew about the horrific cruelties which they had perpetrated and were still perpetrating.  But socialist changes had been initiated when Western Ukraine, Western Belorussia and the Baltic States became part of the USSR – how were they carried out?

Boy: Aggressively.

Teacher: No, think again.  They were carried out…

Boy 2: in the Stalinist way.  Forced collectivisation and repressions.

Teacher: Quite right.  And this is how we set a large part of the population against us.  We should understand that.  But this still doesn't give the fascist sympathisers the right to be regarded as heroes.  We'll go on.  Briefly – the battle for Moscow.

Girl 3: The Germans came very close to Moscow, within 25 kms.  The government was already preparing to leave the capital and the diplomatic corps had been evacuated to Samara.  There was an acceptance in the air that Moscow would have to be given up. The city was mined and trenches were dug.

Teacher: Stop.  We’ll leave the details out of this.  The battle for Moscow is divided into 2 stage.  The first….

Girl 4: The German approach.

Teacher: And the second?

Girl 4: The return attack.

Teacher: Counter….

Girl 4: attack.

Teacher: By Soviet troops.  When did our troops go on the counterattack outside Moscow?

All (almost) in unison: 5 December 1941.

Teacher: Who will sum up the significance of the battle for Moscow?

Girl: The myth of the invincibility of the Fascist army was shattered .

Boy: The preservation of the capital city.

Teacher: There's no myth about that.  The myth that was shattered once and for all was the blitzkrieg.  Good.  Answer me this: did the battle for Moscow not contribute to the rise of liberation movements in countries under the Fascist heel? (General confusion…)  Of course it did!  That was when the anti-Hitler coalition was formed.  What countries made up the anti-Hitler coalition and were at war with Fascist Germany?

Boy: England!

Teacher: Don't shout out.  You tell me.

Girl: USA and England.

Teacher: And several other countries as well, but first and foremost England and USA.  Quite right.  But when was the second front opened up?

Boy 1: In 1944.

Teacher: Good lad.  We haven't yet talked about this in the lessons, but you already know.  Yes, only in 1944.  The Allies dragged their feet over opening up the Second Front.  Churchill explained that this was due to a shortage of waterborne craft.  I think…..

Boy: He was protecting his soldiers.

Teacher: I agree he was probably protecting them.  But I think they were actually afraid of the Germans.  Afraid of them.  So…next.  The battle for Stalingrad.  When was that?

Boy 3: Which one?

Teacher: Stalingrad.

Girl: In May….

Boy 3: September 42.  Fighting started in the city.

Teacher: When did our troops start to counterattack?

Girl and boy together: 19 November.

Teacher: And ended….

Girl: 27 November.

Teacher: Wrong.

Girl: Oh, 2 February 1943.

Almost in unison: The capitulation.

Teacher: And now some questions. I want an opinion  from you.  In 1942 we had experienced the bitterness of the retreat.  The Red Army retreated hundreds of kilometres to the Volga.  What's your explanation of how the Germans once again broke through our defences and advanced to the Volga?  How could such a tragedy happen after the brilliant victory at Moscow?

Boy: Most of our forces were concentrated on the central front, but Hitler turned his forces to the south, towards Stalingrad.

Teacher: Why?  Who can explain the German success?

Boy 1: The Soviet troops' fear of Hitler.

Teacher: No. No, not that.

Boy 2: Our commanders made a strategic error.  But really it was Stalin.  He decided that the Germans would continue to advance towards Moscow, but the Germans had prepared an offensive in the south.

Teacher: It was a terrible, tragic mistake which cost us hundreds of thousands of lives.  While the troops were retreating, Stalin issued order no 227.

Girl: “No turning back”.

Teacher: This order was only published in 1989, in a journal of military history.  What do you know about the famous order 227

Girl: That all cowards and traitors were shot.

Boy: May I say it?  During the retreat….

Girl: Oh, of course….yes, yes!

Boy:….shooting one's own soldiers without orders was allowed.

Boy 1: Trenches were dug behind our lines.

Boy 3:  Our soldiers were shot by special agents.

Teacher: No turning back.  Commanders could shoot cowards or panickers on the spot.  If the commanders and the political instructors had allowed troops to retreat without orders, where were they sent?

Boy: To the “hot spots”.

Teacher: Yes, to the hot spots, to the punishment platoons and battalions, which were sent…

Boy: …into the thick of it.

Teacher: Exactly, into the thick of the battle, to break through fortified enemy positions.  You've left one thing out.  Behind our forces….

Boy 1: …were the special agents.

Teacher: Not special agents.  What were they called… (the class is quiet) the detachments to block retreat.

Boy 1: They had another purpose too.  When we broke through the first line of defence, they filled the breach.

Teacher: I asked my father what they thought of these retreat-blocking detachments.  He said “It was OK.  We knew that without orders there would be no breaking the line to the left or the right.”  Perhaps this kind of shake-up is necessary in wartime…though it's awful.  Just as war is…a terrible thing.

So we'll start on a new topic.  The battle for Kursk.  Write it down, please:  the culmination of the dramatic turning point.  You can write down the time frame straight away: from 5 June 1943 to 23 August 1943.  Pay attention, please!  Everyone listening?  Spring, the Soviet-German front has fallen silent.  Sovinformburo bulletins would regularly report that nothing particular had happened at the front.

The remaining 15 minutes of the lesson were taken up by the teacher talking.  Yuri Nikolaevich was always trying to draw the children into a dialogue, to force them to think, make prognoses and analyse.  It was mainly the boys that reacted.  It's always been the boys that are more interested in history, specially military matters.  It has to be said, though, that it was very noticeable that of the 20 children in the 9th year class, only 10 were really interested in the lesson.  Even fewer do any work during the lesson – about 7, no more.  “I think they are more indifferent to history than I would like,” says Yuri Minakin.  “The flash of interest in history was more a thing of the 90s.”

Straight after the lesson the children and I had a mini-dialogue.

ES: Could World War II have been avoided?

Girl: Fascism was flourishing, so it had to happen.

Boy: The two totalitarian regimes, Russia and Germany, were the reason for the war:  Hitler and Stalin's regimes clashed.

Boy 2: I think it was the fascist ideology that led to war.  The mood in society.

ES: Today one often hears it said that it wasn't the USSR that won the war.  What do you think?

Boy: That's ….  The Allies only joined up with us in 1944, when we'd practically defeated Hitler's army.

Girl: It was a re-run of WWI.

Boy 2: Of  course it was the Soviet Union that won.  We lost so many troops in the war!

ES: What do you think of Stalin?

Boy: A very contradictory figure, in my opinion.  He was cruel and made many strategic errors.  But his contribution has to be recognised:  he won the war and a lot of what he did was successful.  Like collectivisation, which considerably strengthened our industry.  He has many pluses and minuses, so it's impossible to give a simple answer.

Girl: But his pre-war repressions cannot be forgiven.

Boy: Politicians today are attempting to instil a hatred of the Stalinist regime in us.  It's anti-propaganda.  We can see that from the textbooks too.  He's clearly presented as a dictator and very cruel.

Girl: But that's what he was!

Boy 2: But I still don't agree with Alexander.  I see Stalin as a very unpleasant historical figure.  So many people were repressed and they weren't traitors.  They were captured against their will, but they were still repressed.  Everything that happened was done by the Soviet people. Victories were the work of all the commanders, not just Stalin.  To attribute the victory in WWII to one person is wrong.  There may be many contradictions in that victory, but it belongs to the whole Soviet people.

Boy: But it isn't only Stalin that is to blame for the repressions.  There was Beria too.

Boy 3: Russia needed a firm hand at that time and Stalin was it.

ES: Would that be possible today?

Girl:  No, that country has gone and we don't have the same unity.

Girl 1: Now there's free speech.  Democracy.  Only it's every man for himself.

Boy 1: We know that we can say almost anything.

Boy: No, Pasha, we can't.

Boy 1: Compared to then.

Boy: I suppose.

Boy 1: We've had a taste of democracy and won't go back to that kind of Stalinist regime.

Boy 3: What we are seeing now is a repeat of the same authoritarian regime.  There may be many areas that are free, but don't go anywhere near politics.


 Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg

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