Monday, December 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Teachers Struggle to Remind Students of Soviet-Era Crimes

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 1 – At a time when Moscow education officials in deference to the Kremlin are whitewashing the Soviet past, some Russian teachers are doing all they can to ensure that their students learn about the crimes committed by Stalin and other communist leaders against the population.
Their efforts are highlighted in a recent book, entitled “School Lessons on ‘the History of Political Repressions and Resistance to Unfreedom in the USSR” published last year in Moscow under the sponsorship of the Sakharov Museum and reviewed in the just-released December issue of “Znamya” (
As the reviewer Svyatoslava Kozhukova notes, this book, which attempts to stand up to the disturbing tendency of forgetting the crimes of the [Soviet] powers toward society,” consists of a set of outlines of the best lectures on history, civics and literature prepared by teachers in various regions of the country.
This effort is important, Kozhukova continues, because “the historical memory of a society is not something as natural as the personal memory of an individual. It must be formed. And its content depends on who is doing that, how they are doing it, and what goals they are pursuing.
Building a democratic society in countries with an authoritarian past is impossible unless that society faces up to its past, she says. Unfortunately, as officials at the Sakharov Museum point out, “Russia lives without understanding what has taken,” despite some progress in Khrushchev’s, Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s time to do so.
“But more recently,” Yury Samodurov, the museum’s director says, “public interest in [this past] was again extinguished. [And] in the consciousness of society has been introduced the conviction that one should not ‘blacken the historic past.’” That has prompted a group of concerned democratic activists, historians and teachers look for a way out.
Theirs is no easy task, Kozhukova argues in her review. “What and how must one tell children about Soviet realities so that future generations will not repeat the mistakes of the past? And how should they tell this at a time when outside the school, the child may encounter an opposing point of view?”
More specifically, “what should they do if a significant part of society is deprived of historical memory and considers Stalin a hero, and grandmothers with a failing mind recall the words ‘Thank you Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood’ and tell their grandchildren that the teacher is lying?”
The task is complicated, the compilers of the book say, because it is not only a question of fact but of methodology. Not only do children need to learn specific facts about the Soviet past, but they need to learn these facts in a way that does not reinforce the authoritarian patterns of the past.
That is, they need to acquire these facts not by taking down, memorizing and giving them back on tests – the classical authoritarian approach which has the effect of leading students to accept the idea that someone else will always tell them what the facts are – but by asking questions and by acquiring the information in that more open and democratic way.
In many respects, changing the way history is taught is an even bigger challenge than changing what is taught about it, the compilers say. And they acknowledge that so far, they have made less progress in this direction than many of them have hoped for. But the discussions in this volume provide some importance guidance in this respect as well.
I.G. Yakovenko of the Moscow Institute of Sociology in one of the book’s chapter points out why this is so critical. Children need to learn that individuals bear responsibility for what happens to their societies, rather than always seeking to blame others, be they foreign governments or their own, for what happens.
They need to brought to an understanding, Yakovenko writs, that one cannot explain Stalinist crimes by reference to the organs of the state but must recognize the role millions of “simple people” played in denouncing their fellow citizens – people who are “just like those who consider Stalin a hero and the period of Stalinism in Russia the heroic past of the country.”
But those like the compilers of this book who want an honest examination of the past face an uphill battle. As one of the authors notes, polls show that as Russians feel better of themselves and their situation, they show less and less interest in the past and prefer to stay with mythologized versions that have little in common with the facts.
Unfortunately, Kozhukova writes, if they remain in that situation, Russians and all the others who were victims of the communist past, will not be able to escape from it. And she points out that “the establishment of a free, civilized society in countries which have experienced a totalitarian regime is not the same thing as establishing such a society in principle.”
Such societies must “overcome” the past by avoiding forgetfulness, by internalizing what happened and by committing themselves to avoiding any repetition. Those are steps that Germany has made, but it is a step that many Russians, with the encouragement of their own government, have not been willing to take.
And Kozhukova concludes that “the present-day growth of nationalism and authoritarianism in Russia are the results of a past that has not been dealt with” in the ways that the crimes of the Soviet era must be if the country is finally to escape from them and to ensure that they never happen again.

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