Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Call for a Single History Textbook Recreates Another Soviet Problem, Orthodox Commentator Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 26 –President Vladimir Putin’s call for a single Russian history textbook will inevitably mean that children will hear different versions of the past from the schools than they will hear from their parents, a problem familiar to those who lived under Soviet power but one that few in the Russian Federation have had to worry about.

            In a commentary in “Novy sad,” Vladimir Berkhin, who earlier taught history but now heads the Orthodox Predaniye Foundation, raises for the first time in many years the old Soviet-era question: “What is to be done, if parents and the school teach something different” (nsad.ru/articles/edinyj-uchebnik-istorii-chto-delat-esli-roditeli-i-shkola-uchat-raznomu).

            Berkhin says that he does not see “anything terrible” in the Kremlin’s plans to introduce a single textbook with a single point of view. Indeed, he says, this is “a manifestation of good sense” on the part of the government because “in order to govern people, one needs to understand what they think about their own past and their own history.”

            “The state, honestly concerned about how it will administer the population tomorrow, inevitably wants to form in this population a completely definite model of the past in which namely this state is legitimate, namely this state is more just, and therefore logically it exists at the present moment,” Berkhin says.

At the same time, however, he notes that some parents “are justly concerned that in this single textbook there will be written something which does not correspond to the ideas about history which are accepted in their own family.”  That is a problem, but it is one that is “normal and inevitable when treatments [of the past] diverge.”

                What they need to remember is that “a school textbook is not a scientific work and that no one ever has put as his goal the creation of an ideologically neutral school textbook.”  That is not its task, Berkhin says. Scholars may try to write their works in that way, but that is because they are operating according to different principles.

“For an historian, the Battle of Kursk is night the struggle of Good with Evil or of Evil with Evil but simply a military confrontation that took place at a specific time under specific conditions and which led to one consequence or another.”  And to do that, a writer must seek objectivity, although this is never completely possible.

School textbooks have a different purpose, Berkhin repeats, and parents must recognize that even as they insist on their rights “as adults” to raise their children “with definite ideas” that may be different than those their children are being presented by the schools. All that they should insist upon is that the school texts are honest and admit how ideological they are. That can be achieved by the inclusion in the introduction to such books of an open declaration of that fact.

Such a declaration might look like the following: “this text proceeds from the most important principle for contemporary Russia of the continuity between the Russian Empire, Soviet Russia and the Russian Federation as stages of a single process of the establishment of Russia as a civilization form.”

Or it might feature the words: “The authors start from the proposition that the events of the beginning of the 20th century in Russia represented a tragedy which violated the natural course of Russian history and led the country and people into a social, national and philosophical dead end, the escape from which is possible only by a return to the common path of developed (western) countries.”

Berkhin suggests that “ideology can be useful or harmful for the resolution of one or another task. It can be logical or insane.” And he says he does not oppose having ideology form the basis of school textbooks. He asks only the authors of such school texts openly declare their ideological purposes and not seek to present their work as scholarship.

But even if that does not happen, he suggests, Russian parents shouldn’t work – and won’t if they recall the Soviet past.  Then, the ideological pressure of the state was “immeasurably more powerful” including in the area of religious belief.  But the atheistic policies of the CPSU “did not prevent believing parents from raising their children in the church.”

The children quickly learned to let “all this ideological noise” pass in one ear and out the other.  But at the same time, this had a serious consequence for the state itself: “The population gradually ceased to list to the ritual words of the most advanced part of humanity. And how that ended is well known.” That history in short could easily repeat itself.

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