From September, Russian high school students in the 11th grade — aged roughly 17 — will use a new textbook for studying modern history. Because the book covers events up to the present day, they will learn that “Ukraine is an ultranationalist state. Today, any dissent in Ukraine is severely persecuted, opposition is banned, everything Russian is declared hostile.”
In full conformity with the Kremlin’s worldview, the book also teaches that “the United States has become the main beneficiary of the Ukrainian conflict . . . The United States is determined to fight ‘to the last Ukrainian’.”
Don’t dismiss the textbook as just one more poisonous drop in the deluge of anti-Ukrainian, anti-western propaganda that has submerged Russian society during Vladimir Putin’s 23-year rule. The abuse of history serves a wider purpose. Yes, one goal is to rally the population behind Putin’s aggressive, expansionist foreign policy. But for more than a decade, the Kremlin has poured resources into constructing an official version of history. The aim is nothing less than to forge a new Russian identity.
This effort goes beyond school textbooks. It involves festivals, films, television shows, historical re-enactment clubs, military history tours for children, student discussion societies, murals and statues such as the monument put up in 2017 in Moscow of Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle.
Other countries, past and present, have founded their identities on religion, civic patriotism or a state ideology. Think of Protestant England after the Reformation, US ideals of liberty, human rights in France after its 1789 revolution or Soviet communism. None of this works in today’s Russia: it is a multi-religious country, civic freedom has been stamped out under Putin and communism is dead. What remains is history — a single, dictated version, from which dissent is liable to be punished as a crime.
The cornerstone of the Kremlin’s campaign is commemoration of the Soviet victory in the second world war — known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War — as a feat covering the Russian nation in eternal glory. This focus is understandable. Russia’s 20th-century history was marked by events of unspeakable violence and horror that divided, not united, the people: revolutions, civil war, famines and, under Joseph Stalin, state-driven terror. But the triumph over Nazi Germany, achieved at terrible human cost, is a memory that brings Russians together.
However, the official version of the war and its aftermath — celebrated as an era when the Soviet Union was a superpower — finds no room for uncomfortable facts. These include Stalin’s deportations of entire nationalities, such as Chechens and Crimean Tatars, from their homelands, and his military occupation and imposition of one-party communist rule in eastern Europe.
It was a different story under Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. Under his rule, from 1985 to 1991, Moscow condemned the secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet pact, which led to the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 and the annexation of the Baltic states. Later, it took responsibility for the 1940 Katyn forest massacre of more than 20,000 members of the Polish elite. The domestic crimes of Stalinism were exposed as never before.
By opening up history in this way, Gorbachev undermined the Kremlin’s control of eastern Europe and the repressive power structures at home. This is precisely what angers Putin: freeing history from official control shatters national unity and threatens state authority.
In Putin’s version of Russia’s past, praiseworthy events include converting 10th-century Rus’ to Christianity, the territorial conquests of Peter and Catherine the Great, defeating Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia and, above all, the Great Patriotic War. Events to be mourned or condemned include the early 17th-century’s Time of Troubles, when the Russian state all but collapsed, and the two revolutions of 1917, for the same reason. They also include Vladimir Lenin’s nationalities policies — deemed to favour Ukrainians and others at the expense of Russians — and what are viewed as Gorbachev’s misguided reforms and the anarchy of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.
Putin is not alone among Kremlin rulers in placing history under state control. In Stalin’s time, Ivan the Terrible was depicted as a wise statesman who wiped out traitors. Ivan’s 1565-1572 oprichnina, an early example of Kremlin-style mass repression, was termed a “progressive” policy. To Russians who lived under Stalin, the intended parallel between the two tyrants was all too clear — and chilling.
We must take Putin’s rewriting of history no less seriously. It is an essential element of his attempted war of conquest in Ukraine, because he justifies the blood-soaked campaign on the entirely false grounds that Ukrainians are not a nation in their own right and do not deserve statehood. One day Russian students may have access to textbooks that shred Putin’s lies. It cannot come a moment too soon.