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Rewriting Russian History: In Search of a “Short Course”

After having blogged a bit about the new history textbook scandal in Russia, I decided to get some of the more interesting articles out there translated. The following is the first of two exclusive translations of stories by Oleg Kashin at Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

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In search of a «Short Course» By Oleg Kashin, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 3, 2007 Authors of “Kremlin’s” history textbook fail to find common language with community of historians From the point of view of the mechanics of it, the meeting of the delegates of the All-Russian Conference of Social Science Instructors with president Vladimir Putin, apparently, was supposed to end the discussion on the teaching of history that had become the main topic of the conference. The discussion, however, continues even now – the times they are a-changing, and if at one time the president really did have the last word, then now the truth is born in totally different controversies.

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Odious history textbooks may transform future citizens into an army of puppets. Or – universal soldiers. Ceramic figures from the tomb of emperor Qin Shuhuan [sic]. III century BC.

The Doctor Guerier phenomenon Almost right after the meeting of the social scientists and historians with the president at a forum of the graduates and students of the History Department of the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute [Translator’s note: Pedagogical Institute – Teachers’ College] Named After Lenin, an article entitled “Danilov vs. Danilin” appeared on the internet, signed with the pseudonym Doctor Guerier (the participants in the discussion of the article ascertained rather quickly that hiding under this name is the deputy director of the Institute of Eastern Europe, the historian Vasily Zharkov). Doctor Guerier’s text spoke about a book by the political scientist Alexander Filippov, «Noveyshaya istoriya Rossii 1945-2006. Kniga dlya uchitelya» [A Contemporary History of Russia 1945-2006. A Book for the Teacher], which had been presented to the conference participants as an exposition of “the modern-day coverage of the most important questions of the treatment of fundamental subjects of the contemporary history of Russia.» If we consider that both Alexander Filippov himself and part of his co-authors (despite the fact that one surname is indicated on the cover, A Book for the Teacher is a collective labor) do not hide their proximity to the Kremlin’s PR structures, while among those who had presented the textbook at the conference were officials of the president’s administration, it was not difficult to understand that we are speaking not simply about a new teaching aid, but about a new «Short Course». [Translator’s note: “Short Course” is a reference to the Stalin-era “Short Course of the History of the CPSU”, an uncharacteristically small book that was required reading for just about everybody and gave the “official version” of Party history.] In the words of Doctor Guerier, the conference delegates did not like the idea of a «Short Course»: “The handlers from the AP [Translator’s note: AP – administration of the president] made a serious blunder when they expected that they would be able to easily dominate such an audience as Russian teachers and instructors at teachers’ colleges from the provinces, which have seen so much in the last 15 years that it’s going to take a lot more than a slick young man at the podium making like Putin in the style of Maxim Galkin to impress them. And they regard him the way they would Maxim Galkin [Translator’s note: Maxim Galkin – contemporary Russian comedian specializing in parody impersonations], that is as a clown. Teachers have been getting their money in the main from the regional and local budgets for a long time already, and have learned how to evade any initiatives ‘from the center’ in a most graceful manner.” “You will die like a cur, but your children will be learning from my textbook” By the way, such commentaries can easily be written off as the professional snobbery of representatives of the scholarly community unhappy that someone had dared violate their monopoly on the writing of textbooks. It is another matter that the possibility that one side in a controversy might be wrong does not guarantee that the other side is right. There was an almost immediate reaction to Doctor Guerier’s article from a scholar with the Foundation for Effective Politics, the political scientist Pavel Danilin, who had written the last chapter of the textbook under discussion, under the name “Sovereign Democracy”. On his blog, Danilin wrote: “You can pour dirt on me and vent your spleen all you want, but you will teach your children from those books that you will be given, and in the way that Russian needs. Those same high-minded foolish thoughts that exist in your stupid overgrown egg-heads will either get swept out of them, or you yourselves will get swept out of teaching. We simply can not allow a Russophobe, a shithead, or a just plain amoral character to teach Russian history. So we need to purge ourselves of the filth. And if that doesn’t work, then we need to purge by force.” And when the journalist Dmitry Butyrin joined in on the discussion of this assertion, indicating to Danilin that “nobody’s going to learn from this garbage of yours, because it’s horribly written and dark”, [Translator’s note: dark – unenlightened, as in “something right out of the dark ages”] the author of the chapter on sovereign democracy answered him with all the directness of a true historian: “You will die like a cur, but your children will be learning from the textbook that I will write. And by the way, you can’t have any children, ’cause you’re a bleedin’ faggot.” As they explained at the «Prosveshchenie» [Enlightenment] publishing house, A Book for the Teacher has not yet been approved by the Ministry of Education and Science and can be regarded only as a book for extracurricular reading, not a textbook. At the same time, a trial history textbook for the 11th grade is supposed to be ready by autumn on the basis of just this book; it will be tested out during the course of the upcoming school year in the «Tsaritsyno» center of education (that same one whose director, Efim Rachevsky, said to the president at a meeting in Novo-Ogarevo [Translator’s note: Novo-Ogarevo – the presidential residence compound outside Moscow] that schoolchildren are in need of a positive past), while from 1 September 2008, if the experiment turns out successful, it will be recommended for use in all the schools in the country. Pavel Danilin does not consider A Book for the Teacher a new «Short Course», but is convinced that “it is essential that Russian education have a point of departure for the understanding of history”. “The book was written to order for the administration of the president, in order to set certain guideposts for the instruction of history”, says Danilin. “This is a first try at calling for an historic civil peace in our country against the background of that chaos that is taking place in the interpretation of historical events. The book attempts to minimize the schism existing in society, to reduce it to naught”. In the words of Pavel Danilin, the authors of the book attempted “to approach each historical figure factually, not to see either a devil or an angel in him, to avoid foolish idealism and foolish sullying, to leave apologetics outside the door.» The authors’ intent is that the result of this experiment must become “consolidation of the nation and historical reconciliation”. The negative reaction of the professional historians does not surprise Pavel Danilin: “The fact of the matter is”, says he, “that neither I nor Alexander Filippov have advanced academic degrees; we are both simply practicing political scientists with ordinary college diplomas in history, while the academic community fiercely resists any attempts by anyone else to write textbooks. It’s like, why then did we get our degrees if all kinds of trash off the street is writing textbooks?” At the same time, Danilin considers that the resistance of the historians will not have any effect on the fate of the textbook. “There exists an order from the administration of the president. We are confident that we will carry it out much better. We even won a competition within the administration, even though books by such distinguished historians as academician Chubarian participated in the competition”, says Danilin.

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The resistance of historians will have no impact on the fate of the textbook. Photo by Yevgeni Zuyev (NG-foto)

“That’s the way petty hooligans do things” In the meantime, the discussion about A Book for the Teacher continued in the blogs. Joining in the discussion was Dmitry Yuriev, advisor to the director-general of the «Prosveshchenie» publishing house, which had issued the book. Responding to Pavel Danilin, who had reproached Doctor Guerier for the cowardly use of a pseudonym, Yuriev writes: “I think something else is cowardliness – for example, the “brave” attack on teachers (who are going to teach “from those books that they will be given”): that’s exactly the way petty street-corner hooligans do things, bravely bullying their sucker-neighbors, counting on the protection of the mob boss”. Dmitry Yuriev himself is not impressed by the polemic going on in the blogs. “A professional discussion very quickly with the help of ZhZh [Translator’s note: ZhZh – «Zhivoy zhurnal», the Russian version of the LiveJournal blogging community] acquired the character of spiteful bickering”, says he. “People from the academic world, when they read Danilin’s blog, asked me: ‘Who is this maniac from Bitza?'” [Translator’s note: Bitza – a “tough” suburb of Moscow, comparable to some of Paris’s nefarious banlieues] “In these controversies, ZhZh has shown yet again that as a medium, it is capable of provoking even people in full possession of their mental faculties”, considers Yuriev. “I am not idealizing the professional community, but it has retained at least some notion of decency, after all. In ZhZh they have already forgotten all about it”. In Yuriev’s words, the fate of the new history textbook was decided before it was discussed in the blogosphere. “Everyone was at the conference – there was Surkov, there was Djakhan Pollyieva, there was Fursenko. Everybody saw how the community is reacting to the textbook and its authors. At last Djakhan Pollyieva spoke and said that the textbook is very interesting, but it was written by various authors of various levels, and this level needs to be levelled out”. It is possible that the “levelling out of the level” will come down to a replacement of the head of the collective working on the textbook. At least Vasily Zharkov asserts that they have already replaced Alexander Filippov by Oksana Gaman-Golutvina. Alexander Filippov, in his turn, refutes this. “I’m in charge of the work”, says he, “because I presented the best concept. In our book, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin are given just as much space as Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, while in today’s textbooks, post-Soviet Russia most often gets just one small page.» Alexander Filippov does not consider Oksana Gaman-Golutvina a more professional historian than he himself is – she too does not have advanced academic degrees in history, she is a doctor of political sciences. “I don’t see any discussion”, considers Filippov. “I see only two cowardly, envious snitches – Zharkov and Yuriev. Pavel Danilin called them just what they deserve to be called.» “He’s not a professional political scientist; he’s a professional hooligan” Vasili Zharkov and Dmitry Yuriev themselves ask that they not be considered envious. Both say that they could not have written a textbook on the history of the 20th century (Yuriev is a Candidate [Translator’s note: Candidate – Russian equivalent of a Ph.D.] of Physico-Mathematical Sciences, Zharkov is a specialist on the feudalism of the 16th century). Furethemore, Vasily Zharkov even does not acknowledge authorship of the Doctor Guerier article. “As the co-proprietor and moderator of the forum of the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute History Department forum in which Doctor Guerier’s article was published, I bear responsibility for it and furthermore am fully in agreement with what is written in there, so who the author is is not a matter of principle”, says Vasily Zharkov. “Personally, it hurts my professional pride in the given instance,” explains the historian. “When incompetent, unprofessional, and irresponsible people start to write textbooks, an internal protest arises in me. If Danilin is the author of a state history textbook, then, if I lived in the West, I would have to renounce my diploma.” “This can be considered snobbishness, but then this is snobbishness in a situation when a person off the street is not given a scalpel, not permitted to operate on sick people”, adds Dmitry Yuriev. Zharkov considers the controversy about the textbook to have been exhausted – if the information about how Oksana Gaman-Golutvina from the Russian State Service Academy will be in charge of the authors’ collective is true, then the textbook will be completely different. “Yes, she is a doctor of political sciences, not historical”, says Zharkov. “But she is first and foremost a high-class specialist, and besides, the times of Yeltsin and Putin – that’s not yet history, but to a greater extent our politics of today. Danilin, on the other hand, has long ago proven himself more not as a professional political scientist, but as a professional hooligan and blackmailer – just read his posts on the internet.” When he speaks of blackmail, Zharkov is referring to a publication on the blog of Pavel Danilin’s friend and co-worker Timofey Shevyakov, who made public Zharkov’s home address and threats to “receive satisfaction” on the part of Danilin himself. “After this publication I, fearing for my safety, will be compelled to leave Moscow,” says the historian. “My parents live at this address. They are pensioners and live alone, and I very much fear for their safety.” Vasily Zharkov does not rule out that he might file suit against those who had threatened him. It is interesting that both Vasily Zharkov and Dmitry Yuriev agree that Doctor Guerier’s publication appeared when the textbook already had been, in essence, rejected by the conference participants. Yuriev calls the discussion in the blogs “waving around one’s fists after a fight”, while Zharkov clarifies that the publication on the Moscow State Pedagogical University forum was intended for “a narrow circle of friends that visit this site – no more than 20 people”. “It was Danilin who made this text accessible to the broad public when he published it on his popular blog”, says Vasily Zharkov. According to Dmitry Yuriev’s theory, Pavel Danilin wanted in such a manner to put the administration of the president and professional historians into conflict with one another. “It is known that our power doesn’t like pressure from without”, considers Yuriev. “By reprinting Doctor Guerier, Danilin apparently wanted to show that the historians are attempting to pressure the administration, and to get the administration to offer resistance to this pressure, sheltering Filippov and Danilin from criticism”. The ultimate fate of the new history textbook will become clear closer to 1 September, but already now it is evident that open discussion – be it at a conference, or in blogs – will be much more beneficial for the future textbook than non-transparent attempts to foist it on teachers and students.