John Sweeney: Russian textbooks attempt to rewrite history

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Sweeney reports Stalin’s Return: This World, BBC Two, Wednesday, December 2, 7pm.]

Now you see him, now you don’t. Stalin was a past master at the art of airbrushing. In one classic set of photographs, there Stalin is with his secret police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — and in the next photo, there Yezhov isn’t (he was executed in 1940, with his boss’s approval). And now, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the airbrushing of history seems to be all the rage again.

If you look hard enough — and we travelled for 5,000 miles around the former Soviet Union — you can find old Soviet airbrushing in concrete. Not far from the railway station in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, are three giant faces on the frieze of a building: Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Next to them is a strange shadow, a memory of a fourth face no longer there. Stalin’s visage was chiselled off, sometime after Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of 1956, in which he denounced Stalin to a closed session of the party congress.

But that is in the sticks, where folk are behind the times. In Kursk underground station in Moscow, a frieze saluting Stalin was removed after the “secret speech”. This summer, after an absence of half a century, it mysteriously reappeared. Stalin is back, his name high above the heads of Muscovites heading down into the underground, with a line from the old Stalinist Soviet anthem: “Stalin brought us up and inspired us to carry out heroic deeds.” Russia seems to be not de-Stalinising but re-Stalinising.

In Russian schools, something even more troubling appears to be happening. They call it “positive history” and the man behind it is Putin. In 2007, the former secret police chief told a conference of Russian educationists that the country needed a more patriotic history. Putin condemned teachers for having “porridge in their heads”, attacked some history textbook authors for taking foreign money — “naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them” — and announced that new history textbooks were on their way. Within weeks, a new law was passed giving the state powers to approve and to disallow history textbooks for schools.

What does Igor Dolutsky, the author of a history textbook that has been dropped by the Kremlin, make of “positive history”? “It’s an appalling idea which hinders proper teaching in schools. School history should not create patriots, it should teach children to think. Putin’s task is to rule a state edging towards totalitarianism.”

Aleksandr Filippov is the Positive History Man. He has a long, mournful face and the air of a defrocked Orthodox priest. His voice is sorrowful but the message is upbeat: “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. A generally positive tone for the teaching of history will build optimism and self-assurance in the growing young generation and make them feel as if they are part of their country’s bright future. A history in which there is good and bad, things to be proud of and things that are regrettable. But the general tone for a school textbook should still be positive.”

It is when you analyse the Kremlinapproved “positive history” book in detail that the clock chimes 13. In March 1933 a fearless reporter and fluent Russian speaker, Gareth Jones, evaded the Moscow censors and went to the Soviet Ukraine and southern Russia, from where he reported that “millions are dying in the villages”. The “Great Famine” deaths were caused by Stalin’s forced collectivisation, grain seizures and mass deportations of peasant farmers. Malcolm Muggeridge declared it a man-made famine and Arthur Koestler wrote of seeing “horrible infants with enormous, wobbling heads, stick-like limbs, swollen, pointed bellies . . .”

Back in Moscow, the Great Famine was denied by Stalin’s stooge on The New York Times, Walter Duranty. Two years later, Jones was shot dead in China, some say by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD.

One estimate is that four million died in Ukraine and southern Russia during the Great Famine, another puts the figure at ten million. No one counted. The unnecessary deaths of millions were airbrushed from history. So how does the 2009 “positive history” textbook cover this? It dedicates 83 pages to Stalin’s industrialisation — and one paragraph to the famine. The scales are loaded one way, to the benefit of Stalin’s reputation...

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/4/2009

<...some say by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD.>
This maliciously designed "some say" is actually meant to grant certainty to a mere speculation (just one more victim of Stalin's vengeance and brutality, why not?)
Facts, however, often debunk
many too gullible (or too fast for the conclusions) Western and Russian historians and journalists, lately.
Just several days ago, the sentence long ago pronounced by them on Kirov's murder, was put to death by the Russian's archival documents and diary of the LONE murderer.
Do historians and political journalists have to be factual or ideologically speculative?

Arnold Shcherban - 12/4/2009

Britain and Russia both being evil Empires have always hated each other out of competition.
In the last half of
20th century they were replaced by one other "greatest of all" Empires of Evil ... for Freedom - the US.
This is the shortest modern world history.

mark bullen - 12/3/2009

Another lightweight, heavily editor piece of properganda from the BBC chief shouting reporter John Sweeney, his style of disagree with my ill thought out sweeping statements and i'll shout and say "bloody" at you in english then film you looking blankley at me like you are too stupid to think of a response when actually you are waiting for the translation to your own language is the worst kind of yellow press film making.
This guy represents the worst of the BBC and is all thats wrong with the biased and unaccountable corporation. Could have been a good programme, but instead I wasted an hour of my life watching this bilge. Channel 4 would have done it a thousand times better!

Judy Haines - 12/2/2009

Yevgenia Ginsberg into the Whirlwind, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, The Dark Side of the Moon about the Katyn Woods murders, The Great terror formed my political beliefs. I am nearly 60 now and did not think that I would live to see Stalin and Communism debunked and then reinstated again. Unfortunately it is only by the older generation bearing witness that victims will not have died in vain. Keep up the good work Mr. Sweeney and document as much as you can. I am finding it difficult to listen to Jonothan Dimbleby Tolstoying his way through the happy peasant. There is, however, one dark side to our history which is only just emerging on television. The concentration camps of the Boer war. Maybe it will take Russia this long too.