Oleg Pavlov: Down on the Farm: A History Lesson in Kazan

Roundup: Talking About History

[Oleg Pavlov is a journalist in the Tatarstan capital Kazan. Local correspondent of the Liberty Radio (Russian Service)]

The school is in a busy Kazan street. It’s a massive four-storey school building of standard design, the kind that was built all over the Soviet Union in the 1930s-50s. For some reason all these schools have their facades painted in pale egg powder yellow. The building has big high steps leading up to the main entrance, big windows and doors, and high ceilings. It’s a classic example of the Stalinist style of architecture.

Today there is to be a history lesson for students in the 11th and final year. The topic is collectivization in the countryside. There have been so many attempts to justify Stalin recently that, to be quite honest, I expected the attitude of the teacher and the students towards him to be quite loyal. You can’t find any newspapers in Kazan which offer an opinion at variance with the official viewpoint. We’ve never been able to buy publications like Novaya Gazeta or magazines like Novoye Vremya; the papers you can buy, if they don’t justify Stalin directly, make it clear that not everything was so bad during his time in power. At any rate, the average person might have the impression that the process of rehabilitating Stalin is slowly getting under way. But I was wrong.

Schoolteachers in Russia today are able to choose their textbooks. The teacher whose lesson I was attending told me that the Education Ministry usually recommends 6 or 7 textbooks; one series of textbooks is gradually replaced by another. She is still teaching the history of the Soviet period in line with the thinking of the 1990s. She complained that today’s recommended textbooks contain noticeably less documentary material and concrete information. But she doesn’t feel under any pressure about what she should teach or how to teach it....

The teacher asks if there were negative aspects to the Stalinist industrialization.

After a short pause one girl stands up:

“The peasants were left without means of subsistence.”

Here it is, the key phrase to an understanding of collectivization! The peasants were left without means of subsistence. The teacher tells the class that it was the peasants’ money that was used to purchase tools and machines and their grain was bought up for a pittance. When it became difficult to get hold of – villagers simply refused to sell it at low prices – the decision was made to take the grain by force. Then the idea arose of creating collective farms. The pupils begin to discuss the subject. They have clearly prepared for the lesson....

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