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The basics of historical education

The only proper version of the past. Russian authorities issued a decree on “historic enlightenment.”

On May 8, 2024, Vladimir Putin’s decree approved the “Basics of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Historical Education.” If earlier historical propaganda within the country was aimed primarily at schoolchildren and students, from now on, the only correct version of the past will become mandatory for all Russians.

Modern-day Russia has not given up hopes of subordinate historical science. In 2019, Dmitry Medvedev created the Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests (some joked that falsifications in favor of Russia’s interests were allowed, but it was not a joke). In 2012, the commission was quietly disbanded. Further pressure on the past continued in 2013-2014 when Putin declared the need for a single school textbook on history and also signed the first memorial-repressive law – banning the “rehabilitation of Nazism”. Since then, the number and scale of state interventions in history as a science have increased, but not critically.

The turning point happened in 2021 when Russians formed an Interdepartmental Commission for Historical Enlightenment headed by Vladimir Medinsky. In the meantime, Putin published an article about the “historical unity” of Russians with Ukrainians. From today’s vantage point, it is clear that the preparation of the raid on history was part of the preparation for a large-scale attack on Ukraine. Over the next two years, all fears regarding state regulation of the “past” turned out to be true – new memorial and repressive laws, the revival of pioneering (“Movement of the first”, Движение первых), unified history textbooks in schools, the course “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood” in universities, total militarization of the education system, etc., all took place. Russian children and teenagers simply have no chance to avoid state historical propaganda.

However, this was not enough for the Kremlin. On May 8, 2024, Putin signed a decree “On Approval of the Fundamentals of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the field of historical education.”

According to this document, “historical education is a state-regulated activity for disseminating reliable and scientifically based historical knowledge in society” (clause 3, a). Therefore, education is not just a subject of state interest; the state is recognized as the sole leader of this process. If one thought that it does not apply to non-state institutions, then the decree clarifies: “subjects of state policy in the field of historical education are public authorities, scientific and educational organizations, academic and university centers, cultural and artistic organizations, cultural and educational organizations, mass media, public-state and public associations and organizations, other non-commercial organizations” (clause 3, c). Therefore, no one will be able to stay far from it.

The document declares the following goals of enlightenment: “to form a scientific understanding of Russia’s past and present, which is one of the foundations of the all-Russian civic identity and collective historical memory, as well as to counter attempts to diminish the feat of the people in defense of the Motherland” (clause 3, a), and “support and development of the system of scientific and historical knowledge, personality formation based on the system of values and love for the Motherland peculiar to Russian society” (clause 3, b). The final goal of the entire policy of enlightenment is “the formation of an all-Russian civic identity and strengthening of the commonality of the Russian world” (clause 8). Russia clearly understands and declares that history is the basis of its identity.

The decree outlines the threats and challenges facing Russia (clause 6): “rehabilitation and resurrection of neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, and neo-Nazism”, “denial or belittling of Russia’s historical contribution to the development of world civilization”, “negative assessments of events and periods of national history, the spread misconceptions about Russia”, and “the collective West’s use of falsification of history as a weapon in the information war.”

The decree does not hesitate to give specific theses for future enlightenment: “Russia is a great country with a centuries-old history, a state-civilization that united the Russian and many other peoples in the expanse of Eurasia into a single cultural and historical community and made a huge contribution to global development” (clause 5). The document also mentions the “traditional spiritual values” several times.

However, paragraph 9, devoted to the principles of enlightenment, shows the profound contradiction of the Russian historical propaganda. It declares simultaneous reliance on “scientific knowledge” and “traditional values” (a). Yet, what if knowledge and values contradict each other? “Understanding the history of Russia, which is developing in a unique civilizational way, as an integral part of the global historical process” (b). Therefore, is Russia following its “own” path or marching along with the rest of the world? “Awareness of the historical unity of the Russian Federation people for the preservation of the value of the history and culture of all nations” (d). Is the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 a holiday or a day of mourning?

This analysis will skip the tasks of state policy related to management (clause 10) and further discuss the most interesting and important clauses.

“Scientific base” (clause 11). The decree establishes “the formation of a state program that provides organizational and financial support for world-class scientific and educational centers” (b), the creation of an alternative scientometric rating (c), the involvement of scientists in working with the media (d) and the deepening of work with foreign historians for the sake of “joint scientific research, publication of educational manuals” (e), and “intensification of educational work with compatriots living abroad” (e). Hereafter, one can see how Russian historical science wraps itself more tightly in the state cocoon but does not forget to release the propaganda tentacles. “Historical literacy” (clause 12). This term gathers a single methodology for teaching history from kindergartens to universities (a); regular changes in educational programs “in accordance with new challenges and tasks” (b); a unified line of school textbooks not only on the history of Russia but also on world history and local history in each subject of the Russian

Federation based on the new historical and cultural standard (c, d); revival of extracurricular historical clubs, support of historical tourism and local history (e, f, g); popularization of the history of the military industry and military history (h); historical education for military personnel and civil servants (i); increasing the role of the family in education (m). At last, the icing on the cake: “the creation of pieces of work aimed at scientific, educational, and counter-propaganda purposes, which would form a negative attitude towards the Nazism ideology ” (n). The latter is an open field of work for clever authors.

“Information channels” (clause 13). Most of the points are standard: additional state money for historical information products and their placement on the Internet –  materials in social networks, e-libraries, virtual museums (a, b, f, i), as well as support for the production of historical films (e). Truly significant innovations are the “creation of a single digital platform that provides access to educational materials, manuals and methodological recommendations on Russia’s history” (c), “replacement of foreign educational digital platforms with domestic products” (d), “creation of an all-Russian digital platform for the study of the archival information” (e). Finally, “the creation of mechanisms of state and public control of the existing market of computer games to exclude the uncontrolled distribution of digital products that create a distorted view of the events of domestic and world history, as well as the place and role of Russia in the world”. Digital totalitarianism looks like this.

Coordinating the implementation of these innovations will be carried out by the Medinsky commission, which will undoubtedly increase its power in the government structure. Yet, the planning and funding will remain within the government’s jurisdiction. The government will also develop criteria for evaluating education’s successes. It is the central contradiction of the document, which can only be overcome by Putin’s personal intervention in the process.

Clause 18 emphasizes the importance of the entire structure: “Issues related to the implementation of state policy in the field of historical education can be discussed and considered at meetings of the Security Council of the Russian Federation and the State Council of the Russian Federation.”

One of the leading Russian propagandists, the scientific director of the Russian Military Historical Society Mikhail Myagkov, is delighted with this decree: “The work carried out separately by different organizations can be slowed down, but after fixing complex approaches for all participants in the process, this will not happen anymore.” Myagkov said that unified approaches to economic policy and security issues have long been developed in Russia, but this has not yet been done to history, “which affects the rest of the spheres”. “Now, the president’s repeated statements that Russia is a civilized state, and the basis of our historical sovereignty is formed by traditional values, have been documented.” He hopes that such a campaign will allow us to raise a historically knowledgeable generation: “In the 1990s, we grew up with people who did not know the history of their Motherland, they began to hold positions on which decision-making for the entire country depended, but we cannot allow this to happen anymore”. Myagkov added that the comprehensive approach to historical education is not an innovation for the Russian Federation: ” Nicholas’ I concept of “Orthodoxy. Autocracy. Nationality” provided similar functions.”

The appearance of such a document fits perfectly into the general trajectory of the development of the Russian state from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. In authoritarian countries, the government is the leading player in the field of public history, although it tolerates the presence of other actors. In totalitarian countries, the state is the only actor, and opponents are repressed. Preparations for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine were accompanied in Russia by the destruction of any organized opposition to historical policies, and the invasion became the last impetus for the revival of Soviet practices in the Russian Federation. “Pioneership 2.0”, unified textbooks in schools, “scientific Putinism” (“Foundations of Russian statehood”), and long prison terms for incorrect interpretation of history (“rehabilitation of Nazism” or “discrediting the army”) have become a reality. Today, there are no more independent of the state historical organizations. Naturally, the time has come to develop a road map for managing all this wealth –this is the first reason for the “Fundamentals of Historical Enlightenment”.

The second reason is the continuation of the offensive on the last territory not under the authorities’ control the Internet. For this reason, the decree pays a lot of attention to controlling digital space and creating alternative platforms. Ideally, the Russian authorities plan to prevent obtaining free information from the Internet, just as it has been impossible to do so from the media for a long time and, more recently, from books. In this regard, we should expect severe restrictions and even a ban on many Western platforms – from Wikipedia to YouTube.

This also includes the strengthening of the general offensive on young people – historical clubs, a barrage of propaganda literature, the “increasing role of the family”, etc.

The third reason is the strengthening of control over the scientific world. As in Soviet times, historians should be obedient leaders of party policy and popularizers of powerful ideas among the broad masses of the people. “Uniform teaching methodology” will protect scientists from various biases. Communication with foreign colleagues will be significantly limited, and publications in the West may be prohibited altogether. The authorities will create a separate organizational and informational infrastructure to simulate scientific research within Russia.

Lastly, the fourth reason is Medinsky’s power struggle for the spot of the modern-day Dr. Goebbels, the leading propagandist in Russia. Notably, the decree lists all historical and propaganda activities except research work. This is traditionally the Ministry of Defense’s activity, and Medinsky has not yet been able to occupy it.

After all, the decree confirmed the existing state of affairs (history is an exclusive state resource under Putin’s control) and charted a path for the future (total scientific isolation and increased propaganda). All this testifies that the Kremlin is preparing to remain a besieged fortress for decades.

Western countries should realize that Russian historiography has long ceased to be a science and has become a component of state propaganda. The decree on “historic enlightenment” only legally established it.

The author of the article is Serhiy Gromenko, PhD in History, expert of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future