History on Trial

An interview with Lev Gudkov by Filip Memches

Today’s Russia is implementing the idea of “happy forgetting” about the past. The point is not to traumatize the young generation with unpleasant episodes of history—says Lev Gudkov in an interview with Filip Memches

In what way have the changes in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union affected the historical education of society? Can we point out some stable tendencies in this regard?

We are dealing with displacement of history. After the crash of the Soviet Union there was a period in which 20th century history was practically not taught at school. Teachers were afraid to say anything about it. And even if they did talk about it, it was only in very good schools. For that is where young, creative, independently minded teachers with initiative had come. Such schools, however, could only be found in big cities and accounted for about 2% of the whole.

What was the reason of this state of affairs?

Teachers were confused, especially in the context of Stalinist times and what came after. We should also remember that teachers are the most conservative group among employees of the public sector. In fact, we had several years of total interruption in the teaching of history. The situation started to change in the late 1990s. But a fundamental change occurred after Vladimir Putin came to power, when the foundations of the new state ideology began to be formulated. There were new national myths and the process of presenting history in Soviet terms started, which led to a vision of history which was apologetic towards the Soviet Union. Government control of the teaching of history also intensified.

But Putin did not intend to restore the communist state.

As far as the attitude towards the Soviet past is concerned, the pattern of looking at it was the same as in the Soviet Union. I mean here the popular notions about the roots of the Soviet state, the Great Patriotic War, the Stalinist crimes. The only difference in comparison to the Soviet times is greater openness in interpreting Stalinist repressions. They were no longer hushed up, as in the Soviet Union, but were considered a crime. However, it all served a concealed apology of totalitarianism and a concealed re-Stalinization. The whole teaching of history revolved around the Second World War as the symbolic event of the 20th century, and at the same time as a demonstration of the victory of the Soviet system.

Today we can say that the last fifteen years of ideological history teaching resulted in poor knowledge of the past among the Russians. The intent of the regime is introducing only one mandatory course book, officially approving one single version of events, fighting against what Kremlin calls falsifying history, that is fighting against inconvenient facts, such as the crimes of the Red Army in the Baltic countries and then in those parts of Europe which became Soviet spoils as a result of the Second World War. All such events are repressed from the collective memory by the government. Instead the idea—I quote literally—of “happy forgetting” about the past is implemented. The point is not to traumatize the young generation with unpleasant episodes of history. And to avoid creating rifts between generations. Such is the main intent of these activities.

You spoke about the confusion of teachers in the early 1990s. But there were also such facts as the banning of the Communist Party after the Yanayev coup in 1991. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Communism was declared a criminal ideology by the Russian state under President Boris Yeltsin. Have these symbolic events not shaped the historical awareness of the teachers as well?

Yeltsin’s policy was self-contradictory and inconsistent. Generally speaking, perestroika, and more specifically the years 1989–1991, was the period of very harsh criticism of Stalin and the Soviet system in general, but this criticism was superficial. Stalin was considered guilty of the death of many millions of people, but the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime was not mentioned. Individual personality disorders of the dictator where pointed at as causes of these crimes: paranoia, cruelty, cunning, scheming. The system of organization of the totalitarian society and the price it paid for the continued existence of the Soviet regime—such problems were not touched upon. Hence the confusion among history teachers. For on the one hand there was a harsh criticism of the Soviet past, but on the other hand no positive project was proposed. The whole nation experienced a masochistic sense of inferiority. The dominant belief was that we had maneuvered ourselves into a blind alley, that we were a nation of slaves, that we were the worst, that we served as a negative model for the world, that our history was just misery and crimes, that the Soviet system pushed artists to the sidelines of history. This did not last long, but such sentiments became much more intense—the percentage of Russians sharing them grew from 7% to 57% in 1989–1991. The escape from this state of mind was not some alternative construct of the present and the past, but morbid frustration and an inferiority complex. And then it turned into a blind nationalistic confidence and a return to imperial values. And Putin preyed on the national resentment.

Has that confusion of history teachers dating back to the early 1990s continued to this day? Perhaps nothing really changed when Putin became president for the first time—the imperial or nationalist cause is not a strategy, but an accident?

Of course, the confusion is the starting point. And obviously it was not planned. This is a social effect of the collapse of the Soviet system. However, efforts were made then to strategically exploit this confusion. And there is no accident here. This is a deliberately maintained tendency. It is part of government policy. Special commissions were established, the content of history teaching was ideologically homogenized. The point is not to present the students with a complicated picture of history, but to educate them patriotically, to instil pride in them, and thus to guarantee the consolidation of society and government. Rehabilitation of the Soviet past has become an important factor in the context of the annexation of Crimea. I would call it a totalitarian relapse. The only difference in comparison with the Soviet times is including in the dominant narrative pre-revolution myths, that is myths glorifying tsarist Russia. In this sense the attitude is more eclectic, but the function remains the same: glorification of the regime, glorification of the great power. And this is followed by removing any responsibility from the regime.

The violent or even drastic course of the economic transition in the 1990s hit at the Russian public sector. Has it not lead to a weakening of the prestige of the teaching profession and has it not encouraged nihilistic sentiments among educationists, which could also affect their attitude towards the past?

As far as nihilism is concerned, I would not agree with you. Still the prestige of the teaching profession has indeed fallen very low, mostly because of very poor wages. Many people have given up working in the educational system. In the middle of the last decade, teachers’ salaries went up significantly, especially in large cities, where demonstrations against Putin’s regime were taking place. And now it is fair to say that the corporation of schoolteachers, and specifically their loyalty, was bought by the regime in this way.

And how does the issue of private education in Russia look like? Is it not a branch of education which offers a chance of objective and more profound reflection on domestic history, even if keeping in mind that a very small section of society can afford this luxury?

Private schools account only for 2% of the whole. Of course methods of teaching, social relations and social capital are different there. We should also say that students in these schools have educated parents. But still if they want to go to college, they have to absorb the officially decreed amount of knowledge compatible with the Kremlin ideology. Thus, in the older classes of private schools, teachers may tell the students various things conflicting with the official government version of history. But when preparing them for entrance exams, they have to provide them with knowledge required by state institutions.

Can this situation simply be changed by a generational change of guard, which means taking over the education by people who have nothing to do with Communism and the Soviet Union?

The question is not generational change, but dismantling the authoritarian regime.

You said earlier that we are witnessing a relapse of totalitarianism in Russia, but we obviously cannot compare what is going on today with the Soviet times. Let us take the problem of freedom of speech. Various institutions are trying to restrict it, but still it does exist.

I am not saying that the Soviet system and the current regime are the same. What I wanted to underline is manipulating the awareness of the masses, also in the context of historical education. Of course, in the academic community there is much more freedom and tolerance today than in the Soviet period. Although even there you can see government control, themes which are interesting for the regime get funding, while researching issues inconvenient for the government is restricted. All this is invisible to the public. Debates in the academic community do not reach the media and, importantly, do not generate public discussion. Hence new historical discoveries and publications of documents from the archives are not widely known. Even intellectuals do not know more explicit works by historians. For these are short-run editions distributed among professionals and hardly anyone hears about them. Such is the new technology of power. And repressions also take place. One example could be the well-known historian Andrei Zubov. He was fired from a prestigious university MGIMO after he announced that the justification for the annexation of Crimea was reminiscent of Nazi arguments about the Sudeten Germans.

Is it not the case that allowing critical thinking about the past would just be too risky for the regime? For Russia is not governed by enthusiasts of communism, but simply—to invoke your own words—technologists of power, who are afraid of chaos and are guided exclusively by pragmatism.

I agree. Moreover, the highest echelons of power are occupied by former KGB agents, who have specific notions about the world, specific ways of thinking and, of course, specific experiences of executing repressive policy. The Russian society is nowadays separated from real knowledge. And there are no instruments for rationalizing the past. This is an important factor. We are now witnessing what was happening in Germany in mid-1960s and what Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich described as an inability to come to terms with the past, recognize your guilt and take responsibility for your acts. And the regime encourages that. The failed attempts at taking the Communist Party to account, removing former secret police informants from public life, re-evaluating the past and recognizing the Soviet system as criminal—all this produced a vague attitude towards the past and the desire to forget all about it. As usual, traumas which are not rationalized and talked about are reproduced, secretly duplicated. This can be seen in Russia.

Prior to the current tensions between Russia and the West, quite naive notions about Putin prevailed in Western countries. These notions looked as follows: since Communism came to an end and ideological communists are now the thing of the past, KGB people in power are pragmatists and ideology does not play any role for them. For they are people who already in the Soviet times travelled all over the world and saw what life looked like there, so they aspired to Western political and economic standards. Is it not a proof of naiveté and a trap, for, as our conversation suggests, the Russian elite of power rejected communism, but maintained its trust in the efficiency of authoritarian power?

In the early stages of his presidency, Putin and his political entourage attempted to make the impression which you just described on their Western partners—he focused on Russian economic interests. This ended when the first tensions typical for an authoritarian regime appeared. Over time, as the desire to stay in power intensified, the need for ideology was growing, and this ideology had to be built from scratch, so it is a kind of simulacrum of traditionalism. New traditionalist myths had to be supplemented with elements from the Soviet era.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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