Ever since the publication of Filippov’s (in)famous textbook A History of Russia 1945-2006 in 2007, the state of Russian history teaching drew a fair degree of negative commentary in the West, some of it reasonably lucid, most of it superficial or hysterical. What the latter have in common is that they almost invariably haven’t read the actual, controversial chapter in question (Debates about Stalin’s Role in History), let alone the textbook itself, and as such can do little more than spout inane rhetoric about the imminent “rehabilitation” of Stalinism. As such I thought it fitting to do what the pundits should have done long ago, but couldn’t be bothered to – actually translate the chapter in question so that Anglophone readers could make up their own minds. Now that I’ve done so (scroll below), and bearing in mind the recent furor over Medvedev’s commission to battle the falsification of Russian history, I would like to make several comments of my own:
First, it is flat-out wrong to say that this textbook is the new standard of history teaching in Russia. It is just one of dozens of merely “approved” history textbooks (whereas the vast majority of Russian schools use a few “recommended” texts), has had only a very limited print run and was being trialled in only a few schools in four Russian regions as of the 2008-2009 academic year. Nor is it true that it received approval from the Presidential administration – in 2007 when it came out, Putin’s aide Dzhokhan Pollyeva criticized it for unprofessionalism (and I quite agree with her – the text is turgid and belabors its points using questionable examples). The most controversial authors, Filippov and Danilin (the latter of whom wrote the chapter on sovereign democracy), were not present at the meeting when Putin aired his views on how Russia was unfairly castigated for its history by professors and Westerners whose heads were filled with “porridge”.
Second, the book’s major sin is one of presentation – not omission. Dark chapters in Russia’s history like collectivization, the Gulag and political repressions are covered in both this chapter, and the preceding ones on Stalin’s postwar rule. As such, it is either dishonest or ignorant to focus on out-of-context sound bites like how Stalin was an “effective manager” or the “greatest Soviet leader”. The main issue the more serious critics have with it, is that instead of issuing blanket condemnations, it seeks to “rationalize” Stalin’s decisions within the as Filippov himself replies to this charge, “I was always annoyed by the belabored moralizing foisted on us in Soviet textbooks. I wanted to avoid this. And it seems I’ve over-succeeded in this, seeing as folks are now accusing me of amorality. I really wanted to avoid phrases like, “and this is the lesson we must take from this episode”, and it seems I may have tried too hard”. Though its inherent patriotic bias and you-can’t-be-neutral-on-a-moving-train-like approach is undeniable (in this respect, Filippov actually jumped Putin’s gun), it constantly urges its readers to make their own conclusions – an attitude far less Stalinist than that of some of his liberast and Western critics. Also, as Sean Guillory pointed out, many of its eyebrow-raising claims can act as good springboards for class discussion.
Third, contrary to Western claims, the fact of the matter is that history is politicized everywhere – and I’m not even talking of Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge its war crimes in the “East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”, or Turkey’s de facto criminalization of Armenian genocide affirmation. Closer to home, as argued in Patrick Armstrong’s essay Airbrushing History, the Visegrad nations, Ukraine and the Baltics are busy rewriting their histories to create national victimization myths based on Russian occupation – while airbrushing prominent local Communist collaborators and anti-Semitism out of their rosy, kitschy paintings of the past. An example is Latvia calculating a bill of Soviet-incurred losses to present to Russia, while eliding over the contribution of the Latvian Rifles and non-Russian internationalists to the establishment of Communism in Russia; or Ukraine’s criminalization of denying the genocidal nature of the Holodomor, a risible view in light of the fact half its casualties were in non-Ukrainian black earth regions. Even in Western nations there is a strong prevailing belief in the absolute validity of their historical missions that frequently diminishes their less positive manifestations (though it is true that they are modulated by anti-colonialist, Marxist and postmodern views on the part of some of their intelligentsia, they do not present an existential spiritual threat as in Russia).