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Russia’s new history textbooks teach Putin’s alternate reality


RIGA, Latvia — When classes begin next month, Russian high-schoolers will get fresh history textbooks rewritten to carry Kremlin-approved narratives about the “special military operation” in Ukraine and the rivalry with the West — part of a wider government effort to shape how young generations of Russians think about the war and Russia’s place in the world.

The new manuscript — aimed at graduating 17-year-olds and covering the time period from 1945 until now — blames the United States for the ongoing war in Ukraine and includes a quote from President Vladimir Putin in which he falsely asserts that: “Russia did not start any military actions but is trying to end them.”

It includes telling sections that include “confrontation with the West,” “Ukraine is a neo-Nazi state” and “Russia is a country of heroes,” according to scans of the new book posted by Russian state media.

The book, along with an edition for 16-year-old students in 10th grade that covers World War II, was formally introduced Monday by Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov and will be supplied to schools by Sept. 1. Books for other grades will be revised for the 2024-2025 school year, Kravtsov said.

History lessons everywhere are rarely spared from national ideology, and other countries are often viewed through the prism of the country printing the books. But the drastic transformation of Russia’s portrayal of Ukraine and the rest of the world illustrates Putin’s fierce determination to sweep aside the dark pages of Russia’s past and, quite literally, write himself into history as a victorious conqueror.

It is also part of an extraordinary gaslighting campaign in which Putin has tried to convince his own people — and the world — that Russia is a victim rather than the aggressor in Ukraine, and that the West is at fault for a war that Putin chose to unleash and has already killed tens of thousands.

“Here history is once again used by the authorities to push a certain agenda, to solve certain political problems,” a school history teacher told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because critics of the Russian government often face retribution. “We have to understand that this is wider than schools — universities will be next, so screws will tighten in historical education, and its degradation won’t bring anything good.”

“History is part of society’s humanistic development, and it can be used in different ways,” the teacher added. “Imagine you have a hammer — you can use it to drive nails, or you can use it to smash someone’s head; the same with history.”

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A chapter dedicated to the war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin and the new book euphemistically call the “special military operation,” reads like a propaganda briefing, heavily interlaced with direct quotes from many revisionist speeches Putin has given over the past two years — fervently anti-Western and laden with conspiracy theories.

In this chapter, the authors seek to justify the war by quoting Putin as saying that Russia has never started a military conflict. The book defines Russia’s war aims as the “protection of Donbas region and preventive provision of Russian security.”

The chapter blames the United States for the conflict by repeating another popular Kremlin talking point: The United States “is determined to fight this war until the last Ukrainian” by providing military assistance.

“Like Americans say: Nothing personal,” the book concludes. “It’s just business.”

The chapter goes on to praise the war as a glue that “united Russian society,” and it plays on the trauma stemming from millions of Soviet deaths during World War II, which Putin also has capitalized on to justify his ruthless domestic policies.

“Like their grandfathers, they are fighting for goodness and truth shoulder to shoulder,” the book says of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. “Blowing themselves up with the enemy, dragging wounded comrades from under fire, fighting in burning tanks, commanding their units until the last breath,” the book states. “Courage and bravery to give up your life for the Motherland is something inherent to a Russian, Soviet soldier.”

In a section titled “Falsification of history,” the book says that the United States and the European Union “went above and beyond to ‘restart our brains’ by writing history textbooks that were intended to persuade Russians of their country’s “eternal aggressiveness and colonial nature.”

The text also urges children to distrust independent journalists and “Western social networks and media” — in an apparent effort to undermine allegations of war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.

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“When you learn any information about Ukraine online, remember: the worldwide industry of producing staged clips and fake photos works nonstop,” the book states. “Be vigilant and think why some ‘opposition activists,’ ‘bloggers’ and ‘opinion leaders’ are working off some news? In whose interests is this done? Think — and you won’t fall victim of cheap manipulations.”

The book also covers ongoing events — to the dismay of independent historians who say it is impossible to objectively describe very recent events such as foreign businesses pulling out of Russia in response to the invasion, which the authors paint as an opening for Russian businesses that students must take advantage of.

“This is not history; political science deals with things like that,” the history teacher said. “History is useful to understand the origins of what is happening now, but it does not describe the now, and there is definitely no clarity about how any of this will end; hence it has very little to do with history.”

After each chapter, the students are asked leading questions: Why did the absolute majority of Russian citizens support the special operation? Why was Russia forced to start the operation?

Chapters covering the 1970s through the 2010s were also completely rewritten, with the new version souring on former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who died last year, and his rapprochement with the West.

The books were edited by Vladimir Medinsky, an ultraconservative nationalist who served as culture minister and as a negotiator in short-lived talks with Ukraine during the early days of Russia’s invasion.

Historians have criticized Medinsky’s work, but he has found a receptive audience in Putin, who has taken an avid interest in historical revisionism and appointed Medinsky to head a commission on history education.

Russian officials have praised the new textbook, calling it a tool to protect Russian traditions.

“Our understanding of our own history should give us the right to interpret our own history ourselves, without any prompting from outside,” Vladislav Kononov, a historian and presidential administration official in charge of policy issues on history and humanities, said when describing the book at a forum this year, local media reported.

The new texts, once completed, will be a crowning achievement for Russian bureaucrats working to address Putin’s criticism of older textbooks first voiced a decade ago.

In 2013, Putin griped that textbooks were riddled with “internal contradictions and ambiguous interpretations” and suggested creating one approved text, akin to the Soviet curriculum, and eliminating the academic pluralism that emerged in the 1990s.

“It is necessary to show, using concrete examples, how the fate of Russia was created by the unity of different peoples, traditions and cultures,” Putin said then, adding that textbooks should be based “on respect for all pages of our past.”

The next year, after the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russian history books — especially chapters on Ukraine — received a first big ideological update. The process sped up after the 2022 invasion.

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The Washington Post reviewed Russian history textbooks from the past decade to trace how the portrayal of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia has changed.

Over the years, sections about Ukraine’s own history were diminished, along with references to common roots and Kievan Rus, a Slavic state in the Middle Ages that included parts of modern Ukraine and Russia. That term has largely disappeared and been replaced by phrases such as “Old Russian state” or “feudal Rus.”

By contrast, Malorossiya, or “Little Russia,” an old term used to describe modern-day territories of Ukraine that is now considered disparaging by many Ukrainians, has gained prominence. In earlier texts, Ukraine “reunited” with Russia; now it is described as becoming “a part of” Russia.

“Most likely, the trend will continue and even more propagandistic version of history will be written and published,” the teacher said. “And wild things will persist in it, but of course a lot will depend on how everything that is happening now will conclude.”



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