Russian history for kids, Putin-style

In the summer of 2010, while I was teaching in Germany, we ran into a Russian cultural center in Berlin (it was probably the Russisches Haus) and bought some kids’ books at their bookstore. One of them was Russian History, by Natal’ia Maiorova. I’ve finally finished reading it to my kids, so now I know the traditionalist conservative, Russian triumphalist version of Russian history that lines up with Putinish cultural priorities.

First, the descriptive blurb:

This is a new edition from the series “My first book.” We hope that it will help the young reader become acquainted with the complex and very interesting history of Russia. And thanks to this—to love our remarkable Homeland even more.

Everything is told from the perspective that Slavic peoples are destined to be united. About the pre-Rurikid Slavic tribes: “And more and more clearly they understood that the Polans, the Slovens, and the Vyatichi were in fact one people: the Russian people.” Everyone who unified the Slavs, like Ivan III, is good (though they do shed a tear or two for the loss of Novgorod’s self-governing institutions).

Or, in the case of Ukraine: “There were also changes for the better. Ukraine united with Russia. Once there was a united Rus’, and then history divided Moscow and Kiev . . . . And now the Ukrainian rada (council) assembled in Pereyaslav. The hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky said: enough of living separately! We are friends! And the Ukrainians supported him.” Let’s just say that this isn’t the same story that the Ukrainians tell; or, rather, if they do tell such a story, they hasten to add that the relationship turned sour pretty soon.

Everyone who expanded the borders of Russia (beyond the Slavs, that is), for instance Catherine the Great, is likewise good. We don’t talk about the subjugated peoples, other than to mention that some good tsar expanded the borders.

The Orthodox Church is especially good. (On Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms: “And was Peter really all that right?”) Put the pan-Slavism and Orthodoxy together, and you get this discussion of the roots of the Russo-Turkish War (inspired by the historic Russian-Turkish rivalry over control of the Black Sea, but nominally sparked by Ottoman abuses in Bulgaria): “Once the Turks had conquered the lands of the Bulgarians on the Balkan peninsula. Since then 500 years had passed, but the Bulgarians had never forgotten neither their Slavic language, nor their Christian faith, nor their freedom. Earlier, Russia hadn’t been able to help them: it lacked the strength. But now the time had come. . . . The Balkan war was probably the most just of all the ones waged by the Russian empire.” Hmm, more just than the war against Napoleon, which merited three big two-page spreads?

Tsars are good too, provided they love Russia and are aware of their duties before God. (That’s the only thing the book says at all about Nicholas II, the last tsar.) Take, for instance, a Tsar you can’t say that much good about, Nicholas I. The book tries a halfway-positive spin:

Emperor Nicholas I was called a knight on the throne. Hard times fell on him. At the beginning of his reign was the Decembrist revolt. [SV note: We won’t explain what that is, but it doesn’t really matter, because in any event, it wasn’t his fault, it just kind of happened.] At the end was the lost Crimean War. The world was changing, and many things in Russia also needed change.

More than his own life, Nicholas loved Russia and believed in it. [SV note: He gets an A for effort!] And he did very much for it. He strengthened the southern and western borders. He built the first railroads. He supported writers and scientists, musicians and artists. Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Glinka, Briullov . . . . [SV note: Censorship and exile is also a form of support, I suppose . . . .] The Russian Academy of Arts flowered under him. And the most talented young artists were sent at government expense to study in Italy. Nicholas understood: culture is the soul of the people. [SV note: Which is why the artists need to be trained in Italy.] You have to care about it, develop it and protect it.

And he also knew that being emperor is a very hard fate. If anything’s amiss, you’re at fault. Because you’re the leader and are therefore answerable for your country before God!

On his deathbed, Nicholas I left his son this behest: “Serve Russia!”

Of course, the most interesting part of any kids’ book on Russian history is how they treat the Soviet period. Of about 100 pages on Russian history, 12 are devoted to the Soviet period. The last 8 are about World War II and cosmonauts, which are the “consensus” aspects of Russian history where pretty much everyone has essentially good things to say about the Soviet Union. Of the first 4 pages, the first 2 are about the Civil War, basically not taking sides but stressing how bad civil war is, brother against brother, etc. “Every side has its own strength, its own truth. And some don’t need any truth as long as they have strength!” I suppose that last bit is a mild swipe at the Bolsheviks. Anyway, that leaves the next 2 pages for all of Soviet history. One example of a word missing from those pages: “Stalin.” Here’s the sum total of what the book says about the Soviet period (except for that first bit about the Civil War and the next bit about World War II):

In December 1922 the USSR—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—was founded. Almost all the territories of the former Russian empire entered into it.

And our people started to build a new live. Instead of the will of the lord emperor, the power of the Communist Party; instead of faith in the Lord God, hope in the revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. A time of accomplishments, of great victories of labor. Collective farms were established, new cities were raised, factories and power stations were built . . . . People worked, heedless of themselves, in the name of the bright future. They proudly said: we are the masters of our country! They marched at demonstrations, sang lively songs. They dreamed that one day the whole world would be one huge Union of communist republics.

What is one life worth before such a great goal? Even hundreds, thousands of lives! You can’t do it—we’ll teach you. You don’t want to do it—we’ll make you! With an iron hand we’ll drive humanity to happiness! A hard lot awaited many. Denunciations, arrests, prisons . . . . What happened can never be crossed out of the history of our country.

Seventy-some years, we lived in the Soviet Union. It was our country; we loved it. Together with it we lived through the hardest trials. Now the Soviet Union, like the Russian empire before it, has gone forever into the past.

But Russia remains.

That’s all the book says about the Soviet period. But from this, we can see the fine line of Putin-era history: you don’t want to say the communist period was good, but at the same time you don’t want to bash the country to which you want people to have a nostalgic and nationalistic attachment. In the end, the book’s judgment on the Soviet period is mildly negative, but without going into any details, and still dwelling (in the sections on World War II and the cosmonauts) on all the positive.

The last page is called “Russia forever!” It’s filled with grand statements about how “We’re proud of the greatness of Russia. And we love it just because it’s our native land. And special. . . . Will Russia become even more magnificent, richer, happier? Of course it will! We’re going to try.”

This post has no grand moral. I don’t think there is a “neutral” history that one can tell. In American history books, we can tell their agenda by looking at how the book treats the Indians, Jefferson, the Civil War, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, the Cold War, Vietnam, Reagan, and so on; nothing wrong with that, everyone’s got an agenda. It’s just that, in the case of this new (2009) Russian history book, it’s interesting to see, with a lot of cultural distance, how this particular agenda plays out.

UPDATE: Just in case you were wondering, Alexander II, who freed the serfs, is portrayed as absolutely good. Serfdom was barbaric, its abolition was a necessary change for Russia; the only bad people were the revolutionaries who thought any reforms would be fictitious as long as the old regime was in place. Not bad!