20 years under Putin: a timeline

In October, the Russian Historical Society has approved new guidelines for history textbooks that will be used in Russian schools after 2015. The guidelines were drawn up at the request of Vladimir Putin. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza—a historian by training—analyzed the blueprint, noting its positive and negative aspects.



Who controls the past controls the future—George Orwell, 1984

The new plan for a unified textbook on Russian history that was approved last week and is intended to formulate a “publicly agreed-upon position on the principal stages of development of the Russian state and society” was awaited with significant apprehension. After all, attempts to rehabilitate Soviet totalitarianism (in particular, the KGB secret police force, from which the majority of Russia’s current “elite” stem) have already been made; these range from the reinstatement of the Stalinist national anthem to Vladimir Putin’s description of the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”—the same century that saw genocide and the most horrid wars in the history of humanity. Attempts to amend school programs have been made too: suffice to remember the notorious textbook by Alexander Filippov that justified Stalin’s purges by “the requirements of modernization in a situation of scarce resources.”

The newly approved plan contains no such egregious statements—or almost none. It must be said that the biggest concerns about the document have not come to pass. This was no doubt due to the presence of several honest professionals in both the working group and the authoring team who have, in a sense, neutralized the influence of official “historians” such as United Russia Party members Vladimir Medinsky and Vyacheslav Nikonov and Nashi ideologist Boris Yakemenko.

The historical narrative presented in the plan emphasizes Russia’s commonality with Europe, its place within European culture and European civilization from the time of ancient Rus to the early twentieth century. The text does not refer to the “special way of development” that so-called Eurasianists promote in opposition to a Russian European identity. Nor do the authors attempt to whitewash authoritarianism: the reign of Ivan the Terrible is characterized as “expressly despotic”; the rule of Nicholas I is described in the context of “the growth of bureaucracy [and] the tightening of state control over society”; the Great Reforms of Alexander II are defined in terms of “the movement toward the rule of law and civil society”; and the “authoritarian character” of Russia’s political system is said to have come into “inevitable contradiction with the fast-changing social, economic and legal landscape of the country.” The plan draws attention to the existence of democratic traditions in Russia, including town assemblies (veche) and the experience of the Pskov and Novgorod republics.

The actions of the Soviet regime are presented in the guidelines with greater objectivity than they are in the public statements by some of the current state officials.

It is, however, the twentieth century that deserves the most attention in terms of its representation in the plan, as it is the most difficult period of time to handle in terms of preserving historical objectivity and resisting political pressures. Given the current political context in Russia, it must be said that the authors of the plan have managed this task relatively well. At the very least, the actions of the Soviet regime and its repressive apparatus are presented in the plan with much greater objectivity than they are in the public statements by some of the current state officials. The text describes the “catastrophic . . . human losses” as a result of the civil war that began after the Bolshevik seizure of power (including the emigration of some 2 million educated Russians); the “forced collectivization, accompanied by cruel repressions against affluent peasants” that led to “tragedy,” hunger, and epidemics; the Gulag and the “mass political purges of 1937–1938”; the “strengthening of ideological censorship [and] the search for ‘enemies of the people’”; post–Second World War repressions such as the “Leningrad Affair,” the fight against “cosmopolitanism,” the “doctors’ plot,” and the destruction of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee; the emergence of the dissident movement; the activities of Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn; and the Soviet regime’s suppression of dissent.

Yet the way the Soviet period is presented in the plan has a certain slyness about it—no doubt due to current political influences. While the text does not contain explicit justifications of the Communist regime’s crimes, such justification can certainly be read between the lines. “As a result of the industrial breakthrough during the first five-year plans old factories were reconstructed, and new ones were built. Entire industrial sectors appeared: automotive, tractor, chemical, machine-tool, motor-building, aviation, etc.,” the authors recount. “The military industry and military-related science developed at an advance pace, laying the foundations for victory in 1945 and for post-war achievements in space and nuclear technologies.” To maintain “balance,” the plan mentions the direct link between Stalin’s industrialization and his mass repressions: “Next to the industrial giants of the five-year plans appeared the prison camp towers of the Gulag, where the forced labor of prisoners was used.”

But there can never be a “balance” between the development of “entire industrial sectors” and broken human lives, the fates of millions of people who were sent to suffering and death by the will of the “state.” There can never be a “balance” between “achievements in space and nuclear technologies” and mass killings; the annihilation of peasants, priests, and the intelligentsia; broken families; starving children; and the destruction of the nation’s culture and human potential. It would be the same as German history textbooks talking about concentration camps and the Holocaust on the same page as they discussed the construction of the Autobahns and the development of heavy industry under the Nazis.


Millions have been sent to the Gulag; during the 1937-1938 Great Terror alone, 1.7 million people were arrested on political grounds. The new teaching guidelines do not mention the scale of Soviet.


Indeed, the plan does not mention the scale of the politically motivated purges in the Soviet Union—despite the fact that there is an officially established (though likely understated) figure: Russia’s 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repressions determined that these repressions affected 12.5 million people, some 5 million of whom were sentenced by a court of an extrajudicial body, and 7 million of whom fell victim to collectivization, ethnic deportations, and so on. The names of 2.6 million victims of Communist repression have been documented and published through the monumental research efforts of Russia’s Memorial Society. In the Great Terror of 1937–1938 alone, some 1.7 million people were arrested on political grounds; at least 725,000 of them were shot. In those two years, the Soviet state killed 1,000 of its citizens every day. “The governing structures of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were the initiators, and local structures often the implementers of the policies of repressions directed at millions of Soviet citizens. . . . This continued for decades.” This is not someone’s private opinion, but the official ordinance of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation issued after the trial of the Communist Party on November 30, 1992.

Other questions arise about the plan’s representation of political events in Russia in the twentieth century. Thus, the activities of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin are described as an “example of cooperation” between state and society—despite the fact that it was Stolypin who, in the summer of 1906, insisted on the dissolution of the First State Duma and disrupted the plan for the formation of a parliamentary majority government that might have taken the country on a path of reform and helped to avoid revolution. That crucial historical crossroads and Stolypin’s role in the dissolution of the first Russian parliament are not mentioned in the plan at all.

Nor do the authors seem to pay much attention to the dissolution by the Bolsheviks of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918, notwithstanding the fact that it was a key turning point in the history of modern Russia—the moment when state legitimacy was lost. The consequences of that loss are being felt to this day.

The brief sentence about “the signing by the Soviet government of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany and Russia’s exit from the First World War” does not indicate that this treaty was considered by many to be both a national betrayal (Russia lost one-third of its population) and a stab in the back of the country’s fighting allies. The guidelines are silent about the circumstances of Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917: the Bolshevik leader, who publicly wished defeat for his own country, traveled through German territory by permission of Germany’s General Staff in a sealed train—as Churchill caustically noted, “like a plague bacillus.”

There can never be a “balance” between the development of “industrial sectors” and broken human lives, the fates of millions of people who were sent to suffering and death by the will of the “state.”

The plan simply ignores one of the most shameful episodes in Soviet history—Stalin’s deal with Hitler and the division of Eastern Europe by a secret protocol to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The text briefly mentions “the non-aggression treaty between the USSR and Germany” and “the entry of Baltic states into the USSR.” The way this “entry” was achieved—with Molotov’s ultimatum to the Baltic governments; the Red Army’s occupation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; single-party “elections” held under the barrels of Soviet tanks; and mass deportations of the local population—is not elaborated upon. This omission is fully in line with the position of the current Russian government, which, despite the obvious facts, continues to maintain that “the entrance of additional units of the Red Army and the inclusion of the Baltic states in the Soviet Union did not come into conflict with international law that was in effect at the time.” This line is being maintained in spite of the fact that, in December 1989, the Soviet Parliament condemned the secret protocol as “being in legal conflict with the sovereignty and independence of several other states,” and that in July 1991, in its bilateral treaty with Lithuania, the Russian government recognized the events of 1940 as an “annexation”—by its nature an involuntary act.

As could be expected, the most politicized and least historically objective section of the plan is the one relating to the events of recent years. Readers will not learn about the nature of “Operation Successor”—the stage-managed transfer of presidential power on December 31, 1999—and the methods used to bring about its implementation; students are only handed the bland statement that “President B. N. Yeltsin resigned and, in accordance with the Constitution, Prime Minister V. V. Putin became head of state and was soon after elected as the new president of Russia.” Nor will readers learn about the role of the once-powerful “oligarch” Boris Berezovsky in bringing Putin to power (the name of the founding father of the still-ruling United Russia party is not once mentioned in the plan); about the closure by the state of independent television channels; about managed elections that created docile rubberstamp parliaments; or about the Yukos affair and the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, modern Russia’s most prominent political prisoner. In the text, the establishment of an authoritarian regime is euphemistically called “stabilization of the political system.” It is astounding that the plan—which addresses events up to the year 2012—does not contain a single mention of the mass pro-democracy protests of 2011–2012, Russia’s largest demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Consequently, no mention is made of the fact that elections in Putin’s Russia are considered by many in Russian society to be undemocratic.

These omissions are not surprising: it would be difficult to expect a working group chaired by Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin to approve an objective assessment of the current regime. On the whole, however, the glass here is more half-full than half-empty. The succinct mentions of several key events in the plan leave teachers significant room for elaboration and interpretation. Meanwhile, professional historians will be able to introduce amendments to the plan when Russia has a government that does not seek to rewrite the past to suit its current political interests.