Rewriting History for Putin

By Masha Lipman

Originally published in The Washington Post, March 22, 2004.

Rewriting history was an important part of the Bolshevik project to remake the world. Throughout the decades of Communist rule, the Soviet Union was a country with an unpredictable past: Russia's -- and in fact the world's -- history was continuously being reshaped by Communist ideologues.

Events of remote and recent times were reinterpreted, distorted or erased so as to better fit Marxist theory and ensure the political dominance of the Communist Party.

Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika was in large part about a return of history. His policy of glasnost brought an avalanche of disclosures -- of hidden and hideous stories of the totalitarian past. And while this policy was initiated from above, Soviet intellectuals responded with enthusiasm.

Uncensored speeches and newspaper articles were followed by archival research, scholarly volumes and new history textbooks. The sense of liberation was genuine, and though decommunization was never codified, anti-Communist sentiment seemed to be shared by an impressive majority of the nation in the late 1980s.

Even after this early enthusiasm had waned, after the trial of the Communist Party had failed to yield any significant results and the Communist opposition to democratization had consolidated, the figure of President Boris Yeltsin continued to symbolize the victory won over the Soviet past.

This symbolism is not to Vladimir Putin's liking, however. He reintroduced the old Soviet national anthem commissioned by Josef Stalin and brought back the style and some of the methods of the Communist government. It was only a matter of time before the need to revise history would reappear.

Recently, the Education Ministry pledged to review all 107 history books in use in schools and ensure that all over the country, the teacher's choice is reduced to no more than three books for each grade.

Liberal teachers, publishers and historians have spoken out against the initiative, but they will be largely unheeded. While they seek to defend intellectual freedom, the ministry's party has an unbeatable argument: The review of the textbooks is something the president wants.

Late last year, it was brought to Putin's attention that one of the textbooks dealing with 20th-century history cited opinions critical of the current regime. Soon thereafter Putin said history schoolbooks should state facts that "foster a sense of pride for one's history and one's country."

The ministry responded by getting rid of the inappropriate book -- it was withdrawn from the list of recommended school reading. In addition, the ministry vowed to work out a "uniform concept that would objectively treat the most critical periods of Russian history."

"Objectively" today implies the sort of treatment that will please Putin and fit the new political regime. There is no way -- and indeed no desire -- to reproduce the old Soviet system, which conformed strictly to ideology and had scores of specialists shaping and formulating opinions that were then channeled down for public indoctrination. Nor does the government seek to fully re-Sovietize history courses. But the bureaucratic state, with its hierarchy and obsequiousness, brings back old reflexes.

Putin's general message is unmistakable. It is a call for a return to a paternalistic state with virtually no political competition and a limited venue for independent opinion. This message was well read by the minister of education, who promised that there will be no space for "pseudo-liberalism aimed at distortions of history."

The ministry has picked its No. 1 book on 20th-century Russian history.

This work, which is likely to be the one and only textbook on the subject recommended to schoolteachers, makes no mention of Stalin's ethnic deportations (perhaps to avoid a "distorting" connection with the current Chechen war), largely reduces the period of the Red Terror to 1936-38 and describes the years of Putin's rule in laudatory terms. If history has not been rewritten more thoroughly, it's only because of the time lag: The book took some time to compile; in the meantime paternalistic and authoritarian trends have grown significantly stronger. There's no doubt that if the same authors were writing their book today, the slant would be even more pronounced.

The Putin regime has brought to the surface hordes of political opportunists, old and new. The new ones simply seek ways to be of use to the state. The old ones want revenge for the time of democratization, which left them rejected and marginalized. Depending on their background and current jobs, some prosecute "spies"; others reclassify Soviet archives and rewrite history.

Until recently, this authoritarian trend mostly affected politics. The weakening of democratic institutions, curbs on media freedom, prosecution and harassment of political enemies, intimidation of potential rivals -- all have worked to create a nauseating political atmosphere in which the choice has been between loyalty and subservience on the one hand and marginal activity that is vaguely dangerous on the other. But if you stayed away from politics and state service, your freedom was pretty much unlimited.

Putin's regime, by now rewriting history and imposing uniformity of opinion on schools, teachers and students, has encroached upon personal freedom. The return of the unpredictable past is a huge hurdle on the way to modernization.

Masha Lipman is editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra Journal. She writes a monthly column for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.