26.09.23 Review

School Diktat: Do Russians support the ideologisation of history education in schools?

Although most Russians support the idea of a unified history textbook, polling data shows that only a minority believe in ideological uniformity and state interference in the interpretation of historical facts. This apparent contradiction reflects the difference between the paternalistic worldview widespread among Russian citizens and the intentions of the Russian authorities to impose the 'Putin-Medinsky' propaganda doctrine on them. The idea of a single interpretation of history appears least appealing to the younger generations – those who graduated from school in the last ten years and have witnessed attempts to instil 'the fundamentals of Orthodoxy,' 'traditional values,' and 'spiritual bonds'. Nevertheless, the percentage of those who accept government interference in the interpretation of history has increased from 22% to 34% over the past decade.

The recent ideologisation of school education has affected all levels and aspects of the educational process, with history education being the primary target. 'Putinism's ideology' has a distinctly retrospective character – it says little and is vague about the future and its values, and primarily focuses on the 'reinterpretation' of the past. In its current form, it is most concentrated on justifying the war, with historical narratives, particularly the fundamental concept of historical enmity and confrontation between Russia and the West, playing a pivotal role. Unlike the Soviet era, when the ideology of confrontation with the Western world had doctrinal foundations (the West was seen as the realm of regressive capitalist ideology), today's ideology is largely derived from historical experience.

The first systematic attempt by the state to control history took place in 2012 when Putin first presented the program of state conservatism (traditional values and 'pieties'). At that time, he publicly supported the idea of unifying the teaching of history in Russian educational institutions and proposed creating a 'unified canonical approach to the essential, fundamental, vital historical epochs for our country.' From that moment on, the introduction of new narratives and the rewriting of old ones that did not fit Russia's new positioning began to gain momentum, reaching its peak after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Moreover, the Russian textbook market is almost entirely controlled by structures close to Arkady Rotenberg, who is believed to have long-standing friendly relations with Putin. As a consequence, the rewriting of the history taught in schools was a relatively easy process for the Russian authorities. In 2022, references to Ukraine were hastily removed from Russian textbooks, and in 2023, with the involvement of Vladimir Medinsky, a new revised history textbook for grades 10-11 was released, mandatory for use in all Russian schools from September 1. 'Medinsky's textbook' is filled with value judgments and promotes anti-Western narratives ('the West's fix-it idea was to destabilise the situation inside Russia', the scenario of 'Russia's division was already rehearsed by NATO in the example of Yugoslavia,' and more). In 2024, the same team of authors will prepare new history textbooks for grades 5-9.

The idea of introducing a unified history textbook has always enjoyed the support of the Russian public. In the 2010s, according to the Levada Center, 70-85% of Russians surveyed supported this idea. The distribution of responses to a similar question in a FOM survey conducted in August of this year is towards the lower end of the 'Levada' range: 69% approved of the idea of a unified textbook, while 25% did not. This is, perhaps, no accident as there is a striking generational divide. Among those aged 18-30, 40% support the idea of multiple textbooks, while 57% favour a single textbook. However, in other age groups, the difference in attitudes toward this issue is elided. In other words, scepticism towards the idea of a unified history textbook is characteristic of those age groups that only began to be surveyed in the last decade and went through school during the era of Putin's conservatism and attempts at historical standardisation.

How Russians feel about the plans to create a unified school history textbook, % of those surveyed

Do you believe that each historical period should have a single school textbook for the entire country, or should there be multiple textbooks to choose from? Percentage of those surveyed

According to data from the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), ten years ago, 75% of those surveyed named school as the primary source of their historical knowledge, but now, only 61% do so. This shift may be attributed to age, as 30% of all older generations claim to have acquired their historical knowledge outside of school, while among the youngest cohort, this number rises to 40%. Interestingly, over the past decade, there has also been a decrease in the level of 'historical isolationism.' In 2013, when asked whether world history should be studied alongside Russian history and occupy at least half of the school curriculum, 18% of respondents agreed. In 2023, this number increased to 34%.

Despite strong support for the idea of a unified history textbook, the majority of respondents believe that it should reflect different points of view. This opinion is held by 67% of those surveyed (73% of those in their twenties and 59% of those over 60). In previous surveys, this percentage ranged from 56% to 60%. The proportion of those in favour of uniformity stands at 25%, which is higher than in 2014 (18%) but the same as it was in 2013. However, when it comes to the question of whether the country's leadership should influence people’s assessments and interpretations of historical facts and figures in the history textbook, there is a clear negative trend. The percentage of those who agree to government influence has increased from 22% in 2013 to 34% in 2023, while the percentage of those who oppose such influence has decreased slightly from 55% to 52% (among those aged 18-45, 29% were in favour and 59% against, while among those over 60, 44% were in favour and 38% were against).

Such distributions indicate a strong paternalistic syndrome, which explains Russians' commitment to the idea of a unified textbook. From their perspective, the state should bear a certain responsibility and act as a 'night watchman' when it comes to matters of education, including the teaching of history. However, the demand for indoctrination and uniformity remains relatively low (ranging from a quarter to a third of those polled) and is skewed toward the oldest age groups (those over 50 years old). Thus, the practice of unifying history education across the country and essentially turning it into another tool of Kremlin propaganda are primarily supported by those who are the farthest removed from their school years, which were spent in an atmosphere of total Soviet ideological indoctrination, including in schools.