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7 June 2017

Inevitable History: Russia’s New Compulsory Exam

Plans for a new compulsory history exam have worrying ideological undertones

Olga Vasilyeva, Russia’s Minister for Education and Science, announced in mid-May that a unified state history exam will become compulsory for high school graduates from 2020 onwards. Tellingly, she made the announcement during a lecture at a military academy.

As of today, these remain mere statements and no official documents have been prepared so far. Besides, three years is quite a significant period in today’s Russia and a lot could change in this time. Even so, let us contemplate the consequences of making history tests a mandatory part of Russia’s Unified State Exams (USE).

Experimenting with History

Andrey Movchan, an expert at Carnegie Moscow Center, was one of the first to react to Vasilyeva’s initiative. He compared an exam in history to an exam in ideology, which prompted a heated discussion online. Such concerns are completely justified. Consider the way the state has attempted to influence history teaching in schools. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin floated the idea of creating a single history textbook, a response to numerous complaints about textbooks and their various “misinterpretations”. Prompting most concern was World War Two.

The problem could be solved, Putin said at the time, with a single state approved history textbook that could provide an official interpretation of Russia’s past. In 2014, following further discussions, these ambitious plans were shelved. Instead, focus turned towards developing a single Historical and Cultural Standard (HCS) along with a concept of a teaching-and-methodological standard in Russian history to serve as the basis for all future textbooks. The basic principles behind these documents are somewhat contradictory. An introductory note states that the history of Russia should be presented as part of the global historical process and that Russian history is the history of all territories, countries, and peoples which have ever been part of the Russian state. In fact, non-Slavic peoples enter the textbook’s narrative only when they become part of the Russian state. The imperial ambitions of the Russian state largely avoid any kind of historical criticism; territorial expansion, as well as absolutism, are presented as positive steps in the country’s development. Concerning the Stalinist period, it is stated that mass repressions were inevitable side-effects of accelerated modernization, cultural revolution and social mobility.

The draft of the HCS was developed by the Russian Historical Society headed by Sergey Naryshkin, the chairman of the Russian Federation’s State Duma at the time, and currently the chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Agency. Initially, the draft envisaged focusing on cultural and anthropological approaches — i.e. not only were the deeds of great people to be described, but also the struggles of ordinary people during numerous historical epochs. As a result, one of the key recommendations is “to instill pride in their country in the young generation and make them aware of its role in the history of the world. Moreover, it is important to emphasize mass heroism in wars of liberation, especially the Great Patriotic Wars of 1812 and 1941-1945 and to present the heroic act of the nation as an example of nationhood and self-sacrifice in the name of the Fatherland”.

When it comes to the idea of a single history textbook, teachers are the main proponents. A single history textbook simplifies teaching tasks, since teachers do not have to solve complex problems themselves and can simply reproduce the predefined model. At a teachers’ congress, one teacher from Saint Petersburg commented in the context of historiographic disputes about the Battle of the Neva and the Battle of Kulikovo: “Even if these narratives did not initially exist and did emerge in historians’ works only later, this is no reason to eliminate them altogether for the sake of academic science”. Many historians, however, expressed their disapproval of a single textbook. For example, the renowned historian Leonid Katzva openly stated that a single textbook was a dangerous endeavor. As a result, it becomes impossible to adjust a curriculum to the needs of students and teachers and it paves the way for imposed ideology.

On the one hand, the history syllabus and the exam will follow the HCS which defines the framework for interpreting the past from the point of view of the state. The HCS contains a list of difficult historical issues which require explanations provided separately to teachers and students. These are, for example, such issues as “the price paid by the USSR for victory in the Great Patriotic War” or “the causes, consequences, and assessment of perestroika and the collapse of the USSR”. Should the collapse of the USSR be regarded as the number one geopolitical catastrophe, or as a natural result of breaking the deadlock of socialism? Interpretations provided in textbooks and in the USE will have an impact on the worldviews of students, especially if they have to be memorized and reproduced in order to answer exam questions. On the other hand, the existing version of the USE is not entirely biased from a political point of view: some assignments require students to present different points of view; arguments and counter arguments — i.e. critical thinking — are assessed.

It is impossible to say for sure whether the initiative to introduce an obligatory history exam is an ideological move or not; however, there are no pedagogical reasons for this exam to be introduced at the moment and any talk of a knowledge gap when it comes to Russia’s past serves merely to cover up for the state’s historical policy in general. High school students and undergraduates would demonstrate an equally low level of knowledge in any other subject were they to be tested. How many schoolchildren can name all the territorial entities of the Russian Federation? Should we introduce a mandatory geography exam? How many of them can name the difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism? Does this require a compulsory exam in social studies? From the point of view of the current regime, history is a type of natural resource which serves to strengthen its position through extraction and refining. Mandatory verification of the knowledge of history serves as a tool for exerting influence on high school students.

The media, along with the teaching community, have often called for the introduction of a third obligatory USE. For a long time, a foreign language was the preferred choice. The underlying argument was that it complemented Russia’s ambition to integrate into the global community. However, that argument no longer gets much airtime. Neither does the “liberal” Education Minister Dmitry Livanov, who was replaced by Vasilyeva, a much more conservative incumbent. She has, we now know, turned her back on the language option, and chosen history.

However, the very structure of the USE is an obstacle to direct indoctrination. Recently, there has been a shift from testing to analytical assignments whereby a student is required to present his/her point of view and to defend it using arguments. An example: “please give two arguments for and against the point of view that the era of Catherine II is rightly called the great one”. It is extremely difficult to provide one correct answer when faced with such a task. Still, the main problem when we speak of the USE in history being the channel of an ideological transmission is the lack of a clear ideological construct in contemporary Russia. Ideology in Russia is extremely situational and the authorities can be both Occidentalists and Slavophiles, supporters of the USSR and proponents of Nicholas II in turn. Against this backdrop, the desire to turn the USE in history into a test of ideological loyalty is more like an attempt to sit on several chairs at once and most believe that no good can come of it.

It is precisely the ideological aspect of teaching history in school which has become the most troubling concern with respect to the mandatory history exam. Vasilyeva said, when justifying why the exam should be compulsory, that: “one must know the history of one’s own country as well as its literature, art, music, technical achievements for a very simple reason: so that there is always the feeling of pride and belonging at heart.” A similar thought was expressed by Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky to whom history is fundamental to the formation of ideology: “The strength of the regime is determined not by the number of bayonets poised to kill for money but the number of people prepared to die for this regime for free. And the willingness to die for an abstract idea.”

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