September 18, 2008

Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed

By: AFF Editors

As someone who believes that our policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War constitutes one of our more egregious foreign policy missteps in recent years, articles like this one — on Russia’s new government-backed history textbooks — are something of a tonic.

I have little time for the Russophobia that runs rampant in much of our media these days. But the useful criticism of our policies found in the pages of the American Conservative and the National Interest can sometimes shade into apologia for Putin, et al.

Herewith a helpful reminder: Places and events that receive little or no mention in the new textbooks include the Gulag prison system, the Ukrainian famine, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Great Terror of 1937-38, the Katyn massacre, and so on. The origins of the Cold War are given an entirely one-sided reading, and the true nature of the Warsaw Pact is shaded over.

Also of interest is one of the principal authors’ charming response to his critics — further evidence of the thuggish rhetoric indulged in by Russian officials these days:

You may ooze bile but you will teach the children by those books that you will be given and in the way that is needed by Russia. And as to the noble nonsense that you carry in your misshapen goateed heads, either it will be ventilated out of them or you yourself will be ventilated out of teaching…. It is impossible to let some Russophobe shit-stinker (govnyuk), or just any amoral type, teach Russian history. It is necessary to clear the filth, and if it does not work, then clear it by force.

From one side, I can understand the desire to whitewash this history. If my country’s 20th-century looked like that, I’d be reluctant to dwell on it as well, and I hardly expected the official textbook to resemble one written by, say, Richard Pipes.

But Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov and Vassily Grossman are as much as part of Russian history as Stalin and Brezhnev, and the government, besides committing a great moral error, is doing damage to its history.

I do not, by the way, consider this some kind of a return to the Soviet era; I consider it yet another example of the metastasizing of Russian nationalism (which, of course, much of Soviet policy was in fact). To wit, George Orwell: “A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”

And Vladimir Putin: “As to some problematic pages in our history — yes, we’ve had them. But what state hasn’t? And we’ve had fewer of such pages than some other [states]. And ours were not as horrible as those of some others.”

The entire project in fact is redolent of Orwell’s definition, again from his great “Notes on Nationalism”: “Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception.”