History textbook in the war for the future

31 August, 12:23 PM
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Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Photo:instagram.com/zelenskiy_official)

Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Photo:instagram.com/zelenskiy_official)

Last summer, the Russian president published an article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” on the Kremlin’s official website.

Its essence was clear, as the name suggests. It was far from the first, although this time very extensive, justification of the key thesis of Russian propaganda about a “one people.” Another appeal to such a vision of the past was voiced by Vladimir Putin in his speech on Feb. 21, three days before the start of a full-scale invasion.

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Why is there so much history in the speeches and articles of the head of the Russian Federation? Appealing to the past is not just about justifying their aggression.

Putin is positive that if he correctly rewrites history, this will become an important tool in his victory over Ukraine. It can reshape Ukrainians to his needs. He is guided by the aphorism attributed to Bismarck: “War is won, not by generals but by school teachers and parish priests.” Therefore, the enemy equally needs priests of the Russian Orthodox Church and teachers with correct history textbooks in Ukraine.

Books in which Stalin is described as an effective manager have been distributed in Russia for twenty years. They helped shape current Russian society, which supports Putin as a continuation of Stalin’s policies.

This society is ready to turn a blind eye to the government’s crimes against its own and other citizens. Russians are filled with a sense of greatness because they believe the world is afraid of their state. Generations of those who committed murder in Irpin and Bucha, and are killing in Kherson and Mariupol, were educated in these textbooks.

Replacing history textbooks in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine is one of the first steps of a new government. That was the case in Crimea. And in the so-called DNR and LNR – they immediately started to develop “History of the Fatherland” courses.

And already in 2021, the “History of the Donbas: from Antiquity to Modernity” and the “History of the Great Patriotic War. Part 1” were published with 100,000 copies.

And even in areas that the Russians have occupied for only a few months (Chernihiv, Sumy, Kherson) and did not have to prepare their own books, they began to remove Ukrainian historical literature from libraries and destroyed them. To do this, Russian units of the “military police” were brought in, which, in addition to repressive functions, performed ideological ones.

The Russians are in a hurry because they understand that they are late with their historical education of Ukrainians, who for the past thirty years have learned about their history without Russian participation.

Studying the true history of Ukraine was impossible in Soviet times. I was among those Ukrainian schoolchildren who studied the “History of the Ukrainian SSR” in addition to the “History of the USSR”. Both textbooks, of course, were about the defining role of the Russian people.

In the second, the main emphasis was on the desire of Ukrainians to unite with Russians.

With the declaration of independence, all these textbooks became obsolete and needed immediate replacement. Teachers began to use books written by pre-Soviet authors – Lototsky, Arkas, Hrushevsky, Krypiakevych.

The book “Ukraine. History” by the Canadian political scientist Orest Subtelny, which was published in 1988 in Toronto, was the best suited for the role of a new textbook.

The Ukrainian translation of the book appeared three years later. The author mentioned that he had already started preparing a Ukrainian publication in Kyiv when the Soviet coup d’etat attempt took place in the USSR.

The publishers advised Subtelny to flee with his book back to Canada. But he decided to stay. And three days later, the publishers returned with an offer to publish the book.

A few years after the declaration of independence, historians and teachers in Ukraine, together with the Ministry of Education, managed to create a complete set of textbooks on the history of Ukraine from ancient times to the present day, for the 5th to 11th grades. Our state became the first among the post-Soviet republics to provide educational institutions with their own history textbooks.

In this way, Ukraine began to assert its independence in history, its right to its own view of the past. After all, most people do not read historical works, memoirs or even more so, collections of documents. Their ideas about the past are formed during school years, when, like it or not, you have to study history as a separate compulsory subject. Therefore, in any society, the main tool for forming ideas about the past is a school history textbook.

It is not for nothing that it is sometimes considered one of the attributes of statehood, along with the anthem, flag, and coat of arms.

The leadership of Russia, having recovered from the collapse of the USSR, sought to restore influence on Ukrainians’ perception of the past. To bring us back under their control. This was done through cinema, literature and pop culture.

And Russia actively promoted the idea of a joint history textbook, which was supposed to promote better mutual understanding between peoples. For the Russians, a common view is meant to be Russian.

It turned out to be difficult to impose this on Ukrainians because the difference in the understanding of the past only deepened. It became especially difficult to talk about this after the Orange Revolution, which accelerated the formation of national identity in Ukraine.

We began to open the previously secret KGB archives, to spread the truth about the crimes of the communists and the heroic struggle of the members of the liberation movement.

It was obviously impossible to combine this story with the Russian narrative of the glorification of everything Soviet. In 2009, the school curriculum in Ukraine underwent even greater changes – the topic, which is so sacred to Russians, disappeared from textbooks: the “Great Patriotic War” was replaced by the “Second World War.”

But the Kremlin managed to establish itself among the Ukrainian political powers – through the victory of its candidate Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential elections. And the Minister of Education, Dmytro Tabachnyk, appointed by the newly elected president, immediately began rewriting Ukrainian textbooks.

According to his personal instructions, the “framework” of the history program included the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, the Battle near Kruty, the Great Terror and repressions of the 1930s, the liberation movement of the OUN and UPA, the dissidents, the national democratic movement in Ukraine in the late 1980s-1990s and the 2004 Orange Revolution. The Minister of Education of Ukraine also stated that he was “erasing this nonsense about the Holodomor from the textbooks.”

The ”cleansing” of Ukrainian history was not carried out so that Ukrainian schoolchildren would receive textbooks with blank pages. The void was to be filled with new content needed by Yanukovych’s “strategic ally”. Therefore, with the assistance of Tabachnyk, the Russian-Ukrainian commission of historians resumed their work on the preparation of a joint textbook. The commission did not have time to work on anything significant, or even more so, to implement the main project for which it was created.

Ukrainians rebelled against Yanukovych’s pro-Russian policies and forced him to flee the country. Putin lost his political tools of influence, so he turned to the military.

But despite the colossal numerical and technical advantage, it cannot win the war with Ukraine. Because wars are not won by generals, but by history teachers. And Ukrainian teachers have managed to raise a whole generation of Ukrainian citizens and patriots.

Those who read Subtelny in the early 1990s, together with those who studied from the textbooks of the already independent Ukraine, are now defending our freedom together with weapons in their hands. And they will definitely win, writing our glorious page in the new history textbooks.

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