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“In textbooks, Stalin is hardly mentioned”

Tamara Eidelman is the Board President of the Moscow History Teachers Association. In her interview with Madeleine Janssen, she explains what Russian students need if they want to learn more about Josef Stalin, why history teaching in Russia is very traditional and how she perceives the new Russian minister of education.

How has history teaching in Russia changed over the last ten to twenty years?

I am not sure that it has really changed. Of course, now we have more computers, computer programs, and smartboards, but teaching is still very traditional in a major part of the schools. By traditional teaching I mean a very knowledge-oriented way where the emphasis is put on teaching mostly the facts instead of developing skills.

The military parades in Moscow insinuate that there is a lot of pride and support for the Russian military forces. How is World War II remembered in schools today?

Unfortunately, the Second World War became part of the state propaganda, and the state exploits people’s feelings all the time. The war is taught in history classes, but it is also connected to all kinds of extra curriculum activities such as meeting veterans, visiting sites and monuments, preparing contributions, making shows at school theatres. On one hand, it sounds good that people keep remembering their past, but in my opinion, there is too much war in our education. History education is in fact a military education. I mean by that: a large part of the curriculum is given to various wars with many details of specific battles.

Are there discussions with students about crimes committed by soldiers during World War II?

Not really. The war became a piece of the official propaganda, so it is not about crimes or about people's suffering, but about the Great Soviet State that won the war and will win all the others. Of course, there are teachers who conduct such discussions, but they are not a majority.

Do teachers take their students to memorial sites?

Sometimes they do, but this always depends on the individual initiative of a teacher and cannot be seen as a systematic part of the curriculum.

What is the picture of Stalin taught to young students in school today?

It depends very much on the teacher. In textbooks, Stalin is hardly mentioned, and if he is, then in a very neutral tone. If the teachers want to add something to the books’ content, they can do that. At the same time, mass media have already started to show Stalin in a good way, and the old, silly idea that “Stalin won the war” is always present. I never heard of a teacher being reprimanded for critically assessing Stalin’s role or military crimes. But I have heard about teachers who were fired because they refused to falsify results of elections in favor of the governmental party.

What is going well in Russian history education?

In my opinion – although not all teachers agree with that –, the best thing that has happened recently is the introduction of a written state exam at the end of each student’s school career. This is what has made exams easier for students, and it has also given them more opportunities to enter universities. The history state exam also has several tasks, based on analysis of sources and comparison of different points of view, which can promote some changes in teaching.

What is “new” about the new history textbooks that have just been introduced in Russian schools?

Actually nothing except the date of publication. They are still traditional, knowledge-centered, and boring.

How do you perceive the new minister of education, Olga Vasilyeva? What are her ambitions as regards history teaching in Russian schools?

It is hard to tell right now, as she has just entered office. It seems that she is religious, which I find a bad thing for a minister of education, and also that she is quite fond of Stalin. However, some people whom I trust say that she is a good professional. We were shocked by quotations from her speeches: For example, she said that Stalin made a lot of good things for the country, as he supported Orthodox Church.

Tamara Eidelman was born in Moscow in 1958. She graduated from the University of Moscow in 1981 and then started to teach history and civics in Moscow’s schools. Eidelman is an active member of the nongovernmental organization EUROCLIO, the European Association of History Educators. She is currently the Board President of the Moscow History Teachers Association.

The Russian nongovernmental organization MEMORIAL has for 17 years been organizing a history competition for young students in Russia – based on the role model on the German Federal President’s History Competition. The Russian competition is one of 25 members of the history network EUSTORY, initiated by the Körber-Stiftung. The 2016 annual network meeting took place in Moscow where the new laureates of the Russian competition were also awarded.

How did laureate Andrej Kosyrev convince the Russian jury? Find out about his project: Video

More about EUSTORY: www.eustory.eu

 

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