Last week President Vladimir Putin met with a selected group of delegates attending a Kremlin-organized conference, “Timely Issues in Teaching Modern History and Social Science.” Putin told the teachers: “Many school books are written by people who work to get foreign grants. They dance to the polka that others have paid for. You understand? These books, regrettably, get into schools and universities.” Putin demanded new history textbooks that “make our citizens, especially the young, proud of their country” and reiterated “no one must be allowed to impose the feeling of guilt on us.”
Putin pledged to hand out government grants to authors who will write proper new textbooks. Following his recent pattern, he used the meeting to again lash out at the United States. “Yes, we had terrible pages in Russia’s history,” he said. “Let us recall the events since 1937, and let us not forget that. But in other countries [the U.S.], it has been said, it was more terrible.” Putin suggested that Washington’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan at the end of World War II was worse than Stalin’s political repression and mass murder. Putin also cited the U.S. bombing campaign and use the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War (official transcript, www.kremlin.ru, June 21).
The teachers’ delegation dutifully rallied to Putin’s patriotic call. Leonid Polyakov, chair of the department of political science at the Higher School of Economics and author of a new, officially approved textbook, announced that his colleges have undertaken the task to create a “national-patriotic ideology.” These principles will help teachers in the “civic-patriotic education” of students as a supplement to “traditional military-patriotic education.”
Polyakov implied that Russia did not lose the Cold War, but instead “voluntarily disarmed” and imported a “shaky, abstract ideology of universal values, of words ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘market,’ ‘human rights,’ and ‘civil society’.” According to Putin, this foreign ideology has created a “mishmash” in Russian heads and in Russian society that must be corrected. Later, speaking on a Russian First Channel talk show Sunday, June 24, Polyakov argued that the invasion of Afghanistan by Russian troops in 1979 was neither a crime nor a mistake, but a Cold War decision in Russia’s interest, taken after due diligence by the Kremlin.
Polyakov graduated from university in 1973 as a Marxist philosopher and teacher of Marxist-Leninist Social Science. Putin graduated from university two years later, already recruited to become a KGB spy. Polyakov told Putin that today he is a happy man after being called upon to write a new textbook, that his life efforts, experience, and education are once again needed and that social science is back in the curriculum.
In Moscow during communist rule, it was often said that Russia is a nation with an unpredictable past. History was written one way and then repeatedly rewritten again. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it seemed for a time that the writing of textbooks and history in general would be freed of strict state control. Of course, historians, teachers, and journalists had been trained during the communist-era, but in a relatively free country new methodologies, untainted by totalitarianism, could rise — but freedom did not last in Russia.
Putin specifically noted that the history of World War II and Russia’s history after 1991 are wrongly interpreted and must be rewritten. Today Stalin has again been rehabilitated as a leader who made mistakes, but still secured victory over Nazi Germany. The 1990s — a decade when Russia was a freer state than at anytime before or since — today is demonized. The pro-Kremlin youth movement Molodaya Gvardia has announced it will be organizing marches in Yekaterinburg and other cities in support of Putin and against the regime’s critics under the slogan, “No return to the 1990s” (RIA-Novosti, June 26).
Maybe even more important than the rewriting of history, is that Putin once again in unequivocal terms spelled out that he considers any Russian citizen or organization that receives any grants or other financial support from abroad in any form to be a paid agent of foreign interests — a traitor. The traitors dance a “polka” ordered by the enemies of Russia. In fact, Putin said it was a “butterfly polka” (polka-babochka) — a dance few perform or know anything about. The expression itself is totally alien to modern Russian ears. It is an expression from the Stalinist era that Putin perhaps remembered from long ago, and it is a notion of total paranoia and xenophobia, minted during a time when anti-Americanism was the cornerstone of “military-patriotic education.”
Putin’s personal paranoia and anti-Americanism seem to be growing and are increasingly dominating external and internal Russian politics. This does not mean that Russia is indeed reverting to communist totalitarianism. Putin is not a “Commie,” but a strictly observant Orthodox Christian, which is almost as demanding as being a strictly observant Orthodox Jew. It apparently was Putin’s explicit Christian observance that fooled George W. Bush at their first meeting in 2001 into seeing a reclusive Kremlin dictator as a potential close ally. That was a total illusion, since many in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church tend to be as anti-Western, anti-American, xenophobic, and just as paranoid as are Russian Communists, the military, and the former KGB.