Defining National Identities: The Role of History Education in Russia and Ukraine

By
Lidiya Zubytska

"Ukraine and Russia are said to have an unpredictable future, but what is really unpredictable is their past," posited Karina Korostelina, Research Professor, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, and former Regional Exchange Scholar, Kennan Institute, at a Kennan Institute lecture on February 9, 2009. "People who control the past and define major national problems and grievances are also the ones who define the future, for they define who we are and what we aspire to be," she emphasized. Presently, authorities in Russia and Ukraine maintain firm control over the content of history textbooks in their respective countries, thereby controlling historical education in schools. Although education in history is largely supplemented by other pedagogical elements, such as historical documentaries, museums, archeological sites, etc., textbooks still comprise a major tool for the formation of national identity in both countries. History textbooks receive special attention from the presidents of Ukraine and Russia. They cannot be used in schools unless approved through a special procedure involving competitions, testing at schools, revisions, and a vetting process at each country's Ministry of Education.

Korostelina analyzed the three generations of Russian history textbooks published since 1991. She said that the first generation possessed a humanistic approach, encouraged critical thinking, and aimed to help in the formation of responsible citizens. The next generation of textbooks, in existence from1993-2006, promulgated the notion of the "nation" as the pivotal idea. These textbooks presented Russia as a unique nation, all of whose actions, including wars of expansion, serfdom, etc., were justifiable by political expediency. The books also depicted the Soviet period negatively and gave World War II an unfavorable assessment. Finally, the third and current generation of textbooks, including Alexander Filipov's recent book, is based on the idea of Leonid Poliakov, a dean of history at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, that textbooks should present "a positive unity with past." According to Poliakov, remarked Korostelina, 90 percent of students are not meant to be tasked with thinking critically about history, but need only to be presented with one, simple, positive narrative. In this approach, for instance, the USSR is positively assessed and October Revolution is compared to the French Revolution. According to Korostelina, this third generation of textbooks promotes an authoritarian regime, the primacy of the state over the individual, and strong central power, while reducing the agency of citizens.

Ukrainian history textbooks have undergone a similar generational transformation, although Korostelina observed differing initial dynamics in history education between Western Ukraine and Eastern Ukraine. For example, Western Ukrainian textbooks portray World War II as a conflict between pro-national forces and Bolsheviks, while Eastern Ukrainian textbooks positively assess achievements made during the Soviet period. Korostelina noted, however, that over time, Ukrainian textbooks in general have increasingly portrayed Soviet perpetrators specifically as ethnic Russians. Korostelina purported that such portrayals create and sustain an image of victimhood around which Ukrainian national identity can consolidate.

In a "war of textbooks" as Korostelina described it, both countries differently interpret a range of terms and events. Russian textbooks present Kyivan Rus—the medieval Slavic state which preceded the formation of the distinct national groups of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians—as a "Greater Russian State" that later allowed for regional differences to develop. Ukrainian textbooks claim it to be the first Ukrainian state. Other discrepancies coalesce around the Civil War of 1917-1922, Soviet repressions, the famine of 1932-1933, and World War II.

Considering these variations in interpretation of history, Korostelina evaluated the impact of such textbook narratives on each group's national identity. According to her, in presenting Russians as enemies, Ukrainian textbooks actively mobilize Ukrainian national identity. Alternatively, in encouraging Russians to view all the events of their history—including the Soviet period—optimistically and as cultural phenomena, Russian history textbooks support a "cultural" national identity rather than a mobilized one.

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