Putin brings gulag past to high schools

14th January 2011 at 00:00
Russia: A new version of an anti-communist classic will sit alongside 'patriotic' textbooks on nation's curriculum

A few years ago, then Russian president Vladimir Putin came in for considerable stick from critics who accused him of attempting to rewrite history with the use of "patriotic" textbooks in schools.

Teachers were worried that the state would impose an approved version of Russia's past, praising the leadership of Stalin and whitewashing the darker aspects of the country's history.

So it has come as some surprise that the same Mr Putin, now the prime minister, has given a glowing endorsement of a new compulsory text for Russian high-school students - an abridged version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which detailed the horrors of the Soviet Union's concentration camps.

Before the great writer died in 2008, he heaped praise on Putin for turning around a Russia that had been, in Solzhenitsyn's words, a "ransacked and bewildered" nation until he took office. The two of them met in 2007 and appeared to enjoy a genuine rapport.

Putin publicly urged education minister Andrei Fursenko to modify the national curriculum following the dissident's death so that the works of Solzhenitsyn could be more fully represented.

It was this move that led to the shortened version of his best-known work, which was written over 10 years between 1958 and 1968. Indeed, it was Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalya, who Putin met to publicise the new version of the landmark anti-communist work.

Launching the book, Putin said: "Without the knowledge of what is described in this book, we would not have a complete picture of our country and we would hardly be able to think about the future."

But not all are convinced that Putin is genuinely keen to disavow Soviet history or that the use of the book is a step in the right direction.

Pro-Kremlin political analyst Pavel Danilin, who also contributed to the controversial pro-state textbook of a few years ago, told a Russian news website that Solzhenitsyn's trilogy had certainly dealt a blow to the Soviet Union.

But he went on: "I do not think that this work should be studied in schools. As a collection of memories about the terrible repression, it is not a historical work. Its excessive emotionality might rather divert students from their homeland and believe that Russia's past is drawn entirely in dark tones."

And while debate continues on the study of The Gulag Archipelago, Mr Fursenko has agreed another controversial addition to the curriculum - a handbook for teachers in Russia and Ukraine on their joint history.

With the blessing of Ukraine's education minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, a textbook on consumer culture in the two countries in the 19th and 20th centuries has been commissioned as a first installment.

Given that the history of Ukraine and Russia is fraught with huge controversies, not least because of the Great Famine of the 1930s which devastated Ukraine under Soviet rule, the choice of material has been criticised as too lightweight. Former Ukrainian prime minister and now opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has even called the decision a "betrayal" of his country.

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