View from here - Putin brings gulag past into present

21st January 2011 at 00:00
The most anti-Soviet text of its age is to be given pride of place in Russia's schools, as Colin Graham reports

A few years ago, then Russian president Vladimir Putin came in for considerable stick from critics who accused him of attempting to re-write 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 Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which details the horrors of the former Soviet Union's concentration camps.

Before the 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 in the aftermath of the dissident's death so that the works of Solzhenitsyn could be more fully represented in schools.

It was this move that led to the shortened version of his best-known work being produced. Indeed, it was Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalya, whom 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 commented: "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 make them believe that Russia's past is drawn entirely in dark tones."

And while debate continues on the study of The Gulag Archipelago, education minister 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 Dmytro Tabachnyk, Ukraine's education minister, a textbook on consumer culture in the two countries in the 19th and 20th centuries has been commissioned as a first instalment.

That, too, has not gone down well in all quarters, given the troubled history of relations between Russia and the Ukraine. Former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has even called the decision a "betrayal" of the country.

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