Mobilizing the Past: Russian School History Textbook Narratives and Political Legitimation Strategies
For any given regime, the power to control the official interpretation of national history is considered to be an important and efficient instrument for nation building and nation maintenance purposes. As pointed out by Michael Billig, “nations do not typically have a single history, but there are competing tales to be told” (Billig 1995: 71). Thus, historical narratives are subject to construction, re-construction, and contestation. School history textbooks—and the educational system in general—represent important locales for such struggles between competing historical narratives.
As history books, school history textbooks represent a special genre. Complicated issues are as a rule reduced to undebatable “shared truths” ready for student consumption. In this context, the past is first and foremost meant to provide meaning to and legitimation of the present and to help staking out a common course for the future. With their near universal reach to entire cohorts of youths, school history textbooks are a powerful tool for spreading the message of the current regime of who and what the nation should be—and for legitimizing the powers-that-be.
In my paper, I examine continuity and change in how some key moments of Russian history are being presented in school history textbooks in the Russian Federation in order to explore changes in the understanding of the national self. Since textbooks have to be preapproved by the authorities to get on the list of recommended textbooks, these books can be taken to represent the official view on how these key moments are reinterpreted to fit the current approach to national history, and, thereby, also the current understanding of the national self.
I rely on Soviet school history textbooks in use in the early 1980s (pre-Perestroika) as a “baseline”. Then I trace how the narration of the same key events have been depicted in two sets of post-independence school history textbooks: textbooks that were in use in the mid-1990s (the first generation of post-Soviet textbooks), and the late 2010s (those currently in use), respectively. What historical “facts” remain constant? What has changed? And what can these shifting interpretations of historical events tell us about changes in the evolving understanding of the national self—and about the regime’s legitimation strategies?
Speaker: Helge Blakkisrud, Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs
Chair: Markku Kangaspuro, Director, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
Register here for the Zoom link.