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  • A New Short Course?A. V. Filippov and the Russian State's Search for a "Usable Past"
  • David Brandenberger (bio)

History textbooks have long played an unusually political role in Russo-Soviet society, serving as a mechanism for indoctrination from above and a metaphor for authoritarian heavy-handedness for those below. If texts by N. M. Karamzin and D. I. Ilovaiskii epitomized this tension during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were replaced during the early Soviet period with similarly controversial texts by M. N. Pokrovskii, Emel´ian Iaroslavskii, and A. V. Shestakov. This process culminated in 1938 with the launch of the infamous Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), which reigned over Soviet society for nearly two decades until it was pilloried in 1956 by N. S. Khrushchev as a symbol of the excesses of the Stalin regime. Although subsequent textbooks never acquired their predecessor's notoriety, they too ruled unchallenged over Soviet educational institutions until 1991. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that this monopoly gave way to a much looser system in which a variety of officially approved titles vied with one another for sales within a newly competitive public school textbook market. The curricular diversity of this new period is illustrated by the fact that in 2007 as many as 27 different textbooks were in use in classrooms across the Russian Federation.1

But as the heterogeneity of the 1990s has been eclipsed in recent years by consolidationist tendencies under V. V. Putin and D. A. Medvedev, talk has again turned to the re-establishment of a single official account of the Russo-Soviet past in the public schools. Notable in this regard have been discussions surrounding the release of a controversial new teachers' manual, A. V. Filippov's The Contemporary History of Russia, 1945–2006, and a textbook derived from [End Page 825] it for senior high schools by A. A. Danilov.2 This essay examines the content of these new texts (particularly Filippov's), the circumstances under which they came to represent the new "official line" on the past, and the extent to which they raise the specter of a Short Course-like return to the dark days of state-sponsored indoctrination.

Although the Filippov and Danilov texts display many of the modern production values of the contemporary Russian textbook market, they are also unusually partisan and tendentious. These shortcomings have received a lot of attention in the Russian press, particularly in regard to the books' tendency to rehabilitate Stalin as a political visionary.3 According to Filippov, the nature of Stalin's leadership was governed by a 500-year political tradition which demanded that power be concentrated in the hands of a single, autocratic ruler and his centralized administrative system (81). Stalin apparently not only embraced this governing principle but essentially dedicated his reign to the restoration of the Russian empire (88). At the same time, Filippov writes, Stalin also prioritized the perennial imperative of national defense, as well as the concomitant tasks of economic modernization and reform of the country's administrative command structure (86–90). Many of Stalin's policies were reminiscent of those of his predecessor, Peter the Great, as was his oftentimes brutal relationship with his followers (88). Ultimately, however, even his most cruel means were justified by their ends, inasmuch as "their goal was the mobilization of the administrative apparatus in order to ensure its effectiveness both in the process of industrialization and, after the war, in the restoration of the economy" (87–88). Accordingly, Stalin and the system he created deserve credit not only for reuniting the lands of the former empire but for transforming the country into an industrial superpower and winning a war of epic proportions (93).

Filippov's approach to the Stalin years has been criticized in the Russian press for its tendency to frame even the worst excesses of the period in exculpatory terms. Particularly slighted is the plight of ordinary people sacrificed in the name of state and empire. As one particularly scathing review puts it, the "book, dedicated to Soviet history, virtually avoids the mass repressions. Very little is [End...