MOSCOW (Reuters) - A call by President Vladimir Putin for a new textbook that reconciles differences over Russia’s past has left him facing accusations of copying Soviet leaders by rewriting history for political ends.
The former Soviet spy asked historians in February to come up with guidelines for new school history books that would provide a unified version of the many difficult events in Russian and Soviet history.
It was always going to be a tough task in a country where Communist leaders such as Josef Stalin airbrushed enemies out of photographs and saw history as a political weapon. But it is not the interpretation of events such as the mass repressions and show trials of the Soviet era that is causing a stir.
The guidelines, drawn up by historians of Putin’s choice, contain no criticism of the president, no reference to protests against him in 2011 and 2012 and no mention of the jailed former tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“It was a simple political order - to justify the ruling authorities, to explain they are doing everything right,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a historian and former opposition lawmaker.
Critics portray the plans as a vanity project to boost Putin’s political standing after the protests, which damaged his ratings as he prepared for a third term as president. Some see uncomfortable similarities with the Soviet past.
“Putin’s blessing of any national high school project will mark a new version of old Soviet imperial practice,” said historian Mark Von Hagen, an expert on Russia at Arizona State University in the United States.
“I fear any history approved by Putin and written by his court historians would affirm the old ... wisdom that Russia needs strong autocratic rulers and one faith, Orthodoxy, one ‘multinational’ culture that is spoken and written in Russian.”
Such a move would be consistent with the conservative course charted by Putin in his third term as president to rally support among workers in the provinces, his traditional power base.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was now looking at the guidelines and denied accusations that they were an attempt to spin the past to fit current political agenda.
“One cannot rewrite history. On the contrary, we (Russia) consistently stand against attempts to falsify the history,” Peskov said.
Putin rose to power in 2000 and has been president or prime minister ever since. He began a six-year third term as president in May last year after winning an election despite protests against him.
Putin, now 61, called last February for school pupils to be given a history textbook “written in proper Russian, free of internal contradictions and double interpretation.”
In response to his request, Russia’s Historical Society - led by a political ally - has presented him with an 80-page document offering guidelines for the textbook and a list of 20 “difficult questions”, including one about Putin’s rule.
But that has not stopped the historians coming up with some glowing references to Putin’s rule, which began after years of political and economic chaos under Boris Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“During his first and second presidential terms, Vladimir Putin managed to stabilize the situation in the country and strengthen the ‘vertical of power’,” say the guidelines, suggesting he has imposed a firm, efficient chain of command.
“Favorable market conditions contributed to economic growth, which continued in Russia until the start of the global economic crisis of 2008,” they add, without directly naming a surge in global energy prices that filled the state’s coffers.
They also reinforce the image that Putin likes to portray of himself as the guarantor of stability after Yeltsin, restoring the country of more than 140 million people to economic health following the rouble’s crash in 1998.
The guidelines refer positively to Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 as providing “continuity of rule” after his four years as prime minister.
They also underline the “restoration of Russia’s position in international affairs”, reinforcing the view widely held in Russia that Putin helped revive Moscow’s global influence after a decline under Yeltsin. Critics in the West say Putin has made Russian foreign policy more aggressive.
No mention is made in the guidelines of the big rallies in Moscow and other cities in 2011 and 2012, at times drawing tens of thousands of people to protest against Putin.
There is also no reference to Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who was arrested in 2003 and convicted of multi-million dollar tax evasion and fraud at trials he denounced as a political vendetta for challenging Putin.
Andrei Petrov, the Historical Society’s executive secretary, said the guidelines were not biased and the authors had not tried to skip difficult themes or subjects that could portray Putin in a negative light.
“We have named difficult issues that should be explained from various points of view. Otherwise we would just be lying to our children,” Petrov said.
The “difficult issues” also include the interpretation of Stalin’s rule, the high cost of victory in World War Two, the dissident movement under Leonid Brezhnev and the collapse of the Soviet empire.
But Petrov acknowledged they may not have managed to secure Putin’s declared goal of offering a unified version of history.
“We did not achieve national unity on some divisive matters. It seems that is not possible anyway. Only time can heal some wounds,” he said. “But we in Russia need these uniting projects like a unified view on history.”
He hoped new history textbooks for secondary schools could appear in 2014.
Arriving at a common understanding of Russian history has never been easy, whether it concerns the autocratic rule of the tsars, the conquests of the Russian empire, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, seven decades of Communist rule or the turbulent two decades since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The Historical Society Putin that turned to for help is headed by Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament and a senior member of the ruling United Russia party, which is loyal to the president.
Putin’s critics see parallels with Stalin’s view of history as a means to manipulate the masses and accuse the Russian president of glorifying the Soviet past.
Putin once referred to the demise of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century”, though he has also said Russia is not interested in reviving it.
But he is winning support by praising some Soviet achievements, with many, mostly elderly, Russians looking back with nostalgia.
He has revived the Soviet anthem, Soviet-style military parades and a Soviet-era medal for labor, and critics say he uses Soviet-style tactics against dissent - a charge he denies.
Additional reporting by Ian Bateson and Alexei Anishchuk, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood