A delicate balancing act needed for history textbooks

Fans of the USSR are eager to know what the new Russian textbook says about the Soviet period. Photo: Stalin (l), Lenin (c), Kalinin (r). Source: wikipedia.org

Fans of the USSR are eager to know what the new Russian textbook says about the Soviet period. Photo: Stalin (l), Lenin (c), Kalinin (r). Source: wikipedia.org

Countries like Russia and India have a very difficult task when it comes to writing history textbooks that don’t offend one group or another.

When I was growing up in New York City in the late-1980s, I learnt about the Second World War in history class. This was at a time that the Cold War was coming to an end but the history text book didn’t reflect the thaw and prevailing positive mood in US-Soviet relations. I appreciate the fact that I was educated about the absolute horrors of the Holocaust and understood at a young age the ugly monster that that racial and religious hatred can create. What was missing in the text book though was an objective look at the role of the Soviet Union in the war. I don’t remember anything but passing references to the great battles of Stalingrad and Kursk and as far I remember the blockade of Leningrad wasn’t mentioned at all. I grew up believing that D-Day changed the entire outcome of the war. It was much later, when I read many books on the war that I understood how different the outcome of the war would have been if it weren’t for the supreme sacrifices of the Soviet, and in particular, Russian people.

History is as much about contemporary politics as it is about what happened in the past. Scholars in Russia have been given a deadline of the academic year beginning September 2014 to publish a new standard history text book for schools. Terms like “Tatar-Mongol Yoke” will probably be removed keeping in mind the sensitivities of people from areas like Tatarstan and Buryatia, where Genghis Khan is considered by many as a hero. Critics of Vladimir Putin, both in Russia and overseas, will no doubt find faults with the book as soon as it’s published. The so-called liberals are bound to have a problem with a book that they will say promotes jingoism. Citizens of the Baltic Republics also have a different understanding or acceptance of history than Russians about the Soviet days.

The way history is written in India is also a cause of heated debates in the country. Romila Thapar, Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University is either a “great historian” or someone who “misrepresents facts” depending on who you talk to. Right wingers in India will argue that she has deliberately subverted history to glorify controversial rulers like Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Those that are inclined to the left on the other hand laud her for fighting “communalisation” of education. Amidst these ideological battles, a typical child comes out of an Indian school confused about history.

The “truth” can be different things for different people. When I visited Aurangabad, a city in the Indian state of Maharashtra, named after Aurangzeb, I heard two versions of the emperor’s legacy. My Muslim friends said he was a simple man who didn’t want a grand mausoleum built in his honour after he died and was a great king. My Hindu friends on the other hand insisted that he was some sort of Osama Bin Laden cum Mullah Omar of the 17th century, who destroyed many Hindu temples and the communal harmony of that time, which the great Emperor Akbar worked hard to establish.

Coming back to Russia, many people still look at the days of the Soviet Union with nostalgia and have overwhelmingly positive feelings.  It will be very interesting to see how the new textbook describes the Bolshevik Revolution and Tsar Nicholas II. As someone who is passionate about Russia and neutral to the political ideologies that have swept the country over the centuries, I would hope that there is a sense of balance when it comes to this period in history. The key message of the new textbook is expected to be on the lines of “We Are Citizens of a Great Country with a Great Past.” Instilling a sense of national pride is obviously a good idea but then the borders between patriotism and jingoism can be blurry at times. On the one hand, Russia doesn’t need “politically correct” young people who are always ready to apologise for things that people from another generation or another century may have done.  But at the same time, it’s also imperative that the education system doesn’t churn out a bunch of pseudo-patriots who lack respect for diverse points of views.

Winston Churchill, a man whose racist attitudes and war-mongering have been neatly swept under the carpet by official versions of history, once famously remarked, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”  One can’t deny the man his wit! Humour aside, many in the Anglo-Saxon world are not even ready to acknowledge unpleasant facts about the former English prime minister that are easily available in the public domain. Such is the effect of history taught in schools. 

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