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MOSCOW – The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has stoked fears that it is resorting to Soviet techniques to stifle criticism by rewriting the country’s history text books.
Putin asked historians in February to develop a plan for a new history curriculum that would produce a single history free "from internal contradictions and ambiguities" that would cover the many difficult events in Russian and Soviet history.
Russian history books have long come under fire for their murky coverage of the dark period of Soviet terror under Communist leaders like Josef Stalin, who was known for airbrushing his enemies out of photos. Other controversial topics include the turbulent transition from communism to democracy, contemporary history and politics that many see as marred by corruption, and the breakdown of the rule of law.
But critics take particular issue with the plan for the new books, created by historians of Putin’s choosing, because they contain no reference to the protests against him in 2011 and 2012 and virtually no mention of his political foes, such as jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. They say the proposed version of history is “highly politicized and grossly distorts the facts.”
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a historian and a member of Putin’s political opposition, took aim at the new books in an article in the English language daily newspaper, The Moscow Times. He accused the new book of being a tool to “further the interests of Putin and his inner circle” and said it omits parts of contemporary history that do not chime with Putin’s version of events.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was studying the guidelines – but strongly denied accusations that they were trying to re-write history to fit the current political agenda.
"One cannot rewrite history. On the contrary, we (Russia) consistently stand against attempts to falsify the history," Peskov said.
Denis Sekirinsky, a senior research fellow of the National Committee of the Russian Historians and one of the historians behind the book’s concept, defended the guidelines for the new textbook and said the aim of the project is to "quell the fire of criticism” of Russian history.
Sekirinsky denies accusations that the new guidelines are politically motivated. “If you look at the concept, there is no ideological direction there,” he told NBC News.
However he added that access to archives and historical documents for events that took place since the late 1970s was not possible because so many of the documents are treated as government "secrets.”
But the concept of the new textbook mentions nothing about Russia’s recent political opposition movement – born in the aftermath of the 2011 parliamentary elections and around the presidential elections of 2012 – when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they said were rigged election results.
There is no reference to many critics of Putin, like Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia’s richest man but who has been in jail since 2003 after being convicted on multi-million tax evasion charges he claims were politically motivated for challenging Putin.
Boris Berezovsky, another Russian business oligarch who was a vocal critic of Putin and was living in exile in the U.K., is also omitted. He was found dead in his country home outside of London in May.
Sekirinsky said that the oligarchs who rose to prominence, including Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, as well Roman Abramovich, currently Russia’s fifth richest man, were mentioned as a group – without being named separately, because this would take up too much space.
Sekirinsky, however, conceded that he believed Khodorkovsky should have been mentioned, but he said his opinion was knocked down by the other historians. And he said the opposition demonstrations that took place in 2011 and 2012 were not even discussed by the group of 40 people developing the concept of the book.
"Historically, this process happened,” said Sekirinsky, referring to the opposition demonstrations. “But it is unclear what [the protests] led to. Nothing happened," he said, defending the decision not to include them.
The guidelines for the new book – which will be used in all schools across the country – were submitted to the Russian Historical Society on Oct. 31. They are expected to be introduced into the compulsory national curriculum by 2015.
Reuters contributed to this report.