The Russian political elite tries with great care to shape the historical narratives that prevail across the country. To this end, patriotic education and the strengthening of the spiritual and moral foundations of youth have been centre stage for some time. Olga Vasilyeva, Russia’s current minister of education, holds clear pro-Stalinist views. She points to Stalin’s creation of national unity and protection of the Russian language and culture. Eager to foster spiritual values among the young, she also cites American patriotic education as an inspiration.
In this blend of conservative historical patriotism and religiosity, the standardised teaching of history is a central component. But the extent to which elite-driven initiatives reach into society remains largely unclear. In April 2018, ZOiS conducted an online survey of 2,000 people aged 16 to 34 living in major urban areas across Russia. The survey included questions relating to the assessment of history.
Knowledge of Victory Day
The so-called Great Patriotic War has unparalleled prominence in today’s Russian society. For schoolchildren, Victory Day on 9 May is a key annual holiday. Beyond the large military parade, commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany has many facets, from merchandise for children to youth involvement in the Immortal Regiment. It is therefore no surprise that almost everyone surveyed—98 per cent of respondents—correctly identified the event celebrated on 9 May. Yet the fact that the event is on citizens’ minds says little about whether they have a unified interpretation of it and what meaning young people associate with it.
Key historical events
The survey therefore included an open-ended question that asked respondents to name the event they considered most relevant for understanding today’s Russia, and to say what they associated with it. The three most frequently mentioned historical events were World War II, with 30 per cent; the breakup of the Soviet Union, with 26 per cent; and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, with 18 per cent.
World War II: ‘Russia is a strong and invincible country’
Respondents’ associations with World War II revealed an overwhelmingly positive view of the war. There was a remarkable echo of the patterns propagated through official political language, including an obligation by the young to commemorate the war. Respondents tended to see World War II as a symbol of Russian strength, also remembering it for the national cohesion that supposedly reigned. They underlined the value of making a collective sacrifice for the greater common good of freedom, from which they benefit to this day. There were a few cautiously critical statements in the survey, emphasising that the victory came at a great cost, as seen in the widespread hunger that followed the conflict.
History textbooks in Russian classrooms today all focus on the heroic aspects of the war. They ignore the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, portray the Soviet Union’s invasion of Eastern Europe as a liberation, and devote little attention to Stalinist repression. One of them, published by Prosveshcheniye (edited by Anatoly Torkunov), presents solidarity among the Soviet Union’s nations as the main reason for the victory, and the war as the basis for social integration.
Perestroika: ‘Ruining a great country’
The breakup of the Soviet Union was the second most frequently cited event, with regret characterising two-thirds of the responses. The assessments varied between statements about a higher quality of life during Soviet times and views of the breakup as the source of current problems. One respondent described a new era of ‘totalitarian monarchism and total poverty, depravity, and banditry’.
The Soviet Union in those assessments is void of ethnic conflict, and the independence of the former Soviet Republics is seen as a loss that led to the ‘collapse of a great empire’ and to the end of ‘friendship between many nations’. The democratic experience after the breakup is viewed negatively, described as an ‘imaginary democracy’ that has seen the ‘victory of hypocrites over justice’. While respondents might not appreciate Russia’s existing political system, they rejected democracy as an alternative.
Few respondents argued that the breakup had led to a ‘new life’ or a ‘new stage in the history of Russia’. The number of openly positive statements was negligible. Only two respondents mentioned the attempt to build a modern political system with respect for individuals’ rights and freedoms.
Crimea: ‘The triumph of historical justice’
The third most frequently cited event was the annexation of Crimea. Although the unifying narrative created immediately after the annexation is less visible than it was, the survey reflected a persisting sense of enthusiasm. It remains a defining experience, and 18 per cent of those who did not mention Crimea as their first choice gave it as a second choice. More than 80 per cent of those questioned saw the annexation as positive for Russia—as ‘the return of greatness’. Respondents believed that Crimea not being part of Russia was illegitimate and that the annexation therefore rendered ‘historical justice’. Some even suggested that the living conditions of the local population had improved thanks to the annexation.
Complementing this Russian-centred perspective were responses that mentioned international reactions, which were perceived as providing evidence that the world is united against Russia, ‘in spite of the will of the citizens of Crimea’. The referendum was seen as democratic, as it gave a voice to the people living in Crimea. Those responses completely sidelined the fact that the referendum violated Ukrainian law and failed to follow international standards.
A consolidated meaning of three historical events
This survey has made it possible to gain an understanding of the extent to which Russia’s state-crafted historical narratives affect young citizens. Those who reported a higher interest in history or showed greater factual knowledge were more likely to respond to those questions. Nevertheless, the elites’ hope that a politically shaped representation of history might help reconcile today’s Russian society with its past seems confirmed in the survey answers.
Indeed, the responses do not suggest that the younger generation opposes Russia’s official historical narratives and their political implications. On the contrary, these historical events emphasise the importance of an independent and strong Russia that needs to act distinctly from the West to preserve its national interests.