History - compliments of Russia

  • 2004-02-26
  • By Aaron Eglitis, Gary Peach
RIGA - It was only a matter of time before someone from Russia, catalyzed by images of thousands of schoolchildren protesting weekly on Riga's streets, took it to their head to promote Russian language education in the Baltic country by donating materials that could be used "to supplement the official state education."

Lo and behold, earlier this month the Russian Embassy in Latvia donated 3,964 books - including encyclopedias, dictionaries and atlases - for use at Latvian schools. There were also 68 copies of a history book, and given the extremely emotional nature of Baltic-Russian relations over the centuries, the Education Ministry naturally asked specialists to examine the textbook to see if it was suitable for use at Latvian schools.
Last week experts from the education content and examination center gave the assessment of the "The History of Russia," saying it was "not exactly up to date in terms of methodology and facts." Nevertheless, they said that teachers of Russian history would be able to use the books on a consultative basis but that students were not to use them.
An area of concern to one Latvian historian, whose review of the book was shown to The Baltic Times, was that the textbook claimed Russia "liberated" Latvia from Sweden during the Great Northern War. He said it was an "outdated" claim. Swedish rule over Livonia, a conglomeration of western Latvia and parts of Estonia, is commonly referred to in Latvia as the golden age because of enlightened policies towards education and serfdom.
According to the Education Ministry press secretary, at least two times in the past Russia tried donating books to Latvia, and both times the "gifts" were rejected.
Nevertheless, what immediately strikes the readers of "The History of Russia," a copy of which was obtained by The Baltic Times, is that under no circumstances could it be regarded as a means to indoctrinate impressionable schoolchildren, even those who might be particularly disgruntled by Latvia's upcoming education reform. It reads like a typical high-school history book, providing a broad overview of Russia's 1,000-year history with sufficient insight into many of its darkest chapters.
The book contains many facts that were completely shunned from Soviet-era textbooks. For instance, the author, Alexander Danilov, admits that 8 million people perished from famine in Ukraine during the beginning of the 1930s as a direct result of Soviet policies, and that during World War II the United States provided some $10 billion in aid to the Soviet Union through the lend-lease act. Seeing either of these facts in a Soviet textbook 15 years ago would have been unthinkable.
Baltic-wise, the book touches upon the uprising in Lithuania in January 1991 and the 14 people who subsequently died, pinning the blame firmly on former General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. "These events elicited a strong reaction across the country and once more compromised [Moscow]," Danilov writes.
Regarding the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, the book is equally frank, describing the secret protocol to the pact that effectively divided up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence for both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to conquer. The book goes on to describe - in one paragraph - the ultimatums issued to the three Baltic countries and the puppet governments that were set up in each.
To the book's credit, it also lists the number of Balts deported to Siberia in the post-war period: 400,000 from Lithuania, 150,000 from Latvia and 50,000 from Estonia.
Regarding Russian chauvinism, the books states: "the Russification of the educational system led to a reduction in the number of national schools... in the Baltics. This, in turn, gave rise to new knots of contradictions in relations between the center and the republics."
Perhaps, the book's greatest flaw is its failure in dealing with Chechnya. Nothing is mentioned of the hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Igushetians who were deported to Central Asia (the Crimean Tartars are also left out) or of General Yermolov's repressive policies during the military campaign to conquer the Caucuses in the first half of the 19th century.