In January 2023, Russia adopted new amendments to the Law „On Education in the Russian Federation“ which will become effective by September 1st, 2023. The amendments establish mandatory, federal curricula for the following school subjects: „Russian language“, „Literary reading“, „The world around“, „Russian language“, „Literature“, „History“, „Social science“, „Geography“ and „Basics of life safety“. The content of the curricula was developed and pre-approved by the Ministry of Education in November 2022, and aims to establish a single, uniform standard of teaching for these subjects. According to the Russian State Duma, the subjects on humanities are given such “special attention” , as they form a basis for a person’s worldview and thus require an unchanged and mandatory program sanctioned by the government to foster the uniform and homogenous values within Russian society. The new amendments are further evidence of Russia’s on-going engagement in “mnemonic constitutionalism,” the “elevation of the legal governance of historical memory to the constitutional level” through a “process of embedding specific historical paradigms in the structures and framework of [the law]”. Through mnemonic constitutionalism, a legislatively prescribed past becomes the foundation for a polity’s collective identity. While this is not per se illegitimate, this blogpost will detail how Russia’s legislative governance of memory in the context of history teaching violates the right to education enshrined in international human rights law.
Russian Mnemonic Politics: Children as Guardians of History
Over the last few years, Russia has passed a whole range of memory laws- both punitive and non-punitive in kind- to entrench a very particular interpretation of the Great Patriotic war events that frames Russia “as the liberator of Central and Eastern Europe and to obscure the Soviet-Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939.” As Belavusau notes, Russia pursues this particular narrative to provide an ontological foundation to justify its „illiberal democracy.“
The mastermind behind the new amendments into the Law on Education is infamous State Duma Deputy Irina Yarovaya, who also drafted the first Russian memory laws in 2015. These took the form of amendments to the Russian Criminal Code that prohibited “attempts to exonerate Nazism,” which were adopted in the aftermath of the Crimea occupation. In a similar vein, on 16 April 2022, the government approved amendments to the Code on Administrative Offences which ban the public denial of the “decisive role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the humanitarian mission of the USSR in the liberation of European countries.” However, Russia’s attempt to construct its particular version of history have not been limited to purely punitive memory laws. It has also adopted amendments to the Constitution itself to perpetuate the government’ historical narrative. Thus, in 2020, it amended art. 67.1 of the Russian Constitution to state that “the Russian Federation honours the memory of defenders of the Fatherland and protects historical truth. Diminishing the significance of the people’s heroism in defending the Fatherland is not permitted”. Within the same article, children are declared the most important state policy priority in Russia, whose comprehensive spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical development the government must ensure by fostering patriotism, civic engagement, and respect for elders. In line with the mnemonic constitutionalism definition, Domanska characterized these amendments as populist in nature and aimed at legitimising the Russian authoritarian rule by constructing a heroic narrative of Russia as the liberator of Central and Eastern Europe. As Sadowski notes, the declaration on the protection of ‘historical truth’ and the specific constitutional prohibition of diminishing the ‘heroism of the people in defending the Fatherland’ allow the political system to protect “an identity programme based on the mythologeme of defence”. The mention of children as the “most important state policy priority” adds to the development of such identity.
In line with the elevation of children as a central priority, the Russian government further escalated its aggressive mnemonic project in 2022 by adopting the above mentioned federal educational standards and a new program on history teaching (approved by the Federal Educational and Methodological Association for General Education on 14 October 2022). This program declared fostering “the spirit of patriotism” a central objective of studying history. In particular, the program prescribes that great attention should be paid to the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) with an emphasis on the “decisive contributions” of the USSR to the victory over the Nazi Germany, along with the heroic deeds of the Soviet people and the Red Army soldiers (p. 14). The program must also ensure the students’ ability “to defend historical truth”, including by inculcating a readiness to refute attempted “falsifications” of the Russian history and attempts to diminish the mentioned deeds (p.21).
To achieve this purpose, a new procedure for the development of textbooks was introduced by the amended Law on Education, which requires the approval of the Ministry of Education of both their authors and content. Moreover, an order by the Ministry of Education establishes a list of pre-approved textbooks allowed to be used in the Russian schools. The Russian Minister of Education Sergey Kravtsov has noted that the new history textbook for high-school students will possess a special emphasis on the Great Patriotic War and the so-called “Special Military Operation (SMO)” – the euphemism utilized by the Russian officials for the current war against Ukraine. On 24 April 2023, this textbook was presented during the educational forum. It possesses a whole chapter on the so-called “SMO” and its “causes”, including the “threat” posed by Ukrainian authorities and Russia’s relationship with the Western countries in 2020. It is important to note, in this regard, that the narrative regarding the Great Patriotic War has been central to justifying the Russian war in Ukraine by framing it as a measure to combat alleged „growing Nazi sentiments“ amidst Ukrainian society. Mathers and Edwards have argued convincingly that taken together, the effect of these measures is that Russia’s children and youth are turned into guardians of the state’s version of history of the Great Patriotic War, ready to defend it – including by violent means.
The Right to Education and History Teaching: He who Controls the Past, Controls the Future?
Russia’s legislative entrenchment of its particular version of history into the Russian education system is in clear violation of the right to education under international human rights law. The report on the writing and teaching of history [A/68/296] of the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights is of a particular importance in this regard. Although the report is not per se binding, it interprets binding international law provisions regulating the use of history in the contexts of memory policies and education.
The Special Rapporteur considers the issue of history teaching, among others, from the perspective of the right to education, as enshrined in art. 13 of the ICESCR and art. 28 and 29 of the CRC [para 11]. According to the latter, education must be directed to the development of the child’s personality and talents; respect for human rights and civilizations different from his or her own; and the preparation for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples [para 55]. Moreover, the Special Rapporteur notes that history teaching and historical narratives are commonly used as identity-building tools, legitimizing a particular political authority and ensuring loyalty to the State which is inconsistent with the mentioned aims of education [para 19]. To overcome a narrow nationalistic identity, history should be interpreted from a multi-perspective approach and be critically assessed.
It is clear that Russia’s new educational model for history teaching is a far cry from this standard. The new amendments, in particular the prescription of a single textbook whose content was determined by the government for the purpose of history teaching, indicate that the aim is to turn Russia’s new generations into obedient servants of an illiberal regime, by constructing an identity that is grounded in past military glory and a readiness to defend its memory, including by military means. The suggested parallels between World War II and the current war against Ukraine that the new textbook draws are an attempt to present the latter as a continuation of the “sacred war” against Nazism. By enshrining this legislatively prescribed historical narrative as a new educational standard, the amendments serve to further contribute to the construction of a narrow, nationalist and war-centred Russian identity, with multi-perspectiveness effectively barred by the Russian constitutions and punitive memory laws.
Russia’s instrumentalization of education for the purposes of entrenching its particular historical vision at the expense of competing accounts transforms its system of education into one of indoctrination. The latter has been characterized by Snook as teaching with the intention to impose a certain proposition regardless of the evidence. According to the Special Rapporteur, assigning a political agenda to history teaching, such as the promotion of patriotism and the construction of national or regional identities is inconsistent with history as an academic discipline [para 57]. The right of children to develop their own historical perspective throughout education is an integral part of the right to education while indoctrination on any grounds is prohibited [para 87]. In the Russian case and its legal governance of historical narratives, children are in fact precluded from forming a view on historical events which would in any way differ from the one prescribed by the government. By imposing a certain historical narrative and denying any criticism or doubt, Russia turns its history education into a form of mnemonic indoctrination that is incompatible with the right to education.
It is particularly worrying, in that regard, that Russia has already taken further steps to put its indoctrination campaign to military use. The new educational programs approved in November 2022 also introduce the mandatory military training at schools within the subject “Basics of life safety”, starting September 1st, 2023. This has already been implemented in the schools of the occupied Crimea. Hence, according to Bækken, children are not only fed the necessary ideology but also the military skills to prepare them for continuing the “heroic deed” of their ancestors by battling contemporary “Nazism.”
The Russian case clearly demonstrates that mnemonic constitutionalism can be a direct threat to the right to education, where it serves to justify the instrumentalization of history teaching as a tool of indoctrination. The trends highlighted in the new Russian history curriculum clearly contradict the recommendations on the history teaching guidelines prescribed by the Special Rapporteur in light of the state’s binding obligations; and thus constitute a direct violation of the right to education prescribed by international agreements to which Russia is still a party. Therefore, the issues of Russia’s instrumentalization of historical memory within education aimed at poisoning children’s minds can and should be addressed within the relevant forums, providing not just means for redress, but viable solutions for preventing these malpractices. However, so far these issues have not received any meaningful attention within the UN Universal Periodic Report. In particular, the 2023 list of issues by the Committee on the Rights of the Child does not raise any concerns relating to Russia’s aggressive mnemonic practices, although their use has been discussed within the Russia’s national report (para 168). This is a grave oversight and ought to be corrected. Since Russia is no longer a member of the Council of Europe, the UN remains the only remaining forum to both highlight and address Russia’s mnemonic indoctrination of its children.