22 September 2010

First Test Case for Russian Anti-Falsification Commission?

Since early September, the Russian historical community has been thrown into turmoil by the latest ‘textbook war’, this time over A History of Russia 1917-2009, 3rd ed. (Moscow: Aspekt Press, 2010), authored by Moscow State University History Faculty staff Aleksandr Barsenkov and Aleksandr Vdovin.

The debates on the book have unfolded in fascinating and sometimes bizarre ways, and have revived public attention in the concept of ‘historical falsification’ (a catchphrase used by both sides in these debates).

The Vdovin and Barsenkov book first came to public attention in summer this year, when it was criticised sharply by New Times and Ekho Moskvy. But it was in early September that the current scandal really broke, after the federal Civic Chamber’s Commission for Inter-Ethnic Relations and Freedom of Conscience met to discuss the book. The Commission is headed by TV journalist and popular historian Nikolai Svanidze, who is also a member of the Presidential Сommission for Counteracting Attempts at the Falsification of History Damaging Russia's Interests. The latter Commission was created by Medvedev in May 2009, but does not seem to have been very active since then; until, perhaps, now.

When the Civic Chamber Commission met on 6 September, it not only condemned the book, but resolved to take the matter further, including to the Anti-Falsification Commission and the Procurator General.

The Vdovin and Barsenkov book is controversial for a large number of reasons, including its reliance on conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, thinly veiled ethnic references, and highly ambivalent stance on Stalinism -- none of which apparently prevented it from being officially approved for use as a 'teaching manual' (a status carrying less strict criteria in terms of reliability and objectivity than 'textbook' status does in the Russian system) in higher educational institutions by the relevant government body, the UMO. (It does seem, however, that some of the more extreme passages were not included in the original first edition which was approved by the UMO in 2005, and that this approval was then carried over to subsequent editions more or less automatically). 

The immediate cause of the scandal is the book’s assertion that 63% of Chechens called up to the Red Army during World War Two violated their military oaths and became deserters. This passage drew an official protest from the Chechen human rights ombudsman. After the possibility of legal action was raised, the authors retracted the '63%' claim, issuing an official written statement that the figure had been based on unchecked sources. The Dean of Moscow State University’s History Faculty also distanced himself from the book, and described its authors as ‘marginal’ and ‘far from geniuses’ (see the Civic Chamber Commission's report on the 6 September meeting and Ekho Moskvy).

Subsequently, perhaps partly in response to a highly visible campaign in defence of the book and its authors, the History Faculty appears to have changed position; the Dean has since issued a statement seemingly more supportive of the book's authors; and there have been claims that he was initially misquoted by the media (see article by Volodikhin in Russkii obozrevatel'). Nevertheless, the book has been withdrawn from teaching pending an investigation into its suitability.

The campaign to support Vdovin and Barsenkov has also sparked a counter-campaign aimed at supporting Svanidze in the face of calls for him to be sacked from the Anti-Falsification Commission and indeed to be investigated himself as a 'falsifier' of history.

Svanidze’s membership of the Anti-Falsification Commission has been controversial from the outset. Various figures have questioned his patriotic credentials, and he is often labelled a 'court historian' and a 'Russophobe' on patriotic websites. Svanidze is especially hated for his stance on WWII (he has emphasised the fact that the USSR first entered the war on Hitler's side) and because he has called for official recognition of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. Since July 2010, Svanidze has hosted a new Channel 5 programme 'The Court of Time', in which mock trials are staged of controversial historical events (such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the annexation of the Baltic states, the August 1991 coup), with Svanidze playing the role of adjudicator or 'judge'.

Anti-revisionist historians are appalled by the idea that the Anti-Falsification Commission may end up being used to suppress 'patriotic' histories such as the Vdovin and Barsenkov book, and see this as a betrayal of the whole idea behind the Commission. There have been claims that Svanidze is effectively using ‘hacker’ techniques in order to take over state institutions with a view to unleashing a campaign of ideological terror (see Yegor Kholmogorov's article in Russkii obozrevatel'), and that he is attempting to exploit the 'brandname' of the Anti-Falsification Commission, turning it to his own ends (see Vladimir Simindei's comments at REGNUM Novosti).

The scandal has also provoked a parallel debate on the question of how historians should approach archival documents produced by the NKVD, since some claim that the '63%' figure cited above is based on NKVD data (see REGNUM article). At a public hearing held in Moscow on 13 September in support of the book's authors, Pavel Danilin (editor-in-chief of www.kreml.org) expressed outrage at the idea that NKVD and FSB data might be anything less than entirely reliable.

An important part of the context to these debates are the mixed signals being sent from above in recent months, as the official position on the Stalinist past has entered a state of extreme flux. The intensity of the latest debates in part reflects anxieties linked to the changing official position, and fears that the Stalinist past may be definitively criminalised. At the same time, the debates can also be read as reflecting what Communist Gosduma deputy Nikitin has called a 'rebellion of social memory', a kind of grass-roots uprising in defence of the Soviet past. Paradoxically enough, those supporting the Vdovin and Barsenkov book have frequently compared the current liberal attacks on the book as 'Stalinist' and 'reminiscent of 1937' (see for example Aleksandr Diukov's comments in Russkii obozrevatel').

In the latest development, on 21 September President Medvedev appointed another popular historian, Vladimir Medinskii, to the Anti-Falsification Commission (presumably as a kind of counter-weight to Svanidze). Medinskii is a United Russia Gosduma deputy, MGIMO professor and author of a series of best-selling books about Russian history aimed at de-bunking what he calls 'black myths' about Russia's past.

The Academic Board of Moscow State University's History Faculty has tasked a special expert commission with assessing the book and reporting back on its suitability for use in teaching by 15 November 2010. In the meantime, the book's defenders have re-grouped, and co-author Aleksandr Vdovin took part in an on-line conference on the book organised by Russkii obozrevatel' on 21 September.

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