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New Texts Reshape Past for Russians

September 25, 1994|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARATOV, Russia — To the class of 1995, the world will never look quite the same.

This month, thousands of Russian high school juniors and seniors are being handed a book that could have gotten them arrested a decade ago. It is the first post-Soviet textbook of 20th-Century world history.

Unlike its predecessors, this text is written in plain Russian, shunning Soviet-speak. It is determinedly devoid of ideology. And for the convenience of history teachers, it begins in 1914; all Soviet textbooks had launched into modern European history in 1917--Year One of the Russian Revolution but smack in the middle of a world war.

Gone are such chapters as "The deepening of the overall crisis in capitalism" and "The anti-imperialist struggle of the Latin American people."

Instead, there are matter-of-fact explanations of such once-heretical subjects as President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, the Soviet Union's annexation of the Baltic nations and the superpower competition in the Third World during the Cold War.

Textbooks such as "Modern History," "Economics Without Secrets" and at least 87 others--which are being tried out for the first time this school year--are meant to give Russia's 20 million pupils a grip on their place in a dramatically reshaped world.

The goal, Education Minister Yevgeny Tkachenko said, is to impart to each child "an ability to analyze and to make independent decisions."

"In a certain sense, this is the opposite of what we had before," he said.

Soviet catechism has disappeared from schools, along with the "Grandpa Lenin" primer and Communist Young Pioneers. But the struggle over what the new generation should learn is just beginning.

The tidal wave of historical revisionism that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev unleashed in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s hit its high-water mark in 1988, when high school final exams in history were canceled because of the "lies" contained in the official texts.

In most schools, the curriculum centered on bombshell revelations about the Soviet past that were appearing daily in the press.

Textbook writers are only now beginning to catch up. Soviet-era books are so comically obsolete that teachers have been relying on lecture notes, homemade translations of foreign publications or even vintage czarist primers.

"History teachers are in a terrible bind," said Alexander A. Kreder, author of the new "Modern History."

In Soviet times, virtually every history teacher had to be a Communist Party member and the curriculum could not be questioned. Today, many teachers are quitting in exhaustion or spending long evenings in the library preparing for class.

"If they use the old textbooks, the pupils just start laughing at them," Kreder said.

Kreder, 47, an amiable expert on American history at the University of Saratov, is a liberal but said he tried to keep his views from influencing his choice of facts. "I wanted a textbook that was so objective that a teacher of any ideological bent could use it," he said.

In this, he has apparently succeeded: One critic complained that the book reads as if it were not written by a Russian. Still, some teachers are critical.

"My hopes for this book were not justified," said Mikhail N. Prudnikov, who until the August, 1991, failed coup was in charge of Soviet textbooks at the Communist Party Central Committee Department of Ideology and who now teaches history at a private school in Moscow.

Prudnikov, who remains active in the new Russian Communist Party, says Kreder's book is too pro-American, neglects the Third World and glorifies capitalism. "In my class, I will not lead students to this conclusion," he said. "We must be more balanced in telling students why socialism failed."

Nevertheless, Prudnikov says he will use the new textbook until a better one comes along. "The old one is even worse," he said.

The authors of the Soviet modern history text did release a revised edition in 1993 that deleted some of the most glaring rhetorical excesses of earlier books.

In the 1989 edition, for example, the definition of "genocide" includes the statement that "a policy of genocide . . . is being implemented by the government of Israel against the Arab people of Palestine."

The 1993 edition deleted that sentence. But the book's overall structure remained unchanged. And with the chronic shortage of money and texts, not all schools received copies of the new edition.

Kreder was chosen to write the new "Modern History" after his outline won a nationwide competition sponsored by the Soros Foundation. Under a program largely funded by Western financier George Soros, the foundation has been promoting the development of an array of new texts for all age levels.

As a scholar in provincial Saratov, a city in Russia's southern heartland whose defense plants made it off limits to foreigners for decades, Kreder was an unlikely winner of the contest.

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