Opinion: In revising U.S. history, we adopt Putin’s propaganda playbook

Peter Smagorinsky is an emeritus professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Education. He is the 2023 recipient of the American Educational Research Association Lifetime Contribution to Cultural-Historical Research Award.

In this guest column, Smagorinsky discusses what he calls the “Sovietization” of U.S. education, putting nationalism ahead of facts, doctrine before reality.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Paper will put up with anything that is written on it.” — Josef Stalin

With this remark, Stalin laid bare his belief about the truth value of the written word. Whatever you want to say, the paper you write it on will accommodate it. From there, it’s a short step to the old adage that “nothing is more unpredictable than Russia’s past.” Russian and Soviet history have historically been revised to justify the present. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian propaganda machine is roaring ahead, rewriting the past to suit the present.

I have spent a lot of time reading Eastern European and Russian/Soviet history. My father’s parents were born in Belarus before immigrating to the United States in 1913 and 1916, and some of my work benefits from knowing this region. The excellent history “Three Who Made a Revolution” by Bertram D. Wolfe, published in 1948, is instructive on how the Soviets made an art of fabricating a mythical past. Lenin devised the system of “monumentálnaya propaganda” — propaganda through monuments — replacing czarist figures with monuments to Soviet heroes.

In 1929, when Stalin consolidated power, Wolfe writes history was revised “to bring every moment of his past into accord with his present glory.” These revisions required that historical facts “had to be ignored, explained away, supplanted, suppressed, destroyed, before a new version could be established.” This use of propaganda became the basis for history instruction in school that would shape children’s thinking to conform to the dictates of the Communist Party, which corresponded to the demands of its leader in the centralized Soviet power structure.

And now, Putin. Putin has needed to rewrite history to justify his policies and practices, especially as they concern Ukraine, which he claims not to exist and is overrun by Nazis. According to historian Timothy Snyder, “The conflict, and the threatened conflict, over Ukraine has to do with the past. I don’t mean that the conflict has to do with history. Rather, that (it) has to do with something like memory or myth or memorialization or the selective ways that governments and leaders choose to talk about the past and choose to instruct their people to think about the past” to create the framework for thinking about the present.

 Peter Smagorinsky

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

When Russian schools opened for the 2023-24 academic year, students were presented with yet another round of new history textbooks that justify the invasion of Ukraine. These books tell the kids that “Stalin, in contrast to the standard depiction in Russian textbooks over the past 30 years, is presented as a wise and effective leader thanks to whom the Soviet Union won the war (World War II) and ordinary people began to live much better,” overlooking the 20 million Soviets who died during his purges and as a result of his policies.

Who authored such a fiction? A historian? An educator? No, the author is Putin’s ghostwriter, Vladimir Medinsky. He is a former tobacco industry public relations writer, a man who “never hid that his work was not based on facts. They were not important to him; the real goal was to create a persuasive narrative.”

Such a great patriot rose steadily in Putin’s administration, serving as minister of culture and director of the Russian Military Historical Society, which continues to provide him with his own staff of ghostwriters rewriting Russian and Soviet history into newer and greater glory, and conveniently providing support for Russian politics in the present.

How shameful, you might think. Who could put up with such blatant lies and fabrications in the name of history? Who would indoctrinate students in propaganda that blinds them to historical truths? Good thing that could never happen here.

Except … that’s exactly what is happening here.

U.S. education has long been predicated on mythology. As a kid, I learned that Native American people were all savages threatening the lives of innocent and noble settlers, that the continent was an uninhabited area available for Western expansion, that Columbus discovered America, and countless other facts that withered under even mild scrutiny. But they were nothing compared to what is going on right now.

Florida is perhaps the nexus of selective, distorted history. The state is using materials provided by PragerU, which is not a university. It is headed by radio personality Dennis Prager, who says, “We are in the mind-changing business ... It’s true we bring doctrines to children. But what is the bad about our indoctrination?” Vladimir Putin and Josef Stalin are nodding in agreement. PragerU is backed by billions of dollars from donors who oppose public education and secularism in general.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, House Bill 1084 prevents teachers from discussing “divisive concepts,” mostly those historical facts that make the bill’s constituency uncomfortable or accountable. Gov. Brian Kemp has affirmed that “It ensures all of our state and nation’s history will be taught accurately. Because here in Georgia, our classrooms will not be pawns to those who indoctrinate our kids with their partisan political agendas.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide who is practicing partisan politics with such educational policies, and which history comprises indoctrination.

If you are horrified by the Russian and Soviet efforts to revise history toward a preferred narrative based on the fabulations of a public relations content creator, think about what we are doing here, and how kids are now being taught their nation’s past in school. What I see is the Sovietization of U.S. education: Doctrine counts more than reality, and the present requires a revised past to be legitimate. I grew up fearing the Soviets and their threatening posture.

I now have fears about my own country and its unwillingness to face its past or reconsider its present to make for a better future. These are perilous times. And many of the greatest threats come from within our own chosen myopia to only see the world and its formation as it suits our present purposes.

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