05.09.2013 | Halya Coynash

A Syllabus Divided


On moves heightening division within the country, demonstrated even in ongoing changes to the history syllabus and a book, published with local authority funding, which repeats Soviet lies about the Crimean Tatars.

Two ministerial appointments following Yanukovych’s inauguration as Ukraine’s President in early 2010 were especially provocative.  The new Interior Minister Anatoly Mohylyov had antagonized all Crimean Tatars through an overtly defamatory article in the media as well as gratuitous violence while Head of the Crimean Police.  Dmytro Tabachnyk who had gained similar notoriety over overt contempt demonstrated for people from Halychnyna {Western Ukraine} was appointed Education Minister. Tabachnyk remains in that post, while Mohylyov was promoted in late 2011 and is now Prime Minister of the Crimea. 

Both Tabachnyk and Mohylyov’s actions have been instrumental in radicalizing groups in opposition to the present regime.  It seems likely that this is deliberate policy, as are moves heightening division within the country, demonstrated even in the ongoing changes to the history syllabus and a book, published with local authority funding, which repeats Soviet lies about the Crimean Tatars.

The syllabus changes seem to be heading in the same direction as those in Russia where the concentration on “positive” aspects of Soviet history and efforts to downplay Stalin’s crimes began in 2007.  A concept for a single history syllabus has just been published in Russia which is aimed at standardizing responses to what are euphemistically called “difficult questions”.  The single history course is the brainchild of Vladimir Putin with the key requirements being that the material contains “no internal discrepancies or double interpretations”.  In other words, there is only one correct assessment for “the reasons, consequences and assessment of the establishment of a single-party dictatorship and rule of Joseph Stalin”.  In previous years this single view has focused on the dictator’s supposed skills as an administrator, not on the millions of victims of terror.  There is, presumably, also to be only one answer regarding “the reasons, consequences and assessment of the stabilization of Russia’s economy and political system in the 2000s”.

The situation in Ukraine is different not least because there is much greater resistance to any attempts to present Stalin as a great leader, and because there are considerably more “difficult questions”.  Tabachnyk + Co. are, however, doing their best to ignore that.

On 7 May, just prior to Victory Day, Tabachnyk boasted to veterans of the War that his ministry had “restored the truth” about the Great Patriotic War in school textbooks and teachers’ notes.   In the new history textbook for the fifth grade, the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] is not mentioned at all,  

The very term Great Patriotic War is controversial for many Ukrainians, referring as it does only to the period following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941.  Prior to this, Stalin and Hitler had signed a secret pact of cooperation which carved up Poland, Western Ukraine and the Baltic States.  The UPA are seen as heroes by many Western Ukrainians for their stance in opposing all whom they saw as occupiers: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland. 

They are also condemned by many and the controversy and tragic complexity of this period of Ukraine’s history could obviously not be covered in a textbook for children.   Yet failure to even mention UPA distorts historical truth and places the objective of history lessons at school in question. 

In the external assessment exams for getting into university [ZNO], the names of nationalist leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych have been replaced by Nikolai Shchors and Yury Pyatakov.  The latter’s claim to fame can be checked out on Wikipedia should the reader feel the urge, but the essence of the choice can be expressed much more briefly: nationalists are out this political season, Bolshevik anti-nationalists – in. 

It is tempting to brush this off as comical, however history is not a fashion catwalk and nor are schools there to mould kids into ideological shape.  Omission of vital parts of Ukrainian history and selection of historical figures on the basis of their ideological position, not their historical significance, reinstates only Soviet practice, not the truth. 

It is, in fact, questionable whether such practice ever totally died.  The Soviet Communist Party plugged a single line on everything including history with no conviction but considerable clout.  There is still no conviction, however the political winds change with bewildering speed.  There are plenty of Ukrainians who would have resented certain historical views pushed quite aggressively under President Yushchenko.

It is indicative that opposition to Tabachnyk’s approach is most often heard in defence of other ideological positions, not against politicization or ideological grooming of school students per se.  The Lutsk City Council, for example, recently voted to allocate money for textbooks that present Holodomor – the manmade famine of 1932-33 as genocide and UPA as fighters for Ukraine’s freedom.

It is not difficult to see who benefits from Tabachnyk’s open contempt for a significant percentage of Ukraine’s population and disregard for its historical memory. The rightwing VO Svoboda Party has almost certainly gained more support than it could otherwise have hoped for through its unquestioning glorification of those whose memory is being trampled. 

The Party of the Regions and its political allies, the Communists, are at least as active in pushing the idea that “nationalists” are Nazi supporters, anti-Semites and so forth.    

The same cynicism is being seen with respect to the Crimean Tatars.  Tabachnyk was asked in an interview given to Radio Svoboda about a book just published in the Crimea which rehashes the lie used by Stalin to justify the 1944 Deportation of the Crimean Tatars.  The accusations of collaboration with the Nazis were acknowledged to have been unfounded back in a Supreme Soviet Decree from 5 September 1967, and are only dredged up now by those with dubious ulterior motives.  

Tabachnyk’s response was that nobody is prohibiting supplementary materials from being published in various regions, but that these are not textbooks.  They may not be, but they were published in part with local authority funding making Tabachnyk’s response particularly cynical.

His stand can only heighten concern about his ongoing role as Education Minister. Claims and counter-claims may be acceptable on political talk shows, but must at very least be clearly identified as such in material used by students. Justification of “supplementary material” in the form of a lie presented as fact would at best be crassly irresponsible.  Other motives, unfortunately, are also possible, particularly as Anatoly Mohylyov first gained notoriety through a publication repeating this same lie,   Since his appointment by Yanukovych to the top post in the Crimea, dangerous policies have been implemented with grave ramifications for inter-ethnic relations.

The issue in education should never be which ideological position is more to our taste, but whether students have been provided with as honest and comprehensive a knowledge of the facts as is realistic, and the skills to analyze them and ask further questions.  While this banal statement continues to seem utopian in Ukraine, students will remain pawns of political expediency.  Students and historical fact.

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