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Analysis & Opinion
25.06.08 Distant History’s Remains
Comment by Georgy Bovt

Those who follow the humanitarian development and the education level of our nation were shocked by the terrible results of Russia’s SAT-style (the standardized Scholastic Assessment Test in the United States) Single State Examination in literature. Almost one fourth of all Russian high school graduates failed the literature part of the exam. As soon as this shocking news settled in, another disturbing piece of news arrived. The results of a survey conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) showed that the majority of young Russians (under the age of 35) remember neither the dates nor the main heroes or events of the Great Patriotic War (World War II). This survey was conducted on the anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

When I was in high school (and this was way back in the 1970s), I remember that we were required to know the exact dates and facts of the main military operations of the Soviet Army. For those who had to pass history as one of the entrance exams to any humanities-oriented college, it was impossible to even get a “C” without listing the so-called “ten offensive operations of the Red Army in 1944-1945,” previously known as “Stalin’s ten strikes.” But even for those who did not continue studying history and had forgotten the high school curriculum, certain “notches” were deeply imbedded in memory: June 22, the Leningrad Blockade, Jospeh Stalin as the commander in chief, the Battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, etc.

There is not much left of these milestones in the minds of today’s youth. In the 18 to 24-years-old group (they just recently graduated from high school), less than one third know that the Battle of Stalingrad began in 1942, and that the Leningrad blockade was lifted only in 1944. Just 39 percent of respondents in the same age group know that it was Stalin who was the commander in chief; about the same number named Zhukov, and the remainder had difficulty remembering anyone in this position. And even the June 22 date means nothing for about one third of Russians.
All of this is despite the fact that films about the war are regularly broadcast on television, and the most important place in the system of official propaganda is also given to war themes, and also despite the fact that the majority of the population considers Victory Day to be the most important official national holiday. As it turns out, we more often celebrate victory without knowing any details or attaching any importance to them. We see it as an abstraction.
How should we feel about this growing “oblivion” and disregard of our country’s greatest drama of the past century, which took no fewer than 27 million lives?

We can lament the frightening decrease of the quality and level of education in the country – from elementary and secondary education to the higher schools. We can blame the inefficiency of the current official propaganda: it sets and achieves the goals for the so-called patriotic education too formally, in an old-fashioned manner, without even thinking about how to make it all a bit more interesting for the modern youth. One of the ways would be to abandon the many stock phrases and symbols of Soviet ideology, which still influence the way the history of war is taught and interpreted. This is not in any way a question of “revising history” or “discrediting” it; it is just a matter of studying history as a much more complicated, contradictory process, often not evaluable from the sole “official” point of view of the Soviet times. This will not in any way “discredit our glorious past;” on the contrary, it will boost the interest the new generations will take in our history.

I believe that all of the aforementioned aspects will help secure the main historical milestones in the minds of the new generations, and prevent further spreading of the horrible ignorance in relation to our own history. At the same time, we should not hope that such significant events as the Great Patriotic War will occupy the same place in the hierarchy of general educational knowledge in the minds of the new generations as it occupied in the minds of the generations who directly witnessed or participated in the war, or whose parents did. As it fades into the past, this war will turn into an abstraction, into “pure history.” Of course, any more or less educated person should know about it, however, this part of history will never again be able to play the same ideological role it played in the Soviet era. After all, it is doubtful that the whole population of any other country that participated in World War II, and especially its younger representatives, are equally well-acquainted with all the facts connected to this war. It is doubtful that you won’t be able to sometimes find the same horrible ignorance there, as the results of the aforementioned VTsIOM survey revealed in Russia. However, in these other countries, such “memory lapses” do not violate the general humanitarian code of mutual communication and development of national self-perception. Because there are other events, other milestones that make up this single code for the entire nation, at the average level of general education.

In our country in particular, the victory in the war, with all its tragic greatness, should probably be amended with new “milestones” (not replaced, but amended) in the context of patriotic education, for example. This is necessary so that it will not remain an achievement that may be great but is becoming ever more distant, and that seems to be the only achievement that we should not be ashamed to be proud of. It would be very nice if a certain chain of historical milestones was formed in the mind of any patriotically thinking, educated person; this chain would be a part of the nation-wide general education minimum, and, at the same time, a part of the single national cultural “code” of mutual communication.

And at all that, it would really be preferable if there was still a significant number of people in the nation who can confidently name the date and time when the blockade of Leningrad was removed, as well as the price the country had to pay for this victory. And, most importantly, why this terribly high price had to be paid, and whose fault it was.
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