Partnership and Confrontation: Europe in Russian and Soviet History Textbooks

Studying history textbooks published over a span of nearly thirty years enables us to discern evolutions in the official view of history in Russia. Although spotting evolutions in interpretation of specific historic events – e.g. Smuta (The Time of Troubles, 1598-1613), the 1917-1923 revolutions and Stalinism – is straightforward enough, it can, however, be much less so when it comes to Russian-European relations. That is surely due to the fact that the theme transcends historical periods and is multi-faceted, since it covers cultural, economic and political aspects and more. So one approach to the question consists in analyzing how the conflicts between Russia or the USSR and European nations are described in history textbooks.

History textbooks in a bookstore in Moscow, photograph by the author.
History textbooks in a bookstore in Moscow, photograph by the author.

History Textbook Production in Russia: Some Context

The first Russian and Soviet secondary-school history textbooks were published in 1992. In 1994, following the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Education’s authorization to publish several different textbooks for a single subject, the offer took off: in 2002, some 70 authorized textbooks were in circulation, and that number did not fall in the following years. By the late 2000s, textbook-stores offered both liberal-leaning Russian history textbooks and monarchist ones, and Soviet history textbooks running the gamut from “anti-” to “pro-” Stalinian. Since 2016, the offer has decreased considerably: only three series of textbooks meet the recommendations of the new “methodological standard for teaching national history” established under the aegis of the very official Russian Historical Society and the Ministry of Education. Those textbooks, which go from ancient to quite recent history, were written by historians and have been published by three different publishing houses.

Russia: A Country with “Unique Features” and an “Equal Partner”

Several wars punctuated the 19th century in Russia: the Patriotic War of 1812, the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. In most of the textbooks, they are described factually, and Russian responsibilities are not overlooked. Some authors, for instance, explain that in 1853, Czar Nicolas I was looking for an excuse to go to war; they also acknowledge that Russia’s economic and military backwardness contributed to the country’s defeat. Only the minority of monarchist-leaning and violently anti-Western textbooks, published in the late 1990s, describe Czarist Russia as a fortress besieged by hostile neighbors. That viewpoint is clearly perceptible both in the 1990s, when Russian-European relations were good and stable, and in the 2000s, when conflict with the West was growing, and Russian political discourse tended to define Russia as a civilization that was superior to the Western world, – i.e. Europe and the U.SA. – which was determined to weaken it. But as a general rule, European countries are described as partners with which Russia occasionally has conflict, but with which it is possible to get along.

In 2016, textbooks began focusing on Russia’s integration into the “European political and economic area” and on its strength, both past and present. So the Kievan Rus’, which Russia claims as the cradle of the Russian nation, is described in textbooks as “one of the most powerful of European nations, and considered by other countries as an equal partner” (Gorinov, M. M., Danilov, A. A., MoroukovM. Iou. et al., History of Russia, 6th grade (Moscow: Prosvechtchenie, 2016)). Other evolutions are perceptible as well. A textbook from 1994 explains that the French invasion of 1812 alienated Russia from France and that Franco-Russian relations did not improve again until the late 19th century. Referring to commemorations of the centenary of the Battle of Borodino, it mentions that an obelisk in memory of the French soldiers who fell on the battlefield was erected at the spot from which Napoleon oversaw the battle, as a sign of reconciliation between the two countries (Zyrianov, P. N., History of Russia, 19th century, 9th grade (Moscow: Prosvechtchenie, 1994)). That passage, which is typical of the 1990s mindset, had disappeared from the next edition of the book, brought out in the 2000s: the point now being to raise patriotic children, the heroism of the Russian soldiers who gave their lives for their homeland is all that is mentioned. 

Defending the Soviet State

As the heir to the USSR, contemporary Russia is often considered responsible for Soviet foreign policy. But in a memorial context that is tense with several nations from the former communist region, Russia has no intention of questioning actions from the past. That stance is manifest in the description of the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or Nazi-Soviet) Pact of August, 1939. In most textbooks, whenever they were published, the pact is presented as the practically logical outcome of the Munich Agreement and the West’s refusal to collaborate with the USSR. One recent textbook (Nikonov, V. A., Deviatov, S. V., History of Russia: 1914-early 21st Century, 10th grade (Moscow: Rousskoe slovo, 2018)) refers to a speech by Vladimir Putin that supports the arguments presented: as the USSR was not prepared to go to war, the pact allowed it to buy some time, which contributed to its future victory. Only a minority of textbooks question the USSR’s neutrality from 1939 to 1941. 

As for the secret protocols established by the pact, what one comes across most often is that the USSR “got back” the Ukrainian and Belarusian territories that had been lost to Poland at the end of the civil war. And while, as it is generally put, Germany “invaded” Poland in September, 1939, the USSR “crossed” the Polish border in order to “protect the Belarusian and Ukrainian populations.” The same logic is applied to Bessarabia, which was “seized” by Rumania in 1918 and “recovered” by the Soviets in June 1940. For the Baltic States, the elections that led to the victory of pro-Communist forces in 1940 are mentioned, but the fact that they were held during a period of occupation is not. Schoolchildren should not come across anything that would lead them to infer that the USSR could be considered blameworthy in any way. As a recent textbook states, the Soviet victory, which came at the cost of 26 million lives, amply justified the USSR’s right to participate in the establishment of a “new world order”: “The Soviet Victory generation saved mankind. The entire planet understood that in 1945,” (Nikonov, V. A., Deviatov, S. V., History of Russia: 1914-early 21st Century, 10th grade (Moscow: Rousskoe slovo, 2018)).

Subtle but important differences can still be perceived among the most recent series of textbooks. In one of them, we can sense a meek attempt to suggest a slightly different version of the events: “From a formal point of view, there was nothing objectionable about the Treaty of Non-Aggression,” but everyone understood that “it gave Hitler a green light to attack Poland.” Granted, the Pact delayed the Nazi attack on the USSR, but it also, “created conditions that favored Germany’s being able to implement its military and political plans in Europe.” And while, “officially, the Soviet government’s goal was to liberate the Ukrainian and western Belarusian lands lost to Poland” in 1921, “unofficially, the USSR took advantage of secret protocols to carve out German and Soviet spheres of influence.” For the Soviet regime, the Red Army engaged in a “campaign of liberation,” but for “patriotic Poles, it was yet another division of Poland. In any case, the outcome was the end of Poland as a nation” (Volobouev, O. V., Karpatchëv, S. P., Romanov, P. N., History of Russia, Early 20th to Early 21st Century, 10th grade (Moscow: Drofa, 2016)). By the 2019 edition of that textbook, however, some of those comments had been deleted. 

So we see that even within the strict framework dictated by the “methodological standard for teaching national history” that led to a drastic reduction in the number of different textbooks published since 2016, a certain margin for maneuver still remains for authors of Russia and Soviet history textbooks.

To quote from this article

Korine Amacher , « Partnership and Confrontation: Europe in Russian and Soviet History Textbooks », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 10/06/24 , consulted on 20/07/2024. Permalink :


Amacher, Korine, « History textbooks in Russia (1992-2019) : Between multisided and imperial perspectives », in Amacher, Korine, Portnov, Andrii, Serhiienko, Viktoriia (eds.), Official History in Eastern Europe. Transregional Perspectives (Osnabrück: Fibre, 2020)

Amacher, Korine, Berelowitch, Wladimir (eds.), Histoire et mémoire dans l’espace postsoviétique. Le passé qui encombre (Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia, 2013)

Konkka, Olga, À la recherche d’une nouvelle vision de l’histoire russe du xxe siècle à travers les manuels scolaires de la Russie postsoviétique (1991-2016), PhD in history, University Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux III (2016). 

Kaplan, Véra, « History Teaching in Post-Soviet Russia : Coping with Antithetical Traditions », in Eklof, Ben, Holmes, Larry E., Kaplan Vera (eds), Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia : Legacies and Prospects (London: Frank Cass, 2005)


Don’t miss a single publication! Register now to receive our newsletter in English:

The subscriber's email address.
Manage your newsletter subscriptions
Select the newsletter(s) to which you want to subscribe.