25 February 2014

An Interview with the Head of the House of Romanoff on the Teaching of History in Russia today, which appeared in The Teacher’s Gazette. (The Full Text of the Interview.)

An Interview with the Head of the House of Romanoff on the Teaching of History in Russia today, which appeared in The Teacher’s Gazette. (The Full Text of the Interview.)

Your Imperial Highness, have you had the opportunity to talk with young people in Russia today about Russian history? What has most surprised you most, or perhaps distressed you most, about what they know and don’t know about their own history? What kinds of things don’t they know?

During nearly every one of my visits to Russia, with rare exceptions, I visit schools and colleges and universities and meet with young people. I see their genuine interest in their country’s history. I have become a sponsor of the competition “Living Connections across Time,” which is dedicated to the study of Russia’s past. Of course, besides this competition, there are many other similar competitions for young people that I hear about. Many interesting and original research projects have been entered into these academic contests. It is clear that many young people in Russia have enormous enthusiasm for the study of history.

But at the same time we should not idealize the situation. It is usually the most active and well-prepared young boys and girls who typically participate in the contests and discussions. But many other young people do not get involved in them. This is not because young people are not in principle interested in the lives of prior generations, but because they have not been awakened to the study of history because of the poor methods often used to teach it. And so school children and college students do not acquire an understanding of the importance of the analysis of past events. They acquire no sense of the drama of history.

The system of testing historical knowledge, which has been introduced universally, has led to a situation where history is learned from childhood not as a powerful force in the lives of a people, of nations, and of humanity in general; not as a process with an internal logic of its own and the power to explain causes and effects, but as a mechanical listing of names, dates, and geographical terms. Those who have a good memory can remember a large amount of facts. But they do not see the links between the facts, and therefore all their knowledge is lifeless and pointless. This way of teaching and learning history deprives it of its essential goals: to understand the reasons for victories and defeats, to nurture a love for one’s country, to gain the ability to distinguish right from wrong and to judge morally events and phenomena.

In your opinion, how should Russian history be taught in Russian schools? What topics are stressed too much and which clearly not enough? What facts about the history of the Romanoff dynasty should be included in the history curriculum?

I am an advocate of the more traditional methods of teaching and learning. One can and must adopt new technologies, which have appeared and been shown to be effective. But we must not disrupt the fundamental relationship that exists between students and teachers. There should be testing, of course, but only as a secondary, intermediate and mechanical means of assessing a student’s knowledge of the facts. But in studying any subject, especially in the humanities, it is very important that there be a dynamic interaction between teachers and learners. It ought not be the goal to have students mechanically generate pat answers to set questions, but to acquire the ability to understand the internal logic of a phenomenon, the symbolic meaning of events, the spirit of this or that age; to acquire the ability to engage in dialogue, and to defend and argue their points.

It is difficult to judge when it comes to History what is excessive and what is insufficient. On the one hand, there really is nothing that is unimportant in history. Sometimes, one tiny speck of dust can bring a complex and giant machine to a grinding halt, or the smallest microbe can kill a much larger and more complex organism. Something that, at first glance, looks like an absolutely unrelated event can become the catalyst or the underlying cause of very significant processes or phenomena. For example, if one simple man, Ivan Susanin, had been a traitor, or had simply been afraid for his life and had been a coward, then the Poles would have found and killed Mikhail Romanoff. In that case, the Time of Troubles would have continued on indefinitely and, certainly, there would not have been a 300-year reign of our dynasty. And what if Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, or Alexander II the Tsar-Liberator had not lived and reigned…? All Russian history would have been very different. We cannot say if it would have been better or worse, but we know it would have been different.

If we ignore these kinds of “little details,” then we will never grasp the course of history.

On the other hand, a textbook cannot contain between its covers all our knowledge of history. If it did, it would be cumbersome, much too complicated, and difficult to comprehend. A textbook should, after all, include the most important facts that everyone needs to know—not only historians, but all citizens of the country. If you create a core, then it is much easier to build more advanced knowledge upon that core later, so as to meet the needs of each inpidual person, with the help of additional literature, historical sources, documentary films, and internet sources. Professional historians need to build on this core more and in more systematized ways, of course, but other professionals need it in different measures, in accordance with their inpidual interests.

On the whole, there is a canon for a textbook and a set of information that is essential for understanding the past. A textbook should lay out the narrative in accessible language, to illustrate the narrative, and supplement it with memorable textual and visual images.

As to the role of the Romanoff dynasty, I can say the following. Before the revolution of 1917, the narrative was “skewed” in a way that the nation’s most important achievements were always linked with the names of monarchs or other important persons. After the revolution, there was the other extreme. At first, up to 1935, history was not at all taught

as if it were an unneeded field of study that represented the class interests of those whom the Soviet state had uprooted and which therefore hindered the construction of a new society. But this is precisely how it would be taught later. The study of history came to be used to create the impression that, if there was something good that happened in the past, then this essentially happened despite, not because of, the actions of Russia’s rulers, who only tried to think of new ways to exploit the lives of their own people.

Neither approach can really be called objective. Of course, history is created by the people, the majority of whom are average, ordinary persons. Their efforts, their will, their patience and love are very much worth remembering, studying, respecting very deeply, and admiring. But it would be a mistake to separate the notion of “the nation” from its elite—the monarchs, military commanders, statesmen, clergy, industrialists, and entrepreneurs. The elite could be self-serving and sometimes abused their positions in society—just as parents or older brothers and sisters in a family, or the leaders of any group, can abuse their positions. But without an elite, without significant figures, the nation loses its cohesiveness, and is transformed into an amorphous “population” and becomes fragile and weak.

In addition, history has always been perceived through the lens of the lives people who lived in the past. Events that are described without reference to the people who experienced them are hard to commit to memory and are boring to read.

To set the rulers in opposition to the people is like setting the head in opposition to the body, or a father in opposition to the rest of his family. Of course, sometimes strange ideas pop up in the head, or the father in a family behaves deplorably. But if the head is cut off, the body dies; and a family without a father is not whole.

I therefore think that a historical narrative is appropriate and balanced when it shows the general patterns of the historical process, when it emphasizes that the course by which events unfold depends on the will and actions of the majority of the people and, moreover, on the will and actions of those who had once been the leaders, symbols, and guideposts for their fellow countrymen.

And when it comes to specific persons, it is best to show them not simply as the soulless architects of our fates, but as living persons, with their own feelings, lofty aspirations, their own trials, their own intellect, habits, and weaknesses. The more human the depiction, the more interesting the person—and the more interesting is everything connected with that person’s time.

In light of recent events, how could an understanding of the history of Russia help resolve international and inter-confessional conflicts? How would the Romanoffs, in your view, have resolved problems of this sort?

The Russian empire, which took final form during the reign of our House, was not a colonial empire, but a classical empire. It was not built by enslavement or oppression, but through integration and cooperation. Its main motto, of sorts, was “Unity in persity.” On its territories there coexisted the most perse collection of peoples with their own distinctive cultures, all living together. The empire included the Grand Duchy of Finland with its characteristically western legal structures, and the Emirate of Bukhara, which was governed by the laws of Sharia and Adat, and which was ruled by its own emir.

Of course, there were also mistakes in the government’s nationality policy—instances of forced russification, which were not always justified. But these were a departure from the prevailing idea of the Empire—attempts at “simple solutions,” which, in fact, later produced far worse problems. It’s natural that government functionaries would always find it easier to govern with the help of uniform methods and rules rather than to seek compromises and to fashion a system of mutual relations, taking into account in each situation the local circumstances. But it is impossible to force a change in people’s nature, impossible to impose from the outside something that fundamentally contradicts the people’s genetic code, historical experience, and underlying mentality.

It cannot be denied that the Russian Empire recognized this and, in the main, its nationality policy was extraordinarily flexible. Therefore, with the obvious exception of the associated territories of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Finland, which had remained unassimilated into the Empire, pre-revolutionary Russia nowhere experienced any sort of effective separatist movements. Many peoples joined the Empire of their own free will, even petitioning to be accepted into it. Some others initially resisted. But regardless of the circumstances that brought them into the empire, all these peoples became members of a unified all-Russian family, quickly assimilated themselves into it, and came to serve as models of devotion to the larger empire.

The revolution of 1917 destroyed the Russian Empire. The USSR, of course, was an essentially new kind of state, even though it included the majority of the territories of the former empire. The ideology of the ruling regime on nationality policy evolved from extreme forms of cosmopolitanism and a deliberate disregard for national characteristics, to a peculiar kind of patriotism.

The paradox of the Soviet understanding of patriotism was that it remained inextricably linked to the ideology of the Communist Party, which was still based on Marxist cosmopolitanism and internationalism. One had to love not simply one’s homeland, but the “socialist homeland.” Rejection of the Communist ideology was interpreted as a lack of patriotism. In this way, into the categories of “bad patriots” and “enemies of the people” were lumped all peoples of religious faith, all those who disapproved of the aggressive atheistic regime, and all those who supported the preservation of national traditions and were therefore labeled “bourgeois nationalists.” Yet surely faith and tradition are integral parts of genuine patriotism.

The regime seriously believed that it could force people to love their homeland in the way the Communist Party taught them and ordered them to. But love can never be the product of coercion, especially when the coercion comes from a directive from the Party.

This situation gave rise to an entire range of contradictions: internal protests against “official patriotism,” the growth of nationalism and the consolidation of separatist tendencies in the Union Republics of the USSR, which had been created on the basis of nationality. Moreover, separatist tendencies grew not only in the anti-Communist underground, but also in the Communist parties in the Union Republics of the USSR. When the USSR began to slip into crisis and the central authorities grew weak and lost confidence in themselves, the key role in the disintegration, in most cases, was played not by any dissidents, who had no real influence on events, but precisely by the local party leaders.

The topic of the destruction of the unity of the peoples of the former Russian Empire and USSR is very painful and complex. The question of whether things might have turned out differently is now totally academic. We could go on talking about this forever, but the situation would not be any different for all the talk. One cannot bring back the Russian Empire or the USSR. The Russian Imperial House fully recognizes the sovereignty of all the newly formed states that came into being after the fall of the USSR. It recognizes their laws and the international conventions that regulate relations between them. But even so, I am convinced that, despite these political changes, nothing can destroy the unity of the civilization and culture that unites the countries in this space, even with all the differences between them.

I often compare what happened in our country with the splintering that takes place in families. At first, everyone lives together—parents, brothers, and sisters. Then the children grow up and want to have their own independent and separate families. But this does not mean that they should now disparage the families into which they were born and where they were raised, eliminating from their lives their relatives and forgetting all the good things that happened and remembering only the bad things.

And when problems and troubles hit you, it’s more logical to seek the support and assistance from your relatives, not from strangers, who may not have your own true best interests at heart.

Relations between nations play out the same way. Independence does not destroy our spirit of brotherhood. We may have many states today, but we still have only one Fatherland, in the loftiest sense of that word. We can never erase from history the fact that our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers gave their blood and sweat for it, regardless of their nationality.

How the nationality problem would have been handled if the House of Romanoff had not been toppled by the revolution, and if the Russian Empire had continued to exist to our own day—these are questions that can be discussed, but again it is all rather theoretical and hypothetical. In my view, monarchies always have a better chance of preserving the unity of people within the framework of a single state—or within the framework of a free and effective model of integration—than do liberal democratic republics or dictatorships. We see an example of this new model for preserving cultural unity in the Commonwealth of Nations, which is headed by the monarch of Great Britain. Of course, it would not work merely to copy this model. But to utilize some of these ideas and methods, adapting them to our historical conditions, is entirely feasible. If not now, then certainly one day in the future.

I am under no illusions and see perfectly that the prerequisites and conditions for the restoration of the monarchy in Russia do not exist at the present time, nor do they exist even for the formation of a multi-national Commonwealth that might be built upon the foundations of the concept of the Family-State. In the modern world, the Russian Imperial House has a clear and concrete social mission, which is in no way linked to any political activities. We are striving to bring about a rebirth and strengthening of the spiritual and cultural connections between peoples, we strive to call attention to the greatest pages in our common history, we work to promote multicultural and inter-confessional dialogue. I am very pleased to see that our efforts have been useful, and that religious and secular leaders, and ordinary people, have welcomed our efforts with understanding and respect. They see us as not some kind of “symbol of imperialism,” not the leaders of some or other political movement, but as a living historical institution, which promotes cooperation between peoples of the most perse views.

Does the Imperial House plan to utilize its experience to help resolve some of Russia’s traditional problems: illiteracy, poverty, and international conflicts? Do members of the Imperial House of Romanoff plan to participate in ongoing discussions about the creation of a single textbook of Russian history?

I have my own view on how to resolve these problems, and I also remember well the experience of my ancestors. Wherever I can, I try to employ those methods and approaches that I believe are most appropriate. But I don’t want to instruct anyone or to force my views on anyone else. Human history shows that neither mentoring nor coercion lead to lasting results and, more often than not, only elicit resistance, even when the proposed ideas are completely sensible. In my view, the best way to advance an idea is by personal example. St. Seraphim of Sarov said the following about the spiritual life: “You don’t need to save others. Save yourself, and thousands around you will be saved.” These wise words can be applied to other spheres of life, as well. If you yourself act honorably, for the benefit of others and effectively, then it is all the more likely that others will trust you, support you, and follow your example.

It is also necessary always to work cooperatively with others. One must be able to listen to the other side and to exchange views. On occasion, you will convince the other side of your views, and the other side may sometimes convince you of theirs. Clear-cut solutions that would suit perfectly everyone’s needs almost never happen. But if we love our country and want the next generation to live better than we have, we must be able agree and to find together the optimal way to overcoming obstacles and rectifying deficiencies.

We should strive to take the best and most effective lessons from all periods of our history—both pre-revolutionary and Soviet—and to avoid repeating the mistakes and crimes of the past.

In this common task before us all, the main role of the Imperial House is to act as a mediator, as a repository of tradition, an instrument of educational and charity activity, and as a source of moral encouragement for all good works.

As far as the single history textbook is concerned, I can say the following. I do not think that we should understand this term literally to mean a kind of one, single textbook, which will become mandatory for all. We already had such a thing and nothing good came of it.

Certainly, as we have already said, there should be a canon—a set of generally accepted fundamental facts and interpretations about the history of Russia. Controversial opinions which are not adequately supported by a complete set of available historical sources, and, moreover, various exotic hypotheses and theories should be presented separately, in specialist literature, not in textbooks. The generally accepted views should be presented when history is taught. Authors should adhere to these generally accepted views in the structure of their textbooks and avoid all excesses and unnecessary emotion in their historical assessments.

But you cannot in one fell swoop simply change all these textbooks and replace them with one. Without a healthy intellectual exchange, both academic research and history education will wither and die.

Of course, the state and the academic community have an interest in monitoring the content of textbooks. It would be unacceptable if unlearned assertions, obvious errors, or, even worse, politicized perspectives of some party or extremist statements should find their way into textbooks. But the process of monitoring the content of textbooks should be undertaken with extreme care, be balanced, genuinely grounded in scholarship, and in every way conform with the existing laws and with common sense.

The current Constitution of the Russian Federation has a very important provision. Article 13 states that our country enjoys ideological persity, and that there may not be any sort of obligatory state ideology. This provision is directly related to the study and teaching of history. No interpretation of history can be absolutely free from the ideological convictions of the author. And when it comes to the pedagogical standards, one must not deprive authors of textbooks, teachers, or students of their freedom of thought and opinion.

However, this does not mean that the idea of creating a kind of official state history textbook would be bad or harmful, as some in the press have claimed.

The government cannot force its citizens to adhere to a certain single ideology or prosecute others for not adhering to that single ideology, so long as these citizens do not call for violent action or incite hatred. But this does not mean that the government does not have the right to have its own ideology. A government without a set of ideas to guide it is utter nonsense. There should be guiding ideas, and these ideas should be known to the citizenry, including the government’s understanding of its own national history.

The government has every opportunity to create incentives and conditions for the writing of a textbook which will objectively become the best, or one of the best, available—a textbook which will draw fewer complaints over its content, objectivity, use of language and terminology, and structure. Then no one would have to impose it on anyone. It would be broadly accepted and extensively used because of its inherent qualities. Other textbooks would not in any way have to be eliminated or be forbidden; they would simply become, on their own, less popular with teachers and students.

A textbook that has freely earned the respect of specialists and students can properly be called a “single” textbook: “single,” not in the sense of “only,” but in the sense that it has “brought together all the best insights from Russian historical research and the traditions of historical pedagogy.”

Published: E. Klinkova, “The Connections Across the Ages. There is nothing unimportant in history” [“Sviaz’ vremen: Nichego lishnego v istorii net”]. The Russian Imperial House of Romanoff discusses the rebirth of traditions and its involvement in educational and charitable activities, as well as reactions to events in Russia today—both in society and in education. The Head of the Imperial House, H.I.H. Grand Duchess Maria of Russia kindly agreed to share her thoughts on the idea of creating a single textbook for the teaching of Russian history, and her thoughts on how the history of Russia—particularly the history of the Romanoff dynasty—should be taught, as well as what issues there are in education generally in Russia today. Uchitel’skaia gazeta, February 25, 2014. See: http://www.ug.ru/.

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