In Russia, Geography Class Has Heavy Dose Of Patriotism

A new edition of a high school geography textbook has the distinct air of Soviet-era propaganda

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a high school outside of Moscow — REUTERS
Jun 01, 2017 at 2:04 PM ET

Many Russian parents are outraged that schools across the country are using a fervently nationalist Geography book that lauds Russia’s controversial military moves and excoriates Western “aggression,” which they say is turning their children’s classrooms into a political battleground.

“This is when you are proud of the fact that your son has a C in geography and that he despises his country’s excellent geographers,” said one outraged parent on Twitter, responding to photos of the Geography book for tenth and eleventh-graders that is being circulated on social media.

Other parents remarked that the book was eerily reminiscent of the Soviet-style propaganda material of the 1980s, when a love of Russia was equated with a commitment to the totalitarian regime and when the state whitewashed its own controversial history to resolve political disputes.

A photo of the textbook that has been circulating throughout Russian social media. An excerpt here features a sentence describing the “deterioration” of relations between Russia and the West.

“Recently, relations between Russia and the Western countries have deteriorated noticeably, due to the desire of the West to change the strategic balance of forces in their favor,” reads the book. “To this end, the West is trying to place their military infrastructure even closer to the borders of Russia.”

Like all of the 2016-2017 government-approved books for high school geography class, the textbook describes the 2014 Russian annexation of its neighbor Crimea as an act of self-defense against an encroaching West. It does not mention that the annexation is considered illegal by much of the international community and brought sanctions which have dealt a severe blow to Russia’s already stagnating post-oil-era economy.

The book similarly relates the history of the 2014 military intervention in Ukraine, in which the ouster of the pro-Putin president Viktor Yanukovich led to a brutal war that over four years has killed over 10,000 people. The textbook calls it a “coup d’etat” instigated by American aggressors who are known to be “uncompromising.”

The classroom has long been a forefront of the Kremlin’s attempts to amplify patriotism and instill a sense of paternalist trust in President Vladimir Putin. Since 2013, Putin has pushed to standardize a regime-friendly History book and has invested heavily in similarly politically expedient educational initiatives while the country descends into economic crisis and faces growing geopolitical challenges.

“Of course, history, like other humanitarian subjects, must teach students to think independently, analyze, and compare different points of view,” Putin said in 2014. “But there must be objectivity and impartiality, respect for one’s own past and love for one’s Motherland.”

In 2016, the government implemented the “Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens” program, funded by a hefty budget of 1.7 billion rubles ($34 million). The plan aimed for an eight percent increase in the number of Russians who are “proud of their country” by the year 2020, and a ten percent increase in new recruits drafted to the Russian army in the same time span, according to the Moscow Times.

Parents on social media are incensed by the politicization of their children’s education, but they must also contend with a new generation of Kremlin-backed youth movements, like the heavily-funded Youth Guard group who formed in 2005 as part of Putin’s United Russia party efforts to get young people involved in politics and today seek to further normalize his patriotic cause.

“We are students! We are millions!” wrote the Youth Guard on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, last month. “We are diverse, but also united by the love for our country, knowledge of the history of Russia, and by our memory and gratitude to our veterans.”