Aug 28, 2021
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Zigzags of ethnic history in Belarusian textbooks

Textbooks are constantly rewritten, a picture of the past is created, which is convenient for solving current political problems

If you ask the question, what school subject forms a civic position and patriotism among students, then the answer will be quick – this, of course, is history. There is no need to talk about the importance of teaching this discipline at school: the “ideological” status of history has been firmly established since Soviet times. In the Republic of Belarus, increased attention is also paid to this subject: obtaining a secondary education requires passing an exam for the entire course of national history. In order to deepen knowledge and repeat what was passed recently, the school curriculum was even changed. Pupils now study the entire history of Belarus from grades 6 to 9, and then in grades 10 and 11 they go through all periods again, systematizing their knowledge and examining individual historical phenomena more deeply. The decision, in general, is correct: what was studied in the 6th or 7th grade in the 10th or 11th grade should be pondered at a higher level. It is natural to expect that the textbook will also meet this goal.

Textbooks are constantly rewritten, a picture of the past is created, which is convenient for solving current political problems

History textbooks in Belarus are rewritten and published every five years. One gets the impression that historical science is dynamically developing, knowledge is constantly being updated, so textbooks need to be periodically revised. However, this is not quite true. Science, of course, does not stand still, but discoveries in the field of Russian history are not so fundamental that they often rewrite textbooks. What’s the matter?

According to the normative documents of the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus, updating of textbooks every 5-6 years is necessary “to improve the quality of education”, since methodological approaches are changing, electronic teaching aids and innovations are being introduced. However, in parallel, meaningful content is also taking place, there is a search for optimal forms of presentation of practically the same material, the same given idea: the past of Belarus should determine its sovereign future. In other words, a picture of the past is created that is most convenient for solving current political problems.

Textbooks are constantly rewritten, a picture of the past is created, which is convenient for solving current political problems

The outline here has long been trodden by Belarusian nationalists in line with the “history of Belarus since ancient times”. And the older the better. The authors of the first textbooks on Belarusian history, Vaclav Lastovsky (1883–1938) and Vsevolod Ignatovsky (1881–1931), began it with the tribes of the Krivichi, Dregovichi and Radimichi. These were politicians obsessed with the idea of ​​“Belarusian statehood” and therefore looking for it either in the Principality of Polotsk or in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (“Belarusian-Lithuanian state” in their terminology).

The Soviet historical paradigm, built on a Marxist approach, brought here the primitive communal system and, accordingly, the Stone Age. In textbooks on the history of the BSSR, a section entitled “Primitive communal system in the territory of Belarus” appeared.

The Soviet tradition was continued in sovereign Belarus. They only “improved” it with the ideas of nationalism. It turned out a kind of reasoning: since the history of Belarus is the history of the Belarusian ethnos, then it should start with the settlement of the territory by the first people. Thus, in the newest textbook on the history of Belarus for grade 10 (edition 2020, edited by VA Belozorovich) it is written: “The origins of the Belarusian people are associated with the Bronze Age, when Indo-European tribes settled on the territory of our country”. True, further the authors of the textbook have to talk more and more about the Balts, Slavs and their tribes, and only then, after 4.5 thousand years, in the XIV-XV centuries. AD, to mark “the formation of the Belarusian nation”. The question arises: was it necessary to carry the origins of the Belarusian people so far away?

However, the authors of the academic “History of Belarusian Statehood”, published in 2018, begin to write its history from the “pre-state period”, that is, one hundred thousand years BC. (!). This allows the “new interpretation” of the concept of “statehood”. This “highest point of political development” of the Belarusian ethnos, according to experts from the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences, was achieved through a long evolution of “historical” and “national” forms of statehood.

Textbooks are constantly rewritten, a picture of the past is created, which is convenient for solving current political problems

Kievan Rus, the Polotsk land, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Rzeczpospolita, the Russian Empire – all these are “historical” forms of statehood, under which the Belarusian statehood developed. In the XX century. it finally acquired “national” forms: the Belarusian People’s Republic (Belarusian People’s Republic), the BSSR, and the Republic of Belarus. Such a “new interpretation” without undue modesty was immediately declared by the authors “a significant scientific achievement of Russian historical science.” Only there is no opening here. There is the former Soviet scheme of interpretation of socio-economic evolution, starting from the primitive communal system. A rhetorical question arises: what does the improvement of stone tools of labor or the transition from a clan community to a neighbor have to the formation of the Belarusian (!) Statehood?

The authors of school textbooks are guided by the work of historians from the Academy of Sciences. At the same time, there is one general tendency: to make Belarusian history more ancient – whether ethnic history or state history. So the history of Belarus in the textbook begins with the prehistoric settlement of its territory by Cro-Magnons, and even by Neanderthals (after all, several stone tools of the Middle Stone Age were found). One gets the impression that the Belarusian history directly grows out of hoary antiquity, has a chthonic basis.

Textbooks are constantly rewritten, a picture of the past is created, which is convenient for solving current political problems

This anachronism is explained by the fact that the authors cannot abandon the formational approach, although they declare their conceptual novelty. In particular, the school textbook states that the periodization of the history of Belarus is based on the “civilizational approach” and is considered in the context of the history of “European civilization”. Moreover, it is said that the civilizational approach involves the allocation of the following periods: Ancient time, Middle Ages, New and Modern times.

Questions immediately arise here. What is a “civilizational approach”? What is “European civilization”? Why is the periodization from ancient to modern history attributed to the “civilizational approach”?

Explanations on these issues in the textbook are absolutely necessary, because the very concept of “civilization” is interpreted in different ways. For example, within the framework of the already mentioned Marxist (formational) approach, “civilization” is viewed as a progressive stage in the development of society, following “savagery” and “barbarism”. Currently, the “civilizational approach” involves the study of local cultures in their interaction. Then “European civilization” should be understood as “Western European civilization”. But the Belarusians historically developed on the basis of the “Eastern European civilization”. The tutorial doesn’t say anything about this. Aren’t the authors afraid to make even a hint of the “Russian world”? The division into “ancient”, “middle” and “new” history was borrowed from the humanists of the 16th century, and with the addition of the “newest” it fits again into the formation approach that persecutes the authors of the Belarusian textbook.

It turns out that the authors could not abandon the Marxist concept when presenting Belarusian history. The “civilizational approach” as a new reference point was only mentioned by them, but it remained unused. In fact, the textbook is dominated by a nationalistic approach: the Indo-European ancestors of the Belarusians are developing socially and economically, their tribes are united into the “Belarusian nationality” and grow to become the Belarusian nation. The authors try to place all this in the context of European history. The result is a picture that is more likely to meet modern needs than the realities of the past.

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