This article was originally published by Coda Story.
By Matthew Luxmoore
One recent Sunday in the city of Kazan, the capital of Russia’s republic of Tatarstan, dozens of children milled outside the entrance to a glitzy new exhibition about the Romanovs, the dynasty that ruled the country for 300 years. The largest group was from Kazan Federal University’s elementary school: aged seven to 12, with their parents in tow.
The guide, Olga Solntseva, had little trouble directing their attention. Interactive screens showed animated battle reconstructions. Multiple-choice quizzes lit up touchscreen tables. It was a celebration of the sanctity of statehood and hard-won victories over recidivist invaders.
On a map of the Russian Empire’s westernmost reaches, Solntseva indicated a region in today’s Ukraine now claimed by Russian-backed separatists. “Do we know what Ukraine is?” she asked the group. “Yes. It’s a bad country,” one boy offered. The past would resonate with the present throughout the tour.
The displays covering the Romanovs are part of a giant exhibition titled “Russia: My History,” which opened in Kazan to major fanfare late last year. But it is actually one of 17 such exhibitions that have been set up nationwide with lavish state funding since 2015—from Russia’s Far East, to Dagestan in the south.
Offering an accessible quick-take on the country’s past, the displays meld a narrative of statism with a celebration of the Orthodox faith. Tens of thousands of schoolchildren have visited the various venues, thanks partly to subsidized trips offered and promoted by the Education Ministry. The exhibition project has been hailed for injecting more glitz and glamour into Russian history, and underpinning the wider government campaign to encourage patriotism—much of it centered on celebrating Russia’s role in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II.
But the “Russia: My History” project is controversial. Critics say it is full of errors, omissions, and falsehoods—among them invented quotes attributed to former U.S. president Bill Clinton—and videos appearing to justify Stalinist repression. One group of Russian historians has gone so far as to accuse the Education Ministry of corrupting the minds of schoolchildren by sending them to the exhibition, and has launched a campaign to stop the project expanding.
The project traces its roots to the post-Soviet rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1995, its St. Petersburg diocese organized an exhibition called “Orthodox Rus,” with the stated aim of uniting church, government and society in “safeguarding and developing traditional spiritual values.” With Russians reeling from the economic and political turmoil following the Soviet collapse, this seemed a worthy ambition for a faith regaining its foothold after decades of repression.
It was also prescient. The years that followed saw church and state converge. By 2003 “Orthodox Rus” had become an annual fixture in Moscow, and with the patronage of both the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church, the exhibition spread steadily to other cities.
Things really took off in 2013, when the first version of the Romanovs exhibition launched, complete with interactive displays. It was so popular that organizers extended opening hours to satisfy the long, snaking line of visitors that formed outside. By the time it closed, almost 300,000 people had passed through the doors in less than three weeks. President Vladimir Putin wrote in the guestbook: “With respect and gratitude for work done for the benefit of the Motherland.”
Other installments were subsequently added, focusing on ancient Russia and the 20th century. This became the “Russia: My History” exhibition, which opened in 2015 in a giant pavilion specially rebuilt for the purpose.
The government has spent 411 billion rubles ($7.2 billion) on the exhibitions since 2013, according to an investigation by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International and Dozhd, an independent TV channel. Another 10 billion rubles ($177 million) have been allocated for regional branches. And several prominent oligarchs close to Putin, including Oleg Deripaska, have also contributed funds, the investigation revealed.
The Education Ministry added “Russia: My History” to its suggested curriculum for schools in November 2016. In a letter distributed to the regions, it called the exhibition a “live textbook” for the “moral, spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic” education of Russian children, and encouraged teachers to incorporate the material into classes and extra-curricular trips.
But a group of Russian historians known as the Free Historical Society have taken a public stand against the exhibition, calling on the Education Ministry to withdraw its approval.
“Reliance on clear and shameless lies is unacceptable when you’re educating children and those who will be teaching them,” they wrote in an open letter to Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva. “The Education Ministry is now engaging in the corruption of young minds.”
The historians demanded that school trips to the exhibitions be suspended pending an independent “expert review.” They also sent a copy of the letter to Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, the mastermind behind the “Russia: My History” project.
Separately, the organization posted photos of what it said were misleading phrases and invented quotations in some sections of the exhibition. One has Bill Clinton boasting: “We achieved what President Truman attempted to do with the Soviet Union through the use of the atom bomb. Though with one substantial difference: we have gained a ‘resource colony.’”
Another, attributed to U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, reads: “There is no doubt that Russia will be broken into pieces and under our wing.”
These quotations have gained a life well beyond the exhibition. If you do an internet search for them in Russian, it yields thousands of matches. They also feature, unreferenced, in dozens of Russian-language books. The country’s leading newspapers have cited them too, with one erroneously naming Brzezinski’s “The Grand Chessboard” as a source.
But so far, the historians’ complaints have had little effect. The Education Ministry responded by saying that all educational institutions are free to choose the materials they use. Bishop Tikhon took a different line, saying that two other quotations had been debunked and removed, but vehemently defending the rest of the exhibition’s contents.
Ivan Kurilla, a Free Historical Society member and a professor at St. Petersburg’s European University, said his colleagues were initially divided. Some advocated helping the exhibitions’ authors make adjustments.
But he felt that if they worked with the organizers, “the result will be an exhibition which remains conservative, Orthodox, and state-centric,” he said. “The narrative of the past depends on what questions we ask of that past, and the organizers don’t want certain questions to be answered.”
At the same time, Kurilla applauded the technical quality of the exhibitions and said he can understand why so many people go. “For many regional cities, this is probably the first new cultural venue in dozens of years,” he said. “Most Russian museums have changed little since Soviet times, but this is something totally new.”
The Education Ministry did not respond to several requests for comment.
In the meantime, the project continues to grow. Ioann Sereda, a bearded Orthodox seminary graduate, oversees its guided tours department. One Tuesday in February, he was rushing round the lobby of the Moscow chapter, coordinating school groups. During a break, he showed me around a new wing of the building.
The section on the 20th century, titled “From Great Upheavals to the Great Victory,” was being moved and expanded to include life-size images of World War II battles. A fourth exhibition, running from 1945 to the present day and already launched in the regions, will open in Moscow this summer, Sereda said.
“People too often make of Russia’s history some kind of horror-show,” he told me as we wandered through the 20th century. Over his words floated music from the Soviet film The Blizzard, the “Russia: My History” soundtrack. “This is Russia’s most ambitious project on history for the past 25 years. Criticism is needed and natural, but it should be objective.”
We passed the entrance to a section on Stalin-era repression, listing the numbers shot or imprisoned. Tucked away in a side room, the displays looked like an afterthought. Along a wall to our right ran a timeline of events leading up to World War II. But it stopped on Dec. 8, 1938, only picking up again from the Nazi invasion in June 1941, thereby omitting events like the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which paved the way for Poland’s partition. Sereda said it was a glitch resulting from renovations under way.
The 20th century culminates in a five-minute video portraying the Russian Revolution as a bloody coup by zealous ideologues. “In 1917 there was another choice: retaining a belief in our ancestors and a great Russia,” the narrator says. But the 1920s saw a return to Russia’s tradition of building a strong state, he continues, and Stalin’s industrialization and collectivization campaigns ensured the country could defend itself against Hitler’s attack. “The clearest evidence of our nation’s transformation,” the film concludes, “was its great victory.” On screen, fireworks light up the sky above the Kremlin.
By the end of this year, 25 cities will be hosting “Russia: My History,” according to project spokesman Aleksandr Tarasov. But the Free Historical Society says it is determined to keep fighting its corner.
Putin paid a visit to the Volgograd chapter last month. He walked past screens backlit in red and black, showing grim scenes from the 1990s: war in Chechnya, dilapidated infrastructure, and children begging in the poverty-stricken provinces. In blue were impressive-looking statistics on Russia’s progress since Putin took power in December 1999.
On the wall were banners with some of his quotes. “Too often in our national history, instead of opposition to the government, we see opposition to Russia itself,” read one. “And we know how this ends: with the destruction of the state itself.”
Back in Kazan, Solntseva posed for photos and watched the children shuffle out into the lobby. Leyla Khalyulina and her 9-year-old son Emir waited in line for the cloakroom. It was their second visit to the exhibition. “I think it’s great that they came up with it,” she said.
For Emir, the tour was a welcome break from the classroom. The exhibition’s interactive videos and games were far more engaging than textbooks and lectures. “For me the most important thing is to know how things happened. Because in the future, in higher grades, it’ll come in handy in history lessons,” Emir said. “And I’ll learn it all in advance.”
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Matthew Luxmoore is a freelance journalist based in Moscow, currently working with the New York Times. Find him on Twitter @mjluxmoore.
[Photos by Matthew Luxmoore]