How Ukrainian School History Textbooks Retouch the Past

NEW – September 2, 2022

Secondary school history textbooks in any country are a very important indicator of historical politics. The image of past centuries and current events that is offered to children and adolescents often stays with a person for a long time and influences their views and actions in adulthood.

Map of the “Kiev power in the 10th-11th century” according to Ukrainian history textbooks

Using the example of four textbooks on the history of Ukraine published from 2007 to 2021, we tried to trace the specifics of the processes of dissecting memory of the past in the interests of the current government.

Where Yury Dolgoruky and Aleksandr Nevsky got lost

Let’s make a reservation right away: these educational books are not stuck together on the fly, they are the product of many years of work of professional historians, methodologists, and editors. Those who are familiar with Ukrainian Internet propaganda will be disappointed by reading textbooks: there is no outright Russophobia in the style of “put moskal on knives”; the authors instil dislike for Russia much more subtly and cautiously. At the same time, there is no single template: there are more traditional manuals with roots from Soviet pedagogy, which is very developed in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and there are also innovative projects that try to instil interest in history through problematic presentation, historical games, classes in pairs and groups, information through QR codes.

Spread of the textbook dedicated to Mazepa

What all these different textbooks have in common is revealed only after carefully reading them and consists in deliberately minimising any positive information about the history of Russia and, first of all, about the pages of the past common to Russia and Ukraine. “In dexterous and overworked hands” it turns out to be done even where it seems to be completely impossible, for example, in the space of ancient Russian history or Kievan Rus, which is still written about in Ukrainian school textbooks for grade 7.

“Ukraine’s achievement of independence has created favourable conditions for the truthful study of history,” ¹ well-known historians Academician Valery Smoliy (since 1993, the permanent director of the Institute of the History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) and Valery Stepankov state in the introduction to their 2007 edition of the textbook. And the authors are largely truthful: they, in particular, generally bypass the fantasy version, according to which Kiev turned 1500 years old in 1982 and which became the occasion for magnificent celebrations in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the time of Comrade Shcherbitsky. Seventh graders who studied according to this textbook in the second half of the 2010s are supposed to know that Kiev is the “capital of the Polian tribal reign”, which was ruled by “descendants of the Polian Prince Kiya”, who lived at an unnamed time ².

In the work of Smoliy and Stepankov, everything seems to be in place: the conditions for the creation of the “first East Slavic state” were formed, according to the authors, only by the turn of the 8th-9th centuries. This state has never been called Ukrainian, it is reported that the first chronicle mention of the name “Ukraine” refers to the end of the 12th century ³. By the beginning of the 11th century, Kievan Rus was turning not into a “Ukrainian power”, but into a medieval empire that included more than 20 peoples of Slavic and non-Slavic origin ⁴.

Only now everything that is far away from Kiev in this empire, including the Eastern Slavs, is taken out of the textbook already from the 92nd page, and before that it is presented with the stinginess of Gogol’s Plyushkin. This also applies to Veliky Novgorod, whose early history is more than closely connected with Kiev. Not in the textbook is also Yury Dolgoruky, who was not only the founder of Moscow, but also the prince of Kiev. His son Andrey Bogolyubsky is mentioned once, but in an ominous guise: this Vladimir-Suzdal prince captured Kiev on March 12, 1269, “perpetrated a terrible pogrom in the city and took out the spiritual shrines of Russia – bells, icons, church property and books” ⁵. In a similar vein, at the very end of the book, on page 163, Moscow and its policy of creating a centralised state under Ivan III are mentioned for the first time.

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Aleksandr Nevsky was more fortunate, he is certified as having received from the khan the label “to Kiev and the whole Russian land”. Ukrainian seventh graders are not supposed to know about the Neva Battle or the Ice Battle. But Smoliy and Stepankov prolonged the life of Aleksandr Yaroslavich until 1272, whereas in fact he died in 1263 ⁶. The Mongol invasion is reduced in the book only to the battle of Kalka and the capture of Kiev by Batu: there is not a line about the defence of Ryazan, nor about the “evil city” of Kozelsk.

Ukrainian history textbooks

Where are Yaroslav the Wise and Vladimir Monomakh from?

The book for the 7th grade of the 2015 edition written by the Kiev methodologist and prolific author of textbooks Vitaly Vlasov (1969-2019) may appeal to the student in its manner of presentation. Each item in each paragraph is an answer to a question, for example: “With whom did the Eastern Slavic tribes coexist?” ⁷ However, the tone of the narrative and its scope are the same as those of Smoliy and Stepankov. In the answer to the above question, the neighbours of the Eastern Slavs are presented in detail – the Khazars, Byzantines, Normans, but the East Slavic tribes themselves are given in a strict abridgement in the textbook, only seven tribal associations that have been noted on the modern territory of Ukraine are mentioned ⁸.

But seventh-graders have already been given a clear reason for pride: “Kievan Rus is one of the largest and most potent powers of the medieval world” ⁹. But in addition to Kiev and Polians, it is not necessary for a student to know any Vyatichi, Novgorod Slovenes and Krivichi, although they settled extensively in that very largest power.

Vlasov’s textbook still carefully blurs out any associations on the topic of a large common medieval history. The presentation rarely looks beyond Kiev and Chernigov, the same Kievan state in the titles of large chapters is listed as “Rus-Ukraine”. However, this name, taken from the founder of the national Ukrainian historical science Nikolay Grushevsky, is not explained in any way in the text, just like the “developed Ukrainian Middle Ages” mentioned at the beginning of the textbook ¹⁰, reminiscent of Brezhnev’s “developed socialism”. The princes Svyatoslav, Vladimir the Holy, Yaroslav the Wise, Vladimir Monomakh are presented in the book vividly and in detail, but the author does not risk logically calling them Ukrainians.

Ukrainians appear in Vlasov’s book at the very end of the text as “Ukrainian peasants” and the population of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where “Ukrainians and Belarusians made up 90% of the population of the state, exerting a noticeable influence on Lithuanians” ¹¹. And also where Moscow and “Moscovia” are mentioned for the first time, on the 169th page (Yury Dolgoruky is passed over in silence here too). And here, where the territory of the conflict begins, the presentation noticeably revives. Seventh-graders learn that the Grand Duchy of Moscow under Ivan III began to lay claim to Ukrainian and Belarusian lands. “During the campaign of 1514, the Muscovite army captured Belarusian Smolensk,” but in the same year, near Orša, a 30,000-strong “Ukrainian-Belarusian-Lithuanian army” led by Prince Konstantin Ostrozhsky defeated an 80,000-strong Moscow army ¹². Interestingly, Ukrainian history textbooks for the 7th grade should end in the 15th century, but the Battle of Orša from the 16th century is also present in Vlasov’s book, and in Smoliy and Stepankov, only in them the 35,000-strong army of Ostrozhsky overcomes the 70,000-strong Moscow army ¹³.

In both cases, crazily inflated figures of the participants in the battle are given: modern studies do not exclude that both opponents fought near Orša with approximately equal troops of 12,000-13,000 people.

Monument in honour of the founder of book printing in Russia and Ukraine Ivan Fyodorov in Lvov. 1983.

Censorship for the first printer Fyodorov

If in textbooks for the 7th grade the plots about Old Russian unity, which are unpleasant for the modern Ukrainian ideology, turned out to be almost imperceptible to schoolchildren, then the authors writing for the 8th graders who study the history of Ukraine in the 16th-18th centuries are not to be envied. There are such plots connected with Russia that it is impossible to keep silent about and which it is difficult to misrepresent godlessly.

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Let’s see how two recent textbooks for grade 8, published in 2016 in Ternopol ¹⁴ and in 2021, with the widespread use of QR codes, in Kiev ¹⁵ cope with this.

There is no escape from the pioneer printer Ivan Fyodorov, who worked fruitfully in Lvov and Ostrog. The authors of the Ternopol textbook, Natalya Sorochinskaya and Olga Gisem, write something seditious in modern times: “Book publishing developed successfully in the 16th century. A significant contribution to its development was made by the Moscow printing pioneer Ivan Fyodorov (Fedorovich). Arriving in Lvov, he published at the expense of the Lvov brotherhood in 1574 his first books in Ukraine – ‘Apostol’ and ‘Primer’. ‘Primer’ became the first school textbook on Ukrainian lands” ¹⁶.

The result is a mess: the world of book knowledge and the first textbook came to Ukraine from Moscow! In the advanced textbook of 2021, this circumstance is safely hidden from view. Its authors do not want to know any Fyodorov, he is not mentioned in plain text at all, and it’s possible to find him only by the QR code on the 49th page ¹⁷.

The main concept that students of the 8th grade should learn is the Ukrainian Cossack power. The textbooks cope well with a detailed description of the life and adventures of the Cossacks, up to pointing to the scientific works of Smoliy and Stepankov known to us, where it is argued that the Cossacks are “an estate of small farm-type landowners” ¹⁸. These restless farmers did not accomplish anything, but the Ukrainian national revolution of the 17th century. They [“enemies” – SZ] tried in every possible way to prevent them: Moscow, along with Poland and Crimea, were designated as enemies of Ukrainian independence ¹⁹.

But what about Bogdan Khmelnitsky and the Pereyaslav Rada?

N. Derebus. Pereyaslav Rada. Bogdan Khmelnitsky supports the reunification of Ukraine and Russia. 1952.

Bogdan Khmelnitsky without reunification

When talking about this page of history, the presentation becomes ornate and poorly accessible to children. It is only clear that Bogdan could not avoid an alliance with Moscow: “As of the end of 1653, the position of the Hetmanate became critical” ²⁰. Khmelnitsky had to turn to strong allies, the Turkish Sultan or the Moscow Tsar, the Tsar was at hand. What happened next, the textbooks describe not as the Pereyaslav Rada, but under the same heading for the two textbooks “Ukrainian-Moscow Treaty of 1654” ²¹.

The 2016 textbook does not say anything about the reunification of Ukraine with Russia, but the process is described correctly: “Ukrainians considered themselves to belong together with the Muscovites to the same Orthodox nation, they expected help from their brothers in faith in the war against Catholic Poland. As a result, pro-Moscow sentiments increased in Ukrainian society during the years of the National Liberation War” ²².

In the 2021 edition, the results of the Pereyaslav Rada are called “formal vassal dependence” and “protectorate”, a 4-minute video “The Mythology of Reunification” with a clear orientation is offered by the QR code on page 115. As a conclusion, the opinion of the American-Canadian historian Ivan Lysiak-Rudnitsky (1919-1984) is given: “The Pereyaslav agreement was a decisive step in the rise of the Asian, cut off from the sea, Moscovia to the level of a potent power, and Ukraine became Russia’s first window to Europe” ²³.

Khmelnitsky and the Cossack farmers appear as the beacons of European civilisation for Russia – this is how cleverly they spin a very unpleasant event for today’s versions of the history of Ukraine.

Mikhail Scotti. Minin and Pozharsky. 1850.

Minin and Pozharsky without Moscow

The authors of textbooks are trying to sweeten the sad dependence on Moscow after the Pereyaslav Rada by highlighting in every way any military conflicts between “farmers” and Russia. Sometimes this is not at all easy to do, as in the case of the events of the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th century. In the book of Sorochinskaya and Gisem, “the participation of the Cossacks in the wars of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth against Moscovia and Sweden” is emphasised, but at the same time, the liberation of Moscow by the militia of Minin and Pozharsky had to be mentioned ²⁴. Of all the events of the Time of Troubles, the 2021 textbook describes very briefly the campaign of Hetman Pyotr Konashevich-Sagaydachny to help the Polish prince Vladislav in 1618, when “the Muscovite army was defeated” ²⁵.

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To what depths they go in order to not remember citizen Minin and prince Pozharsky!

The defeat of the Russian troops in the battle of Konotop in 1659 is glorified by textbooks in every possible way and is taken out of the sad context of the period of Ukrainian history, rightly called Ruin. Extra details about the participation in this local battle of the Crimean and Polish allies of the Cossacks are given only in the 2021 textbook, while “the losses of the Muscovites totalled up to 30,000 people” ²⁶. In the book of Sorochinskaya and Gisem we read: “July 8-9, 1659, near Konotop, Vygovsky inflicted a crushing defeat on the 100,000-strong Muscovite army” ²⁷.

Both figures, 30,000 and 100,000, are just as crazily exaggerated as when covering the battle of Orša, and there were much more Crimean soldiers near Konotop than Cossacks. The unfortunate eighth-graders have to puzzle over why in September 1659, just two months after the “great victory”, hetman Ivan Vygovsky no longer exists, and the new hetman Yury Khmelnitsky signs the Pereyaslav articles of 1659, which introduced a much deeper regime of vassal dependence on Moscow ²⁸.

10 hryvnia banknote from 2007 with the image of Mazepa on it

Mazepa betrayed, but he didn’t

The story of hetman Ivan Mazepa is described in the same vein. The 2016 textbook emphasises his “brilliant European education in the Kiev-Mogila and Warsaw Jesuit collegiums”, notes that “at the first stage of the hetmanship, Mazepa adhered to the policy of good neighbourly relations with Moscow” (but what about “deep vassalage”?), his cultural activity is seen as a “planned far-sighted state policy” ²⁹.

However, the authors of the 2021 textbook accuse Mazepa during the period of loyalty to Pyotr “the policy of the denationalisation of Ukrainians” ³⁰. The hetman was allegedly prompted to go over to the side of Charles XII because the rights of the Cossacks were grossly violated ³¹. According to the Ternopol edition, the traitor was not Mazepa, but the Cossack colonel Nos, who showed a secret passage to the hetman’s capital Baturin. The goal of the hetman is designated as “liberation of the Hetmanate from the power of Moscovia”, and Mazepa’s merit was that “he created a precedent for the Ukrainian elite to act against the Moscow centre” ³².

Poltava in one and a half lines

The 2021 textbook avoids the sad details of the “precedent” and allocates one and a half lines of text for the Battle of Poltava ³³. Sorochinskaya and Gisem describe the battle on two pages and recognise the main thing: even before Poltava, “most of the elders ditched Mazepa, signed the oath of allegiance to the Tsar and recognised Hetman I. Skoropadsky ³⁴.

From this phrase, eighth graders can conclude that the Cossack elite, having sworn allegiance to Pytor the Great, switched to the right side of history. So it was in the real 18th century, which enriched the very Cossack elite and gifted Russian history with many colourful empire builders, including the Razumovsky brothers and Chancellor Aleksandr Bezborodko. But Bezborodko is not mentioned in textbooks at all, and Razumovsky, Elizaveta Petrovna’s secret husband Aleksey and Hetman Kirill, appear in texts about the “colonial policy of the Russian Empire”.

  1. Smoliy V.A., Stepankov V.S. History of Ukraine: a textbook for the 7th grade of general educational institutions. p. 3.
  2. Ibid. p. 12.
  3. Ibid. p. 12-13.
  4. Ibid. p. 74.
  5. Ibid. P. 92.
  6. Ibid. P. 130.
  7. Vlasov V.S. History of Ukraine: History of Ukraine: textbook for the 7th grade of general education institutions. p. 21.
  8. Ibid. p. 17.
  9. Ibid. p. 14.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid. pp. 158, 173.
  12. Ibid. pp. 169-170.
  13. Smoliy V.A., Stepankov p. 175.
  14. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. History of Ukraine: a textbook for the 8th grade of general educational institutions.
  15. Schupak I.Ya., Cherkas B.V., Burlaka O.V., Vlasova N.S., Galushko K.Yu., Krongauz V.O., Piskaryova I.O., Sekirinsky D.O. History of Ukraine: a textbook for the 8th grade of general secondary education institutions.
  16. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. p. 65.
  17. Schupak I.Ya. et al. p. 49-50.
  18. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. p. 185.
  19. Ibid. pp. 184-185.
  20. Ibid. pp. 151-152.
  21. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. pp. 156-157; Schupak I.Ya. et al. p. 112-116.
  22. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. p. 154.
  23. Schupak I.Ya. et al. p. 114-116.
  24. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. p. 94.
  25. Schupak I.Ya. et al. p. 68.
  26. Ibid. p. 129.
  27. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. p. 169.
  28. Ibid. p. 171.
  29. Ibid. p. 213, 215, 217.
  30. Schupak I.Ya. et al. p. 157.
  31. Ibid. p. 159.
  32. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. p. 221-222, 224-225.
  33. Schupak I.Ya. et al. p. 159.
  34. Sorochinskaya N.M., Gisem O.O. p. 223.
  35. Schupak I.Ya. et al. p. 301.

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