A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune ran a typical see-the-bad-Russkiis article, "Omitting the Past's Darker Chapters," about a new Russian high school textbook that allegedly whitewashes Russia's recent history to instill a sense of patriotism in students. The article, penned by Alex Rodriguez, slammed a new textbook called History of Russia and the World in the 20th Century by Nikita Zagladin because it skips over some of the darkest moments of Russia's often-pitch-black experience.
Rodriguez might have even gotten away with it, except for the fact that I've spent the last six months in Massachusetts buying and selling used American textbooks. After being re-exposed to the crap we pass off as history, A-Rod's article had me itching to defend Russia's collective honor with a resounding "u nas ne khuzhe." For once Russians' knee-jerk accusation of American hypocrisy is on-target.
You'd think that if there's one area American would be too ashamed to criticize others, it'd be textbooks. This is a country that teaches that "Intelligent Design," a euphemism for medieval Creationism, is a legitimate intellectual alternative to the theory of evolution! Kids in Kansas actually learn in their biology books that some Being who may have had a son who died on the cross created a fully formed world some five thousand years ago.
I haven't read Zagladin's textbook so I'll just have to assume A-Rod's done his homework. He details several omissions, starting, bizarrely, by complaining that the book ignores the siege of Leningrad, saying only, "German troops blockaded Leningrad." It's a strange example to pick; after all, the Soviets came away looking pretty valiant in that episode, as long as you're willing to ignore the cannibalism (as Putin is wont to do). Moreover, the siege of Leningrad is a part of Soviet and Russian mythology -- it's not like they hide that "Heroic City"'s experience. In an interview, Zagladin claimed he just didn't have room in his textbook for that episode -- maybe was telling the truth?
Other, more relevant, examples A-Rod cites are that the textbook doesn't mention the Holocaust and "flits" over Stalin's purges and Chechnya. I don't doubt it's true that Zagladin's book offers a somewhat skewed version of Russian history... for the 0.0001 percent of Russian school kids who get new history books. For the rest, however, history is taught using books steeped in class warfare and that end with florid descriptions of Brezhnev-era economic glory, which was the last time the state could afford luxuries like new books.
But just for comparison, let's turn for a minute to American history books. I'd always assumed that the reason more than 50 percent of American seniors can't identify -- in a multiple choice test -- the Soviet Union as a WWII ally was that they're stupid. They may be, but even if they read the whole WWII section of Hold, Rinehart and Winston's The American Nation, a standard high school textbook, they still might be fuzzy on that historical detail. The Russians aren't mentioned in the "Victory in Europe" section until the final sub-section. After discussing fighting in North Africa, Italy, Operation Overlord, and the Battle of the Bulge, the book reads, "By then, Soviet troops occupied much of Eastern Europe." It's like giving the Brits credit for beating Saddam, then as an afterthought mentioning that the Americans were in possession of the other 95% of Iraq.
If our textbooks are so hesitant to give our WW2 ally a little credit in a righteous war, just imagine how squeamish they get once America starts fucking shit up big-time. I get the feeling textbook editors wished that Latin America just didn't even exist, because it's so hard to spin everything we did down there.
Miraculously, both books I checked out (The American Nation and Prentice Hall's America Pathways to the Present) mention that the CIA helped overthrow Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. But they ignore the aftermath of that coup, which is the real story. We installed a military junta that over next forty years used US-trained death squads to kill at least 100,000 Guatemalans. No word of that.
The Bay of Pigs gets written about because it's so infamous, and also because the death toll was so low, but our other, far more successfully bloody Latin American exploits don't get any mention at all. There's nothing about training paramilitaries and death squads, and inciting pro-oligarch civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador or Columbia which have left hundreds of thousands dead. None of our government's gun-running shenanigans in Central America are talked about at all.
It's something of a pattern in these textbooks, and it turns up in their treatment of Vietnam as well. Among the many glaring omissions is, once again, a body count: no mention of the 3 million Vietnamese we killed, mostly civilians.
The most obvious whitewashing concerns the American textbooks' treatment of the bombing of Laos at the height of the Vietnam War. The American Nation mentions that a few stray bombs might have landed there, while America doesn't even go that far. In other words, they neglect to mention that we dropped 7 million tons of bombs, flew a sortie every 8 minutes for 10 years, and exterminated at least 10 percent of Laos' population, in spite of the fact that we were never even at undeclared war with that country's people.
On the other hand, you just might get the impression that My Lai is the worst thing that happened in the war, since the famous massacre is discussed in both texts, albeit in a forgiving tone. America, in its lead-up to My Lai, writes things like "American soldiers were... unable to tell friendly South Vietnamese peasants from Viet Cong soldiers waiting for an opportunity to attack them" and "A child peddling candy might be concealing a live grenade." Finally, in describing the events that day, it writes, "The American troops already had suffered heavy combat losses... Some lost control." In other words, heck, can ya blame 'em for rounding up 500 women and children and shooting them in a pit? Jeez, they're only human!
Zagladin probably wrote about the purges the same way. After all, there were plenty of wreckers and foreign agents messing things up in the Soviet Union. It's understandable how things got a little out of hand. But he can't do that -- he's a Russian, and when Russians whitewash, we all know what that means: Stalin is back.
When the Russians omit dark chapters in their history, it's concrete evidence that they're all just a bunch of evil commies deep down. But when America omits its slaughters and whitewashes its genocides, not only does it not point to something significant, but rather, you better not even talk about the whitewashing because it doesn't exist. And if you complain about it, you'll just be called an anti-American commie bastard. You know, as in the type of guy who would write a textbook whitewashing his country's dark past...