ZOiS Spotlight 26/2020 by Issy Sawkins (1 July 2020)
Across the world, education has moved online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, it is estimated that by early April 2020, 69 per cent of Russians were using the internet for education, an increase of 6 percentage points since February. Schools across Russia have had to digitally adapt their methods to continue teaching. When it comes to education about the Holocaust, the efforts of one organisation have been particularly important.
A history of Holocaust education in Russia
Holocaust education in Russia began in the 1990s through the efforts of individual teachers, rather than as a state-endorsed initiative. The turning point was the topic’s inclusion in a 2003 draft of the official Russian Standard of History Education, which has since made the Holocaust a compulsory topic in textbooks across the nation.
However, despite state sponsorship of Holocaust education, school textbooks in Russia dedicate only a few sentences to the subject. According to a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, this reflects ‘the heritage of Soviet historiography in which the topic of Jews is missing, along with the topics of the pogroms, the Holocaust and state-sponsored antisemitism’.
The Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre
This gap is addressed by the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre, an NGO established in 1992. According to the organisation’s website, it was the first institution in the post-Soviet space to ‘preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, create documentary exhibitions, [and] include themes of the Holocaust in educational programmes’. The centre has since engaged thousands of students and teachers with the Holocaust across Russia and abroad.
Since its founding, the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre has published a plethora of materials for teachers, including its own textbooks, collections of documentary evidence, and methodological publications. The centre has always made many of those materials available online and hosts websites dedicated to its two current projects.
One of these projects is Return to Dignity, which is co-organised with the Russian Jewish Congress and seeks to bring the burials of victims of mass executions into line with Jewish traditions and the laws of the countries in which the victims are buried. The other project, Liberators, aims to restore the names of Red Army soldiers, officers, doctors, and nurses who treated released prisoners who documented the liberation of Auschwitz.
The online response to Covid-19
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the centre has posted more of its materials online and is employing new methods of online engagement. Every day between 3 April and 9 May 2020, the Authors of Victory project published a letter or diary entry written on the same date in 1945. These materials were republished by Russian newspapers and news agencies, educational institutions, and local administrations.
The letter writers came from different parts of the Soviet Union and worked in a variety of professions, including officers, pilots, artillerymen, doctors, journalists, and artists. The materials comprised those already published in the five volumes of the centre’s collection Save My Letters, supplemented by documents such as letters and diaries from state archives and museums across Russia.
An indication of the level of engagement by schools across Russia is the Relay Race of Memory, an event held to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory Day on 9 May 2020. The centre’s staff were recorded reading letters written by Red Army soldiers on 9 May 1945, and the video was published on the YouTube channel Culture of Dignity. Letters were also read by ninth-grade students, and teachers and students across Russia were invited to record themselves reading out soldiers’ letters and send the recordings to the centre.
The speed with which the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre moved some of its materials online during the Covid-19 outbreak can, in part, be attributed to the centre’s existing online system. Yet, it also reflects the large numbers of teachers and students across Russia who engage with the centre’s materials by reading these letters, so that the information they contain can be more widely distributed.
Lack of recognition
Unfortunately, however, the centre faces other challenges beyond the current pandemic. Co- founder and co-chairman of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre Ilya Altman has lamented the lack of attention devoted to topics such as life under Nazi occupation, the role played by collaborators and the resistance in state education. He acknowledges that the Holocaust is not dealt with as a separate theme in history education: rather, if a pupil is interested in the topic, they have to study it by themselves. Altman has also commented on more general ‘troubling’ developments beyond the education sector: in 2012, a new plaque was displayed in Rostov-on-Don, the site of the murder of approximately 20,000 Jews, which referred to the victims as ‘peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners of war’. Altman has also expressed his disappointment that even though Russia was involved in creating an International Holocaust Memorial Day on a date that commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army (27 January), the day is still not recognised in Russia.
Issy Sawkins completed a Masters in Political Sociology of Russia and Eastern Europe at University College London and is currently a PhD student at the History Department of the University of Exeter.