Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Any stray Russian readers of this blog will be dismayed — and I put that politely — to learn that small English schoolchildren know little of Yuri Gagarin. When five-year-old pupils in this country start to learn about space, it’s Neil Armstrong who gets top billing as the first great explorer of the cosmos. As any Russian will tell you, this is no gentle rewriting of history. It’s an inversion of reality. Perhaps even worse: it’s a missed opportunity for improving Russo-British relations from the youngest generation up.
It might well be tremendously difficult to teach schoolchildren in the United Kingdom about Russia. Putting yourself on the other edge of Europe takes imagination. Numbers studying Russian language at school have never been high.
And while most GCSE and A Level History students will study something of the Russian past, the demands placed on teachers and students alike are extraordinary. Despite loose talk about school standards, the exams are formidably demanding. Students taking the 1855-1956 paper, which requires comparisons across late imperial and Soviet rule, are expected to demonstrate skills that many graduate students do not possess, and the conclusions they are often encouraged to reach, not least by the exam boards, are unremittingly and implausibly bleak.
Yet Britain and Russia, quasi-imperial and Euro-ambiguous, on the edges of Europe, have much in common. With a little effort, we could certainly understand and respect each other a little more.
So you will imagine my delight when my infant-school daughter brought back a book from her school library entitled Russia and Moscow. Aimed at an older cohort than hers, it offered the most balanced descriptions and analysis of Russia and its past that one can probably hope for. Unlike so much that British schoolchildren encounter, it fostered an imaginative and critical engagement with the other edge of Europe.
And what’s more, it provided that most precious of pedagogical commodities: optimism. Writing in 2013, Philip Steele eschewed misery and prejudice, and concluded his little book like this: ‘In a way, [today’s school leavers in Russia] are fortunate. Russia has great economic potential if it is managed wisely. Its people are tough, having learned to endure a harsh climate and adapt to a challenging landscape. They have survived authoritarian rule and fought off invasions. Their writers and musicians have inspired the world. They live in the largest country on the planet and, if its landscape can be preserved, one of awe-inspiring beauty.’
Perhaps we can learn something from them.