Several studies have identified the role of school history textbooks in the state-led construction of national identity in the post-Soviet context.1 Focusing on case studies from post-Soviet states, these works have demonstrated how representations of various historical events in history textbooks have been used to forge a feeling of national belonging among the young generation of these states. Some studies concentrated on the mechanisms of “othering.” For example, Helge Blakkisrud and Shahnoza Nozimova explored the portrayal of Uzbeks as the “constituting other” and Russians as the “external self” in contemporary Tajik history textbooks.2 Jan Janmaat investigated how Russia and Russians are represented in Ukrainian school history textbooks of two generations. He concluded that the textbooks published in the early 2000s exhibit less biased accounts of Russians as Ukraine’s main ethnic other than the textbooks produced in the early 1990s.3 Other studies focused on the value systems transmitted through textbooks. For example, Nancy Popson explored the concept of the Ukrainian nation as constructed in one Ukrainian school history textbook. She found that the textbook author conceptualized the Ukrainian nation as a civic nation with Ukrainians as the dominant ethnic group.4 The entanglement of history textbooks and nation-building is further reflected in two studies of Ukraine. In her study of Ukrainian history textbooks, Karina Korostelina surveyed the forms and modes of Ukrainian national identity construction and concluded that history education in Ukraine frequently presents Russia as an oppressive enemy of Ukraine.5 In another article, I conceptualized a history textbook as a site of national memory by referring to the semantic and linguistic components of discourse about the Second World War in Ukrainian school history textbooks.6
In contrast to these studies, this article conceptualizes a history textbook as an assembly of narratives, and explores how a narrative of a particular historical event provides the readers of a textbook with an opportunity to identify with their national community. To this end, this article compares ways in which national identities are constructed via narratives of the Second World War in the history textbooks of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. The focus on national identity construction in the post-Soviet context is interesting for the following reasons. The Soviet Union—often referred to as a multinational federation or empire—disintegrated in 1991, giving rise to new nation states. Since then, the post-Soviet political elites have been striving to create distinct national histories in order to legitimize the existence of nations, identify their boundaries, and promote their mobilization. The focus on Russia as the former Soviet center, and on Belarus and Ukraine as former constitutive Soviet republics, helps us to understand how post-Soviet states have been trying to reconfigure their national identities after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This comparison makes it possible to understand how contemporary relations between post-Soviet states have developed. In the Soviet Union, Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians were considered to be culturally connected by their Slavic origins, entangled history, and geographical proximity. In the post-Soviet context, however, the political elites of these countries have pursued different nation-building policies in order to homogenize their national communities. In particular, post-Soviet political elites have promoted remembrance of the Second World War in order to foster national identification, as shown in existing studies of commemorations of the Second World War in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.7
This exploration of the relationship between history textbooks and nation-building is based on an analysis of three recently published textbooks, that is, History of Russia by A. Levandovskiy, Iu. Shchetinov, and S. Mironenko,8 History of Belarus by E. Novik,9 and History of Ukraine by O. Pometun and N. Hupan.10 All of these books are intended for use in the eleventh year of secondary schools, as recommended by ministries of education. In this article, these textbooks exemplify national identity construction. Therefore, I do not offer a comprehensive study of discourse about the Second World War in all post-Soviet textbooks or exhaustively account for all historical events and figures associated with the war in the textbooks. My aim is to identify the basic stories about the war that have a special meaning for these nations. As Donald Polkinghorne argues, while creating their narratives, researchers have to organize their research data and define what data to take into account. As a result, the researchers’ reports usually encompass a meaningfully constructed thematic story.11
The Second World War narratives in the selected textbooks are similar to those found in other history textbooks recommended by the ministries of education.12 However, they demonstrate different degrees of comprehensiveness, uses of language, and pedagogical techniques. In my work on identity construction in Ukrainian history textbooks, I have already demonstrated how two Ukrainian textbooks use different linguistic techniques to narrate the Second World War. The authors employed different types of vocabulary, grammatical structures, and argumentation.13
Linking Nation Building with History Textbooks
This section of the article explores the relationship between the nation-building process and history writing. According to Pål Kolstø, nation-building involves instilling in the population a sense of belonging to a particular national community, that is, a sense of national identity. This process is pursued by political elites, intellectuals, educators, and those who attempt to give a state the qualities of a nation-state.14 National identity presupposes emotional attachment to its own people and distance from other groups. For example, shared narratives link members of a national community together, and thus legitimize their right to rule themselves with their elected leaders.15 Ronald Grigor Suny claims that the emergence of nation-states has commonly been associated with the creation of national histories. History produces a sense of commonality and continuity, which in turn builds cohesion among members of a group. These shared experiences bind a group together and distinguish it from other groups. A national history is created with the stories of the nation’s origin, heroism and past greatness, martyrdom and sacrifice, victimization and trauma. These stories empower a group of people and contribute to the realization of popular sovereignty.16
Yet the creation of historical narratives does not entail invention or falsification. They are connected to the experiences of a collectivity. As George Schöpflin argues, such historical narratives (which he calls myths) are sets of beliefs held by a community about itself, which reflect a people’s perceptions and worldviews rather than historical truth. Such narratives are essential to the existence of a community and constitute a crucial instrument of cultural production.17 In fact, Umut Özkırımlı notes in reference to other scholars that, in the context of nationalism, discussion about true history is out of the question. National histories adhere to stories that are believed to be useful for the unity of a community. This means that whatever suits the community is selected from the past and presented as “fact.”18 At the same time, national histories exhibit an interesting relation to the present as the construction of national history generally mirrors people’s present concerns about the past. The meaning of historical events can therefore be reinterpreted, and the construction of a national history helps to legitimize particular traditions and symbols for individuals and groups.19
From this perspective, in the state-led production of historical narratives, history textbooks play an important role. A school history textbook can be conceptualized as a policy document that is produced by historians on behalf of the state. The state’s aim is to transmit certain values that promote a feeling of national belonging among the young generation. Maria Repoussi and Nicole Tutiaux-Guillon point out that history textbooks are often studied as a reflection of state narratives and educational practices, as national instruments in forming ideologies, as social constructions, cultural artifacts and sites of collective memories, and even as autobiographies of nation-states. A school history textbook is embedded in both a school curriculum and academic history. Its meaning derives from education practices, scholarly discourse, institutional constraints, social demands, and the market economy. Moreover, a textbook propagates the past as a collective identity that is shared by minorities, nations, or supranational organizations.20
Textbook narratives contain specific forms of discourse and convey particular ways of writing history. As Eleftherios Klerides argues, the narrative form of a history textbook is organized around three categories: the characters, the temporal and spatial setting, and the plot. The latter category refers to the action of the characters bound together by a common theme.21 Polkinghorne adds that a narrative captures human action and its relation to temporal sequence, human motivation, occurrences, and a changing context. In this sense, a narrative refers to people’s life stories expressed through biographies, histories, case studies, and reports. In life stories people describe their life choices by setting a temporal limit that marks the beginning and the end of the story; selecting events to be included in the story; ordering these events sequentially; and emphasizing the meaning of particular events. The protagonist of a story can be an individual, or a collectivity expressed through institutions, organizations, or groups of people.22
Exploring National Narratives of the Second World War
Based on the concept of a narrative established in the previous section, this section provides an analysis of Second World War narratives in three history textbooks. This section reveals how the national identification of young people is forged on the basis of four subnarratives: the narrative of foundation, the narrative of resistance, the narrative of suffering, and
|Name of the Subnarrative||History of Russia by Levandovskiy, Shchetinov, and Mironenko (2011)||History of Belarus by Novik (2009)||History of Ukraine by Pometun and Hupan (2011)|
|Narrative of foundation||Integration of western Belarus, western Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, and parts of Finland into the Soviet Union and unification of the Soviet people following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact||Reunification of western Belarus with Belarusian SSR and unification of the Belarusian people following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact||Integration of western Ukraine, northern Bukovyna, and southern Bessarabia into the Ukrainian SSR and unification of the Ukrainian people following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact|
|Narrative of resistance||Fight of the Soviet/Russian people (Soviet/Russian soldiers of the Red Army and Soviet partisans) against the German occupiers||Fight of the Soviet people and the Belarusian people (Belarusian and Soviet soldiers of the Red Army, Belarusian and Soviet partisans) against the German occupiers||Fight of the Ukrainian people (Ukrainian and Soviet soldiers of the Red Army, Ukrainian and Soviet partisans, OUN-B and UPA) against the German occupiers and the Soviet regime|
|Narrative of suffering||Weakly elaborated Suffering of the Soviet people and destruction of Soviet territory under the German occupation regime||Suffering of the Belarusian people and destruction of Belarusian territory under the German occupation regime||Suffering of the Ukrainian people and destruction of Ukrainian territory under the German occupation regime, as well as suffering of the Ukrainian people under the Soviet regime|
|Narrative of a civilizing mission||Liberation of Europe by the Red Army, integration of southern Sakhalin and the Kuril islands into the Soviet Union, and establishment of Soviet influence over North Korea and China following the end of the Second World War||Weakly elaborated Liberation of Europe by the Red Army and the end of the Second World War following Japan’s capitulation||Not elaborated|
Previous studies have underlined that the narrative of foundation is connected to a systemic transformation of a nation. At its core rests the start of a new political, social, or economic order. The narrative focuses on a moment of change, not quite as drastic as a revolution, but nonetheless deserving particular attention as it points to the future of the community.24 In the analyzed textbooks, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the beginning of the Second World War is depicted as a narrative of foundation. This is expressed via two major aspects: the unification of the national community and the unification of the national territory. However, each textbook draws upon its own conception of the narrative of foundation. The Russian textbook provides identification with the Soviet/Russian people and with the Soviet/Russian homeland. The notion of what is Soviet or Russian is blurred in the textbook, and the Soviet Union is often conceptualized as the Russian homeland. The Belarusian textbook offers identification with both the Soviet people and with Belarusians as the national community, and with the Soviet republics and Belarus as the national homeland of Belarusians. In contrast, the Ukrainian textbook focuses solely on Ukrainians as the national community and the Ukrainian lands as the national territory.
In the Russian textbook, the beginning of the Second World War is presented as the story of the Soviet Union’s border extension and the change of the political geography of eastern Europe. In the subchapters entitled “The Main Foreign Direction: USSR and Germany in the 1930s” and “On the Eve of Terrible Experiences,” the textbook explains how, on 23 August 1939, the Soviet and German foreign ministers signed a non-aggression treaty and a secret protocol.25 According to the textbook, when Germany attacked Poland, and England and France declared war, the Soviet Union officially declared its neutrality. It gained the opportunity to shift its borders to the west according to the secret protocol, and used this to strengthen its military and economic potential.26 However, since the titles of the textbook’s subchapters neither explicitly refer to the Second World War nor indicate the date on which the war had started, the textbook implicitly suggests that the beginning of the Second World War is of minor importance to the Russian national narrative. At the same time, however, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is presented as the construction of a common Soviet territory—understood as the Russian national territory. As the textbook argues, on 17 September 1939 Soviet troops entered the eastern lands of Poland. As a result, western Ukraine and western Belarus were integrated into the Soviet Union.27 This story is extended by the description of the involuntary integration of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union, as well as the forceful integration of Romania’s Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, and also parts of Finland following the Soviet-Finnish War.28
The construction of Soviet space as the Russian homeland is particularly apparent in the example of Stalin’s defense doctrine prior to 1941. As the textbook claims, “Stalin was convinced that in the war with the USSR, the Hitlerites would first of all aim to conquer Ukraine in order to leave our country without rich economic areas, by conquering the Ukrainian bread, the coal from Donetsk, and then the Caucasian oil.”29 By using the wording “the USSR” at the beginning of the sentence and then substituting it with the wording “our country” later in the sentence, the textbook suggests to the young people reading the textbook an identification of Russia with the former Soviet territory. This understanding of the Soviet/Russian identity seems to stem from Soviet times. Unlike other ethnic republics of the union, Russians did not have their own national institutions, for example the national Communist Party or the national Academy of Sciences. Nor did they possess any obvious Russian homeland. Hence, the Soviet leadership encouraged Russians to think of the Soviet Union as their homeland.30 The conceptualization of the Soviet people as the Russian national community is even more visible in the textbook’s description of Soviet defense policy. The textbook exemplifies how, in the early 1940s, Soviet citizens’ patriotism was forged by references to Dmitri Donskoy, Peter the Great, Aleksandr Suvorov, and Mikhail Kutuzov—figures who are today held to be symbols of Russian national statehood.31
In the Belarusian textbook, the story of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is presented as a prelude to the unification of the Belarusian nation and Belarusian national homeland. In the subchapter called “The Beginning of the Second World War: The Unification of Western Belarus with the USSR,” the textbook tells a story about the non-aggression treaty, along with the secret protocol that was signed on 23 August 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union. According to the textbook, this treaty offered the Soviet Union the opportunity to strengthen its defense and defined German and Soviet spheres of influence. The textbook notes the start of the Second World War on 1 September 1939 after Germany attacked Poland, and England and France declared war on Germany.32 It also explains how the Red Army advanced into western Belarus on 17 September 1939 in order to protect the populations of western Belarus and western Ukraine.33 Two dates are subsequently highlighted in the textbook: the adoption of the Declaration of Integration of Western Belarus into the Belarusian SSR on 28–30 October 1939, and the decision of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union to integrate western Belarus into the Belarusian SSR on 14 November 1939.34 Eventually, the textbook explains how the reunification of the Belarusian lands played a profound role in the formation of the Belarusian nation: “It was the end of the division of the Belarusian ethnos and the Belarusian ethnic territory. The eternal dream of the Belarusian people to live in one Belarusian national state had come true.”35
In the Ukrainian textbook, the story of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is portrayed as a prelude to the unification of the Ukrainian national territory. The textbook notes the signing of the non-aggression pact by Molotov and Ribbentrop on 23 August 1939, and also the secret protocol about the Soviet and German spheres of influence. According to the textbook, the division of Poland factually initiated the Second World War.36 However, the book’s assessment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is ambiguous as it is portrayed as both an expression of totalitarian power and the unification of the Ukrainian homeland. As the textbook explains, “On the one hand, it contributed to the unification of the Ukrainian lands in the Soviet state, while on the other hand it aimed to implement the interests of Stalin’s totalitarian regime that was striving for expansion in new territories.”37 Referring to the construction of the Ukrainian homeland, the textbook underlines Germany’s attack on Poland on 1 September 1939 and the Red Army’s crossing of the Polish border on 17 September 1939. The advance of the Red Army into western Ukraine resulted in the Soviet takeover of Ternopil, Zbarazh, Rivne, Lutsk, Stanislav, and Halych.38 The textbook also describes how the Red Army crossed the Dniester and entered Bessarabia and northern Bukovyna, and subsequently highlights the decision of the Supreme Council of the USSR on 2 August 1940 to integrate these regions into the Ukrainian SSR.39
As previous studies have argued, the narrative of resistance or military braveness gives a sense of importance to a particular nation, as all members of the nation are portrayed as having risen up against tyranny. The emphasis on the collective heroism enhances the socialization of a national community. In many cases, this is presented as the truest expression of the nation’s claim for existence.40 One of the most important aspects here is the struggle for freedom and unity. This is connected to the construction of brave heroes fighting against the enemy; of dishonorable traitors siding with the enemy and undermining the national struggle; of glorious victories over a powerful enemy, achieved by national armed forces; and of honorable defeats in which brave national forces were overcome by a superior enemy.41 In each of the textbooks analyzed, the narrative of resistance denotes the struggle of national forces against the enemy. However, the conception of heroes and traitors differs from one textbook to another. Whereas the Russian and Belarusian textbooks tell the story how Russians, Belarusians, and the Soviet people resisted the German occupiers, the Ukrainian textbook additionally emphasizes the fight of Ukrainians against the Soviet regime.
By focusing on Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the Russian textbook opens a new chapter entitled “The Great Patriotic War.” The textbook defines this event as a war of the Soviet people, and as the most important part of the Second World War for all the people on earth.42 By highlighting the heroism of the Red Army soldiers, the textbook offers a feeling of national unity, as everybody is portrayed as being involved in collective heroism. By mentioning this notion of the Great Patriotic War, the textbook provides its readers with an opportunity to identify with the former Soviet republics and homogenizes their national differences. The Soviet cult of the Great Patriotic War has been previously investigated in detail. It provided a basis for the unity of the party, state, and society, that is, the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, and the Soviet people. As one of the symbols of the Brezhnev decades, the collective remembrance of the war became a defining moral moment and a binding element between the wartime generation and the youth.43 In the depiction of the Soviet resistance to Nazi Germany, the Russian textbook focuses on the actions of Stalin as the Supreme Commander in Chief and on the military operations of the Soviet army. The textbook presents the Russian national homeland in relation to Germany’s attack on the European part of the Soviet Union and to Soviet resistance in Murmansk, Liepāja, Riga, Kaunas, Minsk, Kiev, and Smolensk.44 These cities are now located in different post-Soviet states. At the same time, the textbook gives priority to Russian territory. For example, the siege of Leningrad (referred to in the textbook as the second capital of Russia) is cited as one of the most tragic episodes of the Great Patriotic War.45 Moreover, special attention is paid to the efforts of Soviet soldiers and Muscovites defending Moscow.46 Descriptions of partisan movements and underground resistance in the Soviet territories occupied by Germans (particularly the actions of partisans in Belarus, Leningrad, and the oblasts of Smolensk and Orel in 1941 and 1942)47 further articulate this Soviet space in terms of Russian national territory.
In the story of the counterattack of the Red Army, the Russian textbook emphasizes the military successes achieved on the Soviet fronts. Further associations with the territory of the Soviet Union are provided by descriptions of the liberation of Rzhev, Voronezh, Kursk, Orel, Belgorod, Kharkov, and Smolensk, the entrance of Soviet troops into Kiev, the expulsion of the enemy from Belarus, the liberation of Moldova, and the retreat of the German troops from Transcarpathian Ukraine and the Baltic region.48 The textbook subsequently highlights the restoration of the Soviet Union’s border from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea,49 and emphasizes the contribution of the Soviet economy and the mass heroism of Soviet civilians to the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.50 It similarly refers frequently to famous Soviet figures in the arts, science, journalism, cinematography, and music.51 Although the textbook does not omit the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the repressions and exile of the Kalmyks, Karachays, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, and Crimean Tatars from 1943 to 1944, it concludes that the unity of the Soviet people played a decisive role in the Soviet Union’s resistance to Nazi Germany. The textbook argues that this unity was based on the feelings of patriotism and the self-preservation of Russian and other peoples, and their understanding of the danger posed to their fatherland.52
In the Belarusian textbook, the story of Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 is covered in the subchapter titled “The Beginning of the Great Patriotic War: Defense Battles on the Territory of Belarus.” Like the Russian textbook, the adherence to the timeline and the notion of the Great Patriotic War signals that the war is the unifying experience of the former Soviet republics. This is, moreover, underscored by the textbook’s references to both Belarus and the Soviet Union as the Belarusian national homeland. The textbook asserts that the war was named the Great Patriotic War because the whole country (including Belarus) announced mobilization to support the Red Army.53 The textbook includes stories about the heroic defense of the Brest fortress and of the cities of Minsk, Mogilev, and Gomel in 1941.54 This indication that both the former Belarusian SSR and the former Soviet Union formed the Belarusian national homeland seems to originate from the Soviet period. As previous studies point out, ethnonationality was the mainstay of the Soviet Union as a federal state, and from the 1930s all Soviet citizens were forced into a kind of dual identity. National identity was promoted in the Soviet Union on the level of the ethnic republic, and also on a pan-union level. The union republics maintained their legislative, executive and juridical institutions along with their academies of science, media, school systems, national theaters, and publishers. Simultaneously, Moscow boosted an internationalist project by seeking to represent all ethnic groups by way of a supranational entity of the Soviet people. This included, for example, the introduction of the standardized Cyrillic alphabet, and the Russian language as lingua franca.55
In the description of the occupation regime in Belarus, the textbook invites readers to identify with the Belarusian people. Belarusians are presented as a collectivity who heroically fought against the German occupiers on the territory of today’s Belarus. The textbook states numerous examples of the activities of Belarusian partisans, and tells stories about the “Vitebsk Gate,” the creation of partisan zones, and the formation of the Klichevsk partisan network in the Mogilev oblast.56 The textbook highlights the creation of the Soviet Central Headquarters of the Partisan Movement in May 1942 and the setting up of the Belarusian Headquarters of the Partisan Movement in September 1942.57 Particular attention is paid to the depiction of Belarusian partisans and Soviet underground groups in Minsk, Vitebsk, and Mogilev.58 Ultimately, the textbook concludes that the fight in occupied Belarus against the Germans was a struggle involving the entire population.59 The portrayal of collective Belarusian heroism thus enhances the homogenization of Belarusians in a single national community.
In similar fashion to the Russian narrative, the Belarusian textbook portrays the Red Army’s counterattack as the key event in the liberation of the Belarusian national homeland. The textbook highlights the liberation of the first Belarusian rayon town on 23 September 1943 and the first Belarusian oblast town on 26 November,60 followed by the liberation of Minsk on 3 July 1944, and of Brest on 28 July 1944.61 The textbook thus concentrates on the Soviet counteroffensive operation “Bagration,” which started on 23 June 1944. In this context, the textbook delegitimizes the establishment of the anti-Soviet Belarusian Central Council (BCR) headed by Ostrovskiy, and its armed wing, the Belarusian Home Defense (BKA). The textbook condemns the BCR by calling it a marionette government under the control of Hitlerites. According to the textbook, the participants of the Second All-Belarusian Congress in Minsk on 27 June 1944 were traitors because they rejected the Belarusian SSR as a form of Belarusian statehood.62
In its description of the Red Army’s counteroffensive, the Belarusian textbook presents a list of Belarusian civilians who contributed to the fight against Nazi Germany.63 This list is complemented with a reference to Belarusian soldiers who received the title “Hero of the Soviet Union” or other military honors.64 At the end of the chapter, the textbook highlights the unity of the Soviet people and claims: “The sources of victory over fascist Germany and militarist Japan were the Soviet state and societal system, the leading role of the Communist Party, friendship of the peoples in the USSR, and patriotism of the Soviet citizens.”65 By emphasizing the unity of the Soviet people when fighting against Nazi Germany, the textbook suggests that the history of the Second World War is a common heritage of the post-Soviet states.
The Ukrainian textbook’s narrative of resistance to the German occupiers provides an opportunity to identify with the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian national territory. It even focuses on battles fought in Crimea,66 although this territory was not transferred to Ukraine until 1954. However, the description of the Ukrainian homeland remains ambivalent in this narrative. On the one hand, the textbook notes Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and places this part of the story in the subchapter “The Beginning of the Great Patriotic War.” This use of the notion of the Great Patriotic War implies that the Ukrainian textbook portrays the war as a common experience of post-Soviet nations. On the other hand, the definition of fatherland remains unclear in this concept because the textbook concentrates solely on the military operations that took place in the territory of today’s Ukraine.
The Ukrainian narrative of resistance is clearly distinct from the Belarusian and Russian textbooks. Along with a description of resistance against the German occupiers, the textbook also acknowledges the fight of the Ukrainian nationalist forces against the Soviet regime. The Ukrainian textbook positions both movements as equal in their fight against Germany, but different in their individual goals. While the Soviet movement aimed to restore Soviet authority, the Ukrainian nationalist movement strove for Ukrainian sovereignty.67 The textbook notes the creation of the Ukrainian Headquarters of the Partisan Movement in summer of 1942 and cites examples of partisan activities.68 At the same time, it focuses on activities of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, and distinguishes between its two divisions—the OUN-M (Melnyk) and the OUN-B (Bandera). The textbook argues that the OUN-M aimed to be close to the Germans, whereas the OUN-B strove for the creation of their own army to fight for Ukraine’s independence. The textbook asserts that both factions cooperated with Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war.69 In this context, the textbook highlights the OUN-B’s proclamation of a Ukrainian state on 30 June 1941 in Lviv.70 However, the textbook remains ambiguous about the extent of the OUN-B’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. On one hand, it is noted that the OUN-B refused to fight with Germany against bolshevism and decided to stand against the Germans in 1943 and 1944. The textbook asserts that the ideology of the OUN-B and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) changed with time toward a new democratic socioeconomic and political program. On the other hand, the textbook also claims that with the German retreat the OUN defined the Soviet authority and the Polish nationalist movement as its main enemies. In this fight, the OUN negotiated with the German army (Wehrmacht) about military cooperation.71
By narrating the story of the Red Army’s counteroffensive in Ukraine, the Ukrainian textbook focuses on military operations that took place in the territory of today’s Ukraine. The textbook highlights the liberation of the first Ukrainian village on 18 December 1942 and the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv on 23 August 1943, and of Stalino on 8 September 1943.72 Special attention is given to the painstaking liberation of Kyiv,73 followed by the liberation of Crimea on 12 May 1944,74 and Uzhhorod on 27 October 1944.75 Although the Ukrainian textbook acknowledges the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Germany, it emphasizes the contribution of the Ukrainians when providing materials and technology necessary for the victory.76 Similar to the Belarusian textbook, it also highlights the number of Ukrainians who received the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.” The chapter ends with a long section describing the contribution of Ukrainian science, culture, literature, cinematography, and arts toward anti-Nazi resistance.77
According to previous studies, the narrative of suffering also serves a specific purpose in the construction of a national identity. It often functions as a claim to the international community to accept the moral superiority of the nation that suffered, in relation to its oppressor. The narrative of suffering unites the members of a nation by presenting them as the unified victims of oppression and persecution carried out by other (often neighboring) groups.78 In each of the textbooks, the national community is portrayed as a victim of the German occupation regime, and in the case of the Ukrainian textbook also as a victim of the Soviet regime. The portrayal of those who caused the suffering further enables readers to differentiate between victims and perpetrators, and thus between those who are included or excluded from the national community. The description of the suffering of the Soviet people and Russians under the German occupation regime is weakly elaborated in the Russian textbook, whereas in the Ukrainian textbook the narrative of suffering is one of the most prominent subnarratives.
According to the Russian textbook, the German fascist leadership aimed at genocide, race discrimination, mass terror, the liquidation of the Soviet Union, the exile of the majority of the populations from western Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and the elimination of between five and six million Jews and thirty million Russians.79 The textbook emphasizes that the occupation regime posed a threat to the unity of the Soviet lands as they were divided into various administrative units by the German administration.80 The textbook also explains how Germans inflamed enmity between the Soviet peoples. By explicitly presenting anti-Soviet movements (in the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Belarus, and in Russia itself) as German collaborators, the textbook clearly distinguishes between heroes and traitors, and provides a unifying narrative for the former Soviet republics. In reference to Ukraine, the textbook presents the OUN-B and the UPA as pro-fascist organizations, and thus as enemies.81 In general, the Russian textbook avoids portraying the events of the Second World War as a narrative of suffering. For example, although at some point it refers to the siege of Leningrad as one of the most tragic episodes of the Great Patriotic War, the story of people’s survival in the city while besieged by the Germans is presented as a narrative of resistance. The textbook refers to the sacrifice and courage displayed by the Russian civilians in their resistance to the Germans.82
In contrast to the Russian textbook, the Belarusian textbook presents the German occupation regime in Belarus as a period of Belarusian suffering during which Belarusian national territory was destroyed. Whereas the Russian textbook underlines the destruction of the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union, the Belarusian textbook emphasizes the threat posed by the Germans to the integrity of Belarus.83 In its description of the occupation regime, the textbook explains the German genocidal policy and gives examples of the mass extermination of Jews, Roma, and other civilians. The textbook mentions death camps, the destruction of villages, and the transportation of Belarusians as forced laborers to Germany. The most striking stories of people’s suffering are those about the Trostinets death camp, the Minsk ghetto, and the burning of the village of Khatyn.84 The portrayal of the common suffering of the Belarusians during the German occupation regime functions as a unifying element for the Belarusian nation, and implies a moral debt to be paid by other European nations to the Belarusian people.
When describing the German occupation regime, the Ukrainian textbook stresses the threat posed by the Germans to the Ukrainian territorial unity. The Ukrainian territory was divided into German occupation zones. The textbook accentuates the suffering of Ukrainians by focusing on the Nazis’ occupation policy in Ukraine, which combined the exploitation of the fertile soil, high taxes, and forced labor with terror, repressions, and control over media.85 The mass killing of prisoners of war, civilians, Soviet officials, communists, Jews, and Roma is also highlighted. Special attention is devoted to the description of the elimination of the Jewish population, referred to as the Holocaust (holokost).86
In contrast to the Belarusian and Russian textbooks, the Ukrainian textbook refers to the suffering of Ukrainians under both the German occupation regime and the Soviet regime. Through the narrative of suffering, the Ukrainian nation is framed as an object of persecution and oppression by great powers—Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For example, the Ukrainian textbook begins the story of the Second World War by raising the Ukrainian question. According to the textbook, on the eve of the war the Ukrainians were not able to sovereignly decide their own fate.87 In the textbook, the integration of western Ukraine into the Ukrainian SSR is depicted as a period of suffering. The textbook argues that although the initial Soviet reforms were mostly welcomed by the Ukrainian population, over time the situation changed. The textbook notes that the Soviet authority put pressure on peasants, started a process of forced collectivization, and prohibited all political parties and civic movements. In western Ukraine, teachers, public figures, scientific leaders, and members of the Communist Party became victims of Stalinist repression and were deported.88 Similarly, the textbook pays special attention to the forced modernization of Soviet industry and agriculture undertaken from 1939 to 1941 in order to strengthen the Soviet military.89
Moreover, in the story of the Soviet Army’s resistance against Nazi Germany, the textbook mentions both the heroism of the Soviet soldiers and the tragedy of their retreat. When presenting the defense of Kyiv, the textbook highlights the heroism and courage of Red Army soldiers. However, it also emphasizes the tragic character of this military operation. For example, it is argued that Stalin ordered the army to retain its position at the outskirts of Kyiv, which resulted in the defeat of the Red Army on 17 September 1941 and a large number of casualties.90 By citing the words of a Ukrainian writer, the textbook explicitly condemns the Soviet regime: “My God, how much disaster was brought on the people by our stupid commanders—and how much more they will bring.”91 Even the Red Army’s liberation of Ukraine is simultaneously presented as a tragic story. According to the textbook, the liberation of Ukraine from German occupation was overshadowed by a tragic development, namely the deportation of Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Armenians, and representatives of other peoples living in Crimea.92 The restoration of the Soviet regime in western Ukraine following the Red Army’s counteroffensive is likewise portrayed in the textbook as a new period of suffering. The textbook focuses on Soviet punitive operations and the deportation of Ukrainian families from western Ukraine.93 This depiction of Ukrainians’ suffering during the German occupation and under the Soviet regime serves to integrate all Ukrainians into one national community. The narrative of suffering prompts other European nations to share sorrow with Ukrainians for their fate during the Second World War. However, the depiction of the Ukrainians’ suffering under the Soviet regime distances Ukraine from the historical past it shared with Russia.
As other studies have shown, the narrative of a civilizing mission endows a particular nation with a special mission, and thus renders it morally and culturally superior to others. In the construction of a national history, this narrative often functions as a demand for others to acknowledge the nation’s unique moral worth.94 In the textbooks, the story of the Red Army’s liberation of Europe is presented in terms of a civilizing mission. This narrative is particularly apparent in the Russian textbook. The Belarusian textbook only cursorily discusses the Red Army’s liberation of Europe and the capitulation of Germany and Japan, whereas the Ukrainian textbook merely mentions the date of the end of the Great Patriotic War.
In the Russian textbook, the Red Army (comprised of representatives of various Soviet nations) is presented as a group of people with a distinctive mission to rescue European civilization from fascism. In this respect, the textbook specifically mentions the dates of the Red Army’s liberation of Romania (March 1944), Poland (June 1944), Bulgaria (September 1944), and Yugoslavia and Norway (October 1944).95 This was followed by the Red Army’s liberation of Budapest (February 1945), Königsberg and Vienna (April 1945), and Prague (May 1945).96 As the textbook argues, the war culminated in the Red Army’s attack on Berlin on 30 April 1945 and in the signing of the Capitulation Act by the German leadership on 9 May 1945. This day became known as Victory Day.97 Although the textbook mentions the revenge taken by the Soviet soldiers, the Soviet soldiers are presented as morally superior to the erstwhile German occupiers of Eastern Europe.98
Moreover, in the description of the relations between the Soviet Union and the Allies, the Russian textbook ascribes to the Soviet Union a larger part in securing victory over Nazi Germany and highlights the role of the Soviet Union in the Tehran and Yalta conferences.99 The textbook thus presents the Soviet Union as militarily and morally superior, and suggests that the former Western Allies acknowledged the Russian primacy in the task of overcoming fascism. The textbook even questions the trustworthiness of the Western Allies by claiming that the Allies opened the second front far too late.100 Finally, in the Russian textbook the narrative of a civilizing mission ends with the presentation of the Soviet Army’s military operations in the Far East and the end of the Second World War following Japan’s capitulation on 2 September 1945. This resulted in the integration of the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kuril islands into the Soviet Union, and the extension of the Soviet sphere of influence to North Korea and China.101 The textbook’s reference to these events outside the Soviet territory prompts the international community to acknowledge the status of the Soviet Union, and subsequently that of today’s Russia as a great power.
The Belarusian textbook does not fully develop a narrative of a civilizing mission. It mentions the Red Army’s liberation of Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia,102 and highlights the end of the Great Patriotic war on 9 May 1945.103 Moreover, it emphasizes the role of Belarusians in the European resistance movement, while also acknowledging the contribution made by the United States, Great Britain, France, and China. Eventually, the textbook also draws attention to the end of the Second World War on 2 September 1945 following Japan’s capitulation.104 The Ukrainian textbook does not refer to the Red Army’s military operations in Europe at all, yet it acknowledges the end of the Great Patriotic War on 9 May 1945. Like the Russian and Belarusian textbooks, the Ukrainian textbook calls this date the Victory Day of the Soviet peoples over Nazi Germany, and reminds readers that this day is important for the war generation.105 However, the Ukrainian textbook omits any reference to the end of the Second World War, suggesting that this event is not part of the Ukrainian national narrative.
This analysis of the Second World War narratives in Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian history textbooks has shown that nation-building and school history textbooks are interconnected. Once part of a single social, economic, and political entity called the Soviet Union, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine embarked on different paths to consolidate their respective nations in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The Second World War is narrated in school history textbooks on the basis of the subnarratives of foundation, resistance, suffering, and a civilizing mission, which offer conceptions of a national community and a national homeland. By reinterpreting historical events, post-Soviet political elites conceptualize national communities not only in relation to other former Soviet republics (particularly Russia as the former Soviet center), but also in relation to European and Western communities. The Russian textbook presents the Second World War as a common history of the Soviet peoples, who nowadays live in separate states. In other words, the textbook suggests that the history of the Second World War unites post-Soviet nations. The Belarusian textbook regards the history of the Second World War as a common heritage of the former Soviet republics, and also of the Belarusian national community. By contrast, the Ukrainian textbook suggests that the Ukrainians were treated differently within the Soviet Union. This functions as a recommendation to disregard the Second World War as the founding event of a shared history common to Ukrainians and former Soviet republics, particularly Russia.
The article complements existing literature on the link between historical narratives and nation-building.106 The analysis of history textbooks indicates that national history writing is a twofold process involving reflection on the lived experiences of the community and on the creation of new interpretations of historical events in the service of a nation. Similar to previous studies,107 this article focuses on the mechanism of national identity construction. Yet its originality lies in its exploration of a textbook as an assembly of narratives created by states to instill a feeling of national belonging in their young populations. The plot of the Second World War narrative unfolds in the textbooks via a sequence of events in which characters (Nazi Germans, the Red Army, anti-Soviet movements, the Soviet people, Belarusians, and Ukrainians) play a major role. By categorizing these characters as heroes, enemies, traitors, and allies, the textbooks suggest both how a nation is distinct from other nations, and how its society is formed from within. These boundaries are created when textbooks emphasize a particular time (the beginning and the end of the Second World War or the Great Patriotic War, for example) and space (the Soviet/Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian territories, for example). Through these mechanisms, the school history textbooks invite young readers to identify with a particular national community.
I would like to thank the reviewers and the editor for their helpful comments. Many thanks go to the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research (GEI) in Braunschweig, Germany, for a research fellowship that enabled me to work in the institute’s library and to communicate with the institute’s researchers during my stay at the institute in November and December 2013.
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