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Why Stalin is causing a classroom storm in Russia

A heated debate has broken out in Russia over Stalin's legacy. Is teaching children about crimes committed under Stalin's rule "dangerous to their health?" An historian has taken the issue to court.

History lessons about Josef Stalin's campaign of repression are dangerous to the health of students, Russian authorities have concluded. Andrei Suslov, a history professor at Perm State University in western Russia, wrote a history book that is now being contested by the Roskomnadsor, or Russia's Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media. The state authority classified the textbook as "dangerous to the health of children."

Now, he is battling to have his book "A teachers' guide to studying/understanding/examining the Stalin repressions" removed from the blacklist.

"The book is intended for older students," Suslov told DW. "It helps teachers and students get a better sense of the history of Stalinism and its consequences." One of the recommendations it offers is to organize trips to places connected with the repressions.

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Stalin at his desk

Josef Stalin ruled over the Soviet Union until his death in 1953

Suslov wrote the book with a colleague in 2015. It was published by The Center for Political Education and Human Rights, a Russian nonprofit.

The Russian state has become increasingly involved in historical discourse. The Kremlin plays a decisive role. There has been a strong desire to see crisis-ridden Russia become a "major player" again following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

To add ideological weight, the Kremlin is leaning on Stalinism. Textbooks should promote  a "patriotic education." In 2007, Vladimir Putin - president then and now - had a history book printed that described Stalin as the "most successful Soviet leader of all time."

Stalin is presented as a patriot and modernizer. The massive number of victims of his forced agricultural collectivization, reckless industrialization and a campaign of terror in the 1930s are downplayed as necessary given the situation at the time. That lends legitimacy to the Communist dictatorship in much the same way as Putin's authoritarian power is today justified.

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So Suslov's work does not seem to fit the narrative. Perm's education ministry initially published a readers' guide on its own website, before removing it when the Roskomnadsor classified the textbook as "dangerous to children's health."

The state prosecutor also demanded the nonprofit publisher mark the book with an age restriction of 18+ on its website. In response, Suslov and the nonprofit sued Roskomnadsor. The next hearing is set for October 3 and a verdict is expected by the end of the year.

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Human rights complaints

It seems unclear why Roskomnadsor was involved at all, according to Aleksander Werchowsky, who directs the Moscow-based human-rights center, Sowa. It is tasked with media oversight, not the education curriculum, he told DW. "This is a matter for the Ministry of Education," he added.

A book may be harmful to children, said Irina Schtscherbakowa of the international human-rights organization, Memorial. But that does not apply to Suslov's book, but rather ones that "spread ideological myths and lies," she told DW, adding that a whitewashing of Stalin's history is dangerous, given the risk it poses to rationalizing violence against people.

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'Foreign brainwashing'

Activists from sut vremeni (Essence of Time), a Stalinist movement, whipped up a storm of protest against the textbook, according to Suslov, with a letter campaign to state authorities. That was followed in 2016 with a report written by Roskomnadsor-accredited experts, which Suslov believes was commissioned by a sut vremeni ally Dmitry Usun. The report determined the textbook was "hostile to state and social views."

Pavel Guryanov of the Perm chapter of sut vremeni told DW he was pleased with the authority's decision. "The work of the Center for Political Education and Human Rights on this kind of curriculum is just a cover for the ideological and political brainwashing of children in Perm, in the interests of the organization's foreign sponsors," he said.

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A precedent-setting case

Suslov's suit counters that the experts' published opinion of his textbook damaged his reputation. He is demanding the removal of the report from authorities' websites.

"Its presence means that sut vremeni can claim that the Center for Political Education, as a foreign agent, damages children," said Suslov.

In Russia, the state can list an organization as a "foreign agent" if it receives funds from abroad. Suslov claims that Roskomnadsor did not check if the commissioned experts were competent to do the report.

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"This sets a precedent," Suslov said. "Now everything could potentially be declared as damaging to children's health."

Suslov successfully applied for a second opinion on the Roskomnadsor report. This was carried out by the "Labroratory for Applied Linguistics."  It came to the conclusion that Roskomnadsor had acted beyond its remit. The report they published was "based on its own version of historical fact."

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