Non-empirical, anacdotal research amongst students has shown that teachers’ narratives, their personal comments and interpretations of what happened in the past are held to be more credible, with the teacher perceived as more authoritative than textbooks published in Estonia.
During the occupation years this was considered to be beneficial for the student, with the teacher cautiosly encouraging students to reject the Soviet version of history, at least as to how it pertained to Estonia. The teacher had a secret reputation of having the inner fortitude of bucking the party line.
Now in Russian language schools, students have related how some history teachers have critiqued the domestically produced textbooks as not to be taken as the gospel truth (for years, in some schools, Russian language history texts were imported from Russia). Simply put, history, as it has been taught over the western world, and accepted by academics is being questioned from the vantage point of Estonia’s foreign occupier. (Since this research is anacdotal, one cannot predict how widespread these classroom situations have become.)
Compounding the problem is the reinforcement by selectively biased viewpoints from Russian-based TV, most of which adhere rigidly to the Kremlin version of historical events. Consequently many Russian language students reject the notion of the occupation and believe that Estonian authorities have deliberately written history to be damaging to Russia. In spite of this, most students, both in Russian and Estonian language schools, hold both Stalin as well as Hitler guilty in starting WWII. But the Russian school students still accuse Hitler of being the main culprit, while Estonian school students emphasize the reverse.
The different perspectives are evident with other issues. Estonian students see the possibility of Estonia becoming a victim of another Russian aggression, stress that history must not repeat itself and hold the European Union as a possible deterence against another Russian takeover. Russian students see the end of WWII as uniquely a victory of Russia over Germany, do not fear the possibility of another war and consider the USA, the EU and Estonia with its penchant for “rewriting history” as Russia’s enemies.
Russian students in the main see harm done to society by the occupation as being exaggerated; some even insisted that the occupation simply did not occur. Adopted into common usage in Russian anguage schools is the word “incorporated” rather than “occupied”. In comparison, Estonian students seemed not to be well informed about the Soviet period and didn’t have firm opinions on the subject. (Researchers again emphasized that the study was not conducted on a statistically reliable basis.) The reseachers are however convinced that for the students, the narrative version of a teacher’s presentation holds more credibility and impact than the facts in a textbook.
The government recognizes that the problem is not easly corrected. A series of lectures at 15 different schools this fall will address the issue. The audience is expected to be teachers and the topics will range from the intricasies of Estonia’s war of independence, the fate of Estonians during WWII, the occupation with its repressions and Russian-Estonian relations over time. A new web-site organized by the non-profit group Tribune aimed at Russian speaking youth will also address the issues.
Changing emotional understandings is a tough challenge in itself. But gaining any ground against the constant competition from Kremlin-subservient, Russian language media will take supreme determination and patience.
Editorial: The battle front is still history (II)