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 The old lies live on and on

Editor's Introduction -- Prentice Hall's account of the origin and early history of Russia consists of some political propaganda that the rulers of the Soviet Union invented in their heyday.
This article ran in The Textbook Letter for May-June 1994,
accompanying reviews of the 1993 version of the high-school
book Prentice Hall World Geography.

Recycling Stalinist "History"

Paul F. Thomas

In Prentice Hall World Geography, the unit on Northern Eurasia includes a "Geographic View of History" article that purports to tell about the early Slavs, the evolution of "Russia," and the growth of the Soviet Union. What it really presents is fiction. Prentice Hall's writers have not exercised the critical-thinking skills that they profess to impart to students, and they have reproduced bogus "history" that was devised in the Soviet Union, decades ago, to justify Soviet imperialism. Let us read:

On page 398 we find some primeval Slavs trading with some Varangians, "a fierce Viking people." The Slavs are called "forest dwellers"; that may be an acceptable term for the people who eventually became the northern Slavs (after they were pushed out of the southern steppes, by Mongol invaders, during the 13th century), but it cannot be applied to the Slavs as a whole. Next we meet "a Varangian prince named Oleg," who allegedly took Kiev (in the year 879), unified "the Slavs," and created "the beginnings of a Russian state." False. That was the Kievan Rus' state, which is by no means identifiable with Russia; and prince Oleg is a figure from myth, not history. Contemporary sources distinguish between the legendary Oleg (who was endowed with some supernatural powers) and Oleh, who was a real Kievan Rus' ruler. After consolidating his conquests in 907, Oleh negotiated a treaty with Byzantium so that he could dispose of his state's surplus grain. (Need I point out that grain is not a commodity produced by "forest dwellers"?)

Next we read that the imaginary "Russian" state was invaded, "four hundred years" after its founding, by Mongols who forced the Russians to pay heavy tribute but "could not break the Russians' unity." Not so. If we count from 907 and add 400 years, we arrive at 1307. But the Tatar invasion started in 1223, and the Kievan Rus' state collapsed irretrievably in 1240. The writers' ostensible precision is false, their chronology wrong.

The notion that a Prince Oleg founded a nation of "Russians" who possessed unbreakable unity is an echo of Stalinist revisionism -- an effort to invent new "history" that justified Stalin's repression and Russification of non-Russian peoples. It has been analyzed and debunked in scholarly monographs published in the West, and it has been repudiated by scholars and political leaders in today's Russia, but Prentice Hall still disseminates it.

Bogus "history" is also reflected in the map that accompanies Prentice Hall's article. Titled "The Growth of the Soviet Union," the map tells that a "Principality of Russia" existed in the year 1300. In fact, Russia did not emerge until much later, and it emerged from the step-wise expansion of the principality of Muscovy. In 1721 the ruler of the expanded Muscovy adopted the name Rossiya (Russia) for his state. That ruler, now called Peter the Great, proclaimed that Russia was an empire. The Russian empire continued to expand until, in 1991, it disintegrated.

Some of what I have written here may look familiar to my readers, because I have made similar but shorter comments in my reviews of other geography texts that promoted Stalinist "history": Silver Burdett's A World View (see TTL for November-December 1991), the 1989 version of Glencoe World Geography (see TTL, March-April 1991) and the 1992 version of the same book (see TTL, May-June 1993). Maybe the writers of Prentice Hall World Geography have copied material from one of those others.

The issue here is not merely one of historical accuracy. It extends far beyond that, for schoolbooks are disseminating false information that can influence American attitudes toward present-day Russia and toward the non-Russian nations that once were parts of the Soviet Union. People in the non-Russian republics are utterly bewildered by current American policies that evidently seek to prop up the former "evil empire," at the republics' expense. These policies appear to say that, in the eyes of the United States, messianic Russian imperialism has never existed in the past and could never arise in the future.


Paul F. Thomas is both a professor of geography and a professor of education at the University of Victoria (in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada). His research interests include the political geography of Eastern Europe. He regularly reviews geography books for The Textbook Letter.

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