MOSCOW—Three Russian schoolgirls who won a national history contest said they learned terrible truths in chronicling the 1930s persecution of an Orthodox Christian priest from their village.
More importantly, the contest's sponsors say, the trio struck a blow against a dangerous whitewashing of the nation's past that's taking place under President Vladimir Putin's quasi-authoritarian rule.
"Events are now being distorted," said Irina Scherbakova, the director of youth programs for Memorial, the Russian human rights organization that sponsored the contest. "Instead of bringing the children more truth about our history, new mythology has been created by our state and public organizations about our history."
The material for the students' prize-winning essay came from their hometown of Yelniki, some 370 miles east of Moscow, with the tragic story of Vasily Ivanovich Kashin.
Kashin, a married priest and father of four children, died in exile in 1931 at age 62. He was among the millions of victims of Josef Stalin's repression of religious leaders and others whom the paranoid dictator considered to be enemies of the fledging Soviet state. Kashin's eldest son, Alexander, had been executed 13 years earlier in the early days of the Bolshevik revolution.
"This family's future was broken. When you read about it in the books, it's one thing. When you come across real lives crushed by the regime, it's different," said Tatyana Kuzmina, 17, a graduating high school senior who teamed up with classmates Dinara Khairova and Svetlana Geraskina for the contest.
Despite what happened, the students said Kashin's descendants didn't breed hatred of the Soviet system in their families. Instead, they tried to follow the lesson taught by the priest—forgiveness in the face of tyranny. "We think they were true Orthodox Christians," Kuzmina said.
The students' 125-page essay won one of several categories in the seventh annual People in 20th Century Russian History Contest. Thousands of students throughout the nation participate annually, and dozens of winners from various grades come to Moscow each spring for a ceremony where prizes are awarded.
The event's sponsors say the contest is needed now more than ever to dispel myths that have blossomed during Putin's presidency—particularly the rewriting of history in ways that glorify Stalin and sanitize World War II.
"The memory of the war is substituted with the memory of the victory, which automatically makes Stalin a mighty figure that brought victory," Scherbakova said.
Putin has expressed distaste for historians who dwell on "negative things." Three years ago he called for new textbooks that "raise the younger generation in the spirit of pride for their history and nation."
A battle over textbooks followed. Education officials defended their new choices, while some academics complained about the shelving of texts, such as one by Igor Dolutsky, which gave detailed accounts of Stalin's purges and other human rights abuses.
The debate over how to teach Russia's tumultuous history rages on, even though much of the arguments take place outside the media limelight.
Like Putin, Scherbakova said, Memorial wants students to know the good parts of Russia's past. But, she said, "we want them to know what really happened. A lie never contributes to bringing up kids in the spirit of patriotism and morality."
To overcome state distortions and falsehoods, generations of Russians have relied on personal stories and family histories to help sort out the truth.
The contest encourages that informal tradition and seeks to instill "a critical vision and critical mentality," Scherbakova said. "Overall, the kids at school are not taught this critical approach. They don't know how to discuss things, argue, dispute."
She also wants students to value democratic freedoms won under former Kremlin leaders Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and which, she says, are now in jeopardy. "We want them to value their chance to live in a society governed by the law," Scherbakova said. "Our ruling authorities now have belittled and smeared the figure of Gorbachev, not to mention Yeltsin."
The three schoolgirls from Yelniki, which has 5,500 residents, seem to have absorbed the lessons in three years of research that required reading stacks of declassified state documents.
The trio counted on town elders who knew Kashin, including Kuzmina's great-grandmother, to help build a portrait of a kind and respected priest who decorated Easter eggs and brought them to children.
The students are also ready to debate Stalin's guilt with his admirers. "To them, it's an open question," Khairova said. To her and her essay-writing partners, the issue is settled. "I cannot bring myself to look at his picture in books," Kuzmina said.
Two of Kashin's granddaughters accepted the students' invitation last spring to join other descendants for a family reunion in Yelniki.
A great-granddaughter in attendance said the students found details that she never knew and older generations didn't discuss. "Practically everything I found out, I learned from this work," Lyudmila Plyuschaeva said.
(Bonner reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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