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Historical interpretations of the Gorbachev era and the end of the Soviet Union : secondary school history education in Russia, 1991-2010



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The purpose of this research is to shed light on the formation of historical myths in Post-Soviet secondary school history classrooms from 1991 to 2010. Specifically, this thesis provides insight into how Russian high school teachers and textbook authors shaped historical interpretations of the perestroika era under the leadership of Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This case study of the teaching of the historical time period of 1985 to 1991 illuminates the ways in which Russians reinterpreted the final years of communist rule, as well as the dominant factors influencing those assessments, including memory and the state. The historical narratives taught in post-Soviet Russian classrooms, serve as an indicator of the evolution of democratic processes, national identity and historical consciousness in Russia. In addition to a survey of secondary source literature, my methodology includes the evaluation of interviews and surveys I conducted in 2009 and 2010 from over thirty secondary school history teachers in six Russian localities (in the Novosibirsk region, Moscow and St. Petersburg). I also assess the chapter contents of 15 widely-used high school history textbooks from the period of 1988 to 2009. In the newly democratic Russian state, the government (including the Ministry of Education) played a central role in the reform agenda of schools. During these formative decades, the process took a revolutionary pattern, with a radical, more liberal, stage of reform occurring in the early 1990s and a more conservative, traditional retreat taking place from the mid-1990s onwards. In response to society’s widespread discontent over the changes which took place in Russian schools in the 1990s, President Vladimir V. Putin took a more active role in education reform than his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, especially in the realm of history education. Putin’s more centralized approach resulted in stricter controls on curriculum and textbook publication. Accordingly, history education was employed as a tool of the state to shape patriotic citizens through the restricting of various historical interpretations. “Gorbachev as leader,” “perestroika” and “the end of the Soviet Union” are controversial historical topics in Russia due to the social and economic upheaval that took place during and after these years. Textbook analysis of this period often reflected dominant political discourses in Russia. In the 1990s the interpretations were quite varied as Russians were unsure of how to assess such recent history. In the 2000s the textbook interpretations became more streamlined, and Gorbachev became a scapegoat for many subsequent state problems. In contrast, history teachers’ opinions about the Gorbachev era did not appear to change as markedly. Many factors weigh in on an individual’s interpretation of this historical period, but memory plays an especially prominent role in the teaching of the topic. Nevertheless, history teachers and textbook authors, reflecting Russian society at large, used historical myths in the teaching of the Gorbachev era, and this thesis documents these myths and sheds light on which were most prevalent and which lost favour.



historical memory, memory politics, mythmaking, education reform, democracy, schooling, history education, Gorbachev



Master of Arts (M.A.)






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