Why education rights must finally be taken seriously: Exploring the perils of mnemonic indoctrination in Russia

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The year 2023 in Russia can be descried as a new chapter in furthering control over the historical narratives being circulated in the public sphere. A new federal educational standard which prescribes the content of the history curriculum entered into force starting from 01 September 2023. Little it is known, than a widely discussed Russian history textbook, that promotes controversial and purely hostile narratives, has been constructed in accordance with the mentioned standard.  The teaching of the “right” version of history in Russia is now considered a matter of national concern, along with equipping students with the motivation and skills to defend the “historical truth” (which, in Mälksoo’s poignant remark, is of “contested content and meaning”).

The perils of a Russian patriotic upbringing which promotes a single historical narrative in history education, has recently been highlighted in the list of issues for the upcoming ICESCR periodic review in light of Russia’s obligations under Article 13. However, promotion of single historical narrative to instil patriotism is only one aspect of Russia’s policy of weaponisng education – and in my view, that calls for finally taking education rights, especially in their liberal dimension, seriously.

In this piece I will consider why Russia’s history curriculum will fail to adhere the standard set by the CRC and ICESCR, by amounting to what I call “mnemonic indoctrination”.

Education regulated by legislation of historical memory: He, who narrates the past, control the present.

Russia’s teaching of history is based on the memory legislation introduced into the Russian Criminal Code, Constitution and Code on Administrative offences since 2014. That legislation stipulates the exclusively heroic role of the USSR during the Second World War, and at the same time imposes criminal and administrative sanctions for those daring to question this narrative, such as publicly speaking about war crimes of the Soviet army. FIDH has documented cases which showcase the chilling effect that such legislation and its enforcement has on freedom of speech and academic freedom. However, at least since 2015 the importance of teaching the “right” version of history, that would raise pride in the country and past heroism of “Fatherland’s defendants” has been highlighted as a part of patriotic education. Since 2023 this “right” version is prescribed within the history curriculum, a significant part of which is also teaching to “defend” it and “resist” the attempted “falsification” of history. The latter, in translation from Russian newspeak, means attempts to question the government-prescribed narratives, which in turn raised questions from the UN Human Rights Committee as possibly being inconsistent within Russia’s obligations under the right to education, by promoting a one-sided version of history.

The nature of education rights: From paternalism to child-centrism

In my analysis I prefer to utilise the expression “education rights”, rather than the more widely accepted “the right to education” as it better encapsulates the complex relationships that rights to, in and through education encompass. In short, education rights do not only include technical aspects of accessibility and availability of education, but it’s important to remember that children “do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates”. The aspects of “in” and “through” education include respect of individual freedoms, including freedom to express opinions and freedom from unlawful interferences, such as indoctrination.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, children’s indoctrination (directly linked with the freedom of thought, opinion and education rights) was deemed as one of the key causes for two World Wars. The travaux preparatoire both to the ICCPR and ICESCR indicate that the parents’ rights in respect of their children’s education were included in the human rights treaties as ‘a necessary and natural response to the indoctrination policies of the Nazi Germany’ to ‘avoid the events of the WWII from recurring’. The misuse of education during the NSDAP rule “inspired” the UDHR creators to include educational aims in Article 26, as a safeguard to ensure states would be precluded from misusing education in a manner which would be detrimental to children’s development and peaceful coexistence between nations.  At the same time, it would create a possibility for the state to interfere if parents were to obstruct a child’s adequate education in terms of educational aims. The CRC was later the first instrument to recognise a child’s autonomous entitlement to education rights and the parent’s role was changed to “guidance” instead of “ensuring children’s education in line with their convictions”, as was previously established within the UDHR and ICESCR.  

The multi-facet nature of education rights

The inclusion of the “right to education” within the UDHR was not motivated by the desire to “send every child to school”, but also to ensure that the content and quality of education provided will be beneficial to a child’s development as a member of a free society. To ensure that, educational aims were introduced within UDHR and later further developed within the ICESCR and CRC to contribute to the free development of the child as a member of a free society in a peaceful coexistence with other nations. Therefore, education rights can be considered in both individual and collective dimensions: the existence of a free society (in collective sense) is impossible without the free development of the individual, and the latter precludes unlawful interference from third parties, including in the form of indoctrination.

According to Delbruck, the double nature of the right to education makes it a rather unique right. As a social right, it demands an active role of the State in the provision of the educational infrastructure, resources and supervisory powers. But on the other hand, as a liberal right it delineates the limits of the lawful implementation of the obligations of the State in social dimension. The prohibition of indoctrination is therefore based on the liberal dimension of educational rights, and the instumentalisation of Russia’s legislation on historical memory can lead to the instillment of a one-sided version of history, which is inconsistent with educational rights.  

Why indoctrinating children is a matter of children’s rights

The prohibition of indoctrination can erroneously be considered as being relevant only with regards to religious issues and relating solely to the right of parents to ensure children’s education in line with their own religious and philosophical convictions. However, the prohibition of indoctrination is not limited to a purely spiritual sphere. As for the primacy of parent’s right to ensure education in line with “their own religious and philosophical convictions”, it is relevant in regard to Article 13 ICESCR, and Article 2 (Protocol 1) of the ECHR. In Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen v. Denmark the ECtHR noted that indoctrination would happen if educational material were not conveyed in an “objective and pluralistic manner” and eventually not “respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions” In General Comment No. 13 the CESCR notes that “instruction in a particular religion or belief” (the latter also relating to non-theistic beliefs) would be inconsistent with the right to education unless exemptions or alternatives could accommodate the wishes of parents and guardians. A similar approach is seen in CCPR jurisprudence, which considered issues on religious education in exemptions available to parents, but not the rights of children to freedom from indoctrination (see, for example, Leirvåg et al. v. Norway). This approach is problematic, as on one hand it fails to recognise a child’s right to development outside of its parent’s wishes (especially due to the child’s evolving capacities). On the other hand, it would be ineffective in the case of indoctrination, where particular ideology and beliefs can be accepted widely, such as the “Great patriotic war myth” within Russian society.  Secondly, a particular historical perspective in Russia is protected within criminal and administrative sanctions and moreover – enshrined within a national Constitution, which would limit the possibility for permissible criticism.

The CRC, however, changed the parent-centered approach, as while recognising the respect for parents, the Committee emphasised the importance of a child’s human dignity and rights within education, taking into account the child’s “special developmental needs and diverse evolving capacities”. The children’s rights scholars criticise the approach of ECtHR on viewing the issues of possible indoctrination only in respect of parent’s rights, and at the same time ignoring the child-centered perspective, prescribed by the CRC. I agree with such criticism and argue that in terms of freedom from indoctrination, children must be recognised as direct rights-holders, without unnecessary paternalism emanating from parents or governments.

Mnemonic indoctrination: A new dimension of controlling the past.

In my view, the key to assessing the relevance of “mnemonic indoctrination” is the formulation used in the Committee’s reasoning. It did not ask the Russian government if history education was delivered in conformity with the parent’s convictions, but if “it is delivered in such a way as to prevent the predominance of a single historical narrative”. The importance of avoiding such malpractices was highlighted in the 2013 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Cultural on the teaching of history. She argues that the right to develop ones own historical perspective is an integral part of the right to education, and history education and the narratives prescribed within it cannot be instrumentalised with the aim of indoctrination.

In my view, the misuse of the laws affecting historical memory which secure a particular historical narrative (or mnemonic narrative) and its implementation within the educational process, while simultaneously suppressing alternative interpretations, is a part of what I call “mnemonic indoctrination”. The laws affecting historical memory create a chilling effect for scientific inquiry and limit access to alternative sources, interfering with the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers. A single history textbook is key in this regard, and its mere existence is also inconsistent with history teaching as described by the Special Rapporteur. Hence, such ‘education’ is not developing a child’s own historical perspective but substitutes it with the one prescribed by laws affecting historical memory. The misuse of education for such purposes is thus inconsistent with educational rights, that for too long have been considered only in their “technical” aspects of accessibility and availability, and dedicated too little attention to what children are being taught after passing the schoolgates.  

Mnemonic indoctrination would thus be contrary to educational rights which are closely connected to the right to life, survival and development (art. 6), freedom of expression (art. 13), freedom of thought (art. 14), and, the right to information (art. 17) of the CRC. The existence of a predominant historical narrative protected by criminal and administrative sanctions and aggressively instilled within education will interfere with development of one’s own historical perspective (which relates to a development of personality and mental abilities to critically assess information) and with the freedom of thought as person’s inner forum. As highlighted in 2021 thematic report, freedom of thought does not exclusively cover religious beliefs, and also is an absolute right, which includes freedom from manipulation as “inducing the formation of biased mental models”. Children, due to their brain plasticity, are especially vulnerable to alteration of their thoughts, including through manipulation. Education, as well as plurality of sources in educational setting, is especially important for fostering freedom of thought, as it enables to “develop the cognitive skills necessary to fully enjoy their freedom of thought” and to “protect themselves from thought manipulation and to think critically”. Mnemonic indoctrination would therefore be inconsistent with freedom of thought, as it precludes development of “own perspectives” and simultaneously limits the motivation and ability for critically assessing government-prescribed narratives, and eventually criminalises such expressions. 

Conclusion

Several researchers have already made links with Russia’s instrumentalisation of historical memory in the current war against Ukraine. For example, Nikolay Koposov and Francine Hirsch argued that Russia’s laws affecting historical memory have set a stage for the 2014 and 2022 invasions by instrumentalising the memory of Second World War. The mnemonic indoctrination of children is a new aspect in this war, promoting the idea of an existential struggle against “Nazism”, based on the Second World War experience. Within history curriculum in its current form Russian children are expected to learn not only the “correct” version of history that the government prescribes but be ready to defend it. That constitutes a clear misuse of education, inconsistent both within educational rights and fundamental rights of children. So, it is finally time to take education rights seriously and pay due attention to what history is being taught in schools.

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