Making Sense of Self-Representations
No. 2 2012 April/June
Thomas Sherlock

Professor of the West Point Academy on the politics of history and memory.

How the United States and Russia View their Contentious Pasts

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of any agency of the U.S. Government. Part of the section on Russia was published in the Washington Quarterly, Spring 2011.

Russia and the United States often criticize each other for manipulating their national history, particularly in textbooks, by purveying excessively positive images of the past and by ignoring disreputable behavior. Although such charges contain some truth, they are highly simplified and exaggerated, on both sides. These misperceptions should be dispelled not only for the sake of factual accuracy, but because sound assessment of the cultural terrain of other countries is essential to understanding the character and intentions of those states, and for supporting rational foreign policies.

National narratives, particularly those in history textbooks, often downplay or disregard contentious or shameful facts or periods. And while political elites certainly attempt to shape representations of the past to legitimate their power, such efforts do not necessarily lead to idealization or silence, but may produce greater openness about dark periods of nation’s history.


In his widely read Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen, the American sociologist, provides a harsh evaluation of American school textbooks, maintaining that they portray American history as a “simpleminded morality play” designed to socialize Americans into the prevailing political and socio-economic order.

Loewen’s claim is based on the fact that many U.S. history textbooks still embrace a self-congratulatory metanarrative, particularly in the lower grades of secondary school (high school). An example of a traditional approach is The American Nation (James Davidson, et al., 2005). Echoing the traditional, uplifting narratives that had dominated American history education until fairly recently, the book’s treatment of the Cold War is instructive. Although The American Nation readily admits that the Cold War had divided Americans “at times,” particularly during McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, the nation remained united in the belief that freedom was worth fighting for, particularly in its struggle with the Soviet Union, which is described as an expansionist totalitarian state. In its conclusion, the textbook states that the United States has emerged in the post-Cold War era as a “superpower and a model for democracies everywhere.” At the beginning of the 21st century, “America again beckons the world to join the common cause of freedom.”

Although still common, such uplifting narratives have lost their hegemonic status and are increasingly challenged by other, more complex representations of American history. Respected and widely used textbooks for the general student in the eleventh grade (16-year olds), such as The American Vision (Joyce Appleby, et al., 2010), often depict American history in somber tones, dwelling at length on the themes of racism and social injustice. Although one of Loewen’s complaints is that Americans are still raised on a “celebratory Eurocentric history,” textbooks like The American Vision offer a very different perspective. Its negative treatment of Christopher Columbus, once universally lionized in American schools as the embodiment of a glorious European civilization, is now increasingly accepted. The arrival of Columbus in the New World set in motion encounters that were “devastating” for the native peoples, whose “cultures were changed or destroyed by war, disease, and enslavement.” The lot of Native Americans improved little after the founding of the United States. “Poverty, despair, and the corrupt practices of American traders” in the 19th century ignited futile spasms of Indian violence against the westward expansion of the U.S. Army and white settlers.

The treatment of slaves in the antebellum American South is also described as harsh and degrading. Although the Civil War brought emancipation, the textbook portrays the following hundred years as an uphill struggle, punctuated by race riots and lynchings, of American blacks trying to win political rights and economic opportunity from white America.

The textbook’s assessment of U.S. victories in World War II is respectful but not heroic. It informs the reader that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fighting in Europe, that Stalingrad was a turning point in the war, and that the USSR suffered the greatest number of casualties, which are compared in a graph to the losses of the other combatants. Almost two pages are devoted to the atomic attacks on Japan, including excerpts from the contrasting statements of President Truman, who supported the use of the bomb in the expectation that it would save many American lives, and William Leahy, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Army, who wrote that, with its use of the bomb, America had “adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”

In its examination of domestic conditions during World War II, The American Vision devotes considerable space to the problem of racism against African Americans and Mexican Americans. Significant attention is also devoted to the unjust internment of Japanese Americans. The textbook notes that no Japanese American was ever tried for espionage or subversion; that the all-Japanese 100th Battalion was the most highly decorated American unit in World War II; and that the United States officially apologized in 1988 to Japanese Americans for the internment policy of World War II.

In contrast to more traditional textbooks like The American Nation, The American Vision does not describe the collapse of the Soviet Union in triumphalist language. Instead, the book views the unipolar world dominated by the United States as fraught with new challenges that Washington was often unable to resolve. Discussing the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the authors observe that the war provoked widespread international criticism, that no weapons of mass destruction were found, and that America’s standing in the world was further diminished by revelations that prisoners were abused at the Abu Ghraib prison.

The book’s examination of American society after World War II and up to the present is carefully balanced, documenting both perceived advances and shortcomings. Sections are devoted to the dramatic expansion of the middle class as well as to scientific achievements and the emergence of popular mass culture. At the same time, the persistence of significant poverty is investigated, as is the rise of juvenile delinquency. Similarly, the textbook weighs the strengths and weaknesses of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s. Johnson’s use of the federal government to provide important benefits to those most in need is described in sympathetic terms. However, the authors quote an observer who concludes that it was impossible to “wipe out the heritage of generations of social, economic, and educational deprivation by the stroke of a Presidential pen.”

The multicultural focus and efforts to give agency to the poor and dispossessed in America are now relatively common in U.S. history textbooks across the spectrum of intellectual quality and ideological orientation. Although The American Vision offers a clear-eyed evaluation of the failures of the American experience, it still concludes that progress has been made by disadvantaged groups over the course of American history.

A more critical approach to American history is adopted by textbooks used by high school students who enroll in the Advanced Placement (AP) course in American history. Many of these students, who earn college credit for the course, will eventually enter the ranks of America’s elites. The textbooks marketed to this audience are often deeply ambivalent about American foreign policy and critical of the perceived distance between American values and reality.

Alan Brinkley’s The Unfinished Nation is a good example of a careful narrative that explores at length the themes of persistent injustice and deprivation in American history, filtered in large part through the categories race and gender. The textbook concludes that in the face of “increasing inequality of wealth and incomes,” America at the beginning of the 21st century faced serious “division and resentments” that “threatened the unity of the nation and led some Americans to believe that the country was dividing into several fundamentally different cultures.” Brinkley also states that American foreign policy after the tragedy of September 11, 2001“not only divided the American people” but also reinforced a “deep [international] animus toward the United States that had been building slowly for decades.” However, the author also observes that these problems are offset by the nation’s wealth, power, and resilience, and by America’s basic commitment to justice and freedom.

Other popular AP textbooks adopt a more ambivalent stance. In America: Past and Present (Robert Divine, et al., 2010) the tragedy of slavery is closely examined, as is the terror of white supremacy that engulfed the South after Reconstruction. A graphic photo of a black man about to be lynched is placed alongside text that describes the harsh conditions of segregation and the refusal of the federal government to “stem the tide of racial oppression in the South” beginning in the mid-1870s. A long section, entitled the “Crushing of the Native Americans,” documents the suffering of the Indians, who through warfare, disease, and the destruction of their traditional way of life were reduced in numbers to only 250,000 by 1900, from the more than 600,000 within the present-day borders of the United States in 1800, and the estimated 5 million in 1492, the year that Columbus arrived in the New World.

Even the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt is used as an example of the frequent failure of the American system to advance social justice: “For all the appealing rhetoric about the ‘forgotten man,’ Roosevelt did little more than [President Herbert] Hoover in responding to the long-term needs of the dispossessed.” Although the book acknowledges substantial economic advances for African Americans over the past fifty years, it emphasizes that blacks still have a much lower median income and much higher rate of incarceration in prisons than whites.

As for the origins of the Cold War, the textbook says almost nothing about the repressive domestic and foreign policies of Stalin as an important cause of the confrontation, stating instead that in using the atomic bomb to vanquish Japan, “the United States virtually guaranteed a postwar arms race with the Soviet Union.” Mikhail Gorbachev is given the primary credit for ending the Cold War, and nothing is said about the triumph of the American system of values over communism.

In its conclusion, America: Past and Present observes that the United States began the twenty-first century torn by ideological struggles between conservatives and liberals, while different ethnic, racial, and social groups proposed “competing models of American pluralism.” The U.S. economy had “failed to deliver on the promise of equality,” and it remained an open question whether America would be able to address this important problem.

It is sharply ironic that the wealthiest and most powerful country in history is slowly but steadily stripping itself of a nationalistic and self-congratulatory meta-narrative. What accounts for this shift in how the United States perceives itself, at least in the history classroom? Similar developments have taken place in Western Europe, but for different reasons and at a more rapid pace. World War I, and then World War II and decolonization, had a profound impact on how Europeans viewed themselves and their history, undermining the hyper-nationalism and chauvinism that infected history textbooks on the continent in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even more dramatic and compressed cultural change took place in Russia when the collapse of the Soviet Union tore through existing cultural understandings.

By contrast, external shocks were not as important in the case of America, which emerged from World War I and World War II (and the Cold War) victorious. The primary challenges to America’s long-standing affirmative narrative came from other sources. Particularly important was the influx into American higher education after World War II of many young middle-class historians who did not share the Anglo-Saxon (and often patrician) culture of the academics who had dominated the writing of U.S. history textbooks in the 19th and much of the 20th century. Upper-class conservative historians were gradually replaced by new scholars of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds who were more inclined to question the prevailing American narrative – and the racial and ethnic prejudices of their older colleagues. This important demographic and intellectual change helped push American textbooks toward an increased emphasis on multiculturalism and a more critical assessment of U.S. history as a whole.

The traditional narrative of American history was also challenged in the 1960s by the civil rights movement and by the Vietnam War. The protracted struggle of African Americans exposed the survival of racism in the United States, leading many historians to question the authenticity of America’s commitment to justice and equality. The problem of ethnic and racial discrimination now influenced many authors to recast the story of American minorities, portraying them as the victims rather than the beneficiaries of the American socio-economic and political system. Similarly, the searing experience of the Vietnam War worked to change how Americans remembered the past, as did the trauma of the Watergate scandal and the impeachment hearings of Richard Nixon.

The growing influence of post-modernism and deconstruction in American academia was another unsettling force since these intensely ideological movements maintain that intellectual debate is little more than a veiled struggle for political power. From this perspective, the school is the site – and the history textbook is the instrument – of hegemonic socialization in support of ruling, repressive groups in society; the public delegitimation of dominant social understandings (that the United States is a democracy promoting justice and opportunity for all) is necessary in the interest of oppressed groups.

Not surprisingly, the textbook writers who came of professional age in this tumultuous period often were of a different stamp than the writers of preceding generations. Moreover, unlike Russia’s statist tradition, the decentralized American educational system for the most part prevented incumbent elites at the national level from intervening in this dramatic cultural change. Multiculturalism now assumed prominence in liberal intellectual discourse, prompting criticism that it was eroding America’s affirmative identity by emphasizing the historical victimization of minority groups. Multiculturalism was also pilloried for minimizing the role of European ideas and institutions in the development of American democracy.


If Russians often misperceive how Americans view their own past, American misperception of Russian self-assessment is also common. It is often assumed in the West that the Kremlin has avoided the painful facts of the Soviet past, particularly those of the Stalin era. Thus Anne Applebaum in her important book, Gulag: A History, concludes that “former communists have a clear interest in concealing the past: it tarnishes them, undermines them…even when they had nothing to do with past crimes.” (2003, pp. 571-2) Although there is some truth in this assessment, it misses much of the complexity of Russian cultural politics.

After the Soviet collapse, which was due in large part to the opening of Leninist and Stalinist eras to intense scrutiny under Mikhail Gorbachev, the fledgling Russian Republic faced the problem of developing a meta-narrative that would define its political identity. This essential task was never accomplished in official discourse and ritual. Instead, President Boris Yeltsin pursued a half-hearted association with tsarist historical images while engaging in fundamental if episodic criticism of the Soviet past. Such efforts were never incorporated into a larger, coherent frame that might have focused the attention and energy of Russia’s society on the project of crafting a civic national identity. Similarly, the new state failed to commemorate the victims of the Soviet regime in any significant way or to engage in effective acts of reconciliation.

Although Yeltsin increasingly preferred to avoid the contested past, the formal legitimation of his regime rested on an ideology of liberal democracy and anti-communism, if only haphazardly formulated, articulated, and practiced. Post-Soviet history textbooks, written in an environment of significant cultural freedom, provided the normative and empirical foundation for this fragmented ideology. Liberalism, joined to moderate or civic nationalism, formed the core perspective of these textbooks. The books of this period were “simple” narratives in their uncomplicated emplotment, recalling the flat and unproblematic discourse of Soviet-era textbooks which portrayed the Communist Party as the embodiment of historical wisdom, thereby justifying one-party rule.

Textbooks in the immediate post-Soviet period reversed the polarity of the Soviet narrative and presented the Soviet era as completely negative instead of entirely positive. The internal unity of this kind of story was maintained by the inclusion of facts and events that lent themselves to moral judgment, such as Stalinist mass crimes and other gross Soviet violations of human rights. A notable example is V.P. Ostrovsky’s History of the Fatherland, which was published in a print-run of 3 million copies in 1992, serving as one of the foundational scripts that helped define the ideology and nascent identity of the new Russian state.

With the arrival of Vladimir Putin, simple narratives were increasingly challenged by more complex variants in Russia’s textbooks, reflecting pressures from newly installed elites but also from segments of the Russian public who were increasingly disillusioned with liberal reform and repelled by the dark, seemingly masochistic anti-Soviet narratives of the Yeltsin era. Although complex narratives address the mass repressions of the Stalin period, they are not committed to single-minded condemnation. Unlike their “simple” counterparts, complex narratives devote less attention to Soviet violations of political and civil rights. They place Soviet-era crimes within a larger frame of socio-economic, technological, and cultural developments.

A popular textbook to employ a complex narrative is History of Fatherland. The 20th – The Early 21st Centuries, published in 2003 by N.V. Zagladin, S.I. Kozlenko, S.T. Minakov, and Yu.A. Petrov. The text devotes more attention than other complex narratives of the period to historical facts and events that are explicitly described as Soviet achievements. Contributions in science, sports, the arts, and literature are noted but emphasis is placed on socio-economic modernization. Evaluating the Soviet model of development, the text reminds the reader that Russia emerged from the economic destruction and horrendous human losses of two world wars to rebuild its economy and emerge as one of two superpowers on the world stage. In many sectors of scientific and technological development the Soviet Union “outstripped its rivals,” including the United States.

Although this account seeks to stimulate nationalist pride, it does not pass over the crimes of the Stalin era. Yet the very structure of the textbook – informed by the concept of modernization – significantly limits any examination of the moral boundaries of state behavior and the intrinsic value of democracy. Unifying but also constraining the text, the concept of modernization places the Russian state at the center of the narrative, not the issue of mass crimes or the problematic of democratization.

In early 2007 the Kremlin actively intervened in the textbook market to further reshape the evaluation of the Stalin era. The perceived utility – and urgency – of defending Stalinism within a sharply anti-Western and particularly anti-American narrative was due in great part to the accumulated pressures of American unilateralism, NATO expansion, and particularly the spread of regional democratization. This volatile mix was ignited by the politicized and increasingly vocal condemnation of the Soviet empire by former Soviet republics and several former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Shaped by the Kremlin’s perceived vulnerabilities to external forces but also buoyed by America’s growing difficulties in the Middle East and by higher global energy prices, the “besieged fortress” narrative of the new textbooks provided the historical framework for an emergent statist ideology that justified the Kremlin’s concentration of political and economic power. The new manuals for teachers and textbooks for students were entitled History of Russia, 1945-2006: a Teacher’s Manual (Filippov, 2008); History of Russia, 1900-1945: a Teacher’s Manual (Danilov, Filippov, 2009); History of Russia: 1945-2008; History of Russia, 1900-1945 (Danilov, Filippov, 2009); History of Russia, 1945-2007 (Danilov, Utkin, Filippov, 2008).

Although the textbooks promoted by the Kremlin provide a significant amount of information on the human toll of Stalinism, they essentially excuse the repressions as an unavoidable consequence of Russia’s efforts to defend against the threatening international environment. No extended moral judgment is offered; instead, the books embrace moral relativism, offer tu quoque arguments, and admonish the reader to avoid what it views as “presentism,” or the supposedly inappropriate application of contemporary moral principles to the past.

In their examination of the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s, the textbooks suggest that the end – preparing for war with Nazi Germany – justified the means –the use of mass terror against Soviet elites and society. In comparing the emergence of the militarized, repressive Stalinist system to other countries, Filippov’s teacher’s manual argues that “in similar conditions of serious threat … an evolution occurs … in the direction of restricting individual rights in favor of strengthening the state, as happened in the United States after the events of September 11, 2001.” It also compares Stalin to Otto von Bismarck, observing that just as the German leader forged a unitary state with “blood and iron” in the 19th century, “so too did Stalin ruthlessly strengthen the Soviet state.” The books develop the theme of tragic inevitability and foregone developmental opportunities with the assertion, especially in History of Russia: 1945-2008, that Soviet democratization had been possible in the immediate post-war period, but was thwarted by new threats from the West in the form of the Cold War.

Despite its extensive political investment in this controversial narrative, the Kremlin began to change course in 2009. Domestic factors help to explain this shift away from the nationalist ideology of “sovereign democracy” with its fortress mentality. Filippov’s manual was subjected to withering criticism in public and academic meetings and in liberal media outlets, demonstrating that Russian civil society, although severely weakened under Putin, was still active. Senior clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church, although usually cautious in their public statements about the Soviet past, also condemned Stalinist repressions. Archbishop Hilarion, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, stated in an interview in June 2009 that “…Stalin was a spiritually-deformed monster who created a horrific, inhuman system of ruling the country.”

Most important, the 2008 global economic crisis influenced the Kremlin to alter its use of history as an instrument of national policy. Russia was among the hardest hit of industrialized countries by the economic downturn, which called into question the long-term viability of Putin’s model of state-led modernization dependent on oil and gas exports. The Kremlin also concluded that Russia would be marginalized in economic competition with other powers if it did not secure substantial, long-term increases in Western investment, trade, and technical expertise. The election of Barack Obama in November 2008 further strengthened the Kremlin’s incentives to pursue historical rectification.

Determined to defuse contentious historical issues which impeded better relations with the West, the Kremlin turned to a more honest treatment of Stalin-era crimes and misdeeds to emphasize the credibility of its commitment to reform. In September 2009, Medvedev fired his first salvo against Stalinism in his article “Go Russia!” Harshly criticizing Russian corruption and backwardness, Medvedev rejected the tone and perspective of the recent Kremlin-supported textbooks. Offering a moral assessment of Russia’s pattern of state-led development, Medvedev argued that “the two greatest modernizations in our country’s history – that of Peter the Great and the Soviet one – unleashed ruin, humiliation, and resulted in the deaths of millions of our countrymen.”

Putin also condemned Stalin’s “mass crimes,” arguing that it was both “unacceptable” and “impossible” to achieve economic development through repressions. Both Medvedev and Putin now described the Soviet system as “totalitarian,” an adjective and term that was criticized in the Kremlin’s textbooks as an ideological weapon used by the West during the Cold War to denigrate the Soviet Union and, by implication, Russia. The repeated use of “totalitarianism” is significant, since it aligned Russia’s official discourse with the anti-communist liberalism of the Yeltsin decade, when the term enjoyed political legitimacy, and with the dominant political language of Russia’s critics in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union or the Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe.

The Kremlin encouraged not only further openness about Stalinism, but also the reconceptualization of its meaning and significance. During his trip to Katyn, where thousands of Polish civil and military elites were executed in 1940 by Stalin’s secret police, with his Polish counterpart in April 2010, Putin emphasized that both Polish and Soviet citizens lay in the mass graves of the forest, suggesting that all nations – including Russia – had suffered under the Stalinist regime. This emerging narrative of shared suffering seeks to recast the political identity of Russia from that of perpetrator to that of victim.

The theme of common suffering – and its potential to defuse historical controversies – was further developed in a July 2010 article by Sergei Karaganov, an influential political analyst, who called for monuments to Stalin’s victims – similar to those at Katyn – to be erected throughout Russia. Seeming to respond to Karaganov’s call for Russians to “overcome the cursed legacy of the 20th century,” Medvedev in late 2010 appointed Mikhail Fedotov, a well-known liberal, to head the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights. Fedotov soon announced that he would propose a comprehensive government program that would provide an official assessment of Stalinism and also propose measures to eliminate its vestiges, particularly through the commemoration of its victims. If initiated, this important program would inject contemporary relevance into the current debates over the past by placing the Stalinist political and socio-economic system at the center of analysis, not the dictator himself.


Both Russia and the United States have struggled with coming to terms with painful pasts. Nietzsche wrote that “every past is worth condemning,” arguing that a reverential treatment of precedent and the maintenance of mythic accounts produces a dysfunctional society by blocking assessment – both moral and pragmatic. This dilemma – whether to ignore or confront the contentious past – is particularly relevant to contemporary Russia. Many American history textbooks now explore injustice in American history, particularly the horrors of slavery, the repression of American Indians, and the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. These books also recognize that American reality still falls considerably short of America’s professed ideals, particularly in terms of increasing socio-economic inequality. Although Russian textbooks do not ignore Stalin’s crimes, they still avoid a sustained, forthright assessment of the Soviet era.

It is difficult to say whether a more open debate over the Soviet past in Russia will survive or suffer reversal. Throughout 2011 and into 2012, Fedotov’s proposals encountered significant political resistance. Given the Kremlin’s weak hold on democratic legitimation, the political imperative to accumulate symbolic capital provides a powerful motive for incumbent elites to pursue a sanitized, patriotic interpretation of the past. Yet, as we have seen, this inclination must compete with other preferences. If Moscow continues to view better economic ties with the West as important to modernization, it is likely to support a more open discussion of the past in an effort to reduce normative barriers with its neighbors. The Kremlin is also likely to pursue this course if it continues to perceive that potential external challenges to the regime are in decline, including regional democratization, NATO expansion, and the projection of American power.

The Kremlin’s choices will also be influenced by the fact that it does not have the capacity or reach of its Soviet predecessor to impose extensive cultural controls over society. Equally important, the regime has thus far failed to develop a coherent statist ideology woven into a dramatic historical account. Notwithstanding their often stridently nationalist rhetoric, Russia’s dominant elites are bound primarily by self-interested pragmatism, not unifying norms and values expressed in compelling historical images. The Kremlin-sponsored textbooks were an important effort to construct such a narrative on the basis of fortress nationalism. This effort stumbled badly, but may still be revived, particularly as an attempt to inoculate Russian society against supporting the growth of anti-regime civic protests.

The threat of strident nationalism and chauvinism is also fuelled by the long-standing failure of Russian schoolbooks to humanize Russia’s ethnic minorities or devote any significant attention to multiculturalism of the kind found in American textbooks. At the same time, the official statements of Putin and Medvedev about the repressive character of the Soviet period make it difficult to construct a hegemonic narrative that ignores the extent of Soviet political subjugation.

The Kremlin is likely to remain ambivalent about precisely how much of the Soviet legacy is in its self-interest to defend. The ruling elite have an abiding interest in blunting criticism of Stalinism insofar as it damages the core myth of the Great Patriotic War. And it must make some defense of Soviet history as a whole since Russia is the legal successor of the Soviet Union, which is itself the source of considerable pride and nostalgia for many Russians.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin must also perform a delicate balancing act, demonstrating that the current Russian state and regime are legitimate expressions of popular will and that Soviet ideology and institutions cannot and should not be resurrected. Thus, the Kremlin-sponsored textbooks portray the decline of the Soviet system as primarily due to systemic pathologies, and are careful not to identify external forces as the central reason for the Soviet collapse. It is also noteworthy that despite their anti-Western tenor, the Kremlin-sponsored textbooks are guided by defensive nationalism, not by revanchism or neo-imperialism.

Pressures for a critical assessment of the Soviet Union and particularly the sensitive Stalin era are also likely to come from societal forces and from segments of the elites because authentic modernization, based on humanistic values, will require an extended examination of the oppressive statist identities formed in Soviet times. Yet, unlike the Gorbachev and early Yeltsin periods, when the liberal intelligentsia played a crucial role in shaping elite and public discourse about the Soviet past often in alliance with the Kremlin, today the political influence and numerical size of this group is greatly reduced.

In this fluid political environment, the official treatment of the Soviet past will depend on pragmatic considerations. The Kremlin may promote nationalism more strongly if civic opposition grows and if the economic pressures that earlier motivated the leadership to criticize Stalinism appear to recede, making the need for modernization based on the greater empowerment of Russian society and on Western investment seem less compelling. Although the current political and economic disarray of the West has clearly weakened its attractiveness to Russia as a partner, Russia’s own socio-economic problems remain deep-seated and difficult to address without interaction with the EU and the United States.

The character of the American narrative is also in a state of flux. For many critics, the celebration of ethnic and racial difference (and the condemnation of minority repression) in American textbooks will eventually lead to the political balkanization of the United States. Thoughtful observers respond that on balance the decline in traditional socialization is offset by the enhanced and necessary ability of Americans to test the claims of American democracy against reality.

Some popular AP textbooks do seem to question the legitimacy of American institutions. In its assessment of social and economic conditions in the United States since the 1970s, Out of Many (John Faragher, et al., 2011) emphasizes that the percentage of Americans living in poverty and the gap between rich and poor have accelerated significantly over the past three decades. Although such textbooks fail to provide a compelling story of American progress, they impart the important lesson that democracy must continually be renewed by responsible elites and by the participation of an enlightened citizenry. As for Russia, it will have a greater chance to move toward democratic rule if the lessons of its own history are allowed to provide guidance.