All the final history exams for Soviet schoolchildren have been canceled this year because the government has concluded that much of what they were taught was wrong. More than 53 million students aged 6 to 16 are affected.
The re-examination of Soviet history has gone so far, especially in the last eight months, that even historians, social scientists and Communist Party theoreticians are uncertain what was correct, what was fantasy and what was a cover-up of crimes in the material taught Soviet students.
The government newspaper Izvestia explained Friday that the extraordinary decision is intended to end the passing of lies from generation to generation, further consolidating the Stalinist political and economic system that the current Soviet leadership is trying to end.
It suggested that if new history textbooks are not available by the start of the fall terms, students should be given collections of articles and documentaries written by intellectuals who have exposed the errors of the past.
"The guilt of those who deluded one generation after another, poisoning their minds and souls with lies, is immeasurable," Izvestia said in a strongly worded front-page commentary.
"Today, we are reaping the bitter fruits of our own moral laxity. We are paying for succumbing to conformity and thus to giving silent approval of everything that now brings the blush of shame to our faces and about which we do not know how to answer our children honestly."
With almost daily disclosures of past errors by a regime that once claimed political infallibility for "scientific socialism," canceling the end-of-term examinations was the only way to break the cycle, Izvestia said, praising the decision as "sober, honest and dignified."
"Perhaps this, as nothing else, testifies to the triumph of new thinking, to the readiness to discard the traditional approaches," the paper said. "Only yesterday, one could not even suppose that such a decision was possible, let alone would be implemented."
The decision, which officials said was made at the highest levels of the party and government and confirmed after a debate by the party's ruling Politburo, stems from the determination of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to accelerate and broaden his reform effort.
Gorbachev's supporters believe that knowledge of the truth about the Soviet past, particularly the mistakes, failures and tragedies of previous policies, can go a long way toward overcoming conservative opposition to the reforms.
More than a year ago, Gorbachev declared that there must be no "blank spots" in Soviet history, and in recent months liberal historians have begun publishing highly critical accounts of the most politically sensitive parts of that past.
Izvestia called the process a "purifying torture of revelation, or, to be more precise, a second birth."
The articles have grown increasingly bold in chronicling and analyzing the repression that the country went through during the rule of the late Josef Stalin, who was denounced here as a dictator more than 30 years ago but who was somehow still honored for the political and economic system that he built.
The articles have helped bring the political rehabilitation of his victims, particularly those such as the old Bolshevik Nikolai I. Bukharin, whose ideas for economic development were not far from those of Gorbachev and his supporters.
They have also furnished ammunition, especially in outlining the corruption of past Soviet leaders, for Gorbachev in his continuing purge of the party and government bureaucracy of officials from the long rule of the late Leonid I. Brezhnev.
And, with a special party conference on even more sweeping reforms scheduled for the end of June, the battle of ideas has grown fiercer.
Letters from Parents
The articles also prompted letters to the press from parents who complained that the country's schools, which are governed by one of the least responsive bureaucracies, were failing to keep pace.
Anyone opening a newspaper or magazine, they argued, learns just the opposite of what classroom history texts are teaching the nation's children.
"Teachers who came to our schools after the 20th Party Congress (in 1956 when Nikita S. Khrushchev first denounced Stalin) are now over 40," the paper commented. "That means they have been teaching our children for 20 years. And how could even the very best among them, those not afraid to read, to think, to go far beyond the school curriculum, continue teaching the history of our motherland in that monstrously distorted form, lesson after lesson?
"And how does it feel for them, as they open new issues of our newspapers, which are really hot today, and read those searing accounts? Do they understand that they have no moral right to teach the children unless they teach themselves first?"