Russia revisits history in its school textbooks

For as long as anyone can remember, Russian school books have depicted the Tatars as bloodthirsty barbarians on horseback who crushed Russia under a cruel 250-year yoke. The nomadic followers of Ghengis Khan and his successors were butchers, pillagers, and little else.

But soon, that version of history may be, well, history. Some serious rewriting is going on.

While the Russian federal government is engaged in another ruthless war in breakaway Chechnya - and hints that it may wrest some powers back from regional governors - it is displaying a surprising political correctness on the education front.

New books on order

In recent months, academic assemblies have been organized and new textbooks commissioned to alter the way Russia's 150 ethnic minorities are portrayed. The impetus is coming from some of Russia's 20 ethnic republics and 10 semi-autonomous districts, who since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union have pushed to change schools' Slavic centrism.

Historical reforms up to now have been restricted mainly to the local level. Regional centers would issue their own textbooks to supplement the Moscow-slanted national curriculum. But this seems to be changing.

"Our people have been represented as ugly enemies. This destroys us psychologically," says Nazif Mirikhanov, the representative in Moscow of the semi-autonomous Tatarstan Republic, located in central Russia between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. "This is a mistake that must be redressed."

The corrections are a long time coming, says Vladimir Batsyn, an official handling history books at the Russian Education Ministry in Moscow.

"We really need to reflect the polyethnic nature of the country. A lot of students don't even know there are Buddhist or Muslim nationalities in our own history," he says. "The Tatars were especially maligned. We Russians are backward by not depicting the situation properly. Their state was the biggest and most developed in the land for a long time."

To press his point, Mr. Batsyn turns to the bookshelf in his office. He opens a textbook, "The History of 19th Century Russia," to Chapter 15, which is devoted to the peoples of Russia. "Look, a mere 10 pages. Out of a total 420. That's all," he sniffs.

Batsyn picks up another tome, which covers Russian history between the 17th and 19th centuries. He flips through the 400 pages with a derisive snort. "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Poland - that's not even Russia. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing."

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the rethink will be the Tatars, who at 5 million comprise Russia's second-largest ethnic group after the Slavs. Their semi-autonomous republic is the most vocally independent-minded after Chechnya.

Muslim Tatars argue that their warrior ancestors - peoples of Turkic origin who invaded parts of Asia and Europe under such leaders as Genghis Khan - considered by some historians as the greatest general of his time - set the groundwork for the modern Russian state after their first invasion of 1223. Theirs was not just a reign of terror, they say.

Short shrift is given to their religious tolerance of Christianity and their complex systems of taxation, military organization, and trade. The Tatar Empire only began to break apart in the late-15th century, falling under Russian and Ottoman Turkish rule. It rankles many Tatars that Russian history books celebrate as a triumph the 1552 occupation of their capital, Kazan, by Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible.

Scholars, officials rewrite

A middle ground should be found with new textbooks that are being readied this year by a panel of regional scholars and Education Ministry officials. The books, for Russia's equivalent of junior high school, will remove material offensive to Tatars from the 9th through 17th centuries.

"We are trying to teach our kids that there wasn't just war. At some points, Tatars and Russians lived together peacefully and created the basis for the modern Russian state," Mr. Mirikhanov says.

There should also be happier readers among the descendants of the Mongols, who united with the Tatars under the Khans. In Russia, most of these ethnic peoples are scattered in the areas of Buryatia, Kalmykia, Altai, Bashkortostan, Mordovia, Chuvashia, Udmurtia, and Mari El.

The Buryatia regional government is organizing a conference in June to seek ways to overcome negative stereotypes of Mongols that arose over the years in history books. The meeting is being organized along with a local branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences - the Institute of Mongolia, Tibet, and Buddhism.

Participants are expected to recommend that the Education Ministry include in national reading lists a historical-cultural atlas of Buryatia that is being written jointly by the institute and regional authorities.

"We must abandon black-and-white paints and achieve a multi-colored picture of the world," says conference organizer Boris Bazarov, who is director of the institute. "It's necessary to provide all of us with a feeling of comfort in this country and to recognize our mutual past."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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