The old saw that Russia is the only nation with an unpredictable past seems truer than ever as scholars here try to recast Moscow's view of the medieval Tatars.
"The goal is to replace the prevailing enemy image with the idea that Tatars were one of the formative sources of Russian statehood," says Rozalinda Musina, an ethnologist at Tatarstan's Institute of History.
This is no dry academic dispute. If historians can settle one of the bitterest issues of Russia's past, post-Soviet politicians may take the cue. Modern Tatarstan, one of Russia's most populous and ethnic republics, declared "limited sovereignty" a decade ago. The oil-rich, mainly Muslim republic is still forging its relationship with Russia's Slavic, Orthodox Christian majority.
Tatars trace their lineage to the Golden Horde, a branch of Genghis Khan's vast Mongol army that swept across most of Asia and subjugated Russia in the 13th century. For Russian historians, the nearly two-and-a-half centuries the country spent under the "Tatar-Mongol yoke" was a catastrophe that held Russia in barbarism at a time when much of Europe was edging into the modern age.
The worst ills of Russian history are often blamed on the traumatic centuries of Mongol rule, including political autocracy, corruption, technological backwardness, and the deep-rooted social ethic of collectivism that to this day punishes individual initiative. "Tatar-Mongol rule was an unmitigated disaster for Russia," says Alexander Nazarenko, a specialist with the official Institute of World History in Moscow. "I do not see any evidence that should lead us to reconsider that."
Russia struggled free from Mongol rule in the 15th century, and in 1552 Ivan the Terrible seized the Tatar capital, Kazan. Under the czars, Tatars were treated as a conquered nation and subjected to centuries of forced Russianization and Christianization. The USSR solved the problem of the hated Mongol remnant in its midst by simply declaring that modern Tatars were unrelated to the Golden Horde. "Stalinist historiography held that Tatars are descended from another nation, the Volga Bulgars, and have no connection with the Mongols," says Ms. Musina. In 1949, the Soviet Academy of Sciences banned all study of the Golden Horde.
But Tatar historians say they think it's time their Russian colleagues accorded them a little respect. Rafik Moukhametshin, a historian at the Islamic University in Kazan says Russian scholars have exaggerated the Mongol record of cruelty, treachery, and destructiveness and have ignored the Mongols' contributions, including modern technologies such as gunpowder brought from China - and the relatively tolerant form of government they imposed on Russia. "The Mongols allowed the Russians to rule themselves and did not attempt to suppress the Orthodox Church or other national traditions," says Mr. Moukhametshin.
Tatar schools have begun introducing new history texts that treat the Golden Horde generously and stress its connections to today's Tatarstan.
Similar changes are not soon likely for history classes in the rest of Russia, however. "Yes, we teach the Mongol period with emphasis on an enemy who rapes, plunders, and burns," says Tatiana Koval, a history teacher at Moscow's School No. 218. "This is what the primary sources of Russian history tell us. And anyway, why should modern Tatars be offended by that?"
Tatars point out worriedly that Russian history and literature also paint a dark and savage portrait of the Chechens, another Islamic nation that was forcibly incorporated into the Russian Empire and the USSR. Post-Soviet Russia has initiated two bitter wars to suppress a secession drive in Chechnya, and the situation remains unresolved.
"A democratic state should have a balanced and objective history, one that is fair to the viewpoint of all its peoples," says Ms. Musina. "This approach is growing in Russia, but not fast enough."